Distortion is probably the area of guitar tone I have most fun with - all manner of different high saturation sounds - mostly of the Marshall-esque variety, but right the way through the gears up to Heavy Metal, Djent and Extreme too - of course in the most musical way possible. Sometimes grindingly crunchy sound is just the mood-enhancer you need. And there are few things that are as satisfying as heavy riffing with saturated distortion.
To those ends, this is an area I like to commit significant resources too. In my 12 degrees of saturation article - each of my pedals in the chain is dialled in progressively heavier - on the Distortion-side I kind of start with a lighter ’Brown Sound’ on the Stymon Riverside, then a heavier Brown on the Super Crunch, then light Plexi on the Empress Multidrive, and heavier Plexi on the SL Drive - the Strymon Sunset kind of runs in parallel with a couple of highly saturated parallel voicings; then onto the Friedman BE-OD for a kind of Heavy Medal - a little more Saturated on the left Channel of the Empress Heavy, and then low mid boosted - heavier Right Heavy Channel until up to the extreme / Djent voicing of the Diezel VH4. The Diezel pedal featured in the picture is the new Dual-Channel version which is due into UK distribution in September - in any case I loooooove my Distortion tones and am really happy with what I’ve got already got. I did have the Wampler Dracarys in the Empress Heavy’s slot, but I’m sticking with the Heavy currently as it gives me slightly more rounded saturation - along with 2 separate voicing options. Of the pedals I already have I guess I could add the Mini Disnortion back into the chain again, but I recall that I wasn’t using it that much - however flexible it is - the Strymon Sunset kind of took over its role somewhat.
All pedals listed here are either those I already have in my chain, or intend to acquire at some stage im the future. I love Eddy Van Halen’s brown sound and currently have 2 active pedals I use for variations fo that - I only relatively recently acquired the Super Crunch Box V2 - which bumped out the really decent Mad Professor 1 - the Super Crunch gives me lots more voicing options and added tweakability, and does put out a slightly more saturated and richer tone than the incumbent. Most people rate the EVH 5150 (obviously) and Wampler’s Pinnacle Deluxe as the best representations of the Van Halen sound - but the Riverside and Super Crunch are right up there too with a significantly smaller footprint.
Much like I love the idea of the EQD Erupter which I covered in my recent 18 Fuzz Pedals piece, I also really like the look and sound of the EQD amp-distortion equivalent - the Acapulco Gold. As I play the Mooer Blues Mood at quite a high saturation I thought the Acapulco might be a good alternative swap for that -although it could sit in higher slots too. When I acquired the Wampler Dracarys, I was also considering the Dr Scientist Elements (obviously in gold colourway!) as well as the Keeley Filaments. Both those sound awesome and would be decent additions to have as alternatives, so they are on the wishlist too.
Another pedal that has bobbed up and down around the upper echelons of the wishlist is the Fulltone Plimsoul - the brother of the OCD - with slightly more saturation and distortion potential - but every time that pedal neared the top of the list - it was bumped by a more pressing priority - it’s down as a nice to have currently, as is the JHS @ (Andy Timmons) signature pedal - which I have always liked the sound of but have not got around to acquiring yet either - you have to make decisions and compromises obviously - unless you’re Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.
Finally, even though the current single-Channel Diezel VH4 is my extreme pedal of choice - it is not quite as heavy as you can go, while the Mind Abuse - from Turkish pedal-maker Rock Fabrik can go just that little bit more extreme - but musically so. This has 3 earth-shaking voicings - Classic, Vintage and Modern - all of which have quite unique tone profiles and a huge amount of sculpting ability - so that’s on my list too.
