This article was prompted by my earlier piece on the Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal Pedal / Alternatives, as well as a reader request to review the KHDK Dark Blood. As always though I never review anything in isolation - I try to take the pulse on the larger category and see what pedals are competing in that category and are worthy of consideration.
Even metal pedals as such have varying degrees of distortion, but I’ve tried to focus on those here that are intended as principally high gain / metal pedals. I long considered one of my favourite pedals - the Dr Scientist The Elements which can go plenty heavy, but I reasoned that it was never intended as a full throttle gain style pedal, which this selection mostly is catering for.
There are a couple of possible odd picks in here as always, but they are accompanied by the usual salient rationale as to why they have been included. Some of these pedals have a bad rep because they can be tricky to dial in, and for some players the output from them can tend towards bad rather than good. I however am a fully fledged tone-tweaker, so most times I welcome the inclusion of multiple dials and clipping / voicing switches, in fact I am a huge fan of 3-band EQ in all its guises, and can get annoyed when I am not fully permitted to sculpt the tone in every direction.
That said, I have a slew of wonderful simple pedals too which have amazingly powerful single tone dials or smart dual-band EQs even. In this listing there are representatives from all camps though and I’ve tried to pick out my own personal favourite 15 here. Including 3 which I had in my HM-2 overview too.
Most recently I snapped up a DOD Boneshaker for around £100 - those discontinued pedals are becoming increasingly rare, as there used to be quite a few on Reverb.com but stocks are obviously depleting now.
In my compact metal pedal slot I currently have the REVV G3 in pride of place - having taken over duties from the Friedman BE-OD, and sometime rotation of the Wampler Dracarys. I have mentioned recently that I fully intend to get a Boss Waza Metal Zone, Keeley Filaments and XIX Tech HMD-1 which was my favourite of the proper HM-2 clones/alternatives. I’ve long since decided that I should have an Amptweaker Tight Metal, but have not decided whether to go for the kitchen sink Pro version or this compact Jr version. I’m having a similar internal debate over a Mesa Throttle Box too actually.
I’m also strangely drawn to the Fuzz-Metal of the Anarchy Audio Deadwoods and the solid crunch of the KHDK Dark Blood. I moreover prefer the core tone and texture of the Engl Reaper (Powerball) to its more fizzy sibling - the ’Straight to Hell’. While the VS Audio Operation Trinity and Aleks K Red Scorpion also make wonderfully appealing sounds.
Of course price and availability are key factors here while for me I like a high degree of flexibility and versatility which tends to mean the more switches and dials the better!
Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand:
A small boutique Canadian pedal maker that has a couple of pedals that kind of fit this category - the dual-drive Hot Ice Sweet Distortion and this Red Scorpion Mega Distortion 2. The Red Scorpion is the more natural fit and has a lovely full-throated tonal profile which sounds rich and fat. It comes equipped with 3-band EQ and a 2-way Tone Toggle - which is sort of an EQ shift that changes the core profile - sort of more treble or more mids -centric. The EQ dials are shelf-type, where it might have been preferable to have more active EQ controls for Boost and Cut. Nevertheless a formidable sounding high gain distortion.
James Brown cherry-picks the best elements from the full-size Pro pedal, and accommodates them in this really smart and versatile compact form factor. I would still probably prefer a 3-band EQ here, but there are dual voicing switches for EQ and Tightness, as well as a built-in noise gate with surface dial. Part of me would really want to see a V2 of this one with the 3-band EQ present, but it is though still spectacular in its current format - suitably rich and crunchy.
This is somewhat of an outlier here being based more on a fuzz-type circuit really, although supposedly a hybrid of Boss HM-2 and Shin-Ei FY-2 - it nevertheless sound suitably doomy/sludgy. There are 4 controls here - Fuzz, Level, Lows and High Mids. I included this pedal in my recent HM-2 alternatives overview and I took quite a liking to it, although it's definitely something a bit different. I have a fairly similarly doomy fuzz in the guise of the Greenhouse Effects Sludgehammer - but the Deadwoods is somewhat fiercer and more extreme - as suits its inclusion here!
