Among guitarists, distortion pedals may be one of the most controversial pieces of gear. While some think they destroy the sound of their amp, others swear by their use. One thing is for sure: a distortion pedal can become one of the most personal pieces in your setup.
Every good guitarist plays one of the top amp heads; the uniqueness of your sound comes from your choice of effects pedals. A distortion pedal can deliver high-gain tones your amp won’t allow, or complement your amplified sound, blending the two pieces of equipment into a truly personal tone. If nothing else, a distortion pedal can be a nice, low-cost backup for concerts when you experience backline problems.
The distortion pedal you choose will depend a lot on personal taste and the other equipment in your set-up, but there are a few distortion pedals on the market that unify the sound characteristics most desired in metal music. The 5 distortion pedals listed below will give you a gritty, aggressive sound and add versatility to your tone, can be easily adjusted, and are durable enough to withstand life on the road. They are the best metal distortion pedals on the market.
Jim Dunlop MXR M116 Fullbore Metal
This pedal is all metal, from the name to the look to—most importantly—the sound. Its outsides are made of raw metal. The aggressive distortion of this pedal will cut through your bandmates like a steel blade—metaphorically speaking, that is. A total of six knobs and two switches allow you to personalize your tone, and it includes a three-band parametric EQ and an optional gate. With a sweet price and endless reliability, this pedal is the go-to-option if you are searching for a high quality pedal for under a hundred dollars. This just might be the best metal distortion pedal if you’re on a budget.
Fulltone OCD Obsessive Compulsive Drive Pedal
Priced slightly higher than the previous pedal, the OCD offers you something a tad more uniqueness within the realms of metal gear. That may be because the OCD was not exclusively designed for metal guitarists but as a versatile drive pedal for any heavier style of playing. Three knobs and a simple high pass/low pass switch give you adequate adjustment options, and the tone that’s produced by this sturdy cream-colored box is heavenly. Whether you need a filthy crunch for that palm-muted intro, smooth overdrive to make your solo stand out or high-gain distortion to heat up the audience, the OCD will effortlessly deliver all of them.
If supreme quality is key, this may be your choice of the best distortion pedal for metal. Blackstar is one of the most traditional manufacturers of metal amps and cabinets, and their line of pedals has become nearly as legendary. The HT-METAL is the most aggressive one in the bunch. What it shares with the others is real tube-driven distortion, modelled after the best Blackstar amps. The tube glowing in the middle of the heavy pedal allows you to coax the sweetest high-gain tones out of it, without sounding harsh or digital. Two channels make it possible to switch between your two favorite Blackstar-inspired sounds with just one step, and a parametric EQ ensures that the pedal blends perfectly into your setup.
Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff
A contender for best metal distortion pedal for those who don’t want to spend a lot of dough is the Metal Muff from Electro-Harmonix. The extra layer of bite you get from activating the Top Boost pushes this pedal into beast mode, unleashing seriously powerful distortion. It’s not just about the fuzz, though; you also want control. The Metal Muff has a three-band EQ and a distortion knob to tailor the sound to your needs. Turn the distortion low for more subtle color or crank it up for heavy metal crunch. The sound stays focused even when you max the gain and doesn’t neglect the low end, either, giving you true metal tone throughout your range.
Behringer Ultra Metal UM300
Here’s another possibility for the best metal distortion pedal on a budget. The UM300 from Behringer gives you an extreme heavy metal style of distortion for right around $25. The thick, tube-style distortion you get out of this compact stompbox is especially impressive for the price. The interface is simple but gives you the basic controls you need to shape your sound, including a 3-band EQ along with distortion and level adjustments. It even offers features you won’t find on more expensive distortion pedals, like a midrange cut/boost of up to 15 dB for bulking up your tone. The exterior is designed for the gigging musician, with LED indicators and a rugged casing.
The Right Tone – The Holy Grail of Pedal Selection
There are a lot of good distortion pedals on the market; the key is finding the right one to complement the rest of your gear and give your tone a unique edge. Unless you’re on a budget, price should be the least important factor in your decision. True quality and awesome sound can be found at all price levels. Don’t dismiss pedals under a hundred dollars on the assumption they’re not as good, and—if you have the money—don’t assume a pedal over the two hundred dollar mark is over-priced. As was said above, it’s all about finding the right pedal for your personal sound.
Most pedals will rely on transistors to create the distortion, a cheaper technology that may deliver less consistent results. Most low-budget pedals feature low-quality transistors, which is why you will want to make sure your pedal uses reliable technology. Generally, transistor-based pedals offer a great selection of gear in the budget and medium price range.
Transistor-based pedals offer a nice contrast to your tube-driven amp, enriching your sound with that sharp metal tone that is so highly desired but that only a few tube-driven amps can produce. If what you are looking for is the full warmth and filth only tubes can provide, there is no way around a genuine tube-driven pedal, such as the Blackstar HT-METAL (see full specs) mentioned above.
After Purchase – Get Your Pedal Ready to Go
Once you’ve made your purchase and the mailman brought you an early Christmas with the package, you and your pedal will spend precious hours together to find your tone. It is a good idea to get a sheet layout of the pedal’s potentiometers and switches so you can keep track of the exact setup for your favorite sounds.
Likewise, having your camera at your fingertips while trying new stuff can be a good option to never lose a great tone you may have found. Make sure you also note the settings of your amp or you may not be able to reproduce the exact sound. It can take several hours of playing and experimenting to find that one sound you are most satisfied with on a daily basis.
Remember the average pedal will only give you two sound options once you’re on stage, so spend the time in the practice room getting to know your new pedal. It will reward you in the end with the perfect edge your sound has been needing—which, in the end, is what finding the best metal distortion pedal is all about. Good luck!