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24 of the Best Compact Distortion Pedals - 2019 Edition

Aleks K ProductionAlexander PedalsAmptweakerBearfoot FXBogner AmplificationBossBrown Sound DistortionCatalinbreadDawner Prince EffectsDistortionDr ScientistDriveDual-DriveFriedman EffectsJHS PedalsLawrence Petross DesignMarshall Style DistortionMenatoneMI EffectsMulti-DriveSinvertekSkreddy PedalsSuhrThorpyFXVox Style DistortionWamplerZvex+-

I’ve only just very recently provided a list of my 20 favourite Marshall Style Pedals - and obviously some of those have been separated out into the heavier High Gain category - but when you focus on distortion you can’t really get away from Marshall to a large degree - such is its influence on these types of tones. In fact 14 pedals are retained from the Marshall article and 10 more somewhat different varieties have been added.


If you’ve recently read the Marshall piece - some of the descriptions may be familiar to you I usually make some changes - while I try and concentrate a little more on the pedals that are different. So apart from Marshall - the other key flavour in this area is the boosted / driven Vox amp, or otherwise medium to moderately high gain amp-like distortions which are have their own flavour and can’t be corralled into Marshall or Vox territory.


There are a few multi-drive pedals here that cover a wide range of tones - like the Dr Scientist The Elements and Sinvertek N5 Drive in particular. Generally I go for pedals with 3-band EQ and at least one or two - ideally more voicing and clipping options. I also really like dual footswitch pedals and there is a pair of those hear - overall though I would say there aren’t really any surprises here - and I already have 15 of these in the collection. Top of the wishlist to acquire are the Menatone The King. and Aleks K Maple Leaf Royal Overdrive - I’d still like an Expandora clone of some description, and I will likely go for the Vertical Box of Rock before too long.


We’ll see how I feel upon the conclusion of the review.


Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand:

Aleks K Maple Leaf Royal Overdrive - $279

The perfect searing/soaring liquid lead lines is what I hear from this pedal - just a beautiful singing tone from this family company's really special dual-stage drive/distortion pedal. In many ways the controls aren't a million miles from say the Wampler Pantheon - in that you have Bass and Treble dials - plus as a sort of Presence dial - which Aleks K call 'Auxiliary High' - but should really just name 'Sizzle' as it essentially adds gain and volume boost to the higher frequencies. Devin Townsend famously uses this pedal in his rig to great effect and there are several great demos out their including the one by Brett Kingman which I have referenced before. On this occasion I reference the main Aleks K demo and featuring father and son - and which has a series of liquid lead tracks which so well show what this pedal is about as far as I'm concerned - I have two Aleks K pedals at the very top of my current wishlist - this one and the Red Scorpion Mega Distortion - bot are worthy of your consideration.

Alexander Pedals Hot Pink Drive - $199

As far as I gather this is the 3rd variation / re-tuning of a pedal previously called the Royal Cream Overdrive and Princess Clang Royal Overdrive. In some ways it's along similar lines to the Bearfoot FX Emerald Green - in that we have a key 'Contour' (mids) voicing / EQ-shift dial which gives you a wide variety of tones in conjunction with the Bass and Treble controls here - some can find both Marshall-ish and Vox-ish tones here for a very obviously core British-voiced pedal which is somehow also not quite one or the other. There is no recent demo of the very latest version which seems to have slightly upped the 'creamy' quotient for a beautiful singing liquid neon-style drive tone at the right settings. It's the creamy drive tones which attracted me to this pedal principally - it has a very significant range of tones within it, and is not exactly the same as the above Princess Clang demo - the profile seems to have been tweaked slightly - while the scope of the original pedal's variety is still very much intact. I fear that this will be something of a specialist choice as it is sort of neither one thing nor the other - and people looking for strict pigeon-hole pedals might find this latest incarnation hard to place. For me it somehow recalls Miami Vice and 80's nighttime driving soundtracks from movie and TV soundtracks of that period.

