The 6 Best True Distortion Pedals

These pedals don’t have an identity crisis. They are not overdrives, boosts, fuzzes or some crazy mix of all three. The six pedals below are built purely for distortion.

While overdrive can be done within a single preamp or power amp stage, distortion tends to require significant gain at multiple stages. This can be done with cascading gain stages within an amp at high volume (or low volume with an attenuator) or inside the workings of a small pedal.

Why did we pick these? They represent a varied set with something for everyone, including budget and playing tastes. Each is the "can't go wrong" pick for what it does.

Model Best For Price
Boss DS-1 Solid budget option. $22-$50
ProCo RAT 2 The classic choice. $60-$140
Walrus Audio Iron Horse Boutique but worth it. $120-$170
MXR Fullbore Metal Most intense. $44-$100
Wampler Sovereign Best sounding. $140-$250
Stone Deaf PDF-2 Most versatile. $150-$200

Boss DS-1

A “best distortion pedals” article would be remiss if the Boss DS-1 didn’t make an appearance. Regardless of playing style and rig setup, it’s perhaps the most popular distortion pedal around for guitarists and keyboardists alike. Nearly every guitarist you’ve ever loved has used a Boss DS-1 at some point – and for good reason.

The DS-1 is housed in the classic and durable Boss stompbox chassis with a simple, three knob interface: tone, level, and distortion. Kick it on with the level dialed back for a cleaned up sound, or crank the distortion to creep into fuzz territory. All in all, it’s a budget-friendly and surprisingly dynamic distortion pedal perfect for oversaturated leads.

ProCo RAT 2

The ProCo RAT 2 is another one of the most popular distortion pedals on our list for both guitarists and bassists. Unveiled in 1988, this pedal has been used by a whole range of players from Stephen Malkmus to John Scofield to Kurt Cobain.

Although it only features three knobs – distortion, filter, and volume – the pedal is quite versatile, capable of everything from a touch of dirt to searing leads. Many players keep going back to the ProCo RAT 2 specifically because of its filter knob. Instead of functioning as a straight tone knob that either increases treble while cutting bass (or vice versa), the filter knob is all about high-end roll off. If you go brighter, you still maintain your low-end and darkening your tone won’t eliminate your high-end altogether either.

Walrus Audio Iron Horse

The Walrus Audio Iron Horse distortion pedal is based off of the ProCo RAT series and sounds as beautiful as the signature designed Walrus Audio chassis it’s housed in. While a distortion pedal at heart, cranking just the right dials to just the right places will give you a tone that dips into the fuzz range (but never fizzy or gated).

The pedal features a three knob – level, tone, and distortion – and one switch configuration. The switch controls three different clipping modes that will all affect your tone in different and inspiring ways. Leaving the switch centered will allow you to dial-in the pedal’s main distortion setting. Flipping the switch to the right will give you a brighter tone with less mids, and the left will give you more mid-range and harmonics. With its thick attack and overall versatility, it’s a great choice for any player.

MXR Fullbore Metal

If you’re a metalhead, look no further than the MXR Fullbore Metal. This pedal features six (six!) knobs for volume, frequency, gain, low, mid, and high giving you the ability to dial-in exactly the tone you're looking for with specificity not usually attainable with other distortion offerings.

What makes this pedal the obvious choice for metal players is its incredibly high levels of gain. Often, cranking the gain on a distortion pedal can mean several shades of undesirable noise. The MXR Fullbore Metal, however, is the exception with a noise gate that keeps out those unwanted tones and guarantees that your playing will be tight while ear-splittingly distorted.

Wampler Sovereign

The Wampler Sovereign is another pedal offering the ability to dial-in your tone precisely and is a favorite among metal, alternative rock, and prog rock players. It features four knobs dedicated to volume, mid behavior, tone, and gain. Next to the gain knob, you’ll find two switches – bright/even and boost/standard – that are a part of the Advanced Gain Structure.

Pedals that feature this many knobs and switches are naturally difficult to get used to. There’s a lot tone-tweaking that’ll go into your first experience with this pedal. But once you figure out what everything does and how it does it, you’ll be able to dial-in a variety of different distorted and dirty tones for any musical need. If you want a version of this pedal with even more sculpting power, check out the Wampler Triple Wreck.

Stone Deaf PDF-2

The Stone Deaf PDF-2 is a distortion pedal for the multi-instrumentalist. It pairs with electric guitars as easily as it does with bass, synths, analog pianos, and even acoustic guitars. The pedal features three knobs for height, gain, and frequency, a switch for on/off, a switch for clean/dirty, and a sweepable knob for bandwidth.

The controllability of the PDF-2 makes it an extremely versatile pedal. It functions as well as a distortion pedal with the dirty channel on as it does a clean EQ boost with the clean channel on. The pedal is also unique in that you're able to get phaser and wah effects using the clean and dirty channels and by tweaking the bandwidth and frequency ranges just right. A versatile offering for any style.

Learn more about effects pedals on our Effects Pedals: What Do They Do? | The Basics homepage.

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