Distortion is potentially one of the most beautiful and brutal effects in audio. When it comes to guitar and bass, a dedicated distortion pedal will open the sonic world up to new possibilities in tone.
In this article, we’ll discuss the top 11 best distortion pedals in the world. More specifically, we’ll focus on the 7 best distortion pedals for guitar and the 4 best distortion pedals for bass guitar.
The top 7 best distortion pedals for guitar are:
- Boss DS-1
- MXR M75 Super Badass
- Pro Co Rat 2
- Wampler Sovereign
- KHDK Dark Blood
- Fender Pugilist
- DOD Gunslinger
The top 4 best distortion pedals for bass guitar are:
- MXR M85 Bass Distortion
- Source Audio Aftershock
- Tech 21 Red Ripper
- Source Audio Soundblox 2 Multiwave Bass Distortion
There are plenty of choices on the market when it comes to distortion pedals, which is a good thing.
However, with so many options, a subjective list like this becomes more difficult. The “best” pedals in the article may not be the “best” pedals in the opinions of other people. That being said, these 11 pedals are definitely among the best and deserve a mention!
Let’s discuss each pedal on this list and the reasons why they are the best.
What Are Distortion Pedals & How Do They Work?
Distortion pedals are awesome for those of us interested in heavier genres of music.
Technically, distortion refers to any change in an output waveform when compared to the input waveform (other than amplitude changes). With that definition, pretty much any effect will cause “distortion”. However, that’s not what we’re after with distortion pedals.
Distortion, in terms of guitar pedals, has to do with hard clipping of the signal, in which the waveform is more significantly deformed. Distortion yields a great deal of saturation to the signal’s harmonics and sounds more aggressive than overdrive. Distortion affects the signal across all dynamics.
Distortion pedals are less dynamic than their overdrive counterparts. With a distortion pedal, the signal gets distorted regardless of its dynamics (whether it’s “quiet” or “loud”).
Distortion pedals give us that grittiness without having to crank our amps up to eleven.
A distortion pedal will typically always work best when placed before any modulation or time-based effects. This means that distortion pedals are typically put near the front of the pedalboard signal chain.
Related article: How To Order Guitar/Bass Pedals (Ultimate Signal Flow Guide)
With that being said, let’s talk about some distortion pedals!
For a more in-depth article on distortion pedals, check out my article Guitar Pedals: Boost Vs. Overdrive Vs. Distortion Vs. Fuzz.
Let’s begin with the famous Boss DS-1 (link to check the price on Amazon). This pedal is so popular simply because it sounds that good.
The Boss DS-1 has been a go-to distortion pedal since its introduction in 1978. This analog pedal provides a superior distortion for guitar and keyboard that is capable of reproducing the nuances of playing dynamics while simultaneously giving us a hard distortion.
The pedal is super straightforward with 3 knobs:
- Tone knob: adjusts the EQ of the distortion.
- Dist knob: adjusts the amount of distortion.
- Level knob: controls the output volume of the pedal.
Set the controls and tailor your own top-notch distortion with the Boss DS-1!
The DS-1, like all Boss pedals, has buffered bypass to help maintain signal clarity and strength even when the pedal is “off”.
Boss is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
MXR M75 Super Badass
Second on this list is the MXR M75 Super Badass (link to check the price on Amazon). How could a distortion pedal with that name not be great?
MXR’s Super Badass offers a highly responsive full-spectrum distortion with a tone-shaping 3-band EQ.
This 100% analog distortion pedal can get us from early ’70s low-gain overdrive to modern “scooped” metal distortion and each style of distortion in between.
Adjust the amount of distortion with the Distortion knob; EQ the tone to your liking with Bass, Mid and Treble controls, and adjust the Output level to an appropriate level for what comes next in the line.
The pedal featured true bypass switching to keep the signal uncoloured while the effect is turned off. Like all MXR pedal, it’s built into a sturdy housing with high-quality components.
MXR is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Pro Co Rat 2
The Pro Co Rat 2 (link to check the price on Amazon) is another wildly popular pedal that has made a name for itself as one of the best distortion pedals to ever exist.
The Pro Co Rat 2 is a hugely popular distortion pedal and for good reason. It’s regarded as a standard distortion sound and has been heard on countless records since its introduction in 1988 as the successor to the 1978 Rat original.
Though this all-analog pedal only has 3 knobs, it’s wonderfully versatile. It works incredibly well as a primary distortion but also excels as a dirty channel or even a simple boost.
Adjust the Filter control to tame high-end brightness and to help the instrument shine through the mix. Dial in the Distortion control to get everything from a mild overdrive to a full out fuzz. The Volume control allows us to adjust the output level to the desired amount of boost relative to the bypassed signal.
The Wampler Sovereign (link to check the price on Amazon) is relatively new compared to the previously mentioned pedals but this pedal has already made a name for itself as one of the greats.
