Not every metal guitarist uses distortion pedals in their setups. Those that do search high and low for a pedal that offers the right tone.
A bad distortion pedal affects the entire song, destroying any semblance of bass sound in the process. Get it right though, and you’ll end up with a pedal that creates a beautiful cacophony of sound every time you slam your foot down.
9 Best Distortion Pedals - Getting the Grit
You’re looking for a solid crunch that fills out your sound with any distortion pedal you buy. I’ve looked at six that may do the job for any metal guitarist.
Table of Contents
- 9 Best Distortion Pedals - Getting the Grit
- What to Look for in a Distortion Pedal for Metal
- Getting the Right Pedal for Your Style
- My Two Cents on Two-Guitar Bands
Simple is the way forward with the DS-1X, as it offers four knobs that allow you to adjust gain, level, and distortion. The design mirrors this simplistic approach, which means you won’t end up fiddling around for hours to figure things out.
Boss also includes the Multi-Dimensional Processing (MDP) that made the previous model such a success. This helps you to pick out great tones, regardless of your register.
The MDP may also make this a good pedal for people who play both lead and rhythm. You can adjust for a deep and fuzzy sound for your rhythm playing, before changing things up to get that great solo tone.
Having said that, you may notice that you get a thinner sound when playing high notes. This may be due to your setup, but it’s something to keep in mind regardless.
The TC Electronic Dark Matter is a cheap and impressive starter distortion pedal. It comes with gain, level, bass, and treble controls, as well as a voicing switch which can give you some extra oomph on breakdowns or aggressive riffs.
Thanks to its true bypass feature, you won’t lose your tone by adding it to your pedal lineup. The pedal works on a standard 9V adapter and comes in a variety of colors. All in all, the original black background with white lettering is perhaps most fitting for a metal guitarist’s setup.
You can adjust the pedal for a wide range of tones for the vintage-voiced distortion. However, understand that this won’t be enough to get a unique and memorable tone. The pedal is best used in a rig, if you want to get the most out of it.
But, what I really like is the idea of freely switching between retro and modern tones at the push of a button. At this price point, this feature is worth every penny, especially if you like to experiment with the tone.
While not specifically designed with the metal player in mind, the OCD can adapt to any type of heavy playing. You can achieve a beautifully smooth overdrive for your solos, before switching to high-gain distortion when you really want to attack the song.
It has three knobs, which control the drive, tone, and volume of your playing. There’s also a switch for changing between high and low pass playing.
I like how the pedal still offers plenty of tonal range when you switch into a quieter passage. Lower volume doesn’t mean you miss out, which may make this a great pedal if you play a lot of songs with peaks and troughs.
It’s battery-powered, with a protective panel that’s screwed into place. However, the small screws can be a nightmare to get back into place if you do have to change the battery. It also has a habit of losing the really low-end bass frequencies.
The MXR M75 is a very cool distortion pedal. It has a three-band EQ and a dedicated frequency control knob that allows for an impressive distortion adjustment range. It’s also possible to sweep the medium frequencies to create an even crunchier and unique sound.
I like the rugged metal design. It makes the pedal look simple yet "badass" in any setup. The tall control knobs are also a big plus in my book as they make it easier for on-the-fly adjustments and tone monitoring.
That said, this pedal comes with a bit of a learning curve. While its tonal range is nothing short of impressive, it can take quite a while to figure out its role in a preexisting pedal rig, especially if you have no prior knowledge of creating a metal sound.
If you’re looking for something simple to add to your setup, something that will get you that classic thrash, hard rock, or death metal groove, the Boss MD-2 might be the pedal for you. It’s very bright orange exterior makes it visible from miles away and can help you make quick adjustments in dark venues.
The pedal comes with a tone control, a distortion control, and a level and gain boost for even more distortion. This is truly one of my favorites if we’re talking extreme distortion and prolonged sustain.
The manufacturer designed the tone control for balancing the high and low frequencies. Although the MD-2’s tonal range is not on par with other metal distortion pedals in the same price range, it handles the extremes of the metal spectrum really well.
What’s also convenient is that the bottom-heavy distortion has been calibrated to fit seven-string guitars too. Thus opening up even more possibilities of what you can achieve. Although I probably wouldn’t recommend it for a djent setup, if you’re on a budget and you can spring for an AXE FX, this will get you started nicely.
Metal by name and metal by nature, Jim Dunlop uses metal to give this pedal a unique look. Better yet, it means that you get a solid package that can withstand heavier stomps when you’re in the heat of the moment.
It has six knobs, which allow you to control your sound’s range, frequency, gain, and volume. You can tweak those while taking advantage of the three-band EQ.
I also like that the pedal is fitted with a Noise Gate switch too. This means that you’ll be less limited by your other gear when it comes to sound clarity as well as extreme distortion at high volume levels. As such, I find this to be a good fit for both lead and rhythm guitarists.
As for the tone, it’s something of a mixed bag. It creates an interesting sound when played through a low-gain amp, though you may struggle to find a good tone to go with it.
Unfortunately, it’s not the best distortion pedal for metal when played through a high-gain amp. This is likely due to the fact that the pedal itself has a high gain, so the combination of the two doesn’t really make for much.
Still, it may be a great pedal for beginners who are still searching for their sound. It’s a good mid-range option too, and the sturdy construction means it will last.
