Whether you just bought your first guitar and you are looking for something cheap to begin with, or you are someone who’s more familiar with the instrument – in this article we will give you our list of best guitar distortion and overdrive pedals. As it’s proven to be most convenient from the readers perspective, we start the list with the cheapest and most affordable distortion/overdrive pedal and end with a top of the line model. But before we start, let’s clear up one thing —
The difference between distortion and overdrive
Sound-wise – if you imagine a clean, unaltered sound on one side of the spectrum, distortion would be all the way on the other side, and overdrive somewhere in between – perhaps closer to the distorted side. Generally looking, the overdrive pedals were much more popular in the earlier years, and the distortion is more popular among the newer bands and guitar players, mostly from metal and the alternative scene.
So in short, overdrive is a sort of a warm Eric Clapton Cream era sound, while the distortion is that same thing just pushed even further – think Dimebag from Pantera. You’ll often hear gear “specialist,” say that distortion has nasally, sort of spongy sound, while overdrive is warm, natural, and more spacious.
Isn’t it obvious? It’s so spacious, dude, you could park a truck in there. The distortion is sort of like a small shed, you know. Everything is so tightly packed up that it almost becomes overwhelming. The vibe is just not the same.
Yeah, the best thing to do if you’re a beginner is to avoid stressing yourself over these peculiarities, as only time will allow you to actually spot the difference by ear. Most often it is very hard for people to translate into words the sounds that you’re hearing from their amp, so in most cases, this all seems like some sort of an unknown language to an outsider. Again, don’t worry about it. Most of it is subjective, and the differences that are actually there will only become obvious to you through time spent experimenting.
Why mix them together
In reality, no matter what people say, in a blind test very few would know the difference between an overdrive and a distortion pedal set up in such way so they achieve a similar sound since many of the pedals are really versatile. The difference becomes noticeable in terms of how far you can push the pedal, or how dirty and saturated you can get it to sound. Since this list is for people who are still somewhat inexperienced, going into details over peculiarities is pointless. Anything affordable that will allow you to experiment and not waste a ton of money in the process is a smart investment.
Danelectro D-1 Fab Distortion
Let’s start off with a true entry-line model – the Danelectro D-1 Distortion. This little pedal is really simple and easy to use. It’s surprisingly small in size when compared to all the other pedals on our list but nonetheless offers really comfortable usage.
A hard plastic case instead of die-cast aluminum which you’ll find on most of the mid-range pedal is the first sign that this is a budget pedal. As such, you should take care of how hard you stomp on it with your foot, and probably avoid using it for gigs and band practice – where things tend to get heated up. The footswitch feels kind of shallow on the press and has no click to it, but given the price, it could be said that things are better than expected.
The pedal is equipped with three control knobs – Level, Tone, and Distortion. Playing around with the settings you can achieve almost any sound – from warm sounding fuzzy Mayer-ish tone to the really dirty and saturated distortion. Of course, the sound quality is nothing to write home about, but as a beginner or budget option, it’ll do the job.
The pedal is powered either through a 9V power adapter or a 9V battery, none of which are included in the standard package.
If you are a beginner or someone who’s really short on budget, Danelectro D-1 is a perfect choice. You’ll get an introduction to what a guitar pedal really can do, and how much you can really change your sound with a simple turn of a knob.
Behringer UM300 Ultra Metal Distortion
Behringer is a relatively well-known company in the audio equipment industry, founded in the late 80s, and they make some really good products – which are usually cheaper copies and alternatives of the premium pedals. If you Google this particular pedal, you’ll probably find another two pedals with a similar name – the Super Metal and Heavy Metal. The third one in the line is the UM300 Ultra Metal, which basically combines the two previously mentioned models, and offers an affordable alternative for the much more expensive and popular Boss Metal Zone.
We’re still in the territory of plastic bodies and questionable design choices — like deciding to paint a pedal targeted at metalheads in bright pink. Nonetheless, there are things that the UM300 does a lot better than the previously mentioned Danelectro – placing the controls on the top, going for the classic layout à la Boss, and equipping the pedal with a proper foot switch.