The Sovereign is yet another versatile distortion pedal deserving of a spot on this list. This pedal has two gain stages along with awesome tone control that allows users to obtain everything from classic overdrive to modern distortion in a single unit.
Let’s start discussing the great versatility of this pedal with the gain stages, selectable via the two toggle switches.
The first toggle offers us a Modern mode and a Vintage mode. While Vintage mode gives more organic and classic rock distortion the Modern mode brings more aggression and forwardness to the tone.
The second toggle switches between Boost mode and Gain mode. Gain mode gives us a great range of chunky and crunchy distortion. Boost offers even more power to the distorted signal.
Adjust the EQ and overall tone of the pedal with the Mid Contour and Tone knobs and you’ll surely find a distortion effect that suits your style and musical needs. Set the Volume to an appropriate level and be on your way to some of the best distortion tones ever!
Wampler Effects is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Boutique Guitar/Bass Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
KHDK Dark Blood
The KHDK Dark Blood (link to check the price on Amazon) has a name suitable for a great distortion pedal. The grit we can get out of this pedal proves that we can judge a pedal by its cover.
The Dark Blood distortion pedal from KHDK offers an awesome tube-like mid-heavy distortion with high gain. It’s designed to sound distinctly like a distorted tube amplifier.
The Dark Blood circuit combines solid states and MOSFET technology to achieve its aggressive high gain sound and superb dynamics.
Let’s have a look at the controls:
- Gain knob: controls the gain of the circuit.
- Doom knob: controls the pre-distortion equalization which determines the amount of low-end grunt present in your tone.
- Volume knob: sets the output volume of the pedal.
- Treble knob: control is a passive, natural sounding low-pass filter
- Hi/Lo toggle switch: is tied directly into the gain.
- Lo setting offers a massive chunky overdrive, great for rhythm playing.
- Hi setting adds more saturation, sustain, low end and compression. This setting is recommended for soloing.
- Gate knob: controls the background noise of your tone.
Whether we’re after screeching leads with wild sustain or a more dynamic overdrive-like effect, the KHDK Dark Blood will get us there.
The Fender Pugilist (link to check the price on Amazon) has become a go-to for guitarists everywhere.
The Pugilist is a flexible distortion pedal with awesome tone. It’s an original build with two independent gain circuits, each with its own independent controls.
The versatility of this pedal allows for its use with pretty much any guitar setup. It ever sounds great on other instruments.
Run the two gain engines in series to stack them together or in parallel, blending them together. The versatility of this setup allows for uber-customizable distortion tones that will suit any and all of your needs.
Need more bass? engage the bass boost toggle switch to improve low-end. Set the output level appropriately and have yourself one of the best distortion tones around!
Fender is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
When it comes to grit, the DOD Gunslinger (link to check the price on Amazon) distortion pedal has you covered.
The DOD Gunslinger is a MOSFET distortion pedal with incredible touch sensitivity, string-separation and saturation. From crunchy power chords to high-gain sustaining lead work, the Gunslinger will give you amazing distortion.
The pedal is very straightforward with a single gain control and a 2-band EQ (Low and High knob controls).
The pedal is built to last on the road and the true bypass circuit keeps your tone clean when the pedal is off.
With a circuit that clips gradually, the DOD Gunslinger emulates the harmonic saturation and distortion of the preamp tunes of a real guitar amplifier. Adjust the gain to give yourself a more dynamic overdrive-like effect or a full-blown distorted output.
DigiTech, which owns DOD, is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
MXR M85 Bass Distortion
The MXR M85 Bass Distortion (link to check the price on Amazon) kicks things off in the top 4 bass distortion pedals.
The MXR Bass Distortion pedal gets pretty nasty with its distortion tone.
The independent Dry and Wet controls allow us to dial in the amount of distortion at the output while maintaining a tight, clean low-end. This is a major design feature for bass distortion pedals to have and MXR nails it with their Bass Distortion pedal.
This modern pedal has a Tone control to low-pass the distorted signal and a Distortion control to set the intensity of the effect.
Switch between the pedal’s two distortion modes with the small push button.
The Silicon setting engages silicon clipping diodes for an aggressive, biting sound and a bit of compression. The LED setting uses LED diodes for a more wide open sound and a nice gain bump.
The MXR Bass Distortion sounds amazing in pretty much all settings, making it one of the best units around. Dial it in for your very own bass distortion!
Source Audio Aftershock
The Source Audio Aftershock (link to check the price on Amazon) is a spectacular choice when it comes to distorting your bass guitar signal.
Source Audio’s Aftershock is a stereo bass distortion pedal with three different distortion engines to choose from, giving us plenty of options when choosing the best distortion for our bass guitar.
The 3 engines are selectable via the toggle switch. They are:
- Tube: offers an overdriven amp distortion sound with a smooth texture.
- Heavy: creates a hybrid sound somewhere between the big-bottom Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi and gritty Way Huge Swollen Pickle.
