As the years progress, the pedal game just continues to get noisier. Here’s our pick of the best distortion pedals that currently exist.
The first available distortion pedal circuit was the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-tone released by Gibson in 1962. Since the pedal’s appearance on (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, the guitar world has been infatuated with the sonic qualities of distortion.
Nowadays there are tons of manufacturers creating innovative and classic distortion pedals. Often these are based on archetypal circuits but sometimes they create something entirely new. Here we have compiled a list of the most interesting ones to put on your pedalboard in 2021.
by Oliver Newland
KMA Machines: Wurm
This pedal is essentially the distilled Swedish chainsaw metal tones from the Boss HM-2, updated for 2021. This pedal is crunchy, it’s distorted, it’s dangerous, and it features a metal-as-fuck giant worm as the centrepiece of its interface. What’s not to love.
Not only does it retain the HM-2’s distortion and filter knobs, but the Wurm also features an extra two parametric filters, which make this pedal a sick addition to your pedalboard, as it gives you frequency control. It does incredibly well as a standalone, adding that extra punch to your sound, but also lets you single out those low buzzy frequencies, and tear them to shreds down the signal chain.
Read more about the Wurm at KMA’s website
Warm Audio: Foxy Tone Box
Warm Audio is a legacy company whose iconic ‘Foxy’ fuzz pedal has been used throughout the years by such legendary musicians as Beck, ZZ-top, Trent Reznor, and Parliament-Funkadelic. This tone box is a respectful replication of that original fuzz machine, featuring Fairchild germanium transistors, carbon resistors, and film capacitors.
On top of this, it’s encased in a sexy orange velvet box, which is definitely a selling point and will definitely not grow gross and grubby over time. The sound that comes from this unit is mega though, and an iconic legacy box to toss on the board.
Read more about the Foxy Tone Box at Warm Audio’s Website.
Black Arts Toneworks: Rabid Mammal V2
This is an updated pedal from the headcases at BAT for Matt Pike — the legendary guitarist and (dare I say) sound designer behind the tones of stoner metal outfits Sleep, and High on Fire. He is well known for his rich and absolutely decimated guitar tones, and this pedal does a large amount in attempting to replicate this.
It contains two circuits, a boost circuit on the right and a fuzz circuit on the left — and when they’re paired up they unleash absolute hell. There are also three switches on this pedal, which when flicked down replicate the exact sound used on Sleep’s 2018 release, The Sciences.
Read more about this brutal piece of kit on BAT’s website.
Benson Amps: Germanium Fuzz
Benson really delivered with one of the most versatile distortion pedals in the Germanium Fuzz. The crunch that this pedal adds is world-class, stemming from the germanium transistors within, it runs the whole distortion spectrum from entirely clean (and it’s weirdly clean how clean it is) to distorted chaos.
It also features a temperature-controlled chassis, which means that you lose no quality from the transistors, even if it’s been sitting out in the sun. And if it wasn’t impressive enough, it also features an impedance knob, which replicates the sound of rolling your guitar’s volume back on the body. We won’t be surprised if this hits a couple of top 10 lists at the end of the year.
El Diablo: HEQ1.2
When the HEQ was released in 2017, El Diablo sold out of stock pretty quickly due to very popular demand. It was a fuzz designed for the more experimental artist, producing some pretty wild sounds when pushed to its limit. And with the HEQ1.2, no longer do you need to fork out the exorbitant amount of money required to land one of the few limited run units.
The 1.2 features a standard mode, clipping the edges of your sound to make for some interesting bitey textures, and a multiply mode, which takes this harmonic distortion to the next level. The sounds that come out of this mode run the gamut from choked and grainy to rich and throttled. It’s a pretty great thrash tool if you’re in need of one (and face it, we all are).
El Diablo’s storefront continues to be one of the coolest music shops online, and this crush machine is a great backup to this claim. Check it out here.
Old Blood Noise Endeavours: Alpha Haunt 2021
In January of this year, OBNE’s Alpha Haunt got a new interface update, reducing the size and making it more pedalboard friendly. It has the same level of versatility as before, with 12 adjustable controls, and still pumps out the beautiful gated fuzz that it has become known for over the past couple of years.
While OBNE keep their circuitry under pretty tight wraps, they do allow you to tweak this box in as many ways as you can think of — so if you’re looking to really get stuck into a box, give this one a go.
Check them out on their website and have a peek at some of their other pedals as well.
by Nick Mielczarek
Walrus Audio Iron Horse LM308 V2
Walrus Audio describes the Iron Horse V2 as the “return to the classic distortion“, and it definitely delivers. The simple level, tone, and distortion controls are reminiscent of a DS-1 or RAT, but the three-way toggle switch gives you a bit more flexibility.
The switch selects between different clipping diodes: left offers some compression, right gives you a higher amount of compression, and the middle offers no compression. This true bypass pedal is another selling point, making it a great choice for the modern guitarist.