UM300 gives you a lot more control over the sound than the Danelectro, and as a pedal primarily targeted at the people who intend to play metal music, it really does sound best when used for playing heavily distorted solos, for shredding and power chords. The pedal is still very versatile and the possibilities are big – since you can adjust level, distortion, but also the midrange frequency (from 200 Hz to 5 kHz) and boost/cut it by up to 15 dB.
To power up the pedal, you’ll need to use a 9V battery or a power adapter. The power input is on the right side on the pedal, right next to the guitar input, which can be a problem if you plan to place the pedal on an already tightly organized pedalboard.
The UM300 is great for guitarists interested in playing anything from metal to hard rock. For this price, you probably won’t find anything that’ll do the job any better.
Joyo JF-34 US Dream Distortion Pedal
While Danelectro and Behringer are relatively known brands of audio equipment, Joyo is somewhat more under the radar. The company is based in China and judging from their website they offer a wide range of equipment, including pedals, amps tuners, EQ systems, and others. We admit we were skeptical about this pedal at first, but it proved to be actually a decent choice for a beginner or someone on a tight budget.
The build quality is a noticeable step up from the two pedals mentioned previously, as Joyo opted in for a full-metal case (a somewhat thin metal, but nonetheless). The design is very pleasing and without any of the unnecessarily gimmicks. We were especially happy with the type of the control knobs used. You can see the position of the knob easily from a standing position, and you don’t need to have kid-sized fingers in order to adjust them.
Joyo JF-34 is really simple and easy to use. It features three knobs, controlling the volume, tone, and level of distortion. You can, of course, play with the sound, but considering this is a high-gain distortion pedal, it is probably best for heavier stuff.
The subject of the powering up the pedal is still unchanged, you either use a 9V battery or a power adapter. The only minus, which is really not too big of a deal, is that you’ll have to remove the backplate each time you want to change the batteries.
People usually compare this pedal to the Suhr Riot, which is probably what this pedal was based on to begin with. If you think about the price tag on the Suhr, getting the cheaper Joyo version is really a no-brainer – given that you’re on a budget. As said, this is a high-gain distortion pedal, meaning that it will work best for the heavier type of music such as alternative rock and metal.
Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive
The fact that you are browsing a website about guitars probably means that you are well familiar with the company named “Boss” and how popular their products are among the professional guitar players. SD-1 is perhaps one of their most popular and most widely praised models, at least among the old-school guys.
Among another thing, Boss is known for producing some of the most heavy-duty pedals in the industry, and the SD-1 is no exception. The pedal features a die-cast aluminum body with classic design and control layout.
The pedal itself is pretty straightforward, and it features three simple knobs controlling the tone, level, and drive. The sound quality is great, and the pedal is somewhat versatile – but not as much as some other pedals like the Boss DS-2 for instance. Most of the sounds that you get are on the warmer and more natural side, so obviously avoid buying it if you’re into heavy distortion.
The SD-1 is old-school and meant to be played on a tube amp, but it sounds great in any scenario. It produces some of the sweetest tones, and it’s really great for adding that little dirty color to your sound. If you are skeptical because of relatively low price, let’s just say that the SD-1 will blow some of the much more expensive pedals out of the water.
This pedal is perfect for someone seeking for a cheap pedal for bluesy/fuzzy old-school sound and for classic rock. Not that it can’t do the rest, but if you are really into metal and heavier stuff, better look someplace else.
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi
Big Muff Pi is widely recognized as one of the most iconic effect pedals, and you can hear it in David Gilmour’s solos, Jack White’s muddy riffs, and many many others.
The pedal itself is very robust and features really simple and minimalistic design. The whole case is basically a sheet of metal bent into a box shape, and the foot switch is left exposed on top of it as opposed to being hidden bellow an actual foot pedal. It is a bit large though, and it takes up a lot of real estate on the pedal board.
You get to play around with three knobs controlling the volume, tone and sustain. With knobs set up in the right position, you can achieve that warm fuzzy sound from Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, or if you wish – up the sustain and you’ll end up on this other side of the spectrum sounding like Smashing Pumpkins or even AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
Although the pedal perhaps lacks in versatility when compared to some other pedals, the sound quality that it offers really makes it worthwhile. The Big Muff falls on the simple side with its limited controls, but its limits are only noticeable when compared to some of the more versatile pedals. Big Muff is more focused and doesn’t try to do everything at once.
