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Continuing with my affordable and useful pedal series, this time we’re talking about distortion pedals.
In my previous article I talked about what overdrive pedals do and how guitarists use them in their rigs. Distortion pedals fulfill a very similar purpose to overdrive, and on the surface, many of these pedals operate in the exact same manner as an overdrive.
But if you look at any guitarist’s pedalboard, you’ll likely find at least one overdrive AND at least one distortion on their board. Clearly they have different uses, and I’m here to explain some of those while giving you great gig-worthy options for your next dirt box.
Overdrive VS Distortion VS Fuzz
What exactly is the difference between all these types of pedals?
In simplest terms, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz all basically do the same thing to your guitar signal, in that it takes the initial signal and clips, or distorts the signal.
But they are all different in the type and how much clipping they add to the signal, as well as if there is any harmonic content added.
This is achieved by various op-amps and transistors in the pedal circuit. Generally, OD pedals use softer clipping and add pleasing harmonic content, DISTORTION uses more aggressive and harder clipping, and FUZZ uses almost complete square wave hard clipping.
When a distortion or overdrive is described as smooth, it usually has added more even-order harmonics to your signal, while odd-order harmonics add more edge and aggressiveness to your sound.
READ MORE: ODD VS EVEN HARMONIC DISTORTION. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
How your amp is involved
With any guitar pedal, you are most likely going to be running it into a guitar amp, or some sort of emulation of a guitar amplifier in your DAW, amp modeler, etc.
With overdrive pedals, you frequently want to use the pedal to help the amp achieve its own natural overdriven sound, especially if you are using a tube amp.
With distortion pedals, they are typically designed to be used with a clean signal, with you deriving most of the tone from the pedal, not the amp. That’s not to say you have to use a totally clean amp tone with a distortion pedal, it’s usually just a best practice.
With that introduction to how distortion pedals work, it’s important to note that there aren’t any “rules” about what a company calls it’s distortion/overdrive/fuzz pedals. There is a lot of overlap between these types of pedals, so it’s always best to listen to what they sound like instead of making a judgment based on it being called a “distortion” or a “fuzz.”
With that knowledge in mind, here’s a list of 7 awesome distortion pedals you can get for under $100 online.
7 Of The Best Distortion Pedals Under $100
The 7 best distortion pedals for under $100 are:
- Donner Morpher Distortion
- TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
- Boss DS-1
- ProCo Rat
- EHX Green Russian Big Muff Pi
- MXR Super Badass Distortion
- EQD Acapulco Distortion
Prices are going to vary slightly from store to store. I recommend checking out each store to grab the best price.
1. Donner Morpher Distortion
Inspired by the legendary high gain stack amps, while combining wide dynamic range, high definition and flexible onboard controls, the Morpher delivers you a huge modern high gain distortion sound suitable for both shredding and riffing.
- Great modern distortion tone
If you’re looking for an affordable distortion option that won’t eat up too much board real estate OR break the bank, check out the Morpher. It’s a clone of the Suhr Riot mini distortion, and features a great modern high gain distortion tone with a lot of options.
The pedal’s character is definitely smooth, almost closer to an overdrive, also invokes the same character as the high gain tones you can find in boutique Suhr amps. While it features a standard three-knob setup found on most distortion pedals, the Morpher also features a three-way toggle switch to adjust the flavor of the distortion.
The natural mode is the most Overdrive-like, the classic features a more mid-focused Marshall-esque tone, while the tight mode is great for a more modern tone.
2. TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion
Phenomenal distortion pedal with an extreme dynamic range gives you highly musical distortion covering a wide sound spectrum.
- Extremely versatile
- Great build
TC Electronic has gathered a reputation in the guitar industry for building high-quality effects that are both extremely versatile and don’t break the bank. I’m not sure how they always manage to cram such great features into their pedals and maintain such a great build and sound quality, but they especially hit it out of the park on the Dark Matter.
It is a super versatile distortion pedal that features both a treble and bass control for more detailed tone shaping, as well as a voice switch that changes the pedal’s bass response, which results in a more tight sound as you crank up the gain (which is perfect for metal or other high gain styles).
