5 Best Distortion Pedals For Metal 2019

Buyer's guide

Personal favorite

The sound you get with the Dracarys is nothing short of “metal god” status.  With gain, low, mid, and high controls, and a 2 mode switch (Open and Tight) you get a ton of tonal options packed in this dominating pedal.

Personal Favorite: Wampler Dracarys
Runner up: Boss MT-2w Metal Zone
Best Cheap Distortion: Behringer Ultra Metal
Best Distortion for Nu-metal: MXR Fullbore Metal

Metal Pedal Buyer's guide

A short history of distortion

Distortion came into the limelight back in the early 1950s when guitarist Willie Johnson recorded his parts for Howlin’ Wolf’s song How Many More Years. During the session, Johnson turned the volume of his ’49 Fender amp all the way up, something people we a bit afraid to do. Since amps weren’t intended to support that much drive, the signal overpowered the tube in the amp and the sound became…“fuzzy”.

You can listen to Willie Johnson’s performance here. Feel free to experience what is considered to be the first recorded power chord in music history!

This distorted sound was captivating and soon after the release of How Many More Years, musicians began doing all kinds of things to make their tone sound distorted. They would go so far as to cut and poke holes in the speakers of their amps.  This was not a good touring solution since you would have to have a distorted amp and a clean amp. We need a pedal! 

The first company to try to capture this sound in a pedal was Maestro with their Fuzz-tone pedal released in 1965.  You can hear the Fuzz-tone on the lead riff of satisfaction played by Keith Richards.

In the following years, there were a few more fuzzy pedals that came out, but the first pedal to coin the phrase “distortion” was the EHX Big Muff in 1969.  This pedal introduced more bass and sustain, and brought us one step closer to the heavy metal sound we love today.

That sound came alive in the late 70s when transistors and diodes, which produced soft clipping, were replaced with Op Amps for some hard clipping.  This new type of clipping fed the hunger for heavier and heavier sounds and three pedals came onto the market. In 1977 MXR released the Distortion plus, followed by the Boss DS-1 in 1978 and finally Marshall in amp form released the JCM 800 (JHS has a pedal that mimics the JCM 800).  Distortion was growing up, and people could not get enough.

Over the last 40 years, we have seen an explosion of great dirt pedals, more than you could shake a stick at, and a lot of them are great.  Below I list 5 of my favorites to get the job done.

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How does a Distortion Pedal Work?

Inside the pedal is a network of diodes, transistors, or opamps designed to boost and clip your signal. Clipping occurs when the amount of voltage fed into the circuit is more than the circuit can handle. The extra voltage is dumped off to ground giving you the desired signal clip without overloading your amp. 

Clipping waveformAs you can see in the picture the resulting waveform is chopped off on the top and the bottom. The more gain you add the more the signal is “clipped” off. That signal is then processed through the rest of your signal chain and eventually to your amp.

Distortion Vs Overdrive Vs Fuzz

Asking a bunch of different guitar player’s to describe the difference between overdrive, fuzz, and distortion and will get a bunch of different answers. I remember when I first started trying to lean about this stuff I was so confused. This is my understanding of the difference but feel free to say that I am wrong.

All three types of dirt can really be called distortion because the signal is no longer clean. But to seperate the three – In my mind:

Fuzz tends to be the most simple, not much bass and not a lot of tone shaping options. Fuzz sounds angry and crushed.

Over drive starts more subtle and slowly moves towards distortion. Overdrives tend to be smoother, rockish but not totally in your face. You will find more tone shaping options and various types of clipping.

Distortion is the heavest and most compressed of the three. It normally is in the hard clipped world and sounds agressive and well heavy.

All three have a somewhat similar sound and are often achieved in the same ways. In fact, the distorted sound that Willie Johnson got back in ’51 was created by an overdriven amp. Yeah I know it’s a confusing mess.

Since our discussion is focused on the best distortion for metal, we will steer clear of overdrive and fuzz in our recomendations.

Where does the Dirt go in the Signal Chain?

You are going to want to place overdrive, fuzz and dirt pedals between any modulation/expression effects (swell pedal, wah etc.) and the rest of your pedals. You want the signal of your guitar to hit these pedals hard so they break up and give you the hevey tone you are looking for.

Dialing In Your Metal Tone

When you’re in the market for a new distortion pedal what you’re really looking for is a change in your clean sound. Something to add more inspirado to your composition and jam sessions. More edge and brutality to your live performances.

So when you start playing around with new pedals, make sure to spend some time with them, strike that, a lot of time with them. Turn the knobs while playing to see what each one offers to your tone. Get a good feel for the pedal. There are pedals out there that have amazing sound once you dial them in. But if you plug and chug you might not be happy right away.

PRO TIP 1:
When you go looking for a new distortion pedal do your best to re-create your personal rig. It’s best to hear exactly what the pedal is going to do for you and your projects. If you’re at a bigger guitar store, explain to the salesperson what you’re trying to do. Then find your guitar and amp models. I’ve been known to bring my own guitar with me. If this isn’t a possibility, do your best to get as close as you can.

PRO TIP 2:
You want to have your amp set to a warm, clean tone. This will allow you to hear exactly what each distortion pedal is offering you. Once you find your favorite pedal you’ll officially be on the hunt for your perfect tone. Let the chase begin!

Built-In Distortion Option

You could absolutely follow in the footsteps of Willie Johnson himself and start crankin’ to 11. So technically every tube amp has built-in distortion and some solid state amps. If that’s not your goal, have no fear. If you haven’t explored the front of your amplifier, now’s the time. Chances are high that you have distortion already, it may be labeled as Gain. Think of it as gaining the power of the metal!

