5 Best Distortion Pedals 2020
BIt’s pretty essential, if you play rock, to switch from your guitar’s natural, clean sound, to something ‘dirtier’. Most amps have an ‘overdrive’ or ‘distortion’ switch, that can sometimes be activated by a foot switch. But what if you don’t like your amp’s built-in overdrive or distortion?
Well, distortion pedals often offer superior distortion to what might be built into your amp. Here, we’ll take a look at what these pedals are, how they work and we’ll also review some of today’s top models. Sit tight.
- 1 Product Round-up and Mini Reviews
- 2 1) JHS Angry Charlie V3
- 3 2) Vertex Effects Dynamic Distortion
- 4 3) Boss DS-1
- 5 4) Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal
- 6 5) TC Electronic Dark Matter
- 7 What is a Distortion Pedal?
- 8 Who Uses a Distortion Pedal?
- 9 Features you can Expect to Find
- 10 Additional Stand-out Features
- 11 Summary
Product Round-up and Mini Reviews
So, let’s have a look at some of the best products on the market. We’ve rounded up the top 5, along with reviews to help you decide which one best suits your needs. We’ve also written a full guide on what a distortion pedal is and how to set one up and use it.
1) JHS Angry Charlie V3
The JHS Angry Charlie has 3-band EQ, making it ideal for those who really want to fine-tune their sound. It’s a small, stomp-box style pedal that can be run off either a 9V battery or DC adapter. The drive control can take it from subtle, bluesy distortion right up to screaming heavy distortion. There’s also a volume control to set your level. All of the controls are large, easy-to-use dials like those you find on an amp. This pedal achieves an excellent sustain and can really make you sound like Slash. It’s pretty pricey, but if you’re serious about fine-tuning your sound then it’s worth it. The Angry Charlie will suit those who are looking for high-gain, high-sustain rock sounds. It might not be as perfect for those looking for a heavier, more aggressive sound.
- 3-band EQ gives you superior control
- Can be run off either a DC adapter or a 9V battery
- Drive control has a large range: go from vintage, bluesy sounds to screaming distortion
- It’s pretty pricey
- It’s more suited to vintage tones than heavy distortion
2) Vertex Effects Dynamic Distortion
The Vertex Dynamic Distortion pedal is just that: dynamic distortion. It has three knobs: volume, tone and gain. As expected, the volume dial controls your level, whilst the tone can take you from low-end to high-end boosts. The gain dial can take you from boost to overdrive, all the way into fuzz. It’s a versatile pedal, despite only having three knobs, and it comes with suggested settings for desired outputs. It’s also suited to bass as well as guitar. It’s a small, sturdy pedal that can fit easily into any pedal-board. One drawback, for those who value portability, is that it cannot be powered off a 9V battery. The Vertex Dynamic Distortion pedal will suit those looking for a simple pedal that’s capable of boosting a signal or making it fuzzy. Like the Angry Charlie, it does vintage tones better than heavy, doom sounds. It’s also pretty pricey, so might not suit those on a budget.
- Just three controls, which are easy to understand and use
- Suited to bass as well as guitar
- Gain control goes from clean to overdrive to fuzz
- Only one tone control
- Can’t be powered by a battery
- More suited to vintage tones than heavy distortion
3) Boss DS-1
The Boss DS-1 is a classic distortion pedal, that was even used by Kurt Cobain in Nirvana. It comes at a budget-friendly price, and it’s small, sturdy and easy to use. There are tone, level and distortion dials. On this pedal, the distortion dial takes you from mild to heavy gain, but the sound itself is pretty consistent. It’s a classic tone that it’s difficult to go wrong with, which is why the pedal is so popular. Like all Boss pedals, it’s small, strong and sturdy. It will last you many years of gigging and can be powered off a 9V battery or DC adapter. The Boss DS-1 will suit guitarists on a budget who are looking for something reliable and standard for their sound. It might not have as many variants as some of the other pedals, but you know what you’re getting (and what you’re getting is good!).
- Three controls that are easy to understand and use
- Can be powered off a 9V battery or a DC adapter
- Only one tone control
- his pedal doesn’t do vintage sounds as well as some other distortion pedals
4) Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal
Pro Co RAT pedals are also reasonably priced classics. This RAT2 is an advancement on the RAT. It has three dials: volume, filter and distortion. The filter works in the same way as a tone control: shifting the EQ focus between low and high. The distortion itself goes from warm overdrive to heavy rock sounds. It has an excellent sustain that works well for solos and at lower levels it’s perfect for chunky rhythm parts. There can be a slight hum with this pedal, but if you’re going for a dirty sound then that might not bother you. It can be powered off either a 9V battery or an adapter. The RAT2 will suit those who want heavy, rock/grunge sounds. It might be less suited to those who really want to fine-tune their tone, due to the slight hum and one-band EQ.