Versatility is the key with the Triple Wreck. It offers a really heavy sound, but the vintage switch also makes it useful if you want to try out a more classic rock tone.
As for the distortion effect, it comes with a really high gain as standard. However, there’s also a boost switch that takes things up even higher.
Turn the switch clockwise and you get this really heavy fuzz that envelopes your playing. Turn it the other way, your distortion layers on top of itself so you can hit some really heavy sounds.
It also offers a lot of low end, giving it a really bass-heavy sound. You may find that this means it doesn’t work well on all amps though. A little tweaking of the EQ settings might help here.
It comes with a battery, but you can also run it from a regular power supply. However, it seems to generate some additional noise when plugged into the mains.
A two-channel pedal, the Blackstar allows for clean playing as well as that heavy fuzz that metal players value. In clean mode, it works as a boost to give your tone an extra layer of richness.
The two channels also offer versatility, allowing you to switch from clean playing to brutal rhythm in a matter of seconds.
It also has a high gain, though you may find that the pedal generates too much noise when using it.
It also has six knobs, which allow for extra tweaking of your sound. I particularly like the ISF knob, which allows you to mess with the mid-range to make it more audible when playing heavy.
The direct out port may make this the best pedal for recording and playing live too.
This pedal should do the trick for any metal style, from the thrash sounds of 80’s-era Metallica through to the more textured playing of more modern bands. This is all down to the powerful EQ, which does a great job of picking out different tones.
The pedal has seven knobs, allowing you to control bass, gain, and range. There’s also a “Brutality” switch for when you really want to get a deep and dark sound.
What really impressed me was the amount of control you have when playing with lots of distortion. Even on the “Brutality” setting, you won’t lose sight of your guitar’s tone.
The decals have a tribal theme, but they also have a habit of peeling off after a few stomps. I also wasn’t a fan of the sharp edges, which can make this a painful pedal to play around with.
What to Look for in a Distortion Pedal for Metal
Finding the Right Tone
Every distortion pedal you use offers something a little different when it comes to tone. Add in different amp setups, your guitar, and your playing style and you have several variables that affect your decision.
When buying without playing first, this can result in you having a pedal that doesn’t match your playing style. As a result, it’s best to look for versatility. The more knobs the better, as this means you can tweak more settings until you find the tone that you’re looking for.
It’s not just powerful distortion that you’re looking for. You also need your pedal to stand up to the rigors of constant stomping.
Any use of metal in the pedal’s build is a positive, as this lends durability to the package. Also, check the knobs. An errant foot can knock a knob clean off the pedal if it’s not connected well.
High gain is what gives your guitar that deep and distorted sound. Most pedals should allow you to tweak this setting.
Keeping the pedal set at high gain does the job if you only play heavy riffs. However, you may want to find a pedal that offers lower gain for solos or more subtle playing.
Much like with gain, bass is an essential part of heavy metal playing. You’re looking for a “Low” or “Bass” knob on the pedal. Both do the same thing.
Ideally, your pedal will achieve good lows when you’re playing riffs or trying to achieve a drone-like sound.
Beyond the regular distortion, some pedals offer added effects. The Metal Shaman’s “Brutality” mode is a good example of this.
These added effects can make the distortion even more powerful, though this often comes at the expense of cleaner tones.
Getting the Right Pedal for Your Style
Obviously, there’s a lot to consider when buying a distortion pedal. Most often than not it’s simply easier to see what your favorite guitarists use and go from there. But you should also understand that not all distortion pedals are suitable for all kinds of metal.
Your particular genre will play a huge role in determining which metal pedal suits you. For example, having a wide distortion adjustment range is great for the most part. But that’s not something that you may want to pay extra for extreme genres like black, grind, or any number of core genres.
If tonal clarity is the most important and you prefer to hear each note in all its glory, then you will want a wider EQ band. On the other hand, if you’re going for that classic 80s or 90s distortion sound where everything sounds bright, aggressive, and just way too fast, a two-band EQ might be more than enough.
After that, you should also consider just how much distortion a pedal can give you. Not all of them can be cranked up to the max on the gain channel without diminishing returns in distortion and tonal clarity.
Last but not least, the days of using just one pedal are pretty much gone. Nowadays you’ll have to use a pedal rig if you want to create a unique sound that an audience will remember. This means that you’ll have to make sure that your distortion pedal is the right fit for all your other pedals.
My Two Cents on Two-Guitar Bands
Here’s another thing you probably didn’t take into account. If there are two guys shredding in a band, the choice of distortion pedal is even more important. There’s no law that says the both of you can’t use different effects and slightly different tones, but it’s just a lot better if you both have the same starting point.
This means using at least the same distortion pedal in both pedal rigs, even if it’s the only identical component. This is important because everything else aside, the distortion pedal will have the most dominating impact on the sound of your guitar.
It’s important to get a pedal that might also be good enough and clear enough to use during solos, or one that won’t impact the tone too much if you switch it off during certain riffs.
The Final Word
My list highlights six of the best distortion pedals for modern metal playing. Look for high gain and a deep low end to ensure you get a pedal that does the job.
Beyond that, it all comes down to your playing style and setup. If you like mixing clean tones in with heavy distortion, ensure your pedal allows you to switch between multiple channels. However, you can go for a simpler option if you just want loud and heavy distortion.
Use this buying guide as a starting point and experiment with different setups. Hopefully, you’ll find a pedal that mixes its distortion capabilities with the tone that you’re looking for.