Overdrive is a key component to your guitar tone, and can be used in just about every genre on the planet. However, there are many players who get into guitar so they can do one thing: play metal. As such, we’ve combined a love for distortion with a love for the genre.
In this important guide, I’ll talk you through the 10 best distortion pedals on the market, that will help you create that heavy, metallic tone.
If you’re looking to craft that perfect metal distortion tone, then look no further.
First Things First
Before we start looking in detail at all of the ways a distortion pedal can be used to perfect a metal-ready tone, we should look at what distortion actually is.
What Is Distortion?
In simple terms, distortion is what happens when the tops of a soundwave get clipped. If we break it down to soundwaves themselves, then the sine wave is the least distorted because it flows very smoothly. You get a more crunchy, buzzing sound from a wave such as a sawtooth wave, because it has sharp edges.
Distortion happens when a signal clips, and these sharp edges are enforced, thus creating the fuzzy, distorted sound you’re used to hearing in music. Many years ago, distortion was something that recording artists would try to avoid at all costs, before people realised that it had advantages in both volume and tone. After that, it become one of the most popular effects in music, specifically when used on guitar.
How Do You Use It In Your Set Up?
Two classic distortion pedals – Big Muff, Russian Sovtek version (right) and NYC re-issue (left) by Tom S. NIRVANA2764 is licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0
While there is a lot of choice based on how you actually want your guitar to sound, there are certain expectations on where to place your overdrive pedal in a signal chain for the best results.
Obviously, you want things like compressors at the start so that your signal comes to you with the most consistent volume possible, but you’ll probably want to place things that change the pitch next. This is because distortion creates many more harmonics in your sound, so trying to alter the pitch of all of them could lead to some strange results.
However, things like flanger and phaser should come afterwards, because if they don’t, you won’t be ‘phasing’ the sound of the overdriven signal, just the clean- if you did this, it would probably be drowned out.
It goes without saying that things that sound after you’ve played (ambient effects) like delay and reverb should come after the overdrive. If you had a delay as part of your signal chain but placed it before the signal had been distorted, then you’d only hear the weak, clean signal feeding back.
What Is Metal?
This is a broad question with a variety of answers, but the most obvious is very simple: it’s a style of music.
Typically, it is known for its heaviness, crunchy guitars, powerful vocals, riffs and standard song structure. However, within metal exists an almost impossible to list set of subgenres. This ranges from the crushing heaviness of death and black metal, to the complexity of prog metal, the pop-intersection of metalcore and the classic heavy metal of bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica.
What To Be On The Lookout For
Distortion is one of the sounds most synonymous with metal. You’d be hard pushed to find a metal band that doesn’t have a guitarist, and you’d be even harder pushed to find a guitarist in a metal band who doesn’t use distortion.
In general, the heavier the subgenre, the more overdriven the signal. A death metal band, for example, is quite likely to use a higher gain than a pop metal band, but this isn’t always the case. The gain setting on your pedal is pretty much telling you the amount by which the soundwaves are going to be clipped; in short, how distorted your sound is going to be.
One of the key elements of crafting the perfect distortion sound comes from the tone. Most pedals will give you the option to alter the tone of the distortion, which is very similar to altering the tone directly on your guitar. Going to the right will ‘brighten’ your sound by turning up the higher frequencies, while moving to the left will give more ‘warmth’ by focusing on lower frequencies.
Other pedals might give options for mix or level, which is essentially the balance between how much dry and wet signal you hear, while fancier pedals might include some other effects on top of distortion, and allow you to control that with a knob/button on the pedal.
To many, the Boss DS-1X is the definitive distortion pedal. Not only are Boss as a brand trusted pretty much across the board in the world of guitar pedals, but their output is consistently sturdy, impressive looking, and sold at a fair price. They certainly aren’t the cheapest on this list, but for what you get, it’s justified.
Their DS-1X model is a slight upgrade on the DS-1, replacing the general ‘tone’ knob with the ability to independently fiddle with the low and high tones. This means that, technically, you could cut the low and highs down massively, or crank them both up hugely, based on the tone you want. Previously, you basically had to choose between ‘warm’ or ‘bright’.
Beyond that, you get the ‘level’ command to determine the balance between wet and dry signals, and the ‘dist’ knob, which is just there to decide how overdriven you want your signal.
The beauty of this pedal is its versatility. If you want it, you can get one of the most recognisable metal tones around, as this pedal is used by probably millions of guitarists. Crank the ‘dist’ all the way up, and you’ll hear a dark, crunchy, heavy metal sound that could play death metal with ease. Similarly, a lighter distortion can give you that classic sound you’ll hear in bands like Saxon and Judas Priest, or even bluesmen like Eric Clapton.
It doesn’t have gimmicks, and isn’t set-up specifically to play one genre perfectly, but if you want an all-rounder, it’s hard to beat the Boss DS-1X.
KHDK Dark Blood
You might not know why this pedal is special immediately, but as soon as you hear it, it becomes very clear. The KHDK is the signature distortion pedal of Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. In fact, the brand itself is the brainchild of Hammett himself, and David Karon.
