Did You Know?The first distortion devices were rudimentary valve amplifiers. Later, due to the lack of dedicated machinery to produce distortion, many artists deliberately sabotaged their own machinery in order to produce warm, 'dirty' notes!
Buying a distortion pedal can be confusing and overwhelming if you are in the market for the first time. There is technical stuff you don't understand, brands you have never heard of, and the Shakespearean dilemma of 'to spend or not to spend'. In this situation, it is easy to just pick one of the more expensive models off the shelf, plug it into your machine, and feel good about yourself. However, different pedals and different guitars have different characteristics, and picking a pedal that complements your guitar is important.
Here's some advice and tips on making the right choice.
In any purchase, scoping your reach and setting a budget before looking for the options is always a good idea. This way, you don't get tempted by needlessly better options that are completely outside your budget.
There are several good distortion pedals that can be bought for less than USD 50. As outlined by Guitar World magazine, some of these are the Boss DS-1, Modtone MT-DS Speedbox, and Jet City Amplification Shockwave. The Boss DS-1, in particular, is very famous across various genres, and can count artists such as Kurt Cobain and Joe Satriani among its past and present users. It would be the recommended pedal for beginners, irrespective of genre.
As you can see, excellent choices are available for less dough if you just do your research well. However, as with guitars, pedals come in numerous shapes and sizes, and multifunction pedals are available in a wide price range. As listed by Guitar Player magazine, pedals such as the EBS MultiDrive, Fuchs Plush Drive, and HardWire SC-2 Valve are available for less than or around USD 200. Do your research and check your virtual wallets before buying.
Any musical instrument can only be tested by doing what it's built to do: Playing it! Looking and admiring the price tag will only get you so far. Take your amp along with you when you are shopping for distortion pedals, or else ask the shop assistants to hand you one like yours. Try out the pedal, and see if its ergonomics are suitable for you. Take the effort to twiddle the various knobs on it, and check out the output at various levels and tones. This is a very basic, yet criminally commonly ignored, step when buying a distortion pedal.
'Oh thank you, that is helpful', I hear your sarcasm bubble up. I see you rolling your eyes, I really do.
However, this title goes beyond just buying the pedal that 'feels' right. While 'feeling' right is often the most important criterion with musical instruments, you need to ensure that you buy the pedal most suited to the style of music you are going to play. Some pedals are suited to the dark, heavy notes of metal, some are perfect for the loud, clear notes of rock, while some are perfect for the warmth of jazz. Decide on what genre you are going to concentrate on, and find out which pedal is ideal for that one. Ask the shop assistants about this―helping you is literally what they get paid for―and take the help of any professional/experienced guitarists you may know.
Getting a bit overwhelmed by all the choices and options you never knew you had is normal, especially if this is your very first purchase of a distortion pedal. Thankfully, you are not the first guitarist in the world. If you can't work out the relationship between the technical details of a pedal and the resultant sound, take the help of any guitar player you may know. Look up your favorite guitar player, and check out what pedal he used; chances are that his very pedal would neatly fit into your budget. Go for classics such as the Boss DS-1 or the Ibanez Tube Screamer. If you are a bassist, go for the Big Muff Pi fuzzbox, a pedal renowned for its low-frequency response. And if all else fails, there's always the matter of a particular pedal 'feeling right'.
A distortion pedal is a vital accessory for a guitarist. If you rely on electricity to make noise, you need to rely on a pedal to make the noise better. Don't skimp, even if you are an absolute novice. Go for the best one in your budget, and make the most of it!