This is Boss's more rounded fuller-sounding metal pedal, I would not get stuck up on the moniker really, for many players this is their favourite Boss metal pedal - it has a more even distortion profile and is some distance from the more fizzy / fuzzy tones of the Metal Zone and Heavy Metal pedals. This one often gets overlooked with its classic 4 dials, including 2-band EQ - but it deserves an audition, and is very reasonably priced. I usually buy my Boss pedals modified - typically by Alchemy Audio, Keeley, JHS or similar - for better component content and better signal-to-noise ratio - so would likely to that here too.
I've always liked the Metal Zone, both in its regular format and improved Keeley modified Twilight Zone edition. There is no doubt that the new Waza Craft proposition significantly tames and refines the tonal profile of its predecessor, and those that hated that might nevertheless like the more focused delivery of the custom mode. The dials are slightly less sensitive now, but people can still be caught out by the parametric mids. It's something I'm quite used to, and really quite like. A number of my pedals have sensitive dials and vast frequency ranges assigned, so I'm rather very used to all that by now. This is and always has been a great pedal if you spend some careful time dialling it in properly.
This is my most recently acquired pedal from the above group - I spotted a new one for around £100 and time was right to snap one up. Although discontinued (recently) there are a few still in distribution and can be had for a reasonable price. The genius of this pedal is that you have 3-band parametric tone controls where you can set centre frequency for each of Low, Mid and High and Boost or Cut each of those frequencies. Besides the normal Distortion and Level dials, you also have a Depth dial which allows you to dial out the Sag - i.e. increase tightness by dialling out the bass frequencies as you rotate clockwise. Similar to the Metal Zone - this pedal has been wrongly maligned by those unfit to use it really. Like the Metal Zone it requires careful dialling in - as with the range of frequencies on offer you can easily dial in something horrible sounding too!
I had a fairly short debate on whether to feature the more classic Engl Powerball style Reaper or the more fizzy / treble-centric Victor Smolski signature 'Straight to Hell'. The former just sounds better to me - it has more mid-range punch and generates a richer and crunchier distortion which is more appealing to my ears. The Engl distortion pedals feature the typical 3-band EQs you see on most of these contemporary high gain distortions. I really quite like this one, and since it is somewhat overlooked at the moment in can typically be acquired at a rather reasonable price.
This was my longest standing compact High Gain distortion pedal, getting some rotation with the Wampler Dracarys, before being ousted by the slightly more versatile REVV G3. I would really have preferred the same control topology here as is on the newer Friedman Dirty Shirley pedal - as I feel this one is missing the essential middle frequency control which is so important for most modern metal distortion. That is the one change I would like to see here - a Tight Toggle switch instead of dial, and that Dial then rendered as a Mids control - nonetheless this is a great full-sounding high gain JCM800 style distortion and still remains the favourite of many players, although several have switched up to the REVV G3 too.
This was sort of the surprise winner in my Boss HM-2 alternatives overview as it gets you well into that territory and is quite a lot more versatile besides. When I first heard it I wasn't sure I really liked its core darker tonality - say versus the more open sound of the Friedman BE-OD or the Wampler Dracarys - but I've actually grown to like it, and this is most likely my next purchase in this category. It benefits from 3-band EQ, a Presence Dial and separate Boost, Bright and Crunch switches which all help ramp up and crunch up the distortion. Its price it back up the highest it has been - I will look to get this when the pricing next reaches more appealing levels or I spot a good buy on Reverb.com. This is a really versatile high gain distortion, perhaps not as versatile as the Dr Scientist The Elements, but it has a more natural aptitude for metal distortion in particular.
Kirk Hammett's signature pedal comes preloaded with his core sound. It is suitably full-throated and rich, with very dynamic Gain, Volume and Treble controls, while there is something just a little odd about the 'Doom' dial - which controls the amount of low-end frequencies, but also seems to shift the middle frequencies somewhat. It has a really handy built-in noise gate mini-dial, and a Hi / Lo gain mode toggle switch. If you're after a close approximation of this particular Metallica sound, then this is a great pedal for that, albeit some players get uneven results with higher output pickups and several seem to struggle with the application of the Doom dial. It's a great sounding pedal for sure, but does not necessarily have a vast range of versatility, and comes with some caveats.
