The 15 Best Distortion Pedals For 2023 (Top Picks)
Looking for the best distortion pedal to add to your guitar rig?
Whether you’re after a guitar pedal that offers classic rock tones, high gain metal tones, great crunchy rhythm tones or a more natural sounding distortion – I’ve got you covered.
In this post, I share my top picks for the best distortion pedals and review each one.
You’ll find a mix of budget-friendly and higher-end stompboxes too. And we look at everything from one-knob distortions to stompboxes that do it all.
… All with analogue signal paths. No nasty digital distortions here.
Then, towards the end, I’ll be answering common questions about distortion pedals.
Ready? Let’s dive in:
The best distortion pedals for guitarists
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Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2
Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal
TC Electronic Grand Magus
Earthquaker Devices Acapulco Gold
JHS 3 Series Distortion
Empress Effects Multidrive
MXR M116 Fullbore Distortion
TC Electronic Fangs
ProCo Rat 2
MXR Custom Badass ‘78 Distortion
Electro Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Rowin Plexion Distortion Pedal
MXR M104 Distortion +
1. Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2
The Walrus Audio Iron Horse is one of the best distortion pedals around right now. It is based on the classic RAT style distortion, using the fabled LM308 chip.
This second version of the pedal refines what was already a great sounding distortion pedal. And it solves some of the issues I had with that classic distortion pedal such as better presence + less mid-range.
The way this pedal distorts sounds great for crunchy rhythm tones. Is it high gain? Well, there is plenty of gain on tap. Enough to take you from crunchy blues tones to high gain metal tones.
Across the top, we have level, tone, and distortion. The tone control acts as a cut/boost for treble frequencies. And it is a fully true bypass pedal.
There is also a mode switch that allows you to select different clipping diodes and adjust the amount of compression.
Top-mounted jack sockets make it more pedalboard friendly and the pedal runs on a 9V power supply with a 10MA current draw.
2. Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal
The Fender Pugilist is my favorite distortion pedal from Fender’s new range of beautifully designed pedals. In fact, it is one of the best distortion pedals on the market today (in my opinion). Especially considering its feature set, price-point, build quality, and tone.
It is versatile too! Inside, we’ve got two gain stages with independent tone & volume controls. You can choose to run those gain stages in series for higher-gain tones, or blend them together via a special blend control.
There’s also a bass boost switch which works nice with single coils like strats or teles. And it works great with a clean amp or an amp that is already distorted.
You can power it with a 9V battery or a regular 9V pedal power supply.
There’s a magnetic flip-down compartment so you can swap out the battery without needing a screwdriver. Quite the time saver, particularly in the studio or on stage.
All of the rotary controls are backlit with LEDs so you can easily see your controls while on stage. And the construction is extremely sturdy.
There’s also a dual footswitchable version of the Pugilist available. This version offers independent high & low tone controls for the entire pedal, as well as independent level controls for each gain stage. And you can switch between each gain stage via a footswitch.
3. TC Electronic Grand Magus
The TC Electronic Grand Magus offers up more classic distortion tones. It works great for rock and metal but isn’t as high gain as some of the others on this list.
So, if you’re a more classic sounding distortion pedal, the Grand Magus could be a good fit – especially considering it is one of the cheapest distortion pedals on this list.
There’s no messing around with these controls – we just have gain, volume, and tone controls.
The gain has that typical hard edge that most distortion pedals have, but it is a little less refined, with some fuzz worked in.
And, like other pedals in this TC Electronic range, we have top mounted jacks, rigged construction, and True bypass. Powered by a 9V battery or regular 9V power supply.
4. Earthquaker Devices Acapulco Gold
The Acapulco Gold Power Amp Distortion from Earthquaker Devices stands out from other distortion pedals. It’s modelled after the legendary Model T amplifier and offers a tonal quality unique to other pedals on this list.
It’s loud, high gain, and uncompromising. There’s an element of savagery that I absolutely love.
The single volume control reacts great with your guitar’s volume knob. There’s plenty of sustain to be found and you can go beyond distortion and into fuzz territory.
Top-mounted jacks, true bypass, and powerable via 9V battery or regular 9V power supply – you’ll have everything you need for unrelenting brutal guitar tones.
5. JHS 3 Series Distortion
The 3 Series Distortion pedal is one of the more affordable pedals that JHS offers.
They’re best known for higher-end boutique pedals so it’s nice to see them offer a more wallet-friendly line of pedals that are still made in the USA.
The controls are fairly simple but offer a good level of flexibility. We’ve got volume, filter, and distort. Filter is your tone control to go from dark to bright. And distort controls the level of distortion.
A neat feature on this distortion pedal is the gain toggle switch. This will take you from a great sounding crunch tone to more compressed & higher gain.
The pedal requires a 9V center-negative power supply.
