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5 Classic Distortion Pedals

Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the Punksters comic strip series.

These five pedals are classics and will definitely make your guitar sound amazing!

These five pedals are classics and will definitely make your guitar sound amazing!

There are a lot of distortion pedals out there, and everyone has their favorites. So, which classic pedals are the best? These five are what I consider to be the five true classics.

Best Classic Distortion Pedals

  1. Ibanez Tube Screamer
  2. Electro-Harmonics Big Muff
  3. MXR Distortion +
  4. Boss DS-1
  5. Pro Co Rat 2

1. Ibanez Tube Screamer

This is Ibanez’s crowning achievement as far as their guitar pedals go. It is their most popular pedal ever and they have numerous variations of it. It works great as a clean boost or with the drive cranked all the way up. It’s known for its smoothness, tube-like warmth and is a favorite among blues players, country, and classic rock guitarists. It is even used by some bass guitarists as well. It goes well with either single-coil pickups or with humbuckers.

I like to use the Tube Screamer either alone or with other distortion pedals. It’s actually a very versatile pedal. I have used it as a clean boost before other distortion pedals or amp overdrives and also as a slightly dirty boost with the drive about half way. I have even used two Tube Screamers together for that extra drive while still maintaining that smoothness it is known for.

Ibanez first introduced this pedal in the late 1970s and the pedal is still popular today. It is widely used and one of the most copied and modified pedals out there. Almost every major guitar pedal manufacturer has some sort of Tube Screamer clone. They often even mimic the seasick green color as well. In fact, most pedals that are green are likely to be either a Tube Screamer clone or an overdrive pedal of some sort. The most popular models of Tube Screamers are the TS9 and the TS808.

Artists Who Use the Ibanez Tube Screamer

  • Joe Bonamassa (TS808)
  • Cliff Burton (TS9)
  • Jerry Cantrell (TS808HW)
  • Gary Clark Jr. (TS9)
  • The Edge (TS9)
  • Noel Gallagher (TS9)
  • Rory Gallagher (TS808)
  • Buddy Guy (TS9)
  • Billie Joe Armstrong (TS9)
  • Kirk Hammett (TS9)
  • Greg Howe (TS9)
  • Joan Jett (TS9DX [15])
  • Eric Johnson (TS808)
  • John Mayer (TS808, TS9, TS10)
  • Gary Moore (TS808, TS9, TS10)
  • John Petrucci (TS9DX)
  • Carlos Santana (TS9)
  • Kenny Wayne Shepherd (TS9 Modified)
  • Andy Timmons (TS808)
  • Michael Schenker (TS10)
  • Adrian Smith (TS808, TS9)
  • Steve Vai (TS9DX modified by Robert Keeley)
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan (TS808, TS9, TS10)
  • George Lynch (TS808)

As you can see, this pedal has been used by a wide variety of artists from different musical genres. I could have added a lot more names, but I think you get a general idea. I wanted you to get a sense of how widely used this pedal is among professional musicians. It was also the very first guitar effects pedal I ever purchased. So, it has some sentimental value to me as well.

2. Electro-Harmonics Big Muff

The second distortion pedal I bought in my life was an Electro-Harmonix Muff Fuzz. I loved it. It worked great for some of that old Black Sabbath stuff. My first guitar had single-coil pickups. The Muff Fuzz really fattened up the sound of single-coil pickups. Unfortunately, one day I decided to try an AC adapter that was way too much voltage and sparks and smoke poured out of it. I quickly unplugged the adapter but it was to no avail. My precious Muff Fuzz was fried. Extra crispy. So my suggestion to you is to use the right adapter for your pedals. Make sure it’s not too much voltage or current, or you just may regret it, like I did. The memory of that moment still haunts me. Oh, the horror!

The Big Muff Fuzz Pi was Electro-Harmonix’s first big success. They have a number of variations available with different features, different circuitry, and different colors and sizes. I currently use the Nano Big Muff Pi unit. It is a compact version of the pedal and takes up very little space on my pedalboard, but it sounds just as good as the larger units.

The unit really provides much more distortion than you would generally need. I basically use it with the Sustain knob about halfway. The Sustain knob is basically your distortion control. It’s a simple unit with Volume, Tone, and Sustain knobs.

The Big Muff works great alone or when combined with other pedals. I sometimes use a Tube Screamer before it with the treble boosted. Then, I boost the bass on the Muff Fuzz. I like the sound of the treble being boosted before the Fuzz. Fuzz pedals also work great with octave pedals. In which case, I generally place the octave pedal before the Fuzz. The sustain on this pedal goes on forever too. But that’s just one of the many things I love about this pedal.

Artists Who Use the Electro-Harmonics Big Muff

  • David Gilmour (extensively on the Pink Floyd albums Animals and The Wall)
  • Thin Lizzy
  • Kiss
  • Frank Zappa (modified)
  • Ronnie Montrose.
  • The Smashing Pumpkins
  • Dinosaur Jr.
  • NOFX
  • Bush
  • Mudhoney

3. MXR Distortion +

This was one of MXR’s first popular distortion pedals. Probably its biggest claim to fame is the fact that it was used by Randy Rhoads. With Randy being such an innovator in his short time in the limelight, so many wanted to emulate his sound. So, it goes without saying that you not only have to have a similar guitar (with humbuckers) and amplifier (preferably a Marshall stack), you also had to have the various effects pedals he was known to have used.