The two have crafted a variety of pedals under the KHDK brand, but the Dark Blood is self-described as their “most evil pedal to date”. From this, you can infer a sound that will be perfect for the heaviest Metallica tracks.
You’ve got all of the standard controls on the pedal itself: volume, drive, bass and treble. These give you the ability to craft your own sound within reason. Beneath this customisation, you have a pedal that has been well thought-out and has some specific sounds in mind.
The pedal is designed to give the tonal feeling of a tube amp, and has been lauded for its impressive amp-like sound. You wouldn’t even know your sound was coming from a pedal. Beyond that, it has been equipped with a treble booster designed to push the intensity of the sound, while a consistently high gain makes it perfect for metal.
In fact, the intensity of the pedal means that metal is basically the only genre in which it would work. As Hammett and Karon explain, this pedal has shredded, palm-muted solos and soaring high lead notes in mind.
The Dark Blood also has the added bonus of a built in gate which can be switched on and off. It isn’t the most impressive gate in the world, and with a distortion as intense as this, you might want to look at balancing it with a second gate. However, the fact that it is there allows you to really calm the fuzz of the pedal when you aren’t playing.
Bogner Ecstasy Red
Much like the Dark Bloody above, the Bogner Ecstasy is on the higher end of the distortion pedal payment scale. However, that is because it is packed out with impressive features and a glorious sound.
By default, this pedal is perfect for modern metal, thanks to that natural high gain and a scooped mid-EQ set-up. You can craft the intensity and feel of this using all of the expect controls. However, it is the ability for this pedal to dip into just about any subgenre thanks to the four unique controls that sit at the top of the pedal.
The ‘Variac’ setting gives you a sound that could be compared to a tube amp. Extra compression and less attack means that this has more impact on how the playing feels, and is the least metallic of the four settings.
‘Mode’ is a simple tonal switch that helps you move between low, mid and high boosts.
‘Pre-EQ’ is a secondary EQ. The ‘N’ option doesn’t do anything, but ‘B1’ will add even more of a high boost to the signal, while ‘B2’ will give even more mid. It’s a shame there isn’t an option for extra lows instead of that neutral setting.
Finally, the ‘structure’ setting can be used to have even more of an impact on your EQ and tone. The ‘101’ setting intensifies the middle-dip sound that bands like Metallica use non-stop, while ‘100’ does the exact opposite, to give a more distant feel. The ‘20’ is the fourth way to give a treble boost to your sound.
With four different ways to boost the trebles of your sound, it seems that this pedal will be best for those looking for a modern metal sound, or a way of giving themselves a huge amount of presence in the mix. For those who still don’t have enough presence, there is even a boost pedal to bring your volume up for a solo.
Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal
Despite having the Fender name on it (who are mostly associated to guitars and amps), this pedal is one of our more low-end options. It also fits metal across the board, due to a distinct versatility. That doesn’t mean it isn’t without its own gimmick, though.
Unlike the other pedals on this list, there are two distortions running at once on this pedal, each with their own controls. This means that you can craft a more mid-heavy, lower-gain setting for playing chords, before kicking into a squealing, high-boosted, gain-heavy sound for solos and melody. The Bogner above might give you the option for a boost, but it doesn’t allow you to change your distortion tone with such specificity and ease.
While this means it can be used across a wide range of metal styles, the bass booster helps to take you into deeper, darker territory. By cranking up that low end, you can start to emulate the sounds of earlier extreme metal, like Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. If you want the more modern tones of extreme metal, then something with a treble boost would probably be more up your street.
Diezel Herbert Preamp Pedal
This is the only pedal on this list that isn’t a straightforward distortion pedal, but a full preamp. This is the reason behind the extreme price tag; this is a pedal only for guitar afficionados, who will be taking a specific, high-quality sound out on stage or on record.
Thanks to its complexity, you might feel a little overwhelmed with all of the options available on the pedal. The first one to point out is the left-hand footswitch, which cuts the mids. This will give you the modern tone that a variety of modern heavy metal bands use, from Metallica to Between The Buried And Me.
This midcut setting has its own specific settings in the top left, which allow you to control how much of the mid is reduced, and the master volume when the setting is on. The more intensity you add, the more of that sharp, bright, full modern tone you’ll hear.
You also have control over the full range of EQ settings on your overdrive, as well as ‘presence’ and ‘deep’ controls at the bottom. The ‘presence’ setting is going to further the punchiness of your modern metal sound, while the ‘deep’ is a setting which allows you to dive into the heaviness of older extreme metal by ramping up the lowest frequencies.
While there is a level of versatility here, this pedal is perfect to go to either end of the spectrum of extremity; you can control both the highest highs and lowest lows beautifully, most of the time by manipulating the mids.
Lone Wolf Audio Left Hand Wrath
This pedal is one of the most interesting on this list for a number of reasons. One of those, is the fact that it’s quite hard to get a hold of, and when you do, it’s very expensive. The second, is that it is effectively a take on a classic Boss pedal. The Boss pedal in question, the HM-2, was used by many death metal players of the classic era, making this a pedal with death metal as its primary focus.