So in this feature I have 9 of these pedals already and want the other 9 to varying degrees. Updating the Diezel VH4 to the VH4-2 is probably the first priority, then I would like to check out the Mind Abuse and probably either the Filaments or Elements 3rd - and then on down the list. All these pedals are capable of truly great saturated sound and I would recommend you check them all out. Your own preferences may lead you to preferring some of the voicings over the others - yet I like to pretty much have a pedal for every occasion - so that I can rapidly stomp in a wide variety of tones which match all my favourite rock sounds - from prog, through indy, hard rock, various flavours of heavy and onto extreme and Djent. I’m mindful that I could have listed a much larger number of pedals here - particularly in the higher saturation category - including others such as the MXR Fullbore, Okko Dominator, Goosnoiqueworx Kult, Wampler Triple Wreck, Amptweaker Tight Metal Pro etc. etc. I’ve ended up with quite a Marshall-esque skew instead, but since that is what I best love, and what is most widely available out there - pretty much every Pedal Maker of distortion pedals has their own version of the Marshall sound - so I think that’t perfectly representative and fair enough. I may do a further follow-up post later on with a more heavy focus - for now, I am perfectly happy with this selection - they are all excellent sounding pedals with fantastic range and versatility - I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these.
Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand, they range in price from £145 to £329.
The reason I like Diezel is all down to one man - long-time guitar hero of mine - Saga's Ian Crichton - who's amp of choice is the Diezel Herbert - he uses no pedals - just straight into the amp for gorgeous saturated sounds - as you can hear in my 10 guitar heroes piece. Diezel Amps are not only expensive, they are bulky and in Heads-only format, where I have a preference for combos - so a Diezel amp in pedal format was perfect for me. The original pedal has the tone profile of the much loved 3rd Channel from the VH4 amp, while the new VH4-2 covers both Channels 3 and 4 from that amp. Some people have had inconsistent results with this pedal, but for me it really works and sounds great - just right into the fronts of my 2 amps. I have a feeling though that even with the heavier 4th Channel present - that the Mind Abuse can go heavier still. There is another dual channel heavy pedal I have been considering for a while - which is the Goosoniqueworx Kult - yet for now I am definitely keeping the Diezel in the chain and adding the Mind Abuse most probably too. The Kult is also amazing and has a really quiet noise floor - which totally recommends itself. For now though my mind is set on the Diezel VH4-2 and then the Mind Abuse - which together make quite a significant investment.
When I plumped for the Wampler Dracarys it was touch and go between that, this Elements one and the Keeley Filaments - all pedals are exceptional, and on a different day I might have assigned a slightly different priority and got this one instead. It is most similar in set up to the Keeley Filaments with almost exactly the same number of dials and toggle switches - just slightly different layout and emphasis. The idea behind both of them is similar and differs form the Dracarys in that respect. Brian Wampler made the Dracarys very specifically to be an Ola Englund chug-alike / Djent-alike pedal. While the Elements and Filaments pedals are set up to have considerably more wide-ranging distortion / saturation profiles - The Elements in particular. For that the dials are Gain, Volume, Mix, Bass, Mid, Treble with the switches being Gain, Clip, Bass Cut, and Mid Freq - mostly with 3-positions available. There is some really clever routing that goes on inside the pedal - check the Mike Hermans video above for the best demo of this amazing pedal - one of the few Dr Scientist pedals which is still quite widely available in the UK - I've had to order the others from Canada via Reverb.com. This is a fantastic distortion pedal and well worth having. It comes in various enclosure colourways and prints - the current is a midnight blue forest-lined sky, but I have a preference for the Gold Bar version - I really want one of those!
So this one seems to be a suitable foil for the Strymon Riverside as they both purportedly do similar things - multi-stage amp-like distortion - with the Acapulco featuring just a single large dial versus the Sttymon's multiple fine-tune controls. And while the Strymon has a qualified 4 seamless gain-stages driven through a JFET transistor, EarthQuaker are a little more secretive about their inner workings. As stated in the intro, I fancied this as an alternative swappable pedal for the more saturated Blue Mood pedal voicings, but I am thinking it can also double-up for some of the Riverside's uses, albeit not the Brown-sound as there is no mid-scoop option on the Acapulco Gold - it does sound quite glorious though and is really quite versatile considering it only has one dial. This is on the wishlist, not sure what priority currently though - if I espy one at a suitable price I may acquire it all the sooner.
