16 Distortion Pedals

Distortion pedals occupy an elevated place in the stompbox hierarchy, and it’s easy to see why. Many players rely entirely on distortion pedals for solos and heavier rhythm tones, preferring the zingier sound of a pedal hitting an amp over the more natural tones produced by the amp itself. Though “overdrive” and “distortion” are often used interchangeably when describing this class of pedals, they can mean different things in terms of what the pedal is actually doing. In the truest sense, an overdriver (or booster) produces a relatively clean, high-level signal that can be used to literally overdrive (and hence distort) the front end of a guitar amp.
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Conversely, a true distortion pedal typically features a circuit that is designed to generate soft-clipping distortion, which tends to sound more “tube” like, and often has additional stages to provide a boost in output level.

Most of the pedals in this Roundup offer plenty of output, and some can deliver it even at very low gain/distortion settings. A few also have dedicated clean-boost functions that can provide humongous increases in output level in order to overcome line losses that might occur in complex stage systems. Unless otherwise noted, all of the pedals we tested operate on 9-volt battery power and are equipped with 2.1mm center-negative barrel jacks for use with standard AC adapters (such as the Boss PSA-120T). Test guitars included a PRS McCarty, a Fender Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster, and a Gibson 1968 Reissue Black Beauty Les Paul. The amplifier lineup included a 1966 Fender Twin Reverb, a 1974 Marshall 50-watt, a THD Flexi 50, and a Mesa/Boogie Lonestar Special.

BBE Crusher

One of a series of new stompboxes from BBE, the Crusher ($129 retail/$79 street) offers a full complement of EQ controls (Bass, Mid, Treble), has a stout metal enclosure, and comes with its own wall-wart power supply. This pedal has enough distortion range to cover anything from blues to old-school metal, and it responds well to guitar volume changes. The Crusher’s expanded passive EQ makes it easy to dial in tones that sound reasonably close to those delivered by an overdriven tube amp, but the pedal doesn’t have a great deal of output unless the Gain knob is turned up—which makes it not well suited for clean boosting. The Crusher is great for adding a warm-sounding overdrive option to your amp, and it’s a fair deal, too. BBE Sound Inc., (714) 897-6766; bbesound.com

Boss Mega Distortion MD-2

Designed primarily for metal players, the MD-2 ($134 retail/$69 street) is equipped to inflict serious damage with its powerful EQ section, a slick Boost control (which acts like a variable supercharger for the Distortion knob), and a Level control that can unleash massive output over a wide range of gain settings. The MD-2 is a surprisingly tractable unit in the sense that it can do everything from fiendishly hot distortion all the way down to bluesy overdrive textures, and its distortion character is remarkably smooth overall. The sonic storm starts brewing once you get your fingers on the concentric Tone/Bottom control, which can be used to add ridiculous low-end mass and hyper top-end sizzle. When used in conjunction with high Distortion and Boost control settings, the net result is acutely evil and sinister tone. If you’ve found yourself being a little underwhelmed by standard distortion/overdrive pedals, the MD-2 may have exactly what you’ve been missing. Boss, (323) 890-3700; bossus.com

Carl Martin Crush Zone

New from the Danish effects maker, the Crush Zone ($128 retail/$89 street) is a retro-looking affair that sports a ’50s-TV-shaped enclosure and pointer-style Level, Tone, and Distortion knobs. This pedal offers impressive gain, and it can deliver lots of output—even at low Distortion settings. The dynamics are happening (the pedal responds well to guitar-volume changes), and the Tone knob is voiced appropriately for eliciting tough blues, rock, and classic-metal tones. I like how the Crush Zone preserves your guitar sound by not imposing any undue frequency bumps, and though its response can get a little spongy feeling at high-gain settings, all it takes is a little nudge of the Tone knob to maintain good note articulation. The Crush Zone looks and sounds very cool, but its thin aluminum housing and ill-fitting plastic battery hatch don’t inspire long-term confidence. This pedal will certainly enhance your home-studio decor, but it could prove vulnerable to the rigors of the road. Carl Martin Research, Dist. by Gary Castelluccio & Associates, (973) 772-3333; carlmartin.com

