24 of the Best Distortion Pedals - 2018 Compact Edition

Electric Guitar Guitar Ownership Guitar Pedals Effects Pedals Distortion Pedals + -
2018AfBlg24CompactDistortionPedals700-min2

The last time I did a piece on my ’best of’ distortion pedals some criticised me for my somewhat overwhelming Marshall-type bias. Of course it just happens that the Marshall amps were the first of the full-throated richly harmonic distortions, so it’s quite understandable that they left such a mark. Yet of course there are other notable amp-type distortion flavours which I love too, and so I’ve tried to mix it up a little more on this occasion. As detailed previously, and because of limits within pedal-chain real estate, I’ve decided to focus entirely on the compact / regular enclosure type. Within my chain I will continue to carry those existing larger size enclosure pedals I already have, and which are all excellent - you can refer to the original article for those. For here and now this is mostly about powerful yet quick and easy swap-outs which don’t take up too much space!

 

In terms of the overall makeup here - we have 10 Marshall-esque pedals, 2 x HiWatts, 1 x Treble-Boosted Vox, 1 x Treble-Boosted Laney, and then a number of less well defined ones. 7 of these contain full 3-band EQs, and 6 of these are fully high-gain distortion - with the majority listed being more all-rounders.

 

As my own pedal-chain currently stands, it will remain somewhat Marshall-heavy featuring no less than 6 Marshall-esque distortions - Boss Angry Driver, Empress Multidrive, Strymon Riverside, MI Audio Crunch Box, Xotic SL Drive and Friedman BE-OD. I have one Boosted Vox - the Bearfoot Emerald Green, 1 Organic and Amp-Like - Dr Scientist The Elements, One Dual-Drive - the Strymon Riverside, and 3 Heavy/Metal pedals - Empress Heavy, MI Audio Megalith Delta and Diezel VH4-2. Those give me all my primary distortion flavours, but most of those bases are loaded with additional swap-outs for more occasional use. There is so much to timbre, texture and harmonics with distortions that I would struggle to distil this all down to a single favourite distortion pedal - and my tastes really run pretty broad, and I like all of these for different reasons. Every pedal featured in this listing of 24 is either in my possession already, or on my wishlist - they are all personal favourites - I certainly don’t think you need all of them, and I feel I may never actually acquire every single one of these - times change and priorities with them, but I stand by every choice.

 

In terms of those I don’t yet have and which are high on my wishlist - probably right now I would say the Friedman Dirty Shirley and forthcoming Zvex Vertical Box of Rock - I can wait on the others. It is often a matter of waiting for a good deal to come around - you often get pretty pristine second-hand versions on Reverb.com at around £100 or less, those are typically worth a flutter.

 

Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand:

Amptweaker TightMetal Jr - £149

If you're looking for a proper Heavy Metal pedal in a compact enclosure there really is not that much choice available. All my heavier Metal pedals - the Empress Heavy, MI Audio Megalith Delta and Diezel VH4-2 are all in medium to large boxes. Most of the metal boxes seem to be somewhat larger - leaving you with 3 main compact contenders - this Amptweaker TightMetal Jr which combines the best of the FatMetal and TightMetal boxes with several voicing options, then we have the DOD Boneshaker - with full 3-band EQ stack and depth control, similar to the big Diezel, and finally the smaller MESA/Boogie Throttle Box which does not have the graphic EQ of it's biger brother - where I really prefer the proper full size pedal version there. If I really wanted a compact Metal pedal, I would most likely plump for the TightMetal Jr, though the DOD Boneshaker is £20 less dear if that's relevant - and the latter comes with 3-band EQ vs the different voicing switches on the TightMetal Jr.

Bogner Burnley Bubinga - £268

Another pedal introduced to me by That Pedal Show - this has an incredibly warm, buttery smooth and full-sounding distortion profile that is quite different to any other distortion pedal I've heard. It's incredibly harmonically rich too and has plenty of bite despite its smoothed out profile - achieved through using a custom Rupert Neve transformer. This pedal is currently a secondary backup to the Dr Scientist Elements, alongside the Skreddy Screwdriver Mini Deluxe. I selected the wooden Bubinga premium enclosure as I feel it so accurately reflects the warmth of the tone of the pedal - you can of course get the plain version for under £200.