6. Empress Effects Multidrive
The Empress Effects Multidrive is the best distortion pedal for flexibility that is designed to deliver amp-like guitar tones.
This stompbox doesn’t just include a distortion pedal – you also get fuzz and overdrive. But, it is unique in the way they are combined.
The effects are wired in parallel so you aren’t going to get the same kind of tones as you would from stacking distortion/overdrive pedals together.
The idea of this pedal is to blend distortion, fuzz, and overdrive pedals together, just like the old studio trick of blending amps together.
Now, there are three individual pedals combined here but there are two footswitches. What you can do is to switch between two different presets, selected via dip switches inside the pedal.
For example, one preset could be the fuzz and overdrive, while the second preset could be all three.
The fuzz and overdrives have a gain, volume, and filter (high-pass, low-pass, or none). But the distortion has an extra switch that goes between crunch, mild, and soaring lead tones.
In terms of global controls on this pedal, we have a three band EQ to control the bass, treble, and mids. There’s also a mid frequency selector switch and an overall output control.
The Multidrive is true bypass and powered by a 9V power supply but requires a relatively high current draw of 180mA. It will also work with an 18V power supply for extra headroom.
7. MXR M116 Fullbore Distortion
The MXR M116 Fullbore distortion pedal offers up high gain Pantera style tone at a price point that is affordable without sacrificing build quality.
If classic rock and blues are your thing, this isn’t the pedal for you. But, if heavy metal, or even doom is your thing – it is perfect.
On the pedal, we’ve got a 3-band EQ with sweepable mid-range frequencies, volume, and gain controls. There’s a scoop switch that will boost high & low frequencies.
The star of the show? A built-in noise gate to remove hum between sections in your songs. If you want to alter the sensitivity of the noise gate, you can adjust a control inside the pedal.
The MXR M116 takes a standard 9V battery or 9V power supply. And it’s true bypass so won’t impact the tone of your signal chain when turned off.
8. TC Electronic Fangs
The TC Electronic Fangs is one of the best distortion pedals for high gain tones. Especially considering that is one of the cheapest on this list and sounds great. Yes, it chugs!
The controls are pretty simple – gain, volume, bass, and treble. But there’s also an EQ switch that helps you get some different distorted tones.
If you want to bring out the mids, you’ll want the Raw setting. The Fat setting provides more low and low-mids. You can also scoop the mids, if that’s your thing.
Top mounted jacks, rigged construction, and True bypass. Powered by a 9V battery or regular 9V power supply. An all-round great distortion pedal for high gain tones.
9. Danelectro Roebuck
The Danelectro Roebuck is a distortion pedal I didn’t want to love.
And, that may sound weird, but its price point is high considering it is a Chinese-made pedal. But … I couldn’t help but love it because it sounds so good!
The Roebuck is a natural sounding distortion pedal that is based on the long discontinued Ibanez Mostortion. A pedal favored by great session players like Tim Pierce.
Pre-owned, the original pedal is insanely expensive. Not Klon Centaur expensive, but still expensive for what it is. So this is actually a more affordable alternative and somewhat more flexible.
In addition to the 3-band EQ, distortion, and level controls, we get 2 extra clipping modes. It can cover smooth blues to hard rock with ease.
The Danelectro Roebuck provides a great way for players to get that great (and under-rated) Mostortion tone for a fraction of the price.
And, yes, this is a relic’d pedal!
10. BOSS DS-1
The BOSS DS-1 is a classic in the true sense of the word. And no article rounding up the best distortion pedals would be complete without the Boss DS1.
The DS-1 is the first distortion pedal BOSS ever released – way back in 1978.
It’s affordable and has those typical three controls found on so many distortion pedals – tone, level, and distortion.
Want to make your solos cut through the mix? Or play heavy riffs? The DS1 is a good choice that won’t break the bank.
As with most BOSS pedals, the DS-1 can be powered by a 9V battery which is easily accessible. Or a regular 9V power supply.
11. ProCo RAT 2
The ProCo RAT 2 is another of those classic distortion pedals that has its roots firmly planted in 1978. This particular iteration was first released in 1988 and heavily based on the original.
There are better sounding RAT’s out there (e.g. the Iron Horse I mentioned earlier) but there’s plenty of history attached to this pedal.
I’m amazed that it is still made today. It really changed the game back in the day and has inspired so many other pedals over the years.
Simple controls – distortion, filter (tone), and volume. Extremely sturdy metal construction. I quite like the sloped enclosure – I wish more pedals had that.
The all analog signal path is powered by a 9V battery or standard 9V power pedal power supply.
12. MXR Custom Badass ‘78 Distortion
The MXR Custom Badass ’78 Distortion delivers spades of classic rock tonal goodness and it’s affordable too.
High gain distortion pedal? Well, there’s not quite as much gain as some of the other high gain pedals on this list but there is still plenty of gain to get the job done.