This pedal is also praised as being incredibly amp-like, so that you can still play with dynamics and the signal doesn’t become too compressed by the distortion.
Boss DS-1 Distortion
It’s hard to think that there are guitarists in this world that haven’t used or heard of the DS-1, but its reputation as every guitarist’s “first” pedal makes it impossible to ignore in this list.
As cliche as you might think the DS-1 is, this pedal is an absolute modern classic, with a simple design that has been virtually unchanged since its inception, along with its safety orange paint job that has graced countless stages the world over.
As for the sound, the DS-1 provides a great tight and aggressive distortion sound that turns a clean amp into a fire-breathing dragon and a dirty amp into an even bigger flamethrower.
While it’s definitely cheap to purchase brand new, you can also find it for even cheaper if you hunt used.
As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and with the number of these
4. ProCo Rat Distortion/Fuzz/Overdrive
The ProCo Rat is sort of an enigma of a guitar pedal, hence its official description is a “distortion, fuzz, and overdrive pedal all in one”.
The truth is, that it’s another classic dirt box that really sounds different depending on how you set it and what you use it with.
It’s known for giving your guitar a great edgy and bright sound that helps you cut through the mix. It is also one of the absolute sturdiest pedals known to man, with an entirely metal construction and military-grade epoxy on the circuit board.
The other interesting thing with the Rat’s design is that it features a filter control, not a tone control. As you turn the filter to the left from center it acts as a high-end boost, and as you turn it to the right it acts as a high cut.
This allows you to change the overall tone in a much different way than others. With the distortion set low this pedal can also act as a great overdrive pedal to push a tube amp into its natural distortion, with some extra flavor from the pedal.
Check out our review of the ProCo Rat 2 here!
Electro Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Pi
With that being said, all big muffs feature the “classic” three-knob layout associated with any distortion/fuzz box, with a couple of added variants for various models.
After a long wait of high prices on vintage models, the Green Russian big muff is a faithful recreation of the 90s army green Sovtek Big Muff Pi (EHX moved to Russia in the 90s and released many of their products under the name Sovtek, including some insanely good sounding amps).
The Green Russian has a much smoother and deeper tone than most of the “raspy” sounds of other big muffs, and has a bit less of a mid-scoop.
This makes this pedal work really well as a distortion for Rock, Alternative, and even some types of metal. It is also known as one of the main distortion pedals Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys uses, though he still uses vintage ones on his board.
Having owned one of the reissues, it’s an awesome high gain distortion pedal that still retains some of that ragged big muff texture while having a tighter overall distortion profile. It also works great as a distortion for bass guitar since it has a lot of low end.
MXR Super Badass Distortion
That’s a huge statement to make, but the Super Badass doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it claims to be. Big, bold, aggressive tone in a sturdy and versatile box that gives you the tight fire breathing tone needed to make your Marshall stack wail.
The Super Badass also gives you a full three-band EQ section so you can really tailor your tone to your liking and to match with whatever amp you are using.
The Super Badass is also super versatile, as its distortion range goes everywhere from classic 70s crunch and subtle overdrive all the way up to modern aggression. The Super Badass is also great as a boost/preamp pedal since it stays super clean with the distortion knob turned all the way down.
EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold
Ok so we said great distortion pedals for under $100, and this one is just slightly more than $100, but it’s a personal favorite and there was no way I couldn’t include it in the list.
The Acapulco gold differentiates from pretty much every other pedal on this list in its simplicity. Rather than having an array of teeny knobs for tweaking, the Acapulco features a single giant knob that only controls one thing: Gain.
The pedal is based on the sound of a cranked Sunn Model T amp, which is known among the rock and metal communities as having an insane and unique high gain tone.
But, those amps are both expensive and only sound good when you crank them, which means that they’re pretty unrealistic to use. The Acapulco Gold gets you those awesome high gain tones for a fraction of the price.
Even with the one knob you can go from subtle distortion and boost to fire breathing riffage, so this isn’t any one-trick pony. With that being said, the lack of an output control can be problematic, since your tone will get louder as you turn up the gain on the pedal.
You can remedy that by running this into another overdrive/EQ/preamp that has an output control though, or with the master volume on your amp if you’ve got it.