Boss JB-2 Angry Driver - £179

Strangely I mostly use this in its solo Bluesdriver mode, but when combined with the JHS Angry Charlie circuit in parallel, you get the most fantastically harmonically rich distortion. The frequency profiles of the Bluesdriver and Angry Charlie seem to perfectly mesh together to fill in each other's gaps - which results in an incredibly dynamic distortion. The tonal range this pedal has is really impressive - it's a modern classic in the making.

Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine - £210

Another Björn Juhl sound-designed pedal which beautifully replicates the Vox Top Boost sound a la Brian May, but can also shift across to Marshall-style distortion. I had the Catalinbread Galileo as my Boosted Vox for quite a while, and although I really like/d it, I always felt it could do with a touch more volume and brightness for my own particular rig. Something that the Emerald Green delivers in spades - it is quite a bit more dynamic than the Galileo and has a greater range along the sweep of the Voice and Treble dials. It's an amazing sounding pedal any which way.

Bearfoot FX Model Hs - £210

The 'H' here is for HiWatt, and the 's' is for Special which adds a couple of dials over the original - a Body and 2-way Sparkle Mode switch - which gives you Dumble-style as well as HiWatt-style tones! Much like the Emerald Green above this pedal has a huge range of tones - across two different amp types here no less! I am currently utilising it as a Dumble Overdrive in that particular pedal slot, although this is more typically used as a swap out for the Emerald Green above. Really great, dynamic and versatile pedal - just as good as the Emerald Green in its own way.

Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret - £137

Catalinbread's most successful distortion pedal to date and supposedly Andy Martin's favourite Marshall-type distortion - the 'secret' here is the internal controls - a mode switch which lets you change between Super Lead and Super Bass voicings, and a Presence trim-pot for cutting back some of the brightness. I have long had this on my wishlist for various purposes - currently as an alternative secondary swap-out to the Xotic SL Drive - which itself is a Marshall Super Lead / Super Bass clone, but has just the single tone dial instead of the the DLS's full 3-band EQ. A really versatile and great sounding pedal - which will be added to the collection at some stage.

Catalinbread RAH - £153

This is Catalinbread's homage to the 1970 sound of Led Zeppelin - HiWatt amps into Marshall cabs. 4 dial configuration here - Treble | Bass | Master | Gain. A somewhat unusual pedal - and slightly darker in profile than the Bearfoot Model Hs above - but sounds really great nonetheless. I've marked this out as a sometime swap for the Emerald Green - down for eventual acquisition - if I see a good price it will happen all that sooner.

Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra - £137

Catalinbread's version of Tommy Iommi's treble-boosted Laney Supergroup amp sound. This is another 4-pot pedal - Presence | Gain | Volume | Range - perfect if you wish to copy the original Godfather of Heavy Metal. It's one of 3 similar Catalinbread pedals - along with the Galileo and RAH - all 4-dial designs too, and like the Galileo also based on always-on treble-boost with significant clean-up available via guitar volume knob. I have only the Galileo to date, but aim to add these other 3 Catalinbread foundation drives at some stage - they're all pretty good value and sound really authentic.

Dawner Prince RedRox Distortion - £179

A classic and wide-ranging Marshall-esque distortion which has incredibly rich harmonic distortion tones and goes from gentle mid-range crunch to full on distortion. Instead of a 3-band EQ we have a 2-dial Contour and Tone pot approach which still gives you pretty much all the variety you need. This is largely quite a bright classic rock distortion, but it sounds incredible for those tones - been on my wishlist for a while, but is more of a secondary swap out and has to compete with the super-versatile MI Audio Super Crunch Box and Suhr Riot - a contender nonetheless.