- Three controls make tonal adjustments easy
- Great for warm, fuzzy tones
- Only one tone control
- Can hum a bit
5) TC Electronic Dark Matter
TC Electronic’s Dark Matter is another pedal that won’t break the bank. It has true bypass, so you don’t need to worry about a muddy signal and has two-band EQ, so you can adjust bass and treble frequencies independently. There are level and gain dials, but what really makes this pedal stand out is its mode switch. The pedal has a toggle that takes you from retro sounds to those that are more modern. This is a great tool for session musicians or others who need to diversify their guitar tone. Despite the name, Dark Matter isn’t as heavy metal as you might think. It will suit versatile guitarists who need to access all kinds of distortion, from vintage gain to modern rock. It might not suit those who are looking for an extremely heavy sound.
- Two-band EQ makes it possible to fine-tune your tone
- Toggle-switch takes you from retro to more modern sounds
- Although its name implies extreme distortion, it’s more suited to classic rock sounds
- There are high and low tone controls, but no mid.
What is a Distortion Pedal?
Distortion pedals are small stomp boxes. They have level, EQ and distortion controls to allow you to shape the sound. The further you turn up your distortion, the dirtier your sound will become. Each twist of the distortion knob drives more grit and noise into your signal, making it heavier and increasing the sustain.
These stomp boxes are often associated with heavy rock, punk and metal bands. The heavy, saturated tone they produce is a key element of each of these genres.
Distortion vs Overdrive
Distortion and overdrive pedals are often confused, which isn’t surprising, considering their effects are similar.
However, whilst an overdrive pedal will increase you gain, subtly driving your signal more in the same way as a cranked amp would, a distortion pedal allows you to get a dirtier sound at a lot less volume. The distortion effect involves a lot more gain even at low levels and will also produce more sustain than an overdrive pedal.
Who Uses a Distortion Pedal?
Guitarists known for their use of distortion include Slash (Guns and Roses), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead).
What would ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ be, without its legendary switch from clean to distortion, 10 seconds in?
Features you can Expect to Find
As previously mentioned, there are three controls you can expect to find on a distortion pedal.
(Well, duh). The ‘distortion’ control on your pedal will determine how dirty your signal is. Even at low levels, the grit is noticeable, but as you shift it higher and higher, your sound will become completely saturated as it descends into pure filth. Your genre and playing style will determine how high or low you want this knob twisted. Differences are generally very noticeable, even after small adjustments, so it’s an easy control to get your head around and use.
The differences a tone control makes are less noticeable than the distortion control, but still significant. As you twist your tone level higher, more high end sounds will be pronounced. If you turn it down low, your distortion will have a bassier tone.
Again, your playing style and musical genre will determine how you’d like to set this up. Heavier, doom-laden sounds might prefer a bassier distortion, whilst punk rock can benefit from more cutting, high-frequency sounds.
The level control on your pedal controls how loud your affected signal comes through. It’s essential to ensure that this is turned up higher than your clean signal, otherwise when you switch for a dirty, heavy sound, it will just be underwhelming.
The amount you need to turn your level up can vary from amp to amp and venue to venue, so make sure you check it each time you play somewhere new.
Additional Stand-out Features
There are some features that high-end distortion pedals have, making them stand out from the rest.
Multi-band EQ can give you extra control over your sound. Rather than just having one tone control to boost highs, mids or lows, you can edit them each independently. This can result in higher quality sounds and enables you to find the perfect tone.
Some pedals have two-band EQ: a high and a low knob, whilst some go as far as three-band, including high, mid and low controls.
Another feature it’s worth looking out for on a distortion (or any other) pedal is true bypass. This is when there’s no circuitry between the pedal’s input and output. It ensures that your tone isn’t dampened whilst the pedal’s in use and the signal isn’t muddied when it’s bypassed.
Positioning your Distortion Pedal
Finally, you might wonder where you should position a distortion pedal in your chain. If you’re using other pedals, it’s best to have distortion early in the chain (close to your guitar). This ensures that it’s distorting the signal of your instrument and not the other effects like delay or chorus.
Putting the distortion pedal too late in your chain can result in sounds that are too messy for some players, but it’s worth experimenting to see what you like the sound of.
As you can see, distortion pedals aren’t all the same. So, which one is right for you?
If controllability is what makes you tick, the JHS Angry Charlie or the TC Electronics Dark Matter are your best options. The Angry Charlie has 3-band EQ, enabling you to really fine-tune your tone, whilst the Dark Matter pedal has 2-band EQ but also a mode switch. The Angry Charlie is significantly more expensive than the Dark Matter pedal.
Other budget-friendly pedals are the Boss DS-1 and ProCo RAT2. Both of these are classics, so it’s hard to choose between the two. The Boss DS-1 has a classic, distorted tone that’s instantly likable, whilst the RAT2 has a little more versatility, but comes with a hum.
If you’re looking for a bass-friendly pedal, the Vertex Dynamic Distortion offers you that. It also has a versatile gain dial that can take you from subtle drive all the way up to filth-ridden fuzz.
Whichever of these pedals you think is right for you, we hope you have a blast as you explore and create more and more sounds. \^^/