Randy, like many who have used this pedal, used it primarily as a boost pedal that went into the dirty channel of a Marshall tube amplifier. A lot of those players in Classic Rock, believe it or not, didn’t use a lot of distortion. They would use just a bit of it but would achieve their great sound and massive sustain by cranking the tube amplifiers in both the studio and during live performances. The MXR Distortion + would just push the volume a bit to drive the dirty channel of the amp a little bit more than just the guitar by itself.

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In reality, unless you crank the Distortion knob at least most of the way up and the output knob all the way, you really don’t get that much of a boost. It’s a pretty simple pedal to use though. It only has two knobs, output and distortion. I rarely use it alone myself. I usually use it as a boost before other distortion pedals. It works great as a boost for solos as well. I currently use it as a boost before my MXR Custom Badass ‘78 distortion pedal. The Custom Badass ‘78 pedal emulates the distortion of an amplifier. So using the MXR Distortion + before it works very well to boost lead solos or to add a bit more dirt to it.

Artists That Use the MXR Distortion +

  • Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead (exclusively for distortion in the late 1970s)
  • Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü
  • Dave Murray of Iron Maiden (since the early 1980s)
  • Thom Yorke of Radiohead

4. Boss DS-1

The DS-1 is Boss’s first distortion pedal. It was introduced in 1978 and works very well for just about any classic rock song that uses distortion. I generally have the distortion knob maxed out. It has some nice sustain to it, even at low volumes. It is a very cheap pedal. I purchased one for around $50 not that long ago. So, it is very affordable.

Boss pedals are very sturdy, can take a beating and last for years. Although Boss has since introduced a very wide variety of distortion pedals, this one is still its best seller to date. Sure, it’s had a head start on the other distortion pedals they offer but it still sells very well.

You can get some great clarity for rhythm guitar work, even with the distortion knob maxed out. You may want to boost it a bit with either a clean or dirty boost before it, in order for your leads to stand out. That’s what I like to do. I use it alone for the rhythm work and then boost with a slightly dirty Tube Screamer for the lead work. I have used my Electro-Harmonix boost pedal before it, but I much prefer to use my Tube screamer before it, to boost the leads.

It’s your basic three-knob distortion unit with distortion, tone, and level knobs. With my Fender Strat’s single-coil pickups, I like to set the tone a little on the lower side. This pedal has good sustain but also great clarity for rhythm work. Some people complain that it does not have enough distortion but if you use a Tube Screamer before it, you should be able to get enough distortion for decent-sounding lead guitar solos.

Artists Who Use the Boss DS-1

  • Kurt Cobain
  • Joe Satriani
  • Steve Vai
  • Bruce Kulick
  • Matthias Jabs
  • Dave Navarro
  • Gary Moore
  • John Frusciante
  • George Lynch

5. Pro Co Rat 2

My first experience with the Rat pedal was when my brother owned one back in the late 1980s. That’s when the Rat pedals first came out. They have released a number of different versions since then, but I currently use the Rat 2. When I first tried a Rat pedal, I had an Ibanez electric guitar, back before they were even considered cool. Now, look at all the big-name shredders out there using their Ibanez guitars. I guess I was a real trendsetter.

The Rat distortion provides much more distortion than you would really need. It is another distortion pedal that I generally only need to set the distortion knob at the halfway point. Using the filter control really gives you a large variety of tonal options. You can get some real bite or a smooth, sustained sound, depending on how you adjust the filter and distortion controls. The filter control is like a tone control but really is more like a high-end rolloff or boost. Your sound is mostly mid-range.

I usually only use this pedal alone or just with a clean boost pedal before it for when I want the solos to stand out more. I have my Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 (linear power booster) boost pedal right before it and it works great, especially with my Fender Strat’s single-coil pickups. Being single-coil pickups, they have a lower output than humbuckers, so it’s good to boost the output before the signal reaches the distortion units.

I prefer to set my boost pedal as high as it will go without getting distortion. But, if you wanted to, you can boost the signal to the point of slight distortion and it would still sound pretty good with the Rat, as long as the Rat’s distortion is not maxed out. Then, it just gets too muddy for my taste. Especially for rhythm guitar work.

Artists Who Use the Pro Co Rat 2

  • Buckethead
  • John Ashton of Psychedelic Furs
  • Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel
  • Jeff Beck
  • Matt Bellamy
  • Nuno Bettencourt
  • Peter Buck
  • Jerry Cantrell
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Robert Fripp
  • David Gilmour
  • Dave Grohl
  • James Hetfield
  • Thurston Moore
  • Andy Summers
  • Joe Walsh

Final Thoughts

Some people like to keep things simple and just use one distortion pedal. But, in reality, you are better off with having at least a few different distortion pedals. Some distortion units work better for certain songs or groups than others. I have all of the distortion pedals listed here, plus a few more.

All of these units are under $100. So, if you pick one up at a time, it’s not so bad. All of them are smaller units that fit nicely on a pedalboard and you should have no problem running out of space. At least right away.

Trying them out in conjunction with one another can yield a variety of sounds as well. I encourage serious experimentation. I am always experimenting with the settings on each pedal as well as using them together. It’s amazing the variety of sounds you can come up with when you experiment. Also, you may have noticed that some of the names listed as users of the various pedals appear more than once. That’s because those big names use more than one distortion pedal.

Now, some of you may disagree with my choice of pedals listed here and referring to them as “classic” pedals, but they are all pedals that are widely used, still in use years after originally introduced, still very affordable, used by some pretty big name bands, simple to use and ones that I have some experience with. To me, those are some of the qualities that make for a classic distortion pedal.

© 2019 Bob Craypoe

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