I so liked the Empress Multidrive (below) that I soon acquired the Heavy too - available at a very reasonable sale price from Andertons. This gives you an even deeper and richer saturation than the Multidrive - but is a 2-Channel either/or pedal rather than a layering one like its forebear. There's something about the Empress voicings I really love, and both these Empress pedals are essential parts of my chain now. Both come very highly recommended from me. The Empress Heavy is not as brutal as the Diezel or the Mind Abuse - but sort of matches what the Friedman BE-OD can do and adds some more on top. Both the Empress Multidrive and Heavy are just beautifully elegant smart pedals - I think I would still like them even if they did not sound quite as good as they do - they are really versatile and very easy to dial in too.
This was acquired relatively recently as a pretty mint second-hand example - just came across it by chance on Reverb.com at a good price - I wasn't really actively seeking one, but just by fortuitous accident it found me! It has two banks of 3 internal dip switches which allow you to select your own mix of Fuzz | Overdrive | Distortion for the two available Channels. It's not the kind of pedal that memorises all the controls so it's really about layering - as each of the voicings can be combined in parallel. In my instance I use the Fuzz voicing as a texturizer to add richness and body to both my Overdrive and Distortion voicings - so my 2 dip-switched Channel Selections are Fuzz + Overdrive and Fuzz + Distortion. There are serious amounts of tone-sculpting abilities here, although I would have preferred it to be of the variety that you can combine all voicings, and simply memorise that on the Channel Switch - like a number of smart pedals already do. Here the Fuzz settings need to remain the same when switching between Channels - which means some very careful tuning in of dials is required to ensure that you get a usable Fuzz tone for both mixes - versus the other route where you would be able to select separate levels for all voicings per Channel. Obviously there are pros and cons for each approach, and it took me a few attempts, but I now have a lovely relatively subtle Overdrive tone with an elegant Fuzz edge - and a beautifully Marshall-esque high saturated tone for my Distortion - with just the right amount of body. In both cases the Fuzz colours the tone nicely to give a distinct voicing. This is an amazing versatile pedal and so simple to dial in the individual values - if it managed to add a third footswitch and presets - it would absolutely be the definitive Swiss-Army-Knife of dirt pedals, as it is - it is still plenty amazing and sounds fabulous.
David Friedman made his reputation on customising and modding Marshall amps, so his own amps are obviously his own flavour of a beefed-up Plexi sound - ably demonstrated by the Brown Eye Amp, and the pedal that takes its name. You get a really saturated rich tone here with plenty of bottom-end. No mid-frequency controls so no good for the actual Brown Sound - but on high saturation a really pleasing modern-ish heavy metal sound - more in the prog spectrum than death, thrash or djent though. Another essential heavy distortion pedal for me - perfect for heavy rock, and the lighter to middle end of modern metal. Lots of players love this one. It has a really neat 'Tight' dial too for help with dialling in those modern sounds.
This is a pedal I've been wanting to add for a while now as a swappable alternative for its sibling pedal - the OCD. This has a slightly different tone profile and slightly more saturation on tap. I still think the OCD will remain favourite - but it's nice to be able to switch things every now and again for variety and just to keep you sharp and your ears in the game. I like to try to keep things fresh and always be open to new possibilities, which is a big part of a the never ending mission that is the ToneQuest. Tyler Larson gives the Plimsoul a quick spin above to demonstrate what kind of tones this pedal can generate. This has been on my wishlist for a while, but keeps getting bumped for whatever reason - I will still get one eventually, I just have a number of others that I might want to acquire first.
Andy Timmons' signature JHS pedal is a modified version of their Angry Charlie distortion. The dials are mostly self-explanatory - for EQ read tone - i.e. the usual sweep from low to high, while Air targets only the higher frequencies - I guess something along the lines of a Presence dial. In any case the secret sauce here is the 3-mode voicing toggle which gives you sort of different saturation tones - with the up position being 25 watts, middle is 100 watts and bottom is 50 watts - each voicing gives you a slightly different headroom, saturation and compression profile - with the 25 watt mode the most affected / distorted and the 100 watt mode the most open. This is another pedal I have long had in my sights, the last pedal that bumped it down the priority order was the Super Crunch Box V2 which is quite a bit more versatile, although I still will want this one at some stage - everyone agrees it sounds great!