Alexander Pedals Jubilee Silver Overdrive - £189

The Silver Jubilee is a highly celebrated Marshall amp from 1987 with a little more sparkle and jangle than its siblings - it has fairly distinctive transient harmonics which distinguish it from the Plexis and JCM800s. This was my second Alexander pedal, and there is actually another great mini Jubilee pedal - the OneControl Jubilee Red which I also like and want. In the main - most Marshall distortion pedals are some variety of Plexi or JCM800/900 - so this is a slightly different flavour within that mix - still with that essential Marshall DNA, but just a touch different. And if you are wondering - the Jubilee Silver sounds quite different to the Hot Pink Drive - the latter has pretty much none of the Marshall style jangle in the tone - it's quite a different texture.

Amptweaker Tight Rock Jr - £149

James Brown's amp and pedal brand is one I've long admired, but I still don't have anything from his formidable range. It's a question whether I get this or the Tight Metal Pro/Jr first - the Tight Rock delivers wonderful Marshall tones with 3 main knobs, 2 further 3-way switching tone/texture controls, and a mini Noise Gate dial. Amptweaker is best known for its metal pedals - but the output on this pedal is marvellous too. I feel this is something of an unsung pedal from the Amptweaker range but it really is a glorious classic Marshall style distortion - sounds fantastic to me.

Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine Silicon - £210

This is still my favourite Boosted Vox / Brian May style drive - I keep tweaking it and finding ever greater tones and range. I believe this is a favourite of Brett Kingman too - you can dial the Voicing dial to the left for more Marshall style tones or to the right for Vox - it just sounds beautifully full-throttled and amp-like - really dynamic with just the right degree of sizzle. I made my first misstep in a while by acquiring the Massive Unity TAE 1964 PreAmp - which is around 3 times the size of this pedal - but does not sound nearly as good. The Catalinbread Galileo runs this close in some ways, but the Emerald Green has more Volume and more Gain/Sizzle on-tap and just suits my rig better I suppose - this is truly a magical versatile distortion pedal and is highly recommended.

Bogner Burnley Distortion - £169/£267

This is sort of JCM800-esque - not a million miles from the Suhr Riot, but with a slightly darker profile and even more harmonics - courtesy of the onboard Rupert Neve transformer which makes everything sound a little warmer, richer and more textured. I acquired the ltd Bubinga edition, as the wooden facia reminded me so much of the character of the distortion - just beautifully opulently rich harmonic distortion which sounds immense to my rig and imparts a flavour that is close to but not really quite Marshall territory proper. A lot of players don't get on with this pedal for whatever reason, but those of us who do tend to sing its praises rather loudly - possibly the wooden-facia version is one level better! (Ha ha).

Boss JB-2 Angry Driver - £149

This is a pedal made of great parts - Boss BD-2 Blues Driver + JHS Angry Charlie pedal circuits - yet it still ascends to being even greater than the sum of its parts as both these voicings sound like they were made for each other and combine so well together to produce the most gloriously rich and complex Marshall style distortion. I still feel the pedal would be better served with dual footswitches - so that you can switch the pedal on with one side, and then switch between one, both or the other with the second footswitch. I mostly use this pedal for its Blues Drive side or combine Blues Driver with Angry Driver in parallel mode. It's come down in price a little since it was first launched and is really good value as you're sort of getting 3 pedals in one here - highly recommended.

Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret - £137

I still aim to get this pedal at some stage - famously Andy Martin's favourite Marshall-style drive/distortion which combines both Super Lead and Super Bass modes via internal dip-switches and trim-pots alongside full 3-band EQ. I see it as the more grown up sibling to my modded Xotic SL Drive which does largely the same Super Lead / Super Bass thing with fewer settings - in a mini pedal enclosure. The price of this has come down to very reasonable levels of late and this pedal has plenty of support - it sounds great and is really versatile in covering a lot of Marshall ground.

