Amp Distortion vs Distortion Pedals – Why You Should Consider Going in Raw

An eternal war rages on in the minds and wallets of guitarists everywhere, a pivotal choice in the never ending quest for tone. Stompbox or amp distortion?


Well you might be thinking, “it’s a case-by-case basis, dude. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s totally subjective.” Shaddap. You’re wrong. There is a right answer. It’s amps. Always go with amp distortion.

Distortion pedals are fun and all, but they are way too unadaptable. The joy of chugging-out Dismember riffs on a Boss HM-2 is exactly why amps are a better choice in the long run. Stompboxes are aural novelties. One trick ponies. Why do you think guitarists can’t stop at just one? It’s not like that Rat has a lot of range, y’know?

Opeth “Ghost of Perdition”
(Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier)

This album has some of the sickest guitar tones (and overall production) to ever brush up against an ear drum. Supposedly there’s some POD XT(?!) layered in there as well. And while a modeler may have the flexibility to rival the tone of a Rectifier’s dirty channel, no distortion pedal can sound this good.

The pedals getting the most use from metal guitarists are based on established character-tones. They’re a ready-made, sonic crystallization of a particular sub-genre or certain band that already exists. Using a Big Muff? I like your Bong Rock band bro. A Metal Zone in front of your amp? Retro Death Metal is pretty hip right now tbh. HM-2 cranked up all the way? We get it, you like Godflesh and play Swedemosh.

If you want to blend in with the usual genre tropes or evoke a Pavlovian response from listeners that have been conditioned for certain distortions, go for it. I’m not putting pedals down, I enjoy them as much as anyone. They are useful studio “color” effects, or a neat addition to a bedroom setup.

But if you’re serious about tone, a good amp offers you a blank slate to communicate your music. Even the most common metal amps, like the 5150 or Dual Rectifier, are far more opaque and inconspicuous to listeners than any distortion pedal.

Plus, amp distortion is just way smoother in general. Even the best pedals are a little tinny and twizzly. So throw in an EQ right? Or pull down the treble on your amp? Well now you’ve just gone and played yourself son. That’s just trying to mimic what a good amp distortion sounds like anyway. Why not cut out the middle-man?

Between The Buried And Me “Prequel To The Sequel”
(Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier)

Clear, thick and punchy as eff bruh. While it is characteristically tubey distortion, the tone has no ties to particular genres or aesthetics. And this is the second example of a Dual Rectifier tone, try getting that sort of range with a pedal.

Look, I know you really like accumulating those colorful little electric boxes. It’s exciting finding a new boutique version of your favorite guitarist’s distortion stompbox, with an extra bass control knob and a “punny” hand-screened graphic on the faceplate. It’s satisfying assembling the perfect pedal board and patching each unique unit into the chain, deliberating over the order and carefully considering the layout. I get it. We all get G.A.S. sometimes. But if this is you, you’re basically just being a Warhammer 40k dork with a guitar.

Slayer “Seasons In The Abyss”
(Marshall JCM800)

Marshall may be your grandpa’s favorite amp company, but the heaviness of this amp’s distortion still holds up today. Remember a time when rigs were simpler? Slayer remembers.

I say instead of spending your dollars on a succession of different distortion toys to feed your gear acquisition syndrome, save the money and buy a sick amp. If you must satisfy your latent nerd-collecting habits, take up Magic The Gathering or something. But just find an amp that sounds heavy as balls and write songs that are so good that you won’t want to cover them up with a weak-ass, played-out distortion pedal.

If you’re considering going the distortion pedal route anyway (maybe you already have an amp that doesn’t have a great heavy tone and don’t want to spend a lot of money), we recommend the following distortion pedals that don’t suck.

Revv G3 and G4 pedals – these are modern high gain pedals that blow the old distortion fuzz duds of yore out of the water.

Abasi Concepts PATHOS pedal – this one is made for Petrucci-like Mesa lead tones, the signature pedal of Tosin Abasi from Animals as Leaders

Friedman BE-OD – Another modern, tight, awesome distortion pedal that doesn’t flub out your low end.

EVH 5150 OD Pedal – Of all the distortion pedals I’ve tried, this one is the closest to the amplifier it’s supposed to sound like.

A tip if you’re going the pedal route – try plugging your distortion pedal into the return of the effects loop rather than the amp’s input on the front – this will bypass the preamp section and let the pedal become the preamp instead, it sounds waaaayyyyyyyyyyy better

Here’s my buddy Ola Englund demonstrating this:

So which do you prefer? Do you raw dog it and plug straight into the front of a certain amp? And what are some albums with rad tones that use distortion pedals? I legit couldn’t think of any apart from a few HM-2ers, like stuff Kurt Ballou recorded.

Written by

Demigod Zeke studies marketing & economics and produces his friends’ disgusting slam bands.

Latest comments
  • I got a Mesa Mark IV 12 years ago, haven’t used a distortion pedal since.

  • The debate is pointless: learn to use the gear you have. Temper your hiss with stompboxes OR pat yourself on the back for having enough money to buy a killer amp. Start playing and stop worrying about what gear is best.

    • You’re making this statement on a website called Gear Gods. A site that does articles and videos about…gear.

      • Indeed, and buying gear is only step one. Learning how to use it is where things truly start to matter. Buying into the idea of “Always go with amp distortion” makes a look at a huge category of gear (distortion boxes) a non-starter. Either/Or isn’t the way to look at this stuff, you can have it both ways.

  • This author makes a very odd assumption that this is an eitheror situation. A dimed out Marshall or Orange has “that” sound. But what if you want that AND something else? Most amps have the ability to use their gain channel and then switch to the clean so now you can use your pedals as well. Whether you use pedals or not, a junk amp will still sound like a junk amp, so of course you should have a good amp.
    While presenting a false choice between pedals OR amps, it also ignores pedal AND amp. A lot of stoner and doom guys hit their tube heads with a pedal before the gain to get some seriously saturated tones.

    • He mentions using a pedal when your looking for a special sound. Not sure where your getting this no amp and pedal idea.

  • i liked the article, i thought it was down to earth because anyone doing anything for real, anything serious isn’t going to worry much about what the market has to offer when you know what you want. and if you dont know what you want, at least know what you will not be needing.
    and something else, i can speak for myself on this one. i know i dont need a distorted pedal because of what im going for, plus it would totally mess up my signal. i know i can acumulate a distorted signal using different types of pedals that either adds gain or has a different approach to what a normal distorted guitar would sound like. and anyone can take a part in this.

  • Nice article but no discussion of using clean OD as a boost / modifcation to your amps distorted tone? Tubescreamer / Bad Monkey / OD808, lots of people run these to slightly increase gain or otherwise tighten up the sound. Good example is a stock standard JCM800 won’t get a super saturated Slayer done easily by itself. Kerrys signature 800 is modified with extra gain. I have a strong feeling he used to boost his signal with a pedal in the old days.

    Do you think your tone has evolved or changed much?

    KK. No. I think it’s just easier to get a heavy tone now. In the early days I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but there were a lot more components involved. Now with all of the genius electricians out there, you can get almost everything out of the amp.

  • No right answer IMO unless we’re talking about pedals in front of crappy amps. But run my Friedman BE-OD into the clean channel of my Mesa recto and it’ll easily rival amp distortion to my ears.

    Also, I have a Richie Kotzen tele and I just can’t dial in a dirty tone through the red channel of my Mesa with that particular guitar. That’s where the Friedman pedal comes in.

  • Lol, fuck this article.

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