Dr Scientist The Elements - £209

This is easily one of my favourite versatile drive pedals - which though its myriad dials and switches can dial in a huge range of overdrive and distortion tones and even a decent sort of fuzz tone. The one thing you should be aware of is that this pedal has quite a high noise floor and really needs a noise gate after it - it also does not like to go too much above 12 o'clock in high gain mode. The clever switches that make most of this happen are a 2-way Gain toggle, 3-way Clipping toggle, 3-way Bass-cut toggle and 3-way Mid Frequency toggle - aligned with a full 3-band EQ - there is very little ground this pedal does not cover. Its core sound is a classic open amp-like distortion - very natural sounding and largely uncoloured. I'm sure it could do with some updates - particularly in the area of 'noise-management' but its fundamentals are really sound and the output is extraordinarily rich and full-sounding.

EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold - £135

A really simple and elegant distortion pedal which ramps up the volume, gain and harmonics all with the spin of a single dial. I had long seen this as a decent more high-distortion occasional swap-out for the Fulltone OCD - whose prime slot has recently been taken by the Hamstead Odyssey. There's no doubt this is a really clever pedal and it has really decent range despite its singular control dial - worthy of consideration.

Friedman BE-OD - £199

A truly great heavy Marshall-type (JCM800+) distortion pedal - much loved by many harder rock and heavy metal players. It's not quite that fully properly classic tight and percussive metal sound - but plenty heavy enough for most (in fact too heavy for some Marshall fans) and I really like it in Tight Mode. It notably has a Presence dial instead of a Mid frequency EQ pot which is dealt with on the Dirty Shirley by reducing the Tightness control to a toggle switch on the side of the pedal. Generally the BE-OD is more like a high-gain JCM800, while the Dirty Shirley is closer in Profile to a mid-gain Plexi.

Friedman Dirty Shirley - £199

This is the lower gain Friedman Marshall-esque pedal - more in Plexi territory, and it benefits from slightly better tone controls than the BE-OD featuring a full 3-band EQ and moving the Tightness control to the side of the pedal as a simple on/off toggle. Many will prefer the tone of this one to the BE-OD - it's slightly more rounded and open sounding and closer to what most would perceive to be the classic Marshall distortion tone.

Fulltone Plimsoul Drive - £159

This pedal has been on my wishlist for the longest time - a smoother yet significantly higher gain distortion than its sibling pedal - the OCD. The magic dial here is the Stage 2 Gain which smoothly takes the pedal into higher gain territory. Most players preferred use is in the mid gain area - but I like this pedal throughout its range - it's a known favourite of Lee 'The Captain' Anderton. I have long intended to get this as a secondary swap-out on the OCD / Odyssey (ODC?) slot of my pedal-chain - it just gets keep being pipped by other higher priority acquisitions, no doubt it will happen eventually.

JHS @ Andy Timmons+ - £219

I have had the JHS Andy Timmons and Angry Charlie in my sights for a while - the fairly recent Boss JB-2 Angry Driver has taken away my need for the latter pedal, but the Andy Timmons has been newly upgraded with an extra boost switch - which makes it more desirable than ever. Would be even cooler if it had a boost focus dial like the Foxpedal Kingdom Combo V2 - which gives you near 2-channel function. In any case the much loved '@' pedal just got better.

Keeley Filaments High Gain Distortion - £179

This pedal was part of my original 3-way consideration which also included Dr Scientist's The Elements and Skreddy's Screwdriver Mini Deluxe. I currently have 2 of the three - with this one still to be added having acquired The Elements first and then the Screwdriver which is kind of my order of preference too - even though all of these are truly excellent pedals. The Filaments is the most high gain of the 3 and has the usual 3-band EQ and Level, Presence and Gain dials. It's extra voicing controls are 3 x 2-way toggles - a Boost, Brightness switch and Crunch clipping toggle - the last mentioned funnily adds significantly more gain into the mix than the left-hand boost toggle. The Filaments tonal profile is relatively dark and tight and well suited for heavier tones - it's significantly darker and tighter than both the Dr Scientist and Skreddy - so how it fits into your rig is an important consideration. I still intend to get this one eventually - and even though the distortion is not Marshall-esque - it's still probably a better swap-out for the Friedman BE-OD than The Elements overall.

