Metal is one of the genres of music that really makes use of pedals for creating signature sounds. Many metal guitarists have very specific requirements for their pedals and find themselves looking for certain things to give the crunch and distortion they are looking for.
In this guide, we discuss the best pedals for metal including the best distortion pedals, and some fantastic brands for creating both a modern metal sound or a bit more of a classic, heavy metal tone from years gone by. It’s amazing the impact a pedal can actually have, but only when used correctly.
In a Hurry? Here Are the Best Metal Pedals
Types of Pedal for Metal
When most guitarists think of metal, they think of one style of pedal, a distortion pedal. It’s true that of all the genres and styles of music, metal is one of the styles that uses distortion the most. The heavy, crunch sound of chugging riffs can take years of honing to get exactly right, and the right pedals or combination of pedals. You might think that finding the best distortion pedal is all you need to do, then, but this is not the case.
If you look at a metal guitarist’s pedalboard, it won’t just be rammed full of distortion. There will be other pedals too, many of which are associated with the genre (or just getting a good guitar sound in general.
EQ pedals can shape the overall character of the sound and the frequencies that are being amplified. Cut the mids, boost the bass, or shape the tone in whichever way suits the music you are making.
Compression is another popular effect that is used in this type of music. It can give you more control and also make up for less consistent playing, as it levels out the sounds, making your chugs or other guitar playing sound like it is at the same volume and avoiding huge peaks and troughs. Compression is a complex subject and can be tough to get right.
There may be other pedals that you want to experiment with. Doubler effects can make your guitar sound wider and more powerful and heavy, or you might want a reverb to make it sound like you are playing in a larger acoustic space than you are, for instance. You can see why people get bogged down in all the types of pedals. Our focus is mainly on distortion, but these are not the only metal pedals out there.
What Makes a Good Distortion Pedal?
As we’ve already mentioned, distortion pedals are vital. Though they aren’t the only pedals you’ll need, it is a good starting point for a metal pedalboard. So, what makes a good distortion?
For a metal sound, a high-gain distortion is a good place to start. It gives us the sound reminiscent of rock and early heavy metal. The gain means you can control the “bite” of the distortion and how much the sound is processed through the pedal.
Other features that can help include an EQ. There is often a three-band EQ or a four-band EQ within the pedal, helping to create a tone that distorts in the frequency ranges you want it to. This lets you tailor the sound more to your own needs.
Digital pedals may offer different types of distortion but these can lose their authentic and analog feel. Most agree that the analog warmth of a pedal is better when it comes to heavy styles of music.
Other than these features, the main thing to look for is tone. High gain and warm tones are popular. This is something that is very hard to communicate via words, so listening to the pedal in action could be the best option. Here is an example of our best-rated pedal doing its business. You may know from listening whether or not it is the sort of thing you are hoping for.
Why Pedals Are Just Part of the Equation
It’s good to get excited about pedals and want to learn exactly how they can shape your tone and give you more control as a musician, but they are not the only thing that will create a metal tone. They’re one part of the formula for getting the right sounding guitar for your performance or recording.
There is no point in turning up to a recording session or a band practice with an amazing looking pedal-board if you don’t have a solid foundation for the sound to start with, which means having a good quality guitar, or even a specific guitar for metal. It also means getting the right amp. The pedal will feed into the amplification and they need to work together. A lot of rock and metal guitarists find that a tube amp can give the big, powerful, roaring sound that they are looking for. Distortion pedals undeniably help, but you can’t improve on a sound that doesn’t have a solid basis.
How Much is a Good Pedal?
Just like using a great pedal with a rubbish guitar and amp is silly, you shouldn’t use a terrible pedal with a really good amp and guitar, it will ruin the sound.
As is always the case with music and music gear, there is some degree of truth in the “you get what you pay for” statement. A great pedal just might cost more money. That’s not to say there aren’t some good budget picks, though.
Like many areas of music equipment, there is a lot of variation between the cheap end of the market and the expensive products. You can get a distortion pedal for $30, but it probably won’t be great, especially for making recordings and trying to sound pro. On the other side of the market, you can spend hundreds of dollars.
There are some good options out there for under $100, but most of the products that are respectable cost between $100-200. Everyone has different needs from their pedal, but these give a rough idea of how much you might need to spend. They’re not as expensive as some other types of music gear.
Best Metal Pedal Reviews
1. Fender Pugilist Distortion Pedal – Best Overall
Guitarists will not be surprised to find a Fender option at the top of our list. They are an amazing manufacturer of all things guitar-related.
One of the great things about this pedal is the fact that it has two different tone controls so you can choose the tone you want and blend the two together, or even stack them for a huge metal sound. It even has a bass boost to give a big low-end sound that some of the heavier guitarists will love.
It has a simple magnetic battery door for the 9V battery it requires and has the sort of controls you would expect such as gain and volume which can be tweaked. The Pugilist is made out of anodized aluminum and it is fine for using on tour, it is durable and shouldn’t let you down by breaking.