Like I mentioned above, it was a toss up between the Dracarys, The Elements and this one - I don't know if it was the Game of Thrones influence on me or the fact that I could not decide between this one and the at least superficially very similar Dr Scientist The Elements - which pushed me towards the somewhat simpler and more singular Dracarys. Dials here are Level | Presence | Gain | Bass | Body | Treble with 3 toggles - Boost | Bright | Crunch. Watch Mike Hermans's very thematic demo above to get a pretty great understanding of what the Filaments is capable of. I still plan to get this one at some stage - another great sounding distortion.
This is my most recent distortion pedal acquisition - the perfect pedal for really richly saturated Marshall-type tones, and with its full range of controls - gives you a great Brown Sound - also has twin 3-mode voicing dials (Clip & Mode) for an amazing number of different tonal combinations - right throught the different types of Marshall saturation - different degrees of saturation, headroom / openness and compression - a wonderful pedal currently not available in the UK. In fact I believe I acquired it from the current only European stockist - Harr Guitars in The Netherlands. There's so much to tweak here that you might be initially overwrought a little - but it only took me a couple of attempts to get to a really decent crunchy saturated classic tone - which I have since switched uparound 3 or 4 times now before finally settling on a current preference - that may well change though the next time I feel like I want to experiment. The Crunch / Super Crunch Box has often been lauded as the very best Marshall in pedal format, and I believe this may be the best one yet - if you don't want all the options you can still buy the plain non-Super version, or one of the earlier-released models. I really love this acquisition and would recommend to all Marshall aficionados. As mentioned in the intro - it bumped out my still quite imprpessive Mad Professor 1 pedal - this one is though is even more crunchy and far more versatile - with more different flavours of headroom, compression and distoriton on tap than any comparable pedal at this size. I was also looking at the MXR EVH 5150 and the Wampler Pinnacle / Deluxe - and this one pipped both of those by dint of its neater form factor.
The generally held belief is that if you are a fan of the Eddy Van Halen 'Brown Sound' then the two very best pedals to help you achieve that Pushed Variac Marshall Plexi sound are this officially licensed mid-size offering or the slightly smaller Wampler Pinnacle Deluxe. The EVH 5150 has 5 big dials - Output | Bass | Mid | Treble | Gain plus a small Noise Gate dial, and separate mini Boost switch. For a single footswitch enclosure - methinks this is rather too large. The above Super Crunch Box V2 fits its 6 dials and 2 toggles very elegantly into a regular enclosure pedal. Admittedly it does not have a separate boost switch or an onboard gate. Yet versatility-wise and despite the slight difference in features, I would still say the Super Crunch Box is slightly more versatile. As a huge Eddy fan though - I still want this to contrast and compare with my existing ones - the Super Crunch though is definitely the more practical choice.
Before I was aware of the existence of the Disnortion Micro, I was keeping an eye out for an Emerson Pomeroy pedal - which seemed to do a similar thing in a larger enclosure, and with the addition of boost footswitch. The main similarity though being a 6-mode selector switch which gave you different clipping options and therefore multiple different voicings for the pedal. When I first saw the mini Disnortion I thought this was pretty much the Pomeroy within a neater mini enclosure. And although the Disnortion is billed as a kind of Fuzz, to me it's more of a Fuzz-accented distortion than any sort of Fuzz-Drive. I did not find a huge difference in tone between the different voicings - while the switching up between Series and Parallel modes was typically very significant though - much greater saturation. I am always chopping and changing my pedal chain, and with 33 pedals mostly with isolated power-supply, I have limited slots for sake of power requirements as well as floor-space. Upon recent review I have a mind to have a 34th kind of fast-change slot where I can quickly slot in and out new pedals I am trialling or older pedals that got bumped along the way and I want to give them another run. For whatever reason, I occasionally forget I still have this pedal - which is why it's important to include it here - as there is no mini distortion pedal anywhere near the versatility and capabilities of this one. You may find individual voicings you prefer, but not another one with 6 options, of which at least 3 are pretty decent. and the rest you kind of struggle to remember the difference! This is a really might mini pedal which goes well beyond its size restrictions.
