From pop to metal, everyone needs a bit of distortion in their life…
Ah, the humble distortion pedal, where to start when some dirt is required in your rig. Distortion is the most used and popular effect for electric guitarists, whether it’s a standard rock tone or full-fledged, high-gain metal sound you’re after, there are literally hundreds of options to choose from. But, ‘what is the best distortion pedal?’ we hear you ask?
Let’s go back a few years, shall we…
In the early days of the electric guitar (or bass) manufacturers wanted to ensure that the sound produced was as clean as a whistle, Fender put amplifiers on the market that were guaranteed to stay clean even at maximum volume, hence the famous Twin Reverb amplifier being known for staying clean at ear-shattering volume.
Due to the exploratory nature of guitarists seeking a certain sound (as we are guilty of) a few pioneers began to experiment with the sound they currently had. Early blues guitarists such as Willie Johnson (Howlin’ Wolf) and Guitar Slim started to push smaller valve-driven combos to breaking point which resulted in what we now call “overdrive”.
Overdrive vs Distortion
Overdrive and Distortion are two very different beasts, overdrive will retain the overall tone of the guitar with a light dusting of grit, distortion on the other foot will add an amount of gain that thickens the sound and increases sustain. With distortion, you will sacrifice some of the guitar and amplifier’s sound.
Distortion was still in its infancy in the mid-1950s until Ike Turner’s guitar player Willie Kizart used a small amplifier to record the classic ‘Rocket 88‘, his amplifier allegedly fell over in transit and the result was a damaged speaker cone. The sound produced was naturally distorted as a result.
Following on to the late 1950s, guitarist Link Wray used a similar technique when recording the legendary “Rumble” track, which some say is the earliest example of distorted guitar tone. The jury will forever be out on that one.
The 1960s was where many manufacturers became aware of the sound that seemingly all guitarists wanted. Early incarnations of distortion sounds are often confused with fuzz.
Fuzz again is not to be confused with distortion, Fuzz will increase the amount of gain tenfold, the result is a spikier sound that is quite temperamental in the wrong hands. Around this time, Keith Richards acquired a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz Tone for the classic intro on “I can’t get no…Satisfaction” soon after, Jimi Hendrix arrived with a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and fuzz was born.
The common misconception here is that Hendrix and Richards invented distortion, whereas the tones heard on those classic recordings are in fact fuzz.
A Masterstroke from Marshall
Jim Marshall was instrumental in the earliest distorted sounds also, both he and Eric Clapton had created a monster with the 1962 “BluesBreaker” combo. The circuits in Fender Bassman amplifiers were modified by Marshall in a view to creating their own amplifier. In doing so, the sound produced by Jim Marshall’s efforts allowed the player to distort or overdrive their playing.
If you listen to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton record, you will hear some ferocious playing from a young Clapton and a guitar tone of a 1959 Les Paul directly into a Bluesbreaker combo. Influential to all guitar players worldwide (including Hendrix) and a record that will never be forgotten.
As the late ’60s and early ’70s rolled on, bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple both used Marshall gear to achieve this now iconic distorted sound.
As Marshall were now the undisputed kings of rock and roll tones, other manufacturers decided to step up to the challenge. The first of all Distortion pedals hit the market in 1978…
1. BOSS DS-1 Distortion
The BOSS DS-1 Distortion pedal is the one that arguably started it all, the BOSS range from Japan introduced this classic orange box in 1978 and it is still in production today. The unit has passed the 1,000,000 sales mark worldwide.
Initially manufactured in Japan, this pedal has three controls, Level, Gain and Tone. The level controls the master volume, the gain adds a touch of volume but mainly distortion and the tone will add a small band EQ to the overall sound. What more could you ask for?
The tone is essentially a “Marshall in a box” type affair yet has a sound of its own. If you’re looking for a distortion pedal that won’t break the bank, this is the one for you. It’ll do Nirvana, ACDC, Steve Vai and pretty much any classic rock sound you need.
Early models made in Japan now command high prices from collectors and players alike, the amount of these affordable orange boxes around is staggering.
BOSS themselves take pride in their pedals and the DS-1 is no exception, having witnessed someone try and destroy one on YouTube, it’s apparent that these and all BOSS units can withstand absolutely anything, even a car driving over it, so I’m fairly confident that your foot will be no match for it.
If you’re still unsure about one, BOSS will offer you a free “5-year guarantee” on a new one, I’d be amazed if anyone has ever taken them up on that offer and broken one.
2. MXR Distortion III
The MXR Distortion III is the successor and more modern equipped version of MXR’s rival to the DS-1. Originally named the MXR Distortion +, the MXR unit is very similar to the layout of the DS-1 with a completely different tone.
MXR started to manufacture these units in 1979, having had success with the Phase 90 pedal that was famously used by Eddie Van Halen, this humble box started to appear at the feet of Jerry Garcia, Dave Murray and Randy Rhoads. Adding a larger amount of gain than the DS-1, this pedal became a hit with many heavy metal players.
MXR continues to manufacture the Distortion III pedal and it is still a popular pedal. MXR were later acquired by Jim Dunlop manufacturing and the MXR line is still being developed and iconic pedals are still being made to this day.
The Distortion III pedal is a great alternative for players seeking a heavier tone than the DS-1.