The main draw for many guitar fans is the simple revelation that this pedal sounds a lot like the classic pedal of death metal’s past, only better. It can tame the incredibly high gain that caused issues with the Boss version, and cuts out a huge amount of the non-stop noise.
Beyond that, however, it advances. To keep up with a generation of guitar players that didn’t exist when the Boss HM-2 dropped, this includes a ‘modern’ sound, which drops the mids and allows the low and high sounds to cut through. It also has a switch that lets you go specific enough to choose the diodes used to form the sound…
The word “chainsaw” is thrown around a lot in both the manufacturers description of the product, and many reviews; I guess this is the crushingly heavy tone that a death metal lover can get out of this wonderful pedal.
Digitech Death Metal Distortion
We’re staying in the world of death metal for a moment, with the Digitech Death Metal Distortion. On the surface, it look a bit like a Boss pedal has been painted black; we get the same settings and the same footswitch design. This makes it easy to use, at least, while a lower price tag than you might expect draws you in.
Obviously, this does mean it doesn’t have the highest quality sound in the universe, but for beginners looking to quickly feel like they’re shredding in the middle of a metal festival, you couldn’t ask for much more.
It is built around an incredibly high gain, and a thick, warm, cutting tone that makes your guitar sound incredibly heavy, no matter the context. In fact, the shifts in tone can give you access to a lot of metal styles. Cranking up the low end will let you wander into the lo-fi territory of some classic black metal bands.
Amptweaker Tightmetal Jr
If you’re looking for something rugged, then the Amptweaker Tightmetal has you covered; it literally has a handle. It doesn’t need a handle, but still.
One of the best things about this pedal is how user-friendly it is. Every button and knob on the pedal is understandable, from the tone, volume and gain controls, to the more customisable settings below that.
In the middle, you have the option to initiate a noise gate that cuts out those annoying hums that accompany most high-gain pedals. It is pretty rare for an overdrive pedal to include a gate, but we go one step further here, with the ability to change the function of the gate itself.
On the right, you can change how the guitar feels to actually control, with the attack of the sound being impacted by the fat/normal/tight control. On the left, you get hold of an EQ switch that has the specific ‘thrash’ option. This, as you might expect, allows you to craft a tone that feels just like you’re back in the 1980s fronting Slayer. The end result of this basically means this is the perfect pedal for anyone trying to craft a thrash tone.
Amptweaker have size in mind. It has done away with things like boost features and light-up switches in order to keep the pedal compact. This might seem unnecessary, but if you’re trying to conserve space, then this is a real positive.
Finally, this is the only pedal on this list that boasts two different battery options. Apparently, using a 9V battery will provide a more compressed, heavy sound, while an 18V will be lighter and less distorted. Interesting.
TC Electronic Eyemaster
The first of two TC Electronic pedals that round off our list, is the Eyemaster. This is one of the simplest distortion pedals on the market, and is designed to give you a metal tone with the least hassle possible.
They describe it as a “skull-pounding metal distortion” with “insane gain”, which pretty much sums up the sort of thing they’re going for: this pedal is perfectly situated to play some incredibly heavy stuff. With a gain designed to be turned all the way up, the Eyemaster prides itself on avoiding the subtleties of distortion. It is supposed to smash its way through the mix to become the crushing centrepiece of any track. As such, it has ended up being nicknamed ‘The Swedish Buzzsaw’.
Something that will divide those looking for a distortion pedal is the approach to EQ found on this pedal. You’ll notice that there isn’t a setting for tone, which means all you can do to your sound is turn up the volume and gain. Of course, TC Electronic brag that they’ve found “the perfect death metal EQ”. Of course, that just isn’t true. There is no “death metal EQ”. What they have done, however, is fill the tone with darkness and depth, that clashes with a bright, saw-like sound that can cut through just about anything.
It won’t work for those who want to make their own metal sound, but for anyone looking to enter into the extreme metal scene with minimal effort and a great sound, this is an excellent choice.
TC Electronic Dark Matter
The reason we decided to feature two relatively similar pedals from the same company is because of the very different approach they take. The Dark Matter is still focused on intense gain, but it doesn’t dive into the extremes of death metal with quite the same vigour, and allows you to control your own EQ settings.
Rather than the brutality of death metal, Dark Matter is centred on a classic, vintage sound. The low compression means exactly what you play comes out of the pedal, while the analogue circuitry within delivers on a realistic warmth that can help you make your mark on just about any metal subgenre.
You’ve got a gain setting that allows you to crank the distortion up without moving into the realms of unintelligible, mushy sounds, while the bass and treble settings give you much more control over your sound than the Eyemaster. It isn’t as easy to hop in and be fronting a death metal band like the pedal above, but if you’ve got something more specific and wide-ranging in mind, then the Dark Matter is going to treat you well.
The process of buying a distortion pedal is rather simple, especially when you know the exact tone you’re looking for. When you’re aiming specifically to create a tone that will fit into either a variety of metal styles, or one very specific subgenre, things get a little more complex.
The best advice I can give, is to take a look at this list of pedals and, based on how extreme, and how light/dark the tone provided is, decide whether or not it will fit the style or tone you’re aiming for.