This is the first Turkish pedal-maker I've come across, and it's lovely to see just how fully global the guitar effects manufacturing base has become. With its 3-mode voicing toggle - Classic | Vintage | Modern - I feel this will go even harder than the new 2-Channel Diezel VH4-2. It's a medium-large enclosure with full 3-band EQ plus Volume and Gain and those excellent quite distinctly different voicings. As I've said previously I like running up and down and through all the overdrive and distortion gears - from really mild barely there to full-on extreme beast-mode - it still has to be musical - and I feel I can dial this in appropriately. Brett Kingman puts in another fantastic performance on the demo video above - and it makes sense that he would do one as there is an Australian distributor for that pedal but nowhere else - meaning that you are bound to paying additional customs charges outside of Turkey and Australia - the info about shipping is also hazy at best - non-specified 'Shipment fee will be added to your card automatically' - unless and until that point gets further clarified I think I may have to wait for an EU distributor to take up the reigns - surely Thomann will be on the case soon?
When I first acquired this I ended up being a little disappointed as I kind of misunderstood its purpose and inherent benefits. I was thinking this was a kind of totally tuneable pedal that could replace several other distinct voicings which I already had and loved. Yet what this is is its own unique thing - as an effortless tube-amp-like natural multi-stage drive - with its own core sound and just different degrees of tones and saturation - while the pedal has its own voice and timbre. I also did not like that it would not go fully into dirty distortion artefacts mode. The reason is because of Strymon's secret sauce DSP tuning - which on this occasion they call 'infinite sweet spot' meaning no matter how much you crank it or ramp it up - EQ bands etc. the pedal will never sounds anything but musically sweet and always erring towards the smoother end of distortion. So it does not really work as a pedal to replace several others, but more as a distortion pedal with a huge range and its own sweet character - which does not go fully heavy metal or dirty nasty - but still has an incredibly extended range. It works really well for Brown Sound for instance - I run a slightly lighter but more bass-heavy flavour of that through this pedal, with a heavier version via the Super Crunch. The other thing I use the Riverside for is as a mild warm boost - just to give you the tiniest bit of audible gain with a slight addition of warmth too - works nicely as a pedal chain boost too, particularly when used in conjunction with a Strymon mini switch pedal which gives you a whole other level of clean volume boost for pedals upstream as well as downstream.
When the Sunset came out - this was much closer to what I expected the Riverside originally to be, but even though it possesses Texas (Tube Screamer) flavour etc it's still not one for replacing any of my existing pedals. I still use it in a similar way to Rabea in the above demo - layering up simultaneous 2 voicings for quite heavy saturation and distortion. You can dial down the gain here to use this pedal more within the Overdrive domain, but I tend to use both the Strymons for two quite distinct voicings of distortion. I tend to play more with the tonal possibilities of the Sunset - often setting up semi-independent voicings on each Channel which can be played independently as well as stacked. But more often I find myself just playing the Sunset with both voicings stacked all the time. It has a huge amount of flexibility and versatility - it's the more versatile for me of the two Strymon pedals and goes quite a bit more 'dirty' too. Both these pedals are very much different animals and are good for slightly different things. As with everything Strymon - they are a joy to set up and play through. The Sunset came out at a very similar time to the Chase Bliss Brothers - I have both now of course, but I was more in full-on Strymon mode back then, where I seem to have shifted more over to Chase Bliss recently - in that I have bumped all my big Strymon Effects boxes recently for Boss and Empress alternatives, meaning that weirdly the only Strymons in my current chain are the 2 drives, while I've gone from 0 to 4 Chase Bliss pedals in the same period - with the 5th and final one for a while due to be sourced in the next couple of months or so. I still of course love pretty much everything Strymon brings out, and I will be hanging on to all of them, as it's good to swap things around every now and again - to keep you sharp and your ears fresh. Several people ask whether you should get the Chase Bliss Brothers instead of the Sunset - both pedals have very strong support - for me they are slightly different things - and I use the Brothers one more for its Fuzz voicings - with the other voicings being uses as textural support - while the Sunset is more in the conventional Overdrive and Distortions camp - and hence the Brothers is listed under the Fuzz category. I love and rate both and would recommend you get both if you can - otherwise it depends whether or not you want the Fuzz to play a big part in your sound.