Dawner Prince RedRox Distortion - £179

This was a surprise victor in an Andertons distortion pedal blind challenge around a year ago. At the time of peak interest there were none of these to be had, but now that awareness is dwindling there are a number in circulation. A really great Marshall style voice with a lot of range from those 4 control pots. This kind of fluctuates on my wishlist - moving up and down the scale from week to week - there always seem to be other priorities that gazump it. It's partly to do with how much control and how many dials you like to have at your disposal. I as a pedal tweaker am frequently after maximum versatility and diversity (3-band EQ, clippings and more), but I can appreciate a really well-done relatively simple pedal too when it's this well tuned-in! If it's of any note to you Rob Chapman really likes this pedal - and the new Snake Oil distortion pedal sounds to me like it was influenced a touch by this one.

Dr Scientist The Elements PreAmp - £209

One of my long-term perennial and go-to multi-drive pedals which pretty much owned its slot in my pedal-chain - although it is now sharing the slot on pretty much equal duty with the not quite as versatile but equally impressive sounding True North Tweed Drive. The Elements is an OpAmp based amp-like drive/distortion with a vast range of tones in it. Its character leans slightly toward fuzz-overtones at certain levels of EQ and distortion - but the combination of knobs and switches gives you almost any style of drive pedal - albeit possibly not quite up to the highest levels of Extreme High Gain. Also if you crank the gain dial much beyond 12 o'clock you get a really very audible noise floor which seems to put a lot of players off - or particularly those who don't employ noise gates. I however have a great noise gate, and this pedal is one of my all time favourites. It has a lovely kind of cooking tubes tone to it, but is not distinctly any particular amp that I can mention - it just has a lovely largely open character and is capable of straying within the realms of AC/DC style Marshall tones, but is still not quite distinctly that if that makes sense. In any case a well-love pedal by most.

Friedman Dirty Shirley Overdrive - £149

In many ways this is the perfect Plexi style pedal with the perfect mix of controls and tonal range. It forms one half of a potent pair with the Friedman BE-OD, but that pedal really needs to adopt the same topology as this one for its V2 incarnation. Full 3-band EQ plus Presence, and a 3-way Tightness toggle on the side of the pedal. While the BE-OD has always sold really well, for some reason this pedal has bizarrely never taken off to quite the same degree which can be seen by the divergence in pricing of these two pedals. I am certainly very fond of the Friedman pair of Drive/Distortion pedals - and most players should find them to their liking.

JHS Andy Timmons @+ - £219

There's already a JHS pedal in the listing - the JHS/Boss collaborated Angry Drive, and this Andy Timmons signature pedal is the updated Angry Charlie-style version of that with additional and separate second boost footswitch. Of the various JHS Marshall-type distortions, I would take the @+ over the Angry Charlie and Charlie Brown by virtue of its greater versatility - although you are exchanging 3-band EQ for different headroom/cab voicings essentially. In any case this pedal sounds fantastic - as with pretty much all things Andy Timmons puts his name to. It's yet another pedal on the infinite horizon wishlist!

JHS Kilt Overdrive V1/V2 - £179

Billy Gibbons / ZZ Top's favourite all-time drive pedal is/was the Japanese Bixonic Expandora - which I have always liked - particularly the 2000R version with the 3 external clipping/voicing switches. I am still in two minds as whether to get the original V1 medium enclosures with dual footswitches / separate boost onboard, or the more compact V2 version minus the boost. I'm actually hoping Josh does a V3 version in a similar vein to the Andy Timmons + with all the features of the V1, but in the more compact enclosure. There's lots of range on-tap here - particularly on the V1 pedal. I think I'm best off waiting and seeing for now. I am a little surprised there are so few Expandora clones on the market - as the JHS Kilt seems to be the only mainstream version out there at the moment.

Lawrence Petross Eighty 7 - £180

This the most recent addition to my own Marshall tone library - courtesy of Phillip McKnight's now good friend Lawrence - whom Phillip first introduced to large numbers of us. This is the most recent of his own Marshall flavours coming after his signature and widely successful Sixty 8 Plexi style special q.v. I obviously have a soft spot for JCM800 style voicings, and I'm a sucker for 3-band EQ's which here gets augmented by a further Presence/Sizzle dial and 2-way less/more gain toggle switch. As mentioned previously I track a large number of pedals - and when they come down in price by the right degree, and the timing is just right - then I usually pull the trigger which is what happened here. It looks like Lawrence has another Marshall flavour coming down the line - the Seventy 4 - which I'm guessing is likely based on Malcolm Young's favourite Super Bass amp - but we'll see - it's likely due within the next couple of months.

