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Best Distortion Pedals For Guitarists 2022: Dirty Up Your Sound With These Top Choices

Hamstead Odyssey on wooden floor
(Image credit: Future)

Overdrive, fuzz and distortion pedals are second only to amps in importance to the guitar player. Many players have achieved greatness with only one of these devices. Here we're going to focus on the best distortion pedals, the highest gain and tightest-sounding of the three.

When you think of distortion, you think of Marshall stacks going at full tilt. Metal riffs, maybe, or shredding – but distortion isn't so easy to pigeonhole. In this guide, we'll be discussing versatile distortions that can cover all the bases for a gain stage on your board.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Guitar Player's Choice

All these pedals are excellent distortions. However, there's a reason for the King of Tone (opens in new tab)'s enduring popularity with pros and amateurs alike. The combination of dual-channel drive, gain stacking, and boost is a huge feature set. Not only that, but its second channel can be set as a distortion by request when your slot comes up with Analogman. 

Should you not want to endure the multi-year wait, then an alternative like the Duellist (opens in new tab) is a good compromise. For players looking for a modern, single-channel distortion with a wider range, the Hamstead Odyssey (opens in new tab) is hard to beat.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Product Guide

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: ProCo RAT 2

(Image credit: ProCo)

1. ProCo RAT 2

The original...

Specifications

Unique features: Aesthetics
Bypass: True

Reasons to buy

+
Awesome core distortion sound
+
Usable as a dirty boost

Reasons to avoid

-
Clones with more options available

The original RAT may be showing its age, but it's housed in a bombproof enclosure and is still relatively cheap to get your hands on.

At lower gain settings, it's a great dirty boost. Meanwhile its filter knob allows you to tighten up the tone. When used in conjunction with the guitar's tone knob, it's very usable for players from blues to hard rock.

Of course, should you dime it, the RAT is more than happy to push your amp into meltdown, whether that's a half-stack or a bedroom practice amp.

Should you want a smaller footprint, there's also the diminutive Mini RAT. Other companies like TC Electronic also make clones like the Magus that combine the original and Turbo RAT circuits into one unit.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Kingtone Duellist

(Image credit: Kingtone)

2. Kingtone Duellist

Option paralysis? Hopefully not

Specifications

Unique features: Range of options
Bypass: True

Reasons to buy

+
Great tone
+
Dual channel
+
More readily available
+
Loads of extra options

Reasons to avoid

-
Look might not be for everyone

The Kingtone Duellist is a versatile yet compact dual channel overdrive and distortion. Like many pedals that are inspired by the King of Tone, it features a channel based on the Tube Screamer, and one based on the Marshall Bluesbreaker.

Where it sets itself apart from the competition is in the sheer number of options available.

Channel B has a distortion setting, which is higher gain than the stock clipping options. There's also a three-way clipping selector for each channel, and dip switches to customize the clipping from symmetric to asymmetric.

Order can be switched by using TRS cables, and like any TS or Bluesbreaker-inspired pedals it stacks well across both channels and with a tube amp. Due to the clipping options it can be set up as a boost, not just used as a dirty one.

It doesn't use the same rare diodes as the King of Tone, so however close the circuit is there's likely to be a marginal difference there.

Finally, it can be switched up to run at 18V, for additional headroom.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Hamstead Odyssey

(Image credit: Hamstead)

3. Hamstead Odyssey

The do-it-all boutique option

Specifications

Unique features: Voicing, versatility
Bypass: Relay

Reasons to buy

+
Versatile and expressive distortion
+
Range of EQ and clipping options
+
Sleek aesthetic

Reasons to avoid

-
Potentially expensive for a single channel

The Odyssey is the Swiss army knife gain stage from British ampmaker Hamstead. Covering the bases from gently boosting a tube amp all the way to modern metal is a pretty big ask, but the Odyssey rises to the challenge.

Despite the front-panel implying an amp-like operation with its three-control EQ, it's really more of a standalone drive pedal.

There's three clipping options, with radically different voicings and, crucially, three different options for where the EQ sits in the circuit. This has possibly the biggest impact on the final sound.

At its most extreme, it has almost the feel of an ultra-premium RAT with a far superior EQ section. It's a bonus then that it cleans up to a boost and studio-quality mid-gain drive with little effort.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Friedman BE-OD

(Image credit: Friedman)

4. Friedman BE-OD

A Friedman stack, on demand

Specifications

Unique features: Marshall amp-in-a-box
Bypass: True

Reasons to buy

+
Great amp-in-a-box distortion
+
Expressive EQ

Reasons to avoid

-
The two-channel BE-OD Deluxe isn't much more expensive

The BE-OD is, as the design implies, modeled on the gain channel of a Marshall-style amplifier. Designed by Friedman amps, it's not quite an overdrive or a distortion, but more a gain stage in what is often called the amp-in-a-box category.

As such it has a lot of controls along the front panel, including a two-band EQ and presence control. Though it has a lot of gain on tap, it cleans up well at lower settings, and does a good job of pushing a tube amp into saturation when pulled back a bit.