This guitar pedal is really something special, and the people who decide to buy it usually end up falling in love with the sound. If you’re into White Stripes, Hendrix and especially David Gilmour (who uses this effect as his main) the Big Muff is a must-have. With this pedal, you get that basic fuzzy sound on lower values, and very heavy and saturated distortion with the knobs set to ten, both delivered in highest possible quality.
Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
Since we mentioned a couple of times that some of the pedals on this list are not so versatile, here is something right up that alley. The DS-2 is a successor of the widely popular but also criticized DS-1, and it features the basics of its older brother paired up with some added functionality.
Again we’re met with the familiar design that nearly all of the Boss pedals are known for. The size is just right, and the footswitch feels reliable and heavy-duty. For the first time, we encounter a third plug on the side of the pedal, which in this case enables the user to connect an external footswitch and toggle between Turbo modes of the DS-2.
The knobs on the left side of the panel are pretty standard and include Volume, Tone and Distortion level settings. The added feature, when compared to the DS-1, is the fourth knob, which switches between two modes: Turbo I and Turbo II. The first mode offers you cleaner and more open sound closer to fuzz, and the second mode is full-on heavy distortion. Playing with this pedal you can basically pull out any kind of sound you want – from blues to heavy metal.
Just to name a few people this exact pedal in their set-ups: John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain in the post-Nevermind era, Steve Vai, Kim Deal from Pixies, Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. Looking at these names it becomes obvious that the uses of this pedal are almost without limits, and it’s not so often that you’ll see one pedal fit perfectly in so many different setups.
This is perhaps closest you can get to an all-purpose pedal. You can use the DS-2 to play anything from grunge to hard rock and blues – but it maybe lacks some power to deliver a true metal sound. Not that it can’t be used to play metal, but there are better options out there if you want specifically just that type of a sound – like the Digitech TL-2. In all other cases, this pedal is the one we would recommend to everyone who likes to explore and experiment with the sound of their guitar and doesn’t want to be limited to one genre of music.
Pro Co RAT2 Distortion Pedal
Here is something more suitable for people who are after a more modern sound. The original Pro Co “The RAT” was modeled in the mid-1970s, by engineers Scott Burnham and Steve Kiraly who decided to build a superior product of then widely popular Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face.
This is probably the most heavy-duty pedal on this list, and at least as the casing is concerned it will probably last a lifetime. In the sea of pedals finished in bright colors such are orange and green, it is also refreshing to see a completely black pedal (one would think that the case would be the opposite).
Since the mid 70s, the RAT has found its way to a handful of professional musicians such as Dave Grohl, Graham Coxon, Andy Summers, Jerry Cantrell, and others. The pedal is based upon same scheme as the Boss DS-1 distortion pedal, although there are major differences between the circuits, which accounts for the huge difference in the sound between the two pedals. Some also compare it to the Big Muff, but say that the Muff offers more of a fuzz sound, and Pro Co gives you that raw distortion.
The RAT2 is perfect for playing heavy power chords, and in contrast to some other pedals mentioned, this one proves to be great as a stand-alone distortion. Playing with the knobs you can dial in many different tones, ranging from fuzz-like overdrive and warm blues to heavily compressed metal sound.
Who should buy the Pro Co RAT2
If you are into grunge, punk rock or metal, this pedal is essential. It can do nearly everything you’d expect from a distortion pedal, and if you still find yourself confused with what model out of all these you should buy for yourself, we would differently recommend getting the RAT2.
Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer
Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Gary Moore, Mark Tremonti, Noel Gallagher, John Mayer, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What all these guitarists have in common? They are all super cool obviously, but also – they all use or they used the Ibanez Tube Screamer at some point in their careers. This is one of the most iconic pedals in the history of rock and roll, and as such surely deserves a spot on this list.
The Tube-Screamer follows the classic stomp-pedal design and is encased in a die-cast aluminum body that will probably last for decades. Everything about the pedal feels solid and well-built, including the knobs and the foot switch itself.