Brian's Ola Englund -inspired chugg/djent pedal - for that kind of modern metal percussive sounds you hear nowadays. Here synergistically demo'd / reviewed by Ola himself - nothing could be more apt. The pedal is actually slightly more versatile than shown specifically here - but the one thing it absolutely had to do it does very well - as straight from the horse's mouth. I still like this pedal a lot, but I rather quickly and unceremoniously swapped it out for the more versatile Empress Heavy - which does not do this exact chuggy thing quite so well, but is a lot better in other areas of heavy metal saturation. Even when you dial the Gain right down - it's still pretty heavy, but could probably qualify as moderately heavy rock rather than the full metal beast that it normally is. There were a few 'Tight' pedals out at the same time - in fact the earlier Empress Heavy pedal 'Weight' dial does this to a degree, and another pedal which is very much about the tightness of your distortion is Misha Mansoor's (Periphery) Horizon Precision Drive and of course Amptweaker's Tight Metal Pro - all are worthy of consideration.
I'm going to call this YAMP (Yet Another Marshall-esque Pedal), but one that is frequently cited as the perfect replica for Eddy Van Halen's tone - particularly in this Deluxe V2 variety. The hardcore Eddy fans both profess allegiance and admiration of both this and the EVH 5150 pedal. I still really like my Super Crunch and would not think to swap that out currently. In theory the Pinnacle Deluxe could bump my riverside as I mostly just use that for a Warm Boost and a lighter Brown Sound voicing - so that could be a possible scenario. Regardless of all that I am a huge Brian Wampler fan and would like to properly try out more of his classic pedals. This one is unlikely to get prioritised unless I can find a definitive home for it, and the priority rates it. If you are thinking of getting one of these pedals - you should listen to all the different ones recommended - decide how much space you want to sacrifice, and how much cash you are willing to spare - one thing the world is not short of is Marshall-esque distortion pedals. I believe I have assembled some of the very best here and mentioned a few more - you are welcome to suggest a few more still and extend the debate. This one definitely does what it's supposed to do - it's all just a matter of preference. And even though the Super Crunch will likely for now remain my pedal of choice in this category - I would love to have all 3 of the obvious ones together - to properly compare and contrast.
Based on one of the earliest Marshall Plexi Amps - the Super Lead - this mini pedal has long been a favourite of many a pro board. And while it does not give you quite as full-throated a crunchy Marshall sound as say the Super Crunch, it nevertheless gives you a lovely immediately identifiable Marshall tone with plenty of mids - which I still find lots of use for in my chain. I have the Alchemy Audio modded version of the pedal which externalises the 4 internal dip-switches to mini toggles which sit on the right side of the pedal, This means you have direct access to the 3 dials plus the 4 toggles to instantly sculpt your tone - the 2 first toggles progressively boost high/mid frequencies, the 3rd gives you a high/mid cut - not quite fully scooped though, while the 4th toggle gives you a +6dB boost. With just the #4 activated you get the classic 'Super Bass' voicing which I quite frequently deploy - and which is the mode active right now to give me a slight different Marshall voicing compared to my others. Way beyond its size though - this is a really versatile and great sounding Marshall-esque pedal, although there are pedals that will probably get you to an even more authentic tone up a size or two. I still really like this pedal though - when I started - I was placing pedals within specific categories and gauging them on how well they sounded like their equivalent classic inspirations or immediate associations, that does not bother me so much any more - I like all the core different voicings, but have my own preferences within those categories - some of which may sound closer to the originals, and others which don't really - we love to pigeon-hole everything as it's an easy point of reference, but it's not necessarily the be-all and end-all of your ToneQuest - all the guitarists I like have their own pretty unique tones - they shaped and pioneered their own sounds. They may have been inspired by this or that, but eventually evolved to their own thing - whether Brian May, Carlos Santana, Eddy, Jimi, Jimmy, Eric or Steve Stevens - all these guys have legendary tones - you get inspired by them, and try to forge your own direction and flavour, unless your only ambition is to play in a covers band.
As a quick summary I will reiterate that all those featured that I don't have yet are fairly high on my wishlist - I'm probably looking at the order of Diezel VH4-2. Mind Abuse, Elements, Filaments, Andy Timmons etc. etc. I would like to think all these are worthy of your consideration.