3. BOSS MD-2 Mega Distortion
The MD-2 Mega Distortion is the equivalent to a DS-1 on steroids, adding yet more gain to the circuit, this pedal can go from normal distorted tones and beyond. It was introduced into the BOSS line up in the mid-1980s and has been there ever since.
Adding a two-band EQ into the controls and a gain boost (for even more distortion) the pedal can scream when pushed allowing the player to experience massive low end and bucket loads of gain should the mood take you.
Again, BOSS offers a lengthy warranty on this pedal too…not that you’d need it.
To hear this pedal in all its sonic glory, tune into Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro or some of Johnny Hiland’s early work. They are both big fans of the tones within…it would appear that many fans of their work are too, unknowingly.
4. Laney Black Country Monolith Distortion
Another interesting distortion pedal, this was designed with the high priests of downer rock in mind, if you’re unsure of who that is, it is Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi was one of the first endorsees of Laney amplification, so it is fitting that they have condensed Iommi’s monolithic tone into a pedalboard-friendly box. The unit has boatloads of gain on tap and will send all that try it into the void (so to type)
Showcasing four controls, drive, volume, range and tone, this pedal allows you to tune into a mild distortion to pure Iron Man-like tones with minimal adjustment. The toggle switches allow the user to have three different voicings of distortion which are all adjustable with the controls.
This type of pedal is a great addition to any board and technically speaking is a multi-effects unit that can tackle most styles of music.
A very neat touch is the control knobs being modelled after Iommi’s now-famous Laney Klipp amplifier knobs.
Is it distortion, overdrive or fuzz?
The age-old question…as I mentioned previously in this blog, the differences can be separated as below:
Overdrive: BOSS OD-3, Ibanez TS-9, BOSS BD-2.
Think Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Police, The Eagles, Rory Gallagher, Brian May.
Distortion: BOSS DS-1, MXR Distortion III, BOSS MD-2.
Think Nirvana, ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Van Halen.
Think Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Smashing Pumpkins.
Getting your bearings
The term “distortion” spreads as far as heavy metal as manufacturers began to add more and more gain to aid guitarists that wanted the heaviest sound possible. These circuits are expanded versions of the DS-1 or MXR units from years gone by but with more gain added and better EQ’s to manage the overall sound.
Nearly 90% of amplifiers available today will have a distortion effect built-in, many players like to add their own pedal into the mix for various reasons, more gain, less gain, better EQ and so on.
Some players find that the amplifier’s distortion can sometimes be lacklustre, in this event, adding an overdrive onto an already dirty-ish amplifier can yield the best results.
This is known as “Drive-Stacking“.
Two overdrives usually equate to a slightly hotter distortion, this was the case with Stevie Ray Vaughan as he would run a driven Fender or Marshall setup with an Ibanez TS-9 and achieve a sound that many Stratocaster players dream about.
Guitars enter the equation
Another factor to consider when choosing a distortion pedal is, what guitar are you plugging into the pedal? For example, an average single-coil guitar such as a Strat or Tele will not produce as much gain as the pedal that you’re looking at can produce.
However, using a humbucker-equipped guitar will. A Les Paul or an SG will have its own driven signal into the pedal and therefore produce a louder, thicker and more sustained sound than that of a single-coil guitar.
A plethora of options available
Many manufacturers will lure you in with promises of the sound in your head and the future is bright for guitarists these days with BOSS, JHS, Fulltone. and countless other brands offer a multitude of distortion pedals.
BOSS has started to make multi-effects which have incredible amounts of different distortions such as the BOSS OD-200 Hybrid Drive which allows the player to tune in their own distortion and program EQ. It also has numerous voices ranging from mild driven sounds through to scorching metal tones.
The pedal also features a memory function allowing you to customise the pedal however you see fit. Size-wise, this pedal will fit nicely onto most pedalboards and allow you the freedom to create your own distortions amongst any other effects pedals you use.
Pedal chain placement
Most distortion pedals will react very differently to where they are placed in a signal chain, this is something that you will need to experiment with in order to get the best possible tone from your pedal. This is worth bearing in mind when trying a new distortion.
Many pedal manufacturers have started to venture into the world of digital distortions which react with the player’s technique. As I mentioned earlier, the future is bright for those willing to explore the marriage of technology with guitar tones.
When it comes to distortion, many players have a sound that they love, being able to find it is the hardest part of any gear purchase.
The best advice?
Find the sound you like, dig up as much as you can on the gear used and find your own route.
Be sure to compare guitars and amps used and work out if there’s anything else that will give you the sound you want. It’s also a wise move to bring other pedals and your own guitar to a try with the pedal you’re looking at.
If you can’t get the right amount of gain, you’re dreaming of, then it would seem you may need to venture into the dark yet rewarding world of fuzz pedals.
Get down to your nearest Dawsons Music store, try out a bunch of distortion pedals and pull the trigger on the one that gives you a distortion that allows you to carve holes in the sun.
If you fancy checking out our online offerings then head to Guitar Effects over at Dawsons online.
Sam Orr has an unhealthy interest in all things guitar-related. He began playing guitar at age 5 and has never stopped. Publishing his first book in 2009 on the Fender Stratocaster, Sam continues to write for Univibes The International Jimi Hendrix Magazine. He also plays guitar in a band named 1968 and has toured various parts of the globe. His encyclopaedic knowledge of guitars, effects and amplifiers is second to none.