In terms of controls on this pedal, we have: output, tone, and distortion. Then, we have a “crunch” switch. MXR states that this switch increases the harmonic content and dynamic range of the distortion – I’d agree with them.
The pedal is well-built and includes true bypass switching to stop any tonal shenanigans. Power it with a 9V battery or regular 9V DC power supply.
13. Electro Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
The Flatiron Fuzz is Electro Harmonix’s take on the classic RAT2 distortion pedal.
While primarily a distortion pedal (despite the name), it can get you into fuzz territory.
Just three controls: volume, filter (tone), and drive.
The Flatiron Fuzz works great for rock and metal players alike. With the drive control set low, it can work well for blues as well. Just crank up the drive to add more sustain, saturation, and distortion. Alternatively, you can turn down the volume knob on your guitar and the pedal will clean up nicely.
Like all other EHX pedals, the Flatiron Fuzz is affordable and well-built. Power it by a 9V battery or 9V power adapter.
One especially nice thing with most EHX pedals is the “Mike Matthews Heavy Duty” battery included inside. That’s an extra level of detail you just don’t see with most other pedal companies.
14. Rowin Plexion Distortion Pedal
The Rowin Plexion is an affordable plexi style distortion pedal that gives you those fantastic “Marshall in a box” tones.
It’s small-form factor will save space on your pedalboard and the price is extremely good too. For the money, I half expected this to be terrible but I was pleasantly surprised. Controls feel quite good quality as well.
If blues, hard rock, or classic rock are your thing – this distortion pedal will work great.
In terms of pedal controls we have volume, tone, gain, and a bright toggle switch. The features true bypass switching so it won’t impact your tone when turned off.
It’s a small pedal so has no room for a 9V battery.
15. MXR M104 Distortion +
The MXR M104 Distortion+ is a simple, and dependable distortion pedal that has helped shape a significant part of music history.
It was launched in the 70s and dominated the pedal market ever since. 80s metal tones? Classic hard rock? Crunchy blues? Check.
The MXR Distortion+ has been featured on records by Ozzy Osbourne, Grateful Dead, Iron Maiden, Radiohead, and many more.
There’s no confusion with this pedal. Just output and distortion level. The beauty of simple distortion pedals like this is that they are easy to dial in. There’s no messing around.
The pedal can be powered by a 9V battery or a regular 9V pedal power supply.
Now that we’ve covered the best distortion pedals, I’ll answer some common questions:
What is a distortion pedal?
A distortion pedal is typically categorized as using hard clipping compared to the soft clipping of overdrive pedals.
This gives distortion pedals a harder edge to their tone.
You’ll also usually find that they offer more gain, saturation, aggression, and sustain than overdrive pedals. However, there are usually exceptions.
In fact, many guitarists still disagree about the difference between distortion and overdrive pedals.
Distortion pedals can vary significantly. Some, like the Danelectro Roebuck, have a more natural quality to them. Whereas, the likes of the MXR Fullbore distortion will change the tone of your amp more, and sounds brutal.
Most importantly: Don’t let convention tell you what pedals you should/shouldn’t use. Let your ears be the judge.
Who makes the best distortion pedal?
The best distortion pedal depends on the tone you want to create. This is highly subjective.
However, brands such as Walrus Audio, Fender, MXR, Earthquaker Devices, JHS, Boss, and EHX all make great distortion pedals.
What are some good distortion pedals?
The Walrus Audio Iron Horse V2 is a great distortion pedal. It’s based on the classic RAT pedal but offers more flexibility and improved tone. There’s also the Fender Pugilist Distortion, EQD Acapulco Gold, and Empress Effects Multidrive.
What is the most versatile distortion pedal?
The Fender Pugilist is an incredibly versatile distortion thanks to its two gain stages and ability to run them in series or blend them together. There’s a dual version of the pedal that offers more flexibility.
The Empress Effects Multidrive is another versatile stompbox – it includes a distortion, fuzz, and overdrive pedal in a single pedal. You can switch between different combinations and have access to a variety of toggle switches, 3-band EQ, and more.
The best distortion pedals: final thoughts
Now, let’s wrap up my roundup of the best distortion pedals:
I wouldn’t say there is one universal best overdrive pedal. The best distortion pedal depends on your tonal needs, budgets, and personal preferences. And it’s the same with any other of the guitar pedals out there.
Start with the tone you want to emulate. Then consider the build quality, quality of components, and features you need.
Remember that sometimes cheap and affordable distortion pedals are a false economy. You generally get what you pay for and budget pedal companies will often use lower quality components, offer poor quality checks, shorter warranty and in some cases may not be there to help you if a pedal breaks.
Then there is the other factor – resale value. A distortion pedal from a well-known pedal brand is going to retain its value better than a pedal brand nobody has heard of before.
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Featured Image credit: Adam Connell // Tone Island.