- Fuzz: A wild, digital sounding fuzz held back by a sensitive noise gate. Similar to a ZVex Woolly Mammoth.
Note that the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Fuzz Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
Each of the modes can be further refined via 4 simple knobs controlling the amount of drive and the tone/EQ of the distortion; the amount of direct/clean signal at the output, and the overall level of the output with the clean and distorted signal.
As previously discussed, it’s good to have a direct output control to keep the low-end of the bass guitar signal intact.
In addition to that, the pedal can hold 3 presets in its internal memory. It can be switched between buffered bypass and true bypass modes and can even be controlled via an external expression pedal, MIDI controller or Hot Hand (Source Audio’s proprietary ring that controls parameters based on hand movement).
But that’s just the surface of the AfterShock. This pedal is part of Source Audio’s One Series and so it’s compatible with the company’s Neuro Desktop Editor and Mobile App.
Other notable One Series pedals include:
- Ventris Dual Reverb (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 13 Best Reverb Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
- Nemesis Delay (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 13 Best Delay Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
- Lunar Phaser (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Phaser Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
- Mercury Flanger (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Flanger Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
- Vertigo Tremolo (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Tremolo Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
- C4 Synth (featured in My New Microphone’s Top 10 Best Synth Pedals For Guitar & Bass).
Connect the pedal to Neuro and access extended equalization capabilities, stereo routing options, and additional distortion algorithms. The dual-drive platforms allow for the simultaneous running of two fuzz tones in parallel, stacked, or split in stereo.
With MIDI, we can save and recall up to 128 presets and control everything we’ve discussed with greater ease and precision.
The Source Audio AfterShock is a step beyond most distortion pedals. If you’re into pedals with superior functionality and incredible sonic performance, the AfterShock could be the bass distortion for you! Note that the pedal also sounds awesome on regular guitar, too.
Source Audio is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Tech 21 Red Ripper
When it comes to bass distortion, the Tech 21 Red Ripper (link to check the price on Amazon) is hard to beat.
The Red Ripper is an all-analog bass distortion pedal that features aggressive tones and vintage filter-style effects. It’s got plenty of control, allowing bassists to dial it in to get legendary distortion tones.
This pedal responds incredibly well to playing dynamics much like the best overdrives in the world. Its distortion circuit is capable of numerous tones, controllable via the R.I.P. control, which can produce everything from vintage fuzz to modern distortion to octaver fuzz to synth-like tones and everything in between.
The Red Ripper is designed with a 3-band EQ, allowing us to shape the tone to fit our particular mix and genre. Find the sweet spot with Level and Drive controls once the R.I.P is set.
The buffered bypass circuit makes for silent switching and helps reduce any signal loss through larger pedalboards and longer cable runs.
So this pedal offers an incredibly wide range of distortion tones in an easy-to-use format. The Tech 21 Red Ripper sounds fantastic on bass guitar and definitely gets a spot on this list.
Source Audio SA141 Soundblox 2 Multiwave Bass Distortion
Last but not least is the pedal with the longest name: it’s the incredible Source Audio SA141 Soundblox 2 Multiwave Bass Distortion (link to check the price on Amazon). Unfortunately, this pedal has been discontinued, though there are still units available in the used market.
Not only is that name of this pedal complex but the pedal itself is incredibly functional with lots of control. The pedal is designed specifically for bass guitar and provides 23 modern and distinctive distortions along with a clean boost/EQ mode.
Each distortion type is further customizable via the 7-band equalizer, drive control, and separate mix knobs for clean and distorted signals.
This digital pedal uses state-of-the-art multi-band DSP for flawless audio quality. It features a 7-band graphic EQ for precise tone shaping.
To learn more about graphic EQ, check out my article The Complete Guide To Graphic Equalization/EQ.
With 6 presets accessible by 3 footswitches, the Soundblox 2 Multiwave Bass Distortion allows for both customization and speedy recall of user-defined distortion tones. Connect an expression pedal to seamlessly morph from one preset to another. A MIDI input allows external access to presets and parameters.
The pedal also works with the aforementioned Source Audio Hot Hand in order to control the effect according to hand movement.
So there’s quite a bit to this pedal. Let’s quickly run through its controls to help clarify anything we missed. Be sure to check out the manual for more information
- Clean Mix: adjusts the amount of clean signal in the final output mix.
- Distortion Mix: adjusts the amount of distorted signal in the final output mix.
- Drive: the amount of distortion gain applied to the signal.
- Tone: cuts or boosts the selected Tone Shape (Treble, Mid, or Bass).
- Effect knob: selects the type of distortion.
- Noise Gate: selects the noise gate threshold level.
- Tone Shape: selects the frequency range controlled by the Tone knob.
- Footswitches: enables/disables a preset depending on the selected footswitch. Press and hold to save an edited preset.
The Soundblox 2 Multiwave Bass Distortion is a fantastic unit. It’s insanely powerful and versatile and would make a great addition to any bassist’s rig.