Coffin Blood Drive

Sporting a coffin-shaped housing and appropriately ghoulish Bleed (tone), Filth (gain), and Inject (level) controls, the Blood Drive ($129 retail/$89 street) is an otherwise no-nonsense distortion pedal that also makes a killer overdriver when you crank the level and put the gain knob on zero. Some grit is always present in the Blood Drive’s voice (this pedal is not a clean overdriver), and the grind quickly gets intense as you turn it up. Mid settings of the Filth control yield thick distortion tones that sound wicked for lead, yet still clean up well enough for rhythm when you turn down your guitar. With the Filth knob at three o’ clock and higher, you begin to notice an enhancement in sustain—as if some compression has suddenly come into play—which allows you to get controllable feedback very easily. Equally cool-sounding with humbucking and single-coil guitars, the Blood Drive is deadly fun, and not just for the Halloween crowd. Coffin Case, (818) 760-2180; coffincase.com

Custom Audio Electronics/MXR MC-402 Boost/Overdrive

The result of a partnering between MXR and Custom Audio Electronics founder and effects systems guru Bob Bradshaw, the MC-402 ($219 retail/$139 street) features an Overdrive section with Gain, Tone, and Output controls, and a separately footswitchable Boost section that provides up to 20dB of clean signal. The MC-402’s Overdrive side offers plenty of grind for heavier styles, and it can provide more than enough output to pummel an amp—even when the Gain is turned down. The tones stay quite smooth until you get the Tone knob to one o’clock, at which point a little grittiness starts creeping in. The Boost function can be used by itself to lift the level of your guitar’s signal without adding distortion, or in tandem with the Overdrive section to mercilessly pummel your amp’s front end. With its ability to function as distortion box, a signal-conditioning device, and a magnum-force overdriver, the MC-402 is a unique animal in this arena. Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc., (707) 745-2722; jimdunlop.com

Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff

Armed with powerful active tone controls and a truckload of gain, the Metal Muff ($139 retail/$99 street) is a radical-sounding pedal that will delight metallurgists and anyone else who lives for extreme distortion. Handy detents on the EQ controls make it easy to find their center points, and, from there, you can boost and/or scoop to your heart’s content to zero in on just the blistering textures you want. And does it ever get wicked—especially when you activate the Top Boost footswitch, and use the corresponding control to boost a narrow band of high frequencies for extra bite. An upward twist of the Bass control, and some scoopage of the mids, gives you the recipe for certifiable metal madness. In bypass mode, the Metal Muff’s Input and Output jacks are linked through buffer circuitry, which, though technically not true bypass, does help to reduce noise and maintain signal strength when driving long lengths of cable. Electro-Harmonix, (800) 633-5477; ehx.com

Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mosfet Edition

The Full-Drive 2 ($225 retail/$205 street) is an extremely versatile unit that features Overdrive and Boost channels, which can be tweaked to create everything from sparkling clean tones to heavily overdriven sounds. The mini toggle on the left accesses three sub modes for the Overdrive channel: Comp-Cut (bypasses all signal-clipping circuitry for clean boosting), and the more distorted FM (flat mids) and Vintage (asymmetrical clipping) settings. Activating the Boost footswitch puts the Full-Drive 2 into high-gain configuration for sustaining lead tones, and you can further voice the distortion for more low-end emphasis and midrange growl in any mode (except Comp-Cut) by engaging the Mosfet circuitry via the right-hand mini toggle. The range of distortion this pedal offers is breathtaking, and if you’ve been searching for something that can enhance your clean guitar sound as well, here it is. The Full-Drive 2 is easily one of the most sophisticated distortion/overdrive units available. Fulltone Musical Products Inc., (310) 204-1055; fulltone.com

