Updated by Bobby on June 22, 2020 — Checked availability for all four pedals. Updated links to the Wampler Dracarys distortion.
Gain is a versatile effect, particularly as it relates to the scope covered when crossing from classic overdrive to modern metal saturation.
Those two extremes — and everything in between — give you plenty of gain levels and flavors to choose from.
You get distortion by increasing gain (volume at the preamp level) and (sometimes) in conjunction with decreasing output (volume at the power amp level). Thus, distortion pedals function as a small preamp and power amp working in your pedal chain.
We’ve evaluated eight popular distortion pedals and settled on four that were most ideal for metal tones, based on seven rating metrics (more on our rating and testing system below the products).
Best Distortion Pedal for Metal: Top 4 Picks
Empress Effects Heavy Distortion: 96.5
- Dual channels
- Tons of tweaking
- Noise gate is FANTASTIC
Amptweaker TightMetal JR Distortion Pedal: 95.7
- Tone is comparable to Mesa tube amps
- Onboard noise gate is great
- Lots of thickness and percussive gain
Wampler Dracarys Distortion Pedal: 93.6
- Sounds great out of the box
- Switch is quiet
- Tone is great for lead and rhythm metal
Ramble FX Twin Bender Fuzz/Distortion: 92.1
- Super-aggressive fuzz sound
- Adjustable impedance
- Selectable transistors
1. Empress Effects Heavy Distortion Pedal
For fans of metal or any kind of modern rock and roll, there’s literally nothing to dislike about the Empress Heavy.
To-date, it’s one of the most complete and perfect distortion pedals we’ve ever tested, able to span a wide range of tones and seemingly handle each of them perfectly.
When we did our Empress Heavy review, it was hard to find a sound we didn’t like.
Here’s a look at the Empress Heavy on Bobby’s dining room table, ready for a test run:
IDEAL FOR: Metal and pairing with a tube amp
- TONE: 98
- EQ/CONTROL: 98
- BUILD/STRENGTH: 92
- COST/VALUE: 88
- Dual channels
- Tons of control
- Tone quality is excellent
- Noise gate is one of the best in the business
2. Amptweaker TightMetal JR Distortion Pedal
The TightMetal JR from Amptweaker meets a similarly high standard of quality as the Empress Heavy. In terms of tone, it differs from the Heavy by putting a little less emphasis on the low end of the spectrum and leaning on the higher frequencies, making it a little friendlier to lead guitar styles.
As the name would suggest, it also tends to sound a bit tighter and less “smoothed over” than the Empress Heavy, though is still just as versatile.
There are three total versions of Amptweaker’s TightMetal distortion box: Tight Metal Jr, Tight Metal St (standard), and the Tight Metal Pro. Even though it’s the smallest, the Tight Metal JR provides a full and thorough distortion pedal that sounds similar to a Mesa Rectifier’s distortion channel tones.
IDEAL FOR: Lead and rhythm metal tones
- TONE: 97
- EQ/CONTROL: 90
- BUILD/STRENGTH: 92
- COST/VALUE: 90
- Tone quality is tough to beat
- Noise gate is second only to the Heavy
- True bypass
- Tight control gets some great sounds
- Not much, unless you mind the price. Still way cheaper than the Empress Heavy.
3. Wampler Dracarys Metal Distortion Pedal
The Dracarys is one of the heaviest and most finely-tuned metal distortion pedals we’ve ever heard or used.
Wampler built the Dracarys around the tone of Ola Englund, a Swedish guitarist and music producer known for his heavy metal riffs and a band he formed called “Feared.” If you’re not familiar with Englund’s style, rest assured it’s heavy and entirely modern metal.
The Dracarys pedal produces plenty of smooth gain that can be loosened or tightened via an Open/Tight switch, a function comparable to the “Tight” knob on the Amptweaker distortions.
On either setting, the distorted tones sound fantastic, though we did notice a weird volume drop in the pedal when switching from open to tight.
IDEAL FOR: All things metal
- TONE: 94
- EQ/CONTROL: 82
- BUILD/STRENGTH: 100
- COST/VALUE: 84
- Three-band EQ
- True bypass and “soft” engage switch
- Perfectly tuned metal tones
- Tight/Open switch provides added versatility
- No onboard noise gate
- Strange volume discrepancy between open and tight modes
4. Ramble FX Twin Bender Fuzz Pedal
Tim Krueger over at Ramble FX runs a small operation, but as a result, he has put a tremendous amount of effort and attention into the only three distortion pedals he produces.
The Twin Bender is a fuzz pedal, true.
But it sounds absolutely fantastic and produces some of the heaviest tones of any pedal on this list.
Tim adds two transistors (you can switch back and forth between them) and an impedance control to make this one of the most aggressive and fine-tune-able fuzz pedals we can recommend.
Read the Review: Ramble FX Twin Bender Review Page
IDEAL FOR: Lead and or rhythm
- TONE: 95
- EQ/CONTROL: 86
- BUILD/STRENGTH: 95
- COST/VALUE: 85
- Two different selectable transistors
- Fuzz tone with metal intensity is a great combo
- True bypass
- Adjustable impedance levels
- A little pricey, but not by much
- Less traditional EQ control
Why You Should Trust Our Reviews
To test these pedals we have them in-house and in our hands.
The reviews and recommendations on this page are not made by simply reading Amazon or manufacturer product descriptions and rehashing what somebody else has already said or written.
We actually plugged each pedal in and played them them through multiple guitars as well as a tube amp combo and multiple digital amp models.
For testing these pedals we used a Mesa Single Rectifier Rectoverb combo, running through a Hughes & Kettner DI box.
Each pedal gets taken through several hours of playing time, which includes recording and a couple different guitars, as well as testing in combination with other effects (delay, chorus, wah, etc.).
It’s also important to mention that these are not the only four pedals we tested.
We’re constantly testing distortion pedals, and these are just our favorites up to this point.
They’re the best performers in the context of producing a metal sound.
We aren’t just trying to deliver up the most expensive distortion pedal, though some of these are pricey.
Rather, in addition to quality and features, we were careful to try and recommend pedals that get you the most quality and features for what you pay.
This means we can plot a value point based on the rating we gave each pedal and its typical retail price:
Concluding and Additional Questions
Have questions about the distortion pedals in this list or about metal tone in general?
Feel free to drop them in the comments section below.
Additional metal distortion pedal suggestions are also welcome there, because there’s always stuff we’ve missed or don’t have experience with that would make a good addition to the list.
If you know of a stompbox you think belongs in our metal distortion pedal roundup, we want to hear about it.
Let us know what you think.