Distorting: The Facts
The line between overdrive and distortion pedals can be even fuzzier (no pun intended) than between overdrives and boosts. After all, both types of pedals distort the sound, add volume, and often have tone controls. Some pedals, like the classic Pro Co Rat (street $94, procosound.com), offer a range of grit from smooth overdrive to near-fuzz rasp, but a distortion pedal generally squashes the wave flatter than an overdrive. As mentioned previously, this distortion of the sound wave is called clipping. An overdrive pedal engages in “soft” clipping, while a distortion effect is said to produce “hard” clipping.
The oft-asked question, “What is the best distortion pedal?” is impossible to answer (as it is for any pedal). The aforementioned 50 distortion pedals available on a single website represent a range of “flavors” equivalent to a Penzey’s spice catalog. It’s like asking, “Which is better—cumin, tarragon, cinnamon, or cardamom?” Distortion pedals impart distinct character to your tone. Some impart a British-style attitude, while other add a heavier, more saturated flavor reminiscent of Mesa/ Boogie’s famous Dual Rectifier amps.
Because of that, you’re going to have to try a bunch to get a feel for what suits you, because the names can be pretty confusing. While it is a good bet that the Rocktron Zombie Rectified Distortion (street $79, rocktron.com) is suitable for modern metal, you might never guess that the Coffin Case BDFX-1 Blood Drive Distortion (discontinued) is a very warm- and classic-sounding distortion that will work well for everything from blues to hard rock.
Distortion pedals are best used with a minimum of amp gain, otherwise it’s easy to end up with a muddy and indistinct tone. Distortion boxes do not respond as well as overdrives to attack and guitar-volume control, but they are great for placing before a volume pedal in order to get massive rock sounds at a volume that’s comfortable for a wedding or Bar Mitzvah gig.