Want some instant impact? Perhaps you want to mimic Kurt Cobain and switch from clean to that distinctive grunge distortion at a tap of your foot. You need a distortion pedal. There are a lot of pedals out there and of course you can use multi-effects units for distortion. Many mid-range amps come with loaded effects these days too. There’s something pure about having a collection of compact pedals on a board. It gives you the opportunity to craft your distinct tone. So, what is the best distortion pedal?
Largely that depends on what you want to play. That’s why I haven’t ranked these from 1 to 5. There would be too many variables to consider and I’m sure it’d lead to a lengthy debate! I’ve looked at 5 of the best distortion pedals. They’re all distortion pedals, but they all do something better than the others. Want to find out more? Then let’s get started.
MXR Distortion +
The MXR brand is well established and well respected in the world of compact pedals. The distortion + is super simple to operate with only output and distortion control knobs. The pedal is, as you’d expect, compact weighing under 500g. It’ll run on a 9v battery (included) or a separately sold 9v power adapter.
The distortion + is brilliant for classic 70’s distortion. You can dial in a wide variety of tones, all with that vintage feel. From almost clean to the dirty tones of Randy Rhoads. It’s not great if you’re into fuzzy distortion but it’s very good for biting tones. The pedal will also add sustain for a more dynamic sound.
The distortion + is well constructed, made of solid materials. It’s by no means flimsy. The pedal comes with rubber control knob covers so that you can adjust with you foot whilst playing. That’s a really cool little feature. No matter how you tweak the control knobs it’ll always retain the retro feel. Crank the output and distortion all the way up and you’ll get tones similar to Thin Lizzy. A great pedal for those looking for vintage style distortion.
Boss has been making pedals for a long time. The DS-1 is no exception, first hitting the shelves in 1978. It’s developed over the years, but still has a reputation for being one of the best compact distortion pedals on the market.
It’s a little bigger in form than some of the others, but it’s still super compact and weighs less than 500g. As with all Boss Pedals it has distinct coloring. The bright orange certainly will leave you in no doubt as to which pedal you’re using. The pedal runs on a 9v battery or can be powered by the separately sold power adapter.
The DS-1 was a staple of Kurt Cobain and it’s easy to dial in that grungy sound. The three control knobs allow you to find a tone that suits you. It’ll cover everything from rhythm to lead and a series of styles up to and including metal. I’ve used the DS-1 to play punk, metal, heavy rock and funk. Probably not one for those looking for fuzz, but it’s very good at everything else. In fact, I think this is the best distortion I’ve heard.
The pedal is a tank and will take a beating. The metal casing won’t submit easily and you should find that it’ll put up with the rigors of gigging. It’s a big thumbs up for the DS-1. The Boss power adapters are kind of expensive. I used a generic 9v power supply with no problems, but Boss advises against it. Use a generic power supply at your own risk!
Electro Harmonix Nano Big Muff Pi
If you like fuzz then you’re in for a treat. The EHX Nano Big Muff Pi has everything the original Big Muff has, but it’s two thirds of the size. In fact it weighs just 340g. The nano features a sustain control knob to give you more dynamic control over your tone. It’s super simple to use and each control knob does exactly what is says.
You can create a wide range of tones from clean to dirty. All will retain a fuzzy undertone. The Big Muff Pi is more than capable of emulating the sound of Pink Floyd. It’s capable of metal, but I like a purer tone for metal, without the underlying fuzz. The pedal runs on a 9v battery or a separately sold power adapter. It’s built of sturdy materials so will take some heavy usage.
The pedal does seem to curtail the mid frequencies, which could be a problem if playing with a band. A solution to this would be to run it through a separate EQ pedal. This is probably the best pedal you’ll find if you want fuzzy distortion.
MXR M75 Super Badass
Another MXR pedal, this time it’s the Super Badass. The best thing about this pedal is the on-board EQ. You can create a dynamic range of tones with this little pedal. It’s great for British crunch distortion. You can easily create a tone similar to that used by Brian May, or if you’re feeling more wild crank it up for some metal. The EQ is very responsive allowing you to get creative.
The pedal is made from robust materials, but it’s the lightest of the pedals making it super compact. It’s powered either by a 9v batter or a power adapter. You’ve probably guessed by now that the power adapter is sold separately and you’d be correct. The pedal is super simple to operate yet is capable of producing a wide range of tones.
The plain styling looks good too although it might not stand out on a darkened stage. Something small to bear in mind. It can’t produce much in the way of fuzz, but if you don’t mind that then this pedal really is badass. Super Badass!
Forewarning, the Behringer is the budget pick of the bunch. It only makes this post because it’s a decent buy for beginner who wants a dedicated distortion pedal without spending too much. The pedal will actually cater for distortion and overdrive, allowing you to change the mode between distortion and overdrive, or set it to somewhere in between.
As well as the mode control knob, there’s level, tone and drive control knobs. That’ll allow you to change your style. It’ll handle metal with the settings cranked, but it seems to want to gravitate towards high gain styles. You need to be careful with the settings if you don’t want to end up with high gain treble creeping in. That being said if you’re careful you can dial in a crunchy distorted sound.
The pedal is as compact as the others, weighing 400g. The distinctive purple color helps to distinguish it. One real worry about this pedal is it’s construction. It’s housed in a plastic case, so can be easily damaged. Don’t expect to be able to stomp on the pedal and have it still functioning afterwards. Unfortunately that makes it feel a but flimsy, however what do you expect at such a low price?
The pedal runs on a 9v battery but can also be run on a power adapter, which is of course sold separately. The official power adapter for this pedal isn’t that expensive and it probably worth investing in. The battery life is pretty bad and it’s a trying job to change the battery.
It’s cheap, but it’ll suit beginners. Having overdrive and distortion within the same pedal makes it more appealing to the beginner, however you’ll need to replace it down the line. If you’re serious about playing the guitar I’d gravitate toward one of the other pedals. It’ll save you time and money in the long run!
Compact distortion pedals are great for quickly switching up your tone. As we’ve seen from the above, there really can’t be one best distortion pedal. It depends on a number of variables, such as your preferred playing style. If you’re into you’re vintage crunch then the MXR Distortion + might be the best option for you.
If you like your fuzzy distortion, then the Nano Big Fuzz Pi might be right up your street. If you want modern metal tones then you probably can’t go wrong with the DS-1. Of course you might decide that you want something with more functionality. If that’s the case you should consider a multi-effects unit. The Boss GT-1 is a good place to start.
Whatever you decide on I hope you’ve found this post useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively you can get in touch using my contact page. Please share this post with anyone who you think might find it useful. As always, happy strumming!
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