Ilitch Heavy Metal

Among the things that make Ilitch Chiliachki’s self-named pedals notable are his patent-pending all-analog MAMP technology (which helps preserve more of your guitar’s dynamic and sonic signatures) and his Dyna Dist control (which lets you blend pure tube-like overdrive with more harmonically saturated distortion and fuzz elements). With the Drive and Dyna Dist controls set at around 12 o’ clock, the Heavy Metal ($250 retail/street price N/A) hovers in classic, early-’80s distortion territory, while remaining relatively transparent and touch sensitive. The lack of a built-in “scooped” voicing might be the only thing preventing the Heavy Metal from being an instant hit with metal players, but the amount of distortion this pedal delivers should satisfy all but the dirtiest desires. Factor in the Heavy Metal’s refined tones, excellent note definition, and very natural dynamic response, and you’ve got a pedal that will appeal to a wider range of tastes than its name would suggest. Ilitch Electronics, (805) 563 2901; ietone.com

Landmine LD-1

With its circular steel housing, the LD-1 ($199 retail/$139 street) resembles one of mankind’s nastiest inventions. Fortunately, instead of blowing your legs off when you step on the detonator (er, footswitch) you may simply feel some rumbling in the lower extremities—especially if the Low control is cranked up along with a high Level setting. The LD-1 doesn’t have a gain knob, which makes it kind of a turn-up-and-go affair, but in trade, it offers insane distortion and output, and it’s reasonably dynamic to boot. A handy feature of the LD-1 is its Mix output, which features speaker-emulation circuitry for a more balanced sound when feeding a recording or P.A. mixer. This punishing piece of weaponry is more for Pantera worshippers than blues or rock revivalists, so on that cautionary note, plot your coordinates to the nearest guitar armory and see for yourself how heavy the LD-1 sounds and how ruggedly it’s made. Landmine Pedal Company, (905) 227-7941; landminepedals.com

Line 6 ToneCore Dr. Distorto

The ToneCore series features a system of interchangeable effects modules (street priced at $29-$79 each) that plug into mono or stereo docking pedals. The Dr. Distorto ($139 retail/$99 street, including mono dock) offers strong, dynamic distortion tones, and can deliver a feisty output signal—even at low Drive settings. What makes this pedal so special, however, is its Feedback section, which enables you to get endlessly sustaining tones that you control via three knobs: Rise (adjusts the time it takes for the circuit to begin sustaining a tone), Fall (adjusts the time it takes for the circuit to stop sustaining a tone), and Blend (adjusts the volume of the sustained tone). There’s also a 3-position switch that lets you bypass the feedbacker, or have the sustained pitch be either in unison or an octave above the note you play. A 3-position Gate switch (highly useful for super-chunk metal tones) tops off the Doc’s already buff feature set. Line 6, (818) 575-3600; line6.com

Moollon custom shop od/ds

All of the pedals made by this Korean company stand out big time with their engraved tops, and the pair of mythical warriors etched into the face of the OD/DS ($720 retail/$638 street) hark to the duet of powerful circuits housed within. The two sections are controlled by separate sets of controls: Volume, Distortion, and Tone for the Distortion side; Volume, Drive, and Tone for the overdrive channel. There’s a Master footswitch for toggling between the two circuits, and you can also run the Distortion and Overdrive sections in tandem by activating their separate footswitches. The OD/DS actually puts three sounds at your feet, as it allows you to preset, say, a low-gain crunch sound and a stout lead tone, and then cascade the two for soaring, Santana-style sustain. The output level is strong enough for clean overdriving, and even in its most distorted settings, the OD/DS responds well to guitar volume changes. As with all Moollon pedals, the control labels are somewhat obscured by the engraving. Not an issue with one or two knobs, but it could be with six. Moollon, (822) 351-4201; moollon.com

Nady TD-1 Tube Distortion

The only tube-powered pedal in this group, the TD-1 ($159 retail/$129 street) features a single 12AX7, which is controlled by a Drive control and a 3-position Drive switch. There’s also a Level control and a sophisticated EQ section with High, Low, and Presence controls; a 3-position High End switch; and a 3-position Mid Boost switch. The TD-1 is a very dynamic pedal that not only provides a broad spectrum of warm distortion tones, but also offers excellent clean response. The multiple controls invite endless tweaking, and the range of textures this pedal delivers is quite impressive—from mild overdrive to scathing grind at high Drive settings. The TD-1 isn’t for clean overdriving and also doesn’t do “scooped” metal tones, but, short of those things, it’s the epitome of distortion flexibility. Don’t leave home without the included AC/AC power supply, however, as it can’t be easily substituted, and battery power is not an option with this unit. Nady Audio, (510) 652-2411; nady.com