MI Audio Super Crunch Box V2 - £17I

My favourite Eddie Van Halen Brown Sound style pedal with easily the most tone-shaping ability within this form factor. The only slight niggle is that the tiniest move of any of the small dials can result in very significant changes - it kind of underlines the enormous versatility of this pedal and you pretty much get used to it after a while. I reckon their may be a V3 eventually with additional boost footswitch, but it's not really needed in the main - so broad and deep is the tone potential of this pedal. You can go from pretty light overdrive to really powerful full-throated Marshall-esque distortion and everything in between. A 3-way Clipping toggle ably assisted by a 3-way Mode toggle gives you all the variations of Gain, Compression and Distortion character you every might need. Will be too fiddly for some, but is pretty nigh on perfect for me - as you can truly dial in some magnificent tones at every setting pretty much.

Ramble FX Marvel 3 - £175

A great looking and fully authentically sounding Marshall Plexi style pedal with 9V and 18V headroom voicing options, Marshall styling and labelling. Giving you that rich and dynamic distortion so beloved by most electric guitar fans. This brand was little known to me before I did my latest Marshall type pedal research. I still think I would prefer to get the Friedman Dirty Shirley pedal first because of its greater tone-shaping ability, but this one runs it very close and is still very high up on my wishlist too. Those who are familiar with Marshall amps will also be familiar with High Treble | Normal | Master | Presence dials - for those who are not then the interplay between the first two dials kind of sets your core tone - with further refinements achieved via the Presence dial.

Sinvertek No. 5 Distortion / N5 Drive - £139

I acquired the No.5 Distortion fairly recently - and it's a super smart distortion pedal with a full 3-band EQ stack plus presence, mid frequency toggle, pick attack sensitivity and various boost options all driven through a single footswitch. You get an amazing amp-like distortion which you can progressively boost by clever use of the footswitch, but do note this is a fairly hard-clipping pedal, so that on low gain it does not sound quite smooth enough to most people's ears. I believe that's why they're introducing its successor this year - the now re-named N5 Drive. My understanding is that at lower gain it employs a softer clipping to give you those slightly more lush warm and organic low overdrive tones - which I certainly agree would be a worthy upgrade. No idea when the N5 is officially released (probably April/May), but I will consider swapping out the Distortion version for a smoother low gain palette - and the top end / high gain remains largely unaffected, although the circuit is supposedly improved in all areas!

Skreddy Screwdriver Mini Deluxe - £249

As previously stated a sort of competitor mostly for Dr Scientist's The Elements. I find overall The Elements has more tweakability, but there are some exceptional tones that the Screwdriver delivers too, and their overall tonal pallets don't exactly match. You have far more control over the bottom end and mid-range of the Elements while the the Screwdriver has a really clever interplay between Pre-Gain and Gain stages. Somewhat ironically the Skreddy Sharpness dial controls the amount of bass going into the distortion, while the Brilliance is a sort of Presence / Treble control dial to tame the high-end or add bite. I obviously have both pedals and find them both exceptional - each actually has its strength and weaknesses although overall The Elements has more range, it is quite a bit noisier though - while the Skreddy is more punchy generally and has more bite!

Suhr Riot - £199

The Riot is Suhr's original take on the Marshall type distortion - offering 3 different clipping options, but otherwise just the usual Dirt / Drive, Level and Tone dials. It can deliver a brilliant EVH Brown type sound and much besides - and is certainly quite a bit easier to dial in than the MI Audio Super Crunch Box, but does not quite match the range of that. Not so long ago Suhr launched the Riot Reloaded which is a tweaked version of this circuit with quite a bit more gain - which I don't really need. Suhr also launched a mini version this year which reduced the clipping options to 2, but otherwise carries exactly the same circuit and tones as the original. This is a beautifully evenly balanced and harmonically rich distortion and is really easy to dial in - after you've tried it once you can understand why it's quite so popular - yet in my case it still plays second fiddle to the Super Crunch Box - I'm obviously a tweaker at heart - both those pedals are exceptional though, and I will likely acquire the Riot Mini at some stage too - if I need to slot in something extra and am tight for space.