Read more about the Iron Horse V2 on the Walrus Audio website.
EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2
By far the simplest pedal on this list, the Earthquaker Devices Acapulco Gold V2 is a Sunn Model T amp in one-knob pedal form. The huge knob on the pedal adjusts the volume, which means that the gain is always set to ‘cranked’.
The cool thing about this is that you can use your guitar’s volume knob to modify the amount of gain you have. If you want less of a distortion and more of an overdrive, just turn down the volume knob on your guitar. Easy.
You can read more about the Acapulco Gold V2 on the EarthQuaker Devices website.
Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal
If you want a distortion pedal with a few more controls, the Fender Pugilist is a suitable and versatile option. It features two distortion engines, a low-gain and a high-gain, which you can either blend or run in series. Blending the A and B channels allows you to easily find that sweet spot between saturation and clarity, or run 100% of either side.
Of course, if you want the highest amount of gain possible, you can run the pedal in series which stacks the channels. The distortion pedal also includes some cool features like LED-illuminating knobs, a bass-boost switch, and a magnetic battery door.
Read more about the Pugilist on the Fender website.
Each ThorpyFX pedal is built like a tank, which makes sense because before Adrian Thorpe started building pedals he was an explosive’s specialist in the British Army. On his Warthog distortion pedal, he says it, “delivers the biggest range of tones of any overdrive/distortion pedal on the market“, which is all thanks to its unique Calibre knob.
The Warthog features the classic volume, tone, and gain controls, but the fourth Calibre knob acts as a preamp at the beginning of the circuit. This means as you turn up the knob you get more harmonics, saturation, and distortion, which mixed with the other controls offers a huge range of tones. Pretty cool.
Read more about the Warthog on the ThorpyFX website.
ProCo Rat 2
Used by everyone from Jeff Beck, to James Hetfield, to Kurt Rosenwinkel, the ProCo Rat is one of the classic distortion pedals. Since being released in 1978, the Rat has been the go-to option for heavy distortion, and you can still find some vintage ones around thanks to the heavy-duty build quality. The simple distortion, filter, and volume controls make dialling in as much distortion as possible, well pretty straightforward.
There are now tons of various models of the Rat, with the flagship ProCo model being the Rat 2. Along with ProCo’s official models, there are heaps of builders making clones and modded Rats, a great option being the JHS ‘Pack Rat’.
Make sure to check out That Pedal Show’s discussion on the Rat and its clones below.
1981 Inventions DRV
Speaking of Rat clones, the 1981 Inventions DRV is a modern take on that established sound. Hyped up by Instagram, this distortion pedal offers a boutique option for anyone wanting to venture into the Rat world. It features the same three knob controls as the Rat but offers some more dynamics and clarity in the low-gain area.
Although expensive and currently only released through batches (which require you to be on a waiting list), the 1981 Inventions DRV is a high-quality distortion pedal that does its thing very well.
Read more about the 1981 Inventions DRV on their website.
Friedman BE-OD Deluxe
The Friedman BE-OD Deluxe is based on their original BE-OD distortion pedal but now includes two channels, because two is better than one, right? There is a high-gain channel and a low-gain channel, each with their own set of bass, mid, treble, and presence EQ controls, as well as volume, gain, and a Tight toggle switch.
You can switch between the channels (they aren’t stackable) using the left footswitch and bypass the circuit with the right footswitch. The regular BE-OD distortion pedal is also a good option although it only includes one channel and misses out on the mid EQ knob.
You can read more about the BE-OD Deluxe on the Friedman website.
Wampler Sovereign Distortion
The Sovereign Distortion by Wampler dishes up a lot of variety for such a small stompbox. You get volume, mid contour, gain, and tone controls, as well as Boost/Gain and Modern/Vintage toggle switches.
Wampler says that these controls “allow you to dial in virtually any sound from modern distortion all the way back to classic OD tones“. It does indeed cover a huge range, you might even be able to replace a few of your drives with this one compact distortion pedal.
Read more about the Sovereign on the Wampler website.
MXR M75 Super Badass ’75 Distortion
Built like a brick, the MXR M75 Super Badass ’75 Distortion features a full spectrum of analog distortion. It includes a 3 band-EQ, as well as output and distortion controls, which allows for a wide range of tones.
The 3 band-EQ allows you to go from mid-scooped metal to the classic ’70s overdrive, and pretty much everything in between. The pedal also includes true bypass, making it an all-around great distortion pedal.
You can read more about the MXR M75 Super Badass Distortion on the Dunlop website.
Finally, you can’t talk about distortion without mentioning the BOSS DS-1. It’s the classic distortion pedal used by guitarists like John Frusciante and Kurt Cobain, all the way through to Gary Moore. The pedal features the well-established level, distortion, and tone controls, housed in the iconic orange Boss enclosure.
The DS-1 is heavy-duty and affordable. Its straightforward and rugged design is why so many guitarists have used it over the years.
You can read more about the DS-1 on the Boss website.