Considering the cost, the fact that this is made within the exceptional Fender brand, and the brilliant flexibility of this, it has made it to the top of our list. You can truly tweak and shape the gain and other controls to give the exact metal tone you want.
2.TC Electronic Electric Guitar Single Effect – Best Simple Distortion Pedal
Believe it or not, there are some guitarists out there who don’t love to spend all their time tweaking, and who would rather just plug in and get playing. There are distortion pedals for them, and this model from TC Electronic does a brilliant job with just a few basic controls.
There is a volume knob, a gain knob and the true bypass control if you want to skip the pedal for a particular song. As distortion goes, this is a true modern metal tone, and it manages to give an amazing metal distortion that keeps a lot of clarity and manages a big step up in gain. Obviously, gain is one of the few things you can control with this, but getting a big and heavy tone is not difficult.
The pedal is also “built like a tank” according to the manufacturers. It can put up with the bumps of being on stage or on the road.
It’s worth listening to the audio examples of this. TC Electronic is a good brand, and you will either love or hate the sound (most people love it). This is one of the best distortion pedals if you just want to plug it into your amp or pedalboard and get started.
3. BOSS WAZA Craft Metal Zone Guitar Pedal (MT-2W) – Best Boss Metal Distortion Pedal
There are a lot of Boss pedals that can do a very good job of creating the audio qualities you are looking for. This is one of the very best distortion pedals, loved for its tone but also for the fact that it gives you loads of control over the sound, allowing you to create your own signature guitar settings.
It has analog circuitry, meaning that the tone it provides is reminiscent of older guitar amp and pedal sounds. This also has a “custom mode” which has huge, high gain tones with a wide range and a very tight, boosted low-end. Wonderful bassy tones, great for chugging. There is also a standard mode, so you get the classic sound of the MT-2 pedal, also by Boss.
The EQ is also great, with three bands, and a respectable 15dB boost or cut on the bands to allow you to get the frequencies you want singing.
This is another high-gain distortion pedal that some guitarists will absolutely fall in love with. It has a great low-end boost, but some people do not rate it if they want an overdriven sound. Boss are some of the best distortion pedals, and you can see why when you play this.
4. Stone Deaf PDF-2 Parametric Overdrive – Best Bandwidth/Frequency Controls
This is another form of distortion. An overdrive pedal gives a lot of warmth, not always the same level of gain as other distortion, but still plenty of quality.
The PDF-2 is next in the range from the PDF-1, which had a noise gate/floor, adjustable gain, and footswitch to allow you to either true bypass for a clean tone or kick into dirty for a big guitar tone.
The input control lets you use it in conjunction with manual tone shifts, wah-wah, phasers and more. We’ve named it as one of the best distortion pedal and metal pedal options due to the fact that it has an amazing EQ control. You can shape the audio based on the frequency band you wish to distort and overdrive to give your own unique feel, and put your stamp on it.
The bandwidth control is over a full spectrum of frequencies. You can change it from “thin” to “fat”, but basically this is altering the gain based on either the low, booming fat frequencies or the thinner highs.
If you want to tweak and have control over both the EQ and the overdrive then this could be a good choice for you. Higher gain might be needed for some, but this is a joy to alter the overdrive with when playing your favorite metal riffs, it’s also great for soloing.
5. BEHRINGER HEAVY METAL HM300 – Best Cheap Option
Virtually every category of audio equipment has a Behringer model, and it is usually one of the more affordable pieces of equipment. They are a brand that makes some very good “copycat” models of pedals and even amplifiers and synths. There is a lot to like about the HM300, and not just the price point. It is actually a pretty good pedal for the price.
It’s another distortion pedal, as most of the best metal options are. This is really good for a more retro or classic sound, as it has a 70’s feel to it. It combines this with ultra high-gain too, which means that it can give, in the words of the manufacturer “obscene distortion”.
It even has an EQ, something you might not expect for the price. Even though it is only a 2-band EQ it does give more in the way of options, to go along with the level and gain. There’s an LED to show when it is on and off, and the On/Off switch can act as a true bypass to keep this out of the audio signal path if you want to.
Though this pedal may not perfectly compete with some of the elite pedals on the list, it is worth including due to the incredibly low price (compared to some other pedals) and the fact that the distortion it offers is pretty good. You probably won’t catch household name musicians playing it at festivals, but for a beginner or someone on a budget, it is a good option that doesn’t break the bank.
It’s definitely no surprise to see distortion pedals dominating our list. If you are looking to get that true metal guitarist vibe then you will want to get an immense distortion sound. Even if you don’t use it all the time, you know you can flick off the true bypass and have a monstrous tone to use.
There is a lot of personal preference here, so it might be worth listening to some videos of the demos on YouTube, such as this video of our top choice, the Fender Pugilist. Some will give a more modern, clear-cut sound while others provide a real 70’s or 80’s crunch. Whatever you prefer, you can find the right pedal to enable your fuzzy tones on our list. EQ features, as well as the option to combine with reverbs, wah-wahs, and other pedals are also a very important consideration for the well-rounded musician. The Pugilist, as well as the other products on our list, are a way to build your pedalboard up.