However, it has to be said that the pedal shines when given a little bit of leash to cut loose.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Origin Effects RD Hot Rod

(Image credit: Origin Effects)

5. Origin Effects RD Hot Rod

For classic hard rock tones

Specifications

Unique features: Unique circuit
Bypass: Buffered

Reasons to buy

+
Sounds fantastic
+
Powerful EQ
+
Reacts to the dynamics of your playing

Reasons to avoid

-
Still lower gain than, say, the Odyssey

The RD Hot Rod follows on from the hugely acclaimed Revival Drive Compact. Where that was definitively an overdrive, the Hot Rod takes its inspiration more from the hot-rodded amps of the early ’80s. Like its lower-gain sibling, it's an amp-in-a-box affair more than a simple distortion.

It's not a straight-up ripper, though. There's usable low-gain sounds available, and, as you'd expect from a pedal at this price-point, it works very well as a boost, particularly when paired with a decent tube amp.

It's convincing enough that it can be used standalone into a pedal platform amp as the primary distortion tone. The only real drawback is that the Hot Rod can't really go to 11; it hits the end of its range before all hell breaks loose.

Perhaps that's for the best.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Ceriatone Horse Breaker

(Image credit: Ceriatone)

6. Ceriatone Horse Breaker

A twist on two modern classics

Specifications

Unique features: Circuit pairing
Bypass: Buffered

Reasons to buy

+
Two classic circuits in one box
+
Stackable and switchable

Reasons to avoid

-
Price

The Ceriatone Horse Breaker looks at first blush like a King of Tone derivative, but that's not quite it. Instead, it pairs a version of the famed Klon Centaur circuit with a Marshall Bluesbreaker. There's also a switch to change the effect order, adding to its versatility.

The Klon circuit is usually referred to as a 'transparent overdrive'. The reality is that at higher gain settings, quite extreme clipping is available.

What this means is that both individually and when stacked, these two independent circuits have a very wide range of gain. Not only that, but the voicing and harmonic saturation of combining these two differently-voiced gain stages is useful to have in the tone toolbox.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Analogman King of Tone

(Image credit: Analogman)

7. Analogman King of Tone

The unobtanium option

Specifications

Unique features: Circuit, clipping options
Bypass: True

Reasons to buy

+
Sounds awesome
+
Dual channel
+
Wide range of gain
+
Usable as a boost
+
Additional options available

Reasons to avoid

-
The waiting list is years long
-
Used, they are several times the price

The King of Tone is a legend for a reason. It's based on the Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal, with the op-amp from the original TS-808 Tubescreamer, plus some tasteful modifications. 

By building it as a two-channel design, Analogman created a flexible workhorse that is not only a great standalone drive, but also pairs well with a tube amp as a boost.

The circuit is offered with a number of options, developed over the years. Some of the clipping variations are hard-clipping distortions. Even without those, the Tubescreamer-like voicing means that there is distortion-like clipping available with the gain turned up.

So what's the downside? Simply that these pedals are hugely in demand, and have a multi-year waiting list. There are plenty of alternatives on the market, but for a straight-up clone, you may have to build your own.

Best distortion pedals for guitarists: Boss Metal Zone

(Image credit: BOSS)

8. Boss Metal Zone

Yes, we're serious

Specifications

Unique features: EQ section
Bypass: Buffered

Reasons to buy

+
Punchy core distortion tone
+
Powerful EQ

Reasons to avoid

-
Not true bypass
-
EQ is not that intuitive

For better or worse, the BOSS Metal Zone is one of the most popular distortions of all time. Although it's often derided, it's also the most powerful widely available distortion. The reason for that is its incredible EQ circuit – coincidentally, also the reason many players misunderstand it.

The EQ allows for precise parametric control over the mid band as well as standard bass and treble controls. Getting the EQ settings wrong will result in a fizzy, thin distortion tone. 

However, use them right, and it's one of the most flexible distortion pedals on the market. In particular, while it often sounds a bit overwhelming on its own, it excels at punching through a mix live or on record.

The only downside to the Metal Zone is that it is quite compressed. It can do lower-gain tones surprisingly well, and as it's essentially a full preamp, it has more than enough gain to function as a boost too.

Best distortions for guitarists: Buyer's Advice

King Of Tone on wooden floor

(Image credit: Future)

Where overdrives end and distortions begin is a hotly contested topic. There are a lot of definitions around, but the one we prefer is that overdrives use soft clipping, whereas distortions use hard clipping.

Even then, it's not a perfect definition. Arguably the first true distortion pedal was the ProCo RAT, created in 1978. It used hard-clipping diodes, but its distinctive sound was actually the result of clipping within the LM308 op-amp due to its slow slew rate.

This resulted in a distinctive, almost triangle-wave clipping. However, it brings up an important point. Many fuzzes get their sound from their transistors getting pushed until they run out of headroom. So, if that's little difference from the RAT, then are fuzzes distortions?

The answer is – well, you know a fuzz when you hear it. For this guide, we're not going to be pedantic about the definition of distortion, and also include overdrives that are high gain when dimed.

We're looking for versatility. While we won't expect a distortion to clean up like an overdrive, it should be functional at lower gain settings and work well with a tube amp as a dirty boost. The pedals which achieve this might surprise you...

Alex Lynham is a gear obsessive who's been collecting and building modern and vintage equipment since he got his first Saturday job. Besides reviewing countless pedals for Total Guitar, he's written guides on how to build your first pedal, how to build a tube amp from a kit, and briefly went viral when he released a glitch delay pedal, the Atom Smasher.