The pedal features quite basic functionality, which is to be expected from something that’s basically been on the shelves since 1982. Nonetheless, it’s still relatively versatile and offers the sound from clean boost all the way to vintage sounding distortion, and it’s especially useful in combination with other pedals such as flanger or phaser.
The TS9 is for players wanting a vintage sound from their guitars in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, or even some Led Zeppelin, because it’s not really a distortion but a boost pedal, which adds boost to the signal at the front end, which results in a very mid range-heavy “blues” tone. If you want, you can even pull out some Metallica sound from the period of “Ride the Lightning” and “Kill ‘Em All”, since this is the pedal those guys actually used on the album. But, if you indeed want to play modern-style music, you should probably look into the newer TS9DX Tube Screamer model which features that same vintage sound from TS9 but adds three more modes for some heavier stuff.
Whichever model of the Tube Screamer you choose, whether it be the original TS-808, TS-9 or a modern TS9X, you’re getting yourself an extremely good quality pedal. If you are serious about playing the guitar, and you wanna replicate some of the classic sounds from SRV, or modern players like Edge from U2 or John Mayer – nothing else will do the job as good as the Tube Screamer.
DigiTech TL-2 HardWire Metal Distortion
The TL-2 is shortly put – a monster. It is marketed as an improvement over the Boss Metal Zone, and if we are being completely honest here, this pedal is indeed a better choice – unless of course you really care about the brand printed on the case.
The design of this pedal is modern and refreshing, although still taking a note or two from some of the more old-school pedals (no need to change the stuff that works, right?). The case is die-cast metal and features really premium finish and feel, which is to be expected at this price range.
Controls include a level, a high knob with a low ring, a mid knob with a frequency ring, and a gain knob. There is also a switch to choose between tight and loose mode, which greatly affects the tone of the pedal.
The TL-2 covers the broadest range of distortion from hard rock to extreme metal, but even when the knobs are on the lowest settings, you get that precise and fierce distortion sound. This pedal is mainly for people who want as much distortion as they can possibly get, packed up with seemingly endless sustain.
If you are a true metal-head and you want something monstrous that can be considered a weapon, look no further. If you’re into older stuff, you should probably avoid buying this one, as the sound really is more modern and heavy.
Fulltone Obsessive Compulsive Drive
Here’s something a little less heavy, but still very versatile. The Fulltone OCB (Obsessive Compulsive Drive) is widely hailed as one of the best pedals to buy if you’re looking for something really professional grade.
The design of this pedal is nothing to write home about, but it really doesn’t need to be. Plain white finish, simple letters on the box (maybe using comic-sans wasn’t the best idea though), and three proper-sized knobs are all you need. The only thing that bothered us personally is the fact that the power jack is on the left side just below the output, which eventually results in your cables tangling around each other. Not a huge deal, but it’s worth pointing out.
As said, the controls are very simple. You have your volume, drive and tone, and a switch which toggles from “Low Peak” to “High Peak”. This basically means you can pull out the very distinct tone for either soloing or playing rhythm, varying from a Fender Tweed-like sound, to Marshall Plexi-like sound. In essence, it just gives you two different modes to play around with, both sounding very different from each other.
The pedal gives you clear, uncompressed signal, and it doesn’t change the tone – it just adds volume and distortion. It sounds very open and natural, which is a thing to appreciate if you really like to have the control over your sound. It’s perfect if you wanna add just a little spice to your clean sound, but it also delivers some really heavy sound when used in the high peak mode.
We honestly got nothing but words of praise for the Fulltone OCD pedal. If you don’t mind giving up some extra bucks for a sweet sounding pedal which will keep you satisfied for years – go for it. Robin Trower from Procol Harum also approves – he’s been using it for a couple of his recent tours.
So, this is where we end our list of best overdrive and distortion pedals. As said, this list is intended for beginners and moderate players, and spending over $200 really doesn’t’ make sense since your goal should be to experiment and start the learning process. If we had to choose one pedal from this list to fulfill that purpose it would probably be the Boss DS-2, since it seems to be most versatile, meaning that will allow you to experiment with the widest range of tones.
If you have your personal favorite, and we haven’t included it in our list, be sure to share your opinion in the comments – it’ll help both the readers and us to reach a more autonomous and definitive list of best distortion and overdrive pedals.