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 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.