Menatone The King. - £209

I don't know how or why, but the Menatone The King. (Formerly King of Britains) has somewhat slipped under my radar until pretty recently - where this is actually just the kind of format I love - with 7 tone-shaping dials including full 3-band EQ, a 60's/70's/90's voicing selector alongside further Modern/Vintage toggle-switch. Very much intending to be the full range of key era Marshall tones within a very appealing compact enclosure. Of all those Marshall pedals featured here which I don't yet have in the collection - this one probably goes to the top of the wishlist. Means likely ordering direct from Brian Mena's website - although I have spotted a couple of other dealers in far-flung corners of the world, but nothing even remotely in my vicinity / Europe!

MI Effects Super Crunch Box V2 - £140

This is my current EVH pedal of choice for those late 70's and 80's saturated Variac style tones. Lots of people don't get along with this pedal because of its enormous range and how much each dial can impact the sound. A little patience and perseverance pays off big style though - with the best tones for me reached with Gain around 11 / 11:30 o'clock and Volume at 12:00 o'clock onwards - and then just tiny movements on the smaller dials - which cover a vast range of frequencies. I get the gain level set first, then adjust the Presence to suitable degree of sizzle, and then adjust the 3-band EQ to taste. There is a vast range of combinations here of Gain, Headroom, Compression and Tone - and even though not as complex as a pedal with parametric EQs - there are still many players who fail to get on with this pedal and don't get the best out of it. Last year's That Pedal Show episode that featured this did not really do it any favours as neither Mick or Dan on that occasion had he patience to dial it in properly. So this long-term favourite of mine is something of an acquired taste, but richly rewarding to those who apply themselves!

Sinvertek Drive N5 PreAmp - £145 inc. shipping (

This was announced last year - not long after I acquired its predecessor - the Sinvertek No.5 Distortion. I had to wait until the new version was on - last month, to hit the trigger on the upgrade. All the mechanics, controls and range of the previous pedal are intact, while I feel the clipping has been softened slightly to get more satisfactory lower gain overdrive tones. The previous pedal could run pretty low, but the harder clipping meant you could not get those beautifully smooth MOSFET style tones. This is a fully analog FET circuit pedal - with smart digital controls which allow you to add volume and gain boost either singly or in combination by pressing twice on the footswitch if one of those modes is active. So you hit the footswitch once for on, twice for boost, once again to disable boost, and two further presses to switch effect off - it's actually a really smart and intuitive way to do it all with just the one footswitch - I would probably just prefer it with dual footswitches - but either approach is great. Along with a huge range on-tap, you get the best of tone-shaping courtesy of 3-band EQ plus Presence dial, and two further toggle switches for different Mid Range and Top End Frequency options. This pedal has the odd honour of being a super high quality Chinese boutique pedal - and compares well with any of those around the usual $200/£200 mark. Like the Dr Scientist Elements pedal the core tonal character does not align itself to any particular mainstream amp type - but it is a true chameleon and can approximate a vast diversity of amp-like tones. The slightly tweaked core tone of the newer version is definitely more elegant and should offer even more appeal.

Skreddy Pedals Screw Driver Mini Deluxe Drive - £229

A total classic from King of Fuzz Marc Ahlfs - this is very much a fuzz-edged drive/distortion - perfect for those sort of 70's rock sounds most of us love so much. The interplay of the two gain knobs gives you an extensive range of tones and distortion - which are then further honed by the Brilliance and Sharpness dials - the former being a sort of tone control, and the latter more like Bite / Accent or Attack. The pedal really has a very distinctive tonality which immediately for me recalls those legendary years of early British rock in particular. It's quite a different proposition to most pedals in this listing - while Dr Scientist's The Elements also can have something of a Fuzz character - but in an entirely different register - as those two pedals are quite different really - they just both can have quite distinctive fuzz-like tonalities - without being actual fuzz pedals.

