Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Celebrating a Nasty Little Dirt Box

Celebrating a Nasty Little Dirt Box

The MXR Distortion + isn’t the sexiest OD pedal on modern ’boards, but it’s durable, affordable, moddable, and gets the job done with dispatch. All hail the D +!

This is an homage to a nasty little pedal with a long history, so basic and overshadowed by the endless fiesta of overdrive and fuzz boxes that have come in its wake that, today, despite being in production for nearly 50 years, it is often snubbed. At least until the hunt is on for gritty, vintage ’60s through ’80s tone. Because that’s where the MXR Distortion + does its dirty deeds. And, at less than $100, they’re still done dirt cheap.

For many of us, our first pedal was the Distortion +. I have fond memories of stomping on mine—which I bought used at Cambridge Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for about $20—in my early stage days at Boston-area clubs like the Rat and the Middle East. When I tapped the switch, my Twin Reverb grew hair. (I was looking for a Big Brother and the Holding Company vibe.) And when I gamed up to the Twin and a Marshall plexi with a 4x12, running parallel, the extra gain pushing the Super Lead was fil-thee. What I loved, I later came to realize when I had more distortion device experience under my belt, is how—regardless of the settings—the essential sonic qualities of both of those amps remained intact … mostly.

At minimum, the distortion dial lays out about 3.5 dB of gain, and maxed there’s roughly 46.5 dB.

I still own my Distortion +, and it even did time on my pedalboard last year, alongside an ’80s RAT, when I was looking for my inner Ron Asheton and hoping not to buy a bunch more fuzzes. (I failed!)

My Distortion + is from 1979. But the device first emerged from the MXR shop in 1974. It is very simple—which appealed to me in my beginner days and, honestly, still does—inside and out. It has an output and distortion control, and, under the hood, a single op-amp and a pair of germanium diodes. That setup is key to its old-school sound, which also delivers some juicy compression. Crank up the distortion and the D + also boosts treble a bit, to preserve some punch. Gain ain’t shabby, either. At minimum, the distortion dial lays out about 3.5 dB of gain, and maxed there’s roughly 46.5 dB, according to the folks at Catalinbread, who extol the Distortion +’s virtues on their website.

There are filthier pedals, and boxes with a lot more headroom—since this is a hard clipping device—but this humble stomp gets the job done on a budget. And because of its low price and simple innards, it appeals to pedal modders, who have an easy menu of options to alter the compression, add more bass, provide better control gain, put the diodes in parallel, add a tone control, and other tricks. Brian Wampler’s PG article “MXR Distortion Plus Mods,” from 2008, provides details.

Here’s a look at the crusty exoskeleton and simple innards of Ted’s well-worn 1979 MXR Distortion +.

Perhaps the best-known Distortion + user is Randy Rhoads, who set the output dial to 10 and the distortion level at 4, reportedly, during the Blizzard of Ozz era, minting the riffs for “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley.” Other prominent devotees include Jerry Garcia (who fanboyed the device in the late ’70s), Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Even Slash was known to use this proletarian pedal in the early days of GNR. So, take that, boutique pedal snobs! The MXR Distortion + is good stuff, indeed.

Yungblud's first signature features a mahogany body, P-90 Pro pickup, and SlimTaper C profile neck.

Read MoreShow less

On this season finale episode, the actor and musician leads a Prine-inspired songwriting session about how few tools we have in our collective toolbox.

Read MoreShow less

John Mayall in the late ’80s, in a promo shot for his Island Records years. During his carreer, he also recorded for the Decca (with the early Bluesbreakers lineups), Polydor, ABC, DJM, Silvertone, Eagle, and Forty Below labels.

He was dubbed “the father of British blues,” but Mayall’s influence was worldwide, and he nurtured some of the finest guitarists in the genre, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, and Walter Trout. Mayall died at his California home on Monday, at age 90.

John Mayall’s career spanned nearly 70 years, but it only took his first four albums to cement his legendary status. With his initial releases with his band the Bluesbreakers—1966’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton; ’67’s A Hard Road, with Peter Green on guitar; plus the same year’s Crusade, which showcased Mick Taylor—and his solo debut The Blues Alone, also from 1967, Mayall introduced an international audience of young white fans to the decidedly Black and decidedly American genre called blues. In the subsequent decades, he maintained an active touring and recording schedule until March 26, 2022, when he played his last gig at age 87. It was reported that he died peacefully, on Monday, in his California home, at 90.

Read MoreShow less

Donner andThird Man Hardware’s $99, three-in-one analog distortion, phaser, and delay honors Jack White’s budget gear roots.

Compact. Light. Fun. Dirt cheap. Many cool sounds that make this pedal a viable option for traveling pros.

Phaser level control not much use below 1 o’clock. Repeats are bright for an analog delay. Greater range of low-gain sounds would be nice.


Donner X Third Man Triple Threat


A huge part of the early White Stripes mystique, sound, ethos, and identity was tied to guitars and amps that, at the time, you could luck into for cheap at a garage sale. These days, it’s harder to score a Crestwood Astral II, or Silvertone Twin Twelve with a part-time job in the ice cream shop. Back in the late ’90s, though, they were a source of raw, nasty sounds for less than a new, more generic guitar or amp.

Read MoreShow less