For beginners, built-in gain is a great introduction to tone and distortion. Make sure you explore what sounds your personal amp can produce.

Wondering about amps with good distortion built right in; there are some great amps if you’re in the market for high budget items. For example:

Marshall JCM800

One channel. 3 eq bands. Pure power! The JCM800 was the first amp that Jim Marshall produced outside of corporate contract restrictions. It quickly became one of the most legendary amps in music. Used by many of the great players such as: Slash, Zakk Wylde, Scott Ian, Kerry King, and countless others have given a nod to this metal monster! It features a 3 band eq, master volume, and presence. A true legend.

PRO TIP:
A lot of amps have great built-in distortion. But bear in mind that most of your favorite rockers aren’t running only the amps distortion. It is but a piece of the entire sonic puzzle. Musicians mod their amps with different tubes as well. Something to keep in mind when exploring tonal changes from amps and pedals.

Noise suppression

With all high gain amps and pedals there is a very real possibility of noise.  Noise is introduced as the gain is increased.  Normally soft sounds like pick up hum, cable and speaker hiss is amplified to a sometimes unbearable level.  If this is a problem, you might want to consider a noise suppressor pedal like the MXR Smart Gate to shut down the noise when you are not playing.

A note about choices

Since there are so many pedals to choose from it is easy to get into the gear trap. You would think that more choices would equal more happiness, but the opposite is true. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to think that you made the wrong one. My suggestion to you is to limit your choices and make the best out of the choice you do make. Don’t spend your life second guessing your gear, in the past, dudes were poking holes in their speakers and loving it. Any pedal on the list below is more than capable of getting you a great tone, so rest easy.

Distortion Pedal for metal Round-up

Boss MT-2w Metal Zone

Pros

  • Sturdy
  • Low, Mid and High EQ
  • Buffered for long signal runs

Cons

  • Has a bad reputation
  • A little extra learning curve for dialing in tone

The original Boss MT-2 pedal has gotten a bad rap, but it is just an example of the dangers of not dialing in the tone. If you take your time you can find a world of great tones in that thing.  New for 2019 Boss has released the MT-2w with even more tone shaping controls for your metal needs.

The MT-2w features a 3 band EQ – lows, highs plus a parametric eq for the mid-range in Standard Mode and even more control with an all new custom mode. This gives the MT-2w a vast range of versatility for your playing style. I have jammed everything from AC/DC to Slipknot on this thing.

“Until you plug this into a good, clean, loud amplifier and really spend some time with it, you have been tricked. This is a great pedal and it does the job really well, it’s actually really versatile”
-Josh Scott JHS

Just take the time to dial it in!

Behringer Ultra Metal UM300 Heavy Metal Distortion

Pros

  • 3 band EQ
  • Extremely inexpensive

Cons

  • Not road worthy
  • Fragile

If you’re living in your van between gigs this might be your best option.

It’s small. It’s cheap. It’s pink? It’s Brutal!

Don’t let the look fool ya. Behringer combined two of their featured metal pedals and added more. Featuring 3 bands of EQ for top-notch versatility, the UM300 is a beast on a budget. The construction has been reported to be cheaply made with some experiencing breakage. Even so, this pedal is a great option for someone starting out with a smaller budget.

Considering the price tag, with the sound, this pedal is a must grab for anybody.

Wampler Dracarys

Pros

  • Great on a clean amp
  • Solid construction
  • Open/Tight for increased tonal options
  • Works with single coils

Cons

  • On the pricey side
  • Jacks on the top. Not my preference but some love it

The sound you get with the Dracarys is nothing short of “metal god” status.  With gain, low, mid, and high controls, and a 2 mode switch (Open and Tight) you get a ton of tonal options packed in this dominating pedal. Wampler also installed the in/out jacks into the top of the unit. This allows you for clean pedalboard setups and freer cable lines.

Some pedals work best when they are used to push an already dirty amp into even more overdrive.  This pedal can do that but it is even better in front of a clean amp.  This pedal will be a great choice if you have a solid state amp because it sounds great on its own.  No need to push a tube for that sweet saturation, its ll in the pedal.

Electro-harmonix Metal Muff

Pros

  • 3 band EQ
  • 6 points of tone control

Cons

  • Some people really hate this pedal
  • hard to dial in a usable tone
  • This is like a super MT-2

If you’re looking for driving rhythms with the ability to press your leads to extremes; the metal muff pedal may be what you’re looking for. 6 points of tone control include distortion, boost, and a 3 band eq. Two pedals control the bypass and the top boost. Stomping that boost brings up your high end and tightening up the lows. The boost is controlled with its own knob, allowing you to determine how much destruction you want to add.

Heavy, Death Metal distortion like nobody’s business! Give the Metal Muff a try.

MXR Fullbore Metal

Pros

  • Small rugged design
  • True bypass
  • Built in noise gate

Cons

  • Not very versatile
  • Can over power some amps
  • LED is super bright

Where is my Nu-Metal crew!? If the MXR Fullbore doesn’t have your attention, it should. This thing is tough! 3 band EQ with sweeping mid designed to give you great tone. It comes with an adjustable noise gate with true bypass. No more amp noise in those silent stop spots. Fullbore was made for tight, fast syncopation.

Final thoughts

Distortion is one of the most recognizable sounds in our time. It defined an instrument and changed the face of music forever. Rockers, metalheads, blues legends, country stars, and many other musicians benefit daily from this gritty alliance of man and sound. Proving once and for all the one thing that guitar players have always known: If it’s louder, it’s better!

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Article by:

Cody Walker

Cody Walker

Cody is a musician and content creator. He is a member of 3 national touring bands and is the owner of Soul Syphon Media, which assists musical artists and content creators.