Suhr Riot - £189

There was a That Pedal Show episode which Featured the above MI Effects Super Crunch Box V2, unusually for the guys - not particularly well demonstrated - but then it does take a little bit more to dial it in properly - with all those extra options. The other 3 main pedals featured - the Suhr Riot, Bogner Burnley also above, and Zvex original Box of Rocks (versus Vertical format featured here). I loved all those pedals then, had one already and made the determination then to get the other 3 - so just the Box of Rock to go now. The Suhr Riot and Bogner Burnley are actually relatively similar with heaps of harmonic texture - the latter probably a little thicker sounding, but for some reason fewer players get on with it. Both the Riot and Burnley sound exceptional in my rig - but I specifically mention the Riot here as more people seem to get along with it. I tend to dial them in and use them slightly differently in any case - but you almost definitely would not have both active in your chain at the same time. For me the current hierarchy is Super Crunch > Riot > Burnley - but I have other options now too that I will need to rationalise within the rotation mix.

ThorpyFX Gunshot Overdrive - £185

The Gunshot is a pedal that is not always associated with Marshall tones, but that is what I am informed it was originally inspired from - to drive you right through the range from Super Lead style Plexi through JCM800 and even onto JCM900. I of course have the ThorpyFX trifecta now (Fallout Cloud + Gunshot + Warthog) - but I've determined that I also need a Peacekeeper too in order to round off the full set (actually have since decided that I also need the Veteran Fuzz). The Calibre dial is really clever here in adding more texture and sizzle - and again it's amazing how much 4 pots can accomplish - even though my preference usually tends to be locked into 3-band EQs.

ThorpyFX Warthog Distortion - £185

I feel that all of Adrian Thorpe's pedals are fantastic - and have that beautifully well-balanced harmonic content, while their onsite descriptions often make it difficult for players to understand what space / ballpark those pedals are operating within. As mentioned above, I have it on good authority that the Gunshot is very much Plexi territory, or at least that was the starting point - it's the same argument with Mike Piera's King of Tone vs the Blues Breaker - the starting point or inspiration does not necessarily make those pedals the same or clones of the original examples - they are just a starting point in the circuit breadboarding exercise which can take vastly different routes away from those original circuits. As I understand the Warthog, it was the early edition ProCo Rat pedals that were the original inspiration here, but of course the resulting pedal has evolved away from that starting point. It is still probably fair to say though that the Gunshot is in the ballpark of Plexi, just as the Warthog is in the ballpark of Rat. Both those pedals have the clever Calibre dials which interact so well with the gain knobs to give you richer harmonics / texture and more sizzle. Both these pedals are multi-award-winners on both sides of the Atlantic. One point to note is that I usually position Rat pedals within the Fuzz category, but since the Warthog is not exactly a Rat and has its own rather distinct character, I've decided to place it with the other Distortion pedals.

Wampler Pinnacle - £179

I thought it only fair to include the Wampler Pinnacle JCM800/EVH flavour here - even though I personally would much more likely acquire its larger Deluxe brother with 3-band EQ and additional Boost footswitch. While even in the compact edition with less tone-shaping options - this is still a great sounding pedal and worthy of consideration - although there are probably other pedals listed here - and which I have already that I would take in preference. At the medium enclosure size though, the Pinnacle Deluxe is my favourite offering of that type - I have been meaning to acquire said unit, but obviously have had other priorities get in the way. Right now I own 9 Wampler pedals, and I am determined that the Plexi Deluxe will be the 10th one to finally round out that current brand selection.

