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24 of the Best Compact High Gain and Metal Style Distortion Pedals - 2019 Edition

Abasi ConceptsAleks K ProductionAmptweakerAMT ElectronicsAnarchy AudioBossDistortionDOD EffectsDunn EffectsEngl AmplificationFriedman EffectsKeeley EngineeringKHDKLone Wolf AudioMESA/BoogieMetal DistortionREVV AmplificationVS AudioWamplerWeehboXIX Tech FX+-
2019GPX24CompactMetalDistortions700-min.jpg

So last year I did a sort of 15 Metal Pedal overview - but I’ve come across a few more since - and there have been some new launches - so I thought it opportune to do a more extensive round-up. This is actually the first of a series of 4 articles featuring my favourite High Gain, Distortion, Fuzz and Overdrive - pedals - one feature per category - with 24 pedals in each overview. I have been doing these for the last couple of years and this is the 2019 series as such.

 

These are my own 24 preferred choices within set category and form-factor - I’m sure there are other options out there that I may have overlooked or consciously omitted. If you feel I’ve wrongly excluded a pedal here - please let me know in the comments.

 

Funnily enough most ’Metal Pedals’ of note seem to occupy larger enclosure sizes - typically medium format or larger - yet companies like Boss and REVV have really been honing their circuits within the compact format enclosure - which as many of you know is my preferred enclosure size.

 

I currently have 12 of these in my own collection and intend to get quite a few more of the listed ones within forthcoming months / years - depending of course on priorities and available funds. Many players still ask me whether ’Metal Pedals’ can sound as good and richly textured as the equivalent Metal amps - and the answer is still not exactly quite yet - but Boss and