Wampler Dracarys High Gain Distortion - £189

A somewhat odd pedal somehow - Brian Wampler originally made this as an homage to Ola Englund's super chuggy djent sound, and it does fulfil that role pretty well - with full 3-band EQ and Open / Tight voicing toggle. Many players really like this pedal, but for me it could do with a bit more kick somehow as it does not run quite as high gain or percussive as I would like. Range-wise too this pedal is rather limited to a degree. It now plays second fiddle to my much more versatile and powerful Empress Heavy dual-channel pedal - which albeit inhabits a larger enclosure. In terms of heavy chuggy pedals, I prefer all my 3 current metal pedals in my chain - the Empress Heavy, MI Audio Megalith Delta and Diezel VH4-2. The Wampler Dracarys is decent for sure, but not quite as useful or versatile as I had in mind - largely for specialist use as far as I'm concerned. It does a certain thing though and does it pretty well.

Wampler Sovereign - £189

Wampler's all-purpose distortion pedal could probably do with an update someday soon - I'd like to see a separate boost switch in the same enclosure and probably full 3-band EQ - although the Mid Contour and Tone controls do a pretty decent job anyway. This is another pedal that has been on my wishlist for a while - and there are certainly plenty of decent second-hand ones in circulation. It's just a pedal I find a little hard to position as it's not really one thing or the other - it's a great all-rounder distortion pedal, not overly gainey, but would overall struggle to knock out any of the pedals already in my chain. I would still like to add it for occasional swap out as it really does have a beautiful harmonically rich distortion - it's just not quite the neutral Amp-like sound, or Marshall or Vox sound - but somewhere in between! Note that above demo video features original enclosure which has slightly different layout, newer pedals have exactly same contents but the controls have been moved around.

Zvex Vertical Box of Rock - £219

So far only seen on a single USA vendor's web-shop - Twin Town Guitars of Minneapolis, we know all these Vertical Format Zvex classics are coming, we just don't know exactly when - the Vertical Fuzz Factory was released late last year, and we know of at least 3 or 4 more which have been mentioned in various circles. The Vertical Box of Rock has all the same features of its classic original forebear - just in a more pedalboard-friendly configuration - Volume | Drive | Tone, and a separate Boost volume for the separate Boost footswitch - gets you well within the ballpark of those classic Plexi style sounds. I acquired the Vertical Fuzz Factory at the start of the year, and fully intend to get this one and a couple more when they finally hit distribution. I'm a sucker for dual-footswitch type compact pedals - it's by far and away my favourite format - JHS has now joined Chase Bliss and Foxpedal on that bandwagon - I just hope more follow suite soon. Note that demo video features current shape / format pedal and not new vertical enclosure which has yet to be officially launched!

Final Thoughts

Having just watched all the demo videos again I am really happy with the above selection - there really should be something for everyone here. These are all high quality pedals so most of them are around the £200 mark - so I apologise for that. I've tried and auditioned dozens of distortion pedals - and these really are the ones that sound the best to me - all the choices here are valid, and I cannot see any weak links here, although a couple of these may be a touch too specialist or fiddly for some players.

 

Within my pedal-chain I am particularly happy with my sort of traffic-lights-trio of Bearfoot FX Emerald Green, Dr Scientist The Elements, and MI Audio Super Crunch Box - I probably play those the most. The Angry Driver is of course exceptional too and the Bogner Burnley is just pure class.

 

Of the ones that I don't have yet - it's hard to put an order to them really - although I've long wanted the Dirty Shirley and the now forthcoming Box of Rock (more Marshall!) - for more distinct tones - I still need to acquire the fairly uniquely voiced Catalinbread foundation drive pedals. It will all be a matter of pricing an availability I foresee - if I can get a good deal, then something will happen sooner, otherwise I'm in no great hurry here.

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