Talos Ass Bite

Sporting Ass (bass) and Bite (treble) controls and a sturdy die-cast metal enclosure (albeit one lacking a convenient battery hatch), the Ass Bite ($230 retail/street price N/A) is a tough-sounding unit that, courtesy of a dual-battery 18-volt supply, offers a huge output (even at low Gain settings), and more than enough clear-sounding distortion for hard rock and metal. The tones are dynamically responsive, and this pedal is remarkably quiet. There’s a shimmer and transparency in the distortion that makes this pedal a real blast with humbuckers, and while it also sounds great with single-coils, players in search of super buttery tones may find themselves putting the Bite knob on zero, and still wishing for a touch more top-end roll-off. The Ass Bite also looks very cool with its two-tone paint and stippled aluminum knobs. Talos Instruments, (703) 764-7005; talosinstruments.com

Rocktron Zombie Rectified Distortion

Designed to unleash “monstrously heavy sound,” the Zombie ($99 retail/$69 street) aims to psyche the senses by giving you control of the symmetry balance of the distortion waveform. No need to reach for your scientific calculator, though—just grab the Zombie’s Stare knob and twist it clockwise to progressively alter the symmetry of the waveform, and, hence, add what sounds like a gigantic midrange boost to your tone. With the Stare knob swung fully opposite, the response is more scooped in the mids. The Zombie doesn’t even pretend to have a clean sound—this thing rages even with the Scream (gain) knob on zero, and it can get loud enough to wake the dead. Needless to say, the distortion is ridiculous at high Scream settings, and, for maximum impact, you’ll also want to jack the Bass control past three ’o clock to better mimic the rumble of a 747 on takeoff. Rocktron, (269) 968-3351; rocktron.com

Uncle Ernie’s Overdriver

Though the builder of this pedal, Tim Wagoner, says he is constantly improving his designs, the Overdriver ($150 retail/street price N/A) sounds darned cool as is. This two-stage device (which is based on the Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer) features Bypass and High/Low footswitches, with the latter switch intended to allow you to preset a crunch (or medium distortion lead sound), and then toggle to a brighter high-gain overdrive sound for solos. The Volume, Tone, and Gain controls offer up a wealth of happening overdrive textures, and the pedal’s dynamic talents allow it to track guitar volume changes well, and clean up as required for less grinding rhythm work. The Overdriver cops the TS vibe quite well in the Low mode, and it seems to add a bit less midrange color to your sound. A Bright switch that works only in the High mode allows you to tailor the high-gain response very effectively for different guitars, pickups, and amplifiers. If you’re a Tube Screamer fan, you’ll love the Overdriver.Uncle Ernie’s, (330) 373-6730; uncleernieseffects.com

Z. Vex Box of Rock

The first honest-to-God distortion box to spring from the bench of effects maker Zachary Vex, the Box of Rock ($299 retail/$199 street) melds elements of the Super Hard On overdriver with a new grind circuit to deliver kick-ass distortion tones that are squarely in the old Marshall camp. In fact, this pedal sounded particularly dynamite though a mid-’70s Marshall 50-watt, where it showcased complex grind and excellent dynamic response and touch sensitivity. Activating the Boost footswitch lets you increase the output dramatically, and this function (which includes a Boost control) can also be used independently of the distortion channel for delivering maximum clean output. Needless to say, used in tandem with a high setting on the distortion channel, the output is almost scary. The B of R’s only quirks were scratchy sounding Boost and Drive pots (note the “Crackle Okay” labels on these controls), but in all other regards, this long-awaited Vex pedal offers everything needed to handle a wide range of distortion and overdrive applications.Z. Vex Effects, (952) 285-9545; zvexeffects.com