Wampler Sovereign Distortion - £189

When Brian Wampler first launched this he announced it as 'The New King of Crunch'. It was principally intended to give a lovely rich and harmonic British-style crunch/distortion on top of a clean amp channel. It obviously is a Marshally type of distortion without owing particular allegiance to any specific one of those amps - you just get that lovely open and ringing well-loved crunchy style of distortion. I'm always slightly bemused when pedals don't have a straight-up 3-band EQ, but Tone and Mid Contour dials here actually do the job really well - and with Modern and Vintage voicings and two different flavours of boost - also applied via toggle - this is an all-round really great and versatile pedal. You can see how well loved it still is by how well it holds its price - I'm still waiting for it to drop a few percentage points so I can snap one up (update - this actually happened - and it's in the collection) - I now really just need a Plexi Deluxe to round off my Wampler collection.

Zvex Vertical Box of Rock - £195

I have mentioned several times on this blog that this pedal has been on my radar for a while - and I was extremely excited when Zvex finally started releasing its classic pedals in more practical vertical compact enclosures - with dual footswitches and other original controls fully in tact. I've already acquired the Germanium Fuzz Face and Vibrophase pedals in that format - and fully intend to get those others currently available at some later stage - including this excellent sounding Box of Rock! As well noted - it is based specifically on the JTM45 Marshall Amp which was connected with the Blues Breaker Era before things really evolved into the more gainey Plexi styles. There are of course overlaps here - particularly with the boost footswitch engaged. I like both dual footswitch pedals on this page, but because of the plethora of JCM800 style pedals I already have - I feel I am more likely to acquire the Box of Rock in advance of the @+.

Final Thoughts

I already have 15 of the above selection - and all the others here are active targets - the forthcoming Lawrence Petross Seventy 4 is not fully refined and finalised yet, but is still on my radar, while my next acquisitions here are likely to be the Aleks K Maple Leaf Royal Drive and Menatone The King. I also really want an Expandora style pedal - but with the full range of the 2000R edition features - and I'm kind of hoping for new additions into that space in the near-ish future, while I'm also hoping that Josh Scott of JHS might update The Kilt with a V3 versions featuring secondary footswitch in similar format to the also picture Andy Timmons Plus.


It's difficult to say which of these are totally essential - there are 3 here that are typically locked into my pedal-chain - the Bearfoot FX Emerald Green Distortion Machine, Dr Scientist's The Elements, and MI Effects Super Crunch Box V2 - but I have so many great pedals that none are really immune to rotation - and each pedal from the collection gets its moment in the spotlight/sunlight from time-to-time.


Which of these you get depends to a a very larger degree as to what exactly you are looking for and how simple or versatile you want things to be. There is a vast degree of overlap on lots of these - but I find that you pretty much take a different direction with each pedal - depending on which great tones you come across first - and what the default pedal values and core tonal characteristics are are - each great pedal should inspire different things in your playing.


Even though I have lots of pedals in the same category for whatever reason - I deploy all slightly differently and with different settings and tonalities - often vastly different degrees of gain - some set to brighter heavier tones, and some set to darker more mid-gain tones. As always, there is no substitute for your own trials and experimentations - but I feel satisfied I've given you sufficient options and alternatives to find something suitable to your taste.


This exercise varies each time I do it - sometime I'm more concerned with representing all very distinctive flavours - and might therefore have the Bearfoot FX Model HS, Catalinbread RAH and Supro Drive in the selection - while other times I get asked by my readers why I haven't included or mentioned this or that pedal within the category. Obviously I completed the Marshall pedals overview fairly recently, so that is front of mind at the moment - and I'm more focused here within the ballpark of those sorts of sounds - and picking the very best choices that appeal to me.


These are all great pedals - and all benefit from great range in Tone, Gain and Volume. There are lots of simpler pedals where you tend to stay more locked into smaller patterns - while with several of these you can stray into odd sounding tonal combinations - for me it's all viable though - just like how I use the Origin Effects RevivalDrive Custom - I mostly use all those additional EQ settings to find interesting alternative tonalities rather than just using them very specifically to dial in the most accurate Plexi reproduction for my Amps - of course I do that too, but I use the full frequency range available for more distinct darker and unusual tones - which inspire different style of playing, different melodies and riffs ...

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Stefan Karlsson
Stefan Karlsson
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