This is Mesa's compact form-factor of their High Gain pedal - minus the 5-band EQ and boost of the full-fat version. For most though this one will do just fine, starting with a fairly significant growl even in the lighter end of the Lo toggle setting. There are just 4 dials here besides the Lo/Hi toggle - Level, Gain, Mid Cut and a pretty versatile Tone dial. I quite like this pedal which still seems to sit rather in the shadow of its bigger brother. It does a grand job though of delivering that core rectifier distortion tone that Mesa is so well known for - I do feel though that there are more versatile pedals available at a similar price point - but if you're after that Mesa-style distortion this should do just fine.
This is my current champion in the relevant high gain slot of my pedal-chain - having ousted both the Friedman BE-OD and Wampler Dracarys. I do intend to get more pedals for the slot rotation, but this is likely to remain pride of place for the foreseeable future. It has really cleverly set 3-band EQ controls - which are super dynamic and always deliver a usable tone, we also have a useful 3-way Aggression toggle, although there isn't much noticeable difference between Blue and Red modes at the highest gain setting. Nevertheless there are differences in the different toggle states which range from Off to Blue then Red. You can hear a significant difference on the first step, but less so on the second - particularly in the higher registers as mentioned. I really like the core tonal character and texture here and it is very much default tuned to my preferences - as well as being super tight and modern. I prefer the core tonal profile of this to the Filaments, even though the latter has slightly more bells and whistles and tonal-sculpting abilities. It has to be noted that most of these pedals have quite distinct tonal profiles and not one here sounds exactly like the other - so your own preferences will count to a significant degree. I though have a rather wide pallet of favourite sounds and I like to represent the full gamut of what is possible here.
This is for sure the simplest pedal on offer here - just your classic 3-pot - Volume, Gain and Tone dials - but it kicks off with an encouraging growl. It's a nicely rounded full-sounding distortion profile, but may not quite go high-gain enough for some. Its distortion is rich and well-balanced though and the Tone dial is suitably versatile - although it cannot compete with many of the other pedals here for sheer range. For those of a simpler persuasion though this might be just the ticket for you.
I was oddly both disappointed and delighted with this pedal when I first got it. It totally does what it is supposed to do and does that very well - that Ola Englund chuggy djent sound. Yet does not have that much versatility to it even with the 3-band EQ and Open/Tight switch. There are several pedals here with far more range and overall versatility - even though the gain here can be dialled down nicely - it's just that sometimes the tonal controls are more narrowly defined - and I would possibly have liked a little more crunch and a little more gain here. In some ways I was expecting a slightly more elastic Triple Wreck, but that is not what this pedal is about. I still like its output, but prefer several pedals overall as they give me more, as well as slightly more of what I want.
I guess this is the real winner of my HM-2 overview / alternatives exercise - this Siberia, Russian-made 6-dial Boss Heavy Metal clone. It improves on the original with 3-band EQ and Frequency Focus dial - for more tone-sculpting, versatility and refinement. It is made in batches, but fairly readily available on Reverb.com. In the absence of a MT-2 Waza-style HM-2 - this is probably your best current alternative. I fully intend to get one of these in any case, looking like next year within the current schedule.
I very carefully selected the above 15 examples to represent the best of what is available within compact High Gain Pedals, and I'm very satisfied with the range and scope covered here. Most players though are very specific about what kind of distortion they like, and seek out specific variations of that - as I did with my piece on the Boss HM-2. In this article there are 3 pedals from that recent overview - all of which I intend to acquire eventually - and with the Keeley Filaments on the top of that list, followed by the XIX Tech HMD-1 and then the Anarchy Audio Deadwoods.
I've still to acquire the much improved Boss Waza Craft Metal Zone and Metal Core pedals - those are also on my wishlist alongside either the Tight Metal Jr or Tight Metal Pro. Similarly I will likely get the larger Mesa Throttle Box EQ over the more compact version here - while I still have my sights set on the Wampler Triple Wreck.
In fact I have an equal number of larger High Gain Pedals that I also have my eye on - and which will be part of my next feature! As always I recommend the usual degree of trial and error to find out what you like best - several here are tried-and-tested and much lauded, while a few are under-rated and somewhat much-maligned. As mentioned in the intro I tried to pick pedals very specifically targeted as high gain / metal - where I could have included say the Dr Scientist The Elements and the MI Effects Super Crunch Box V2. Very few are likely to like all of these - this is after all very much about personal preference, and even within preferences there are degrees of favouritism.
If you feel I have left out other notable compacts here - please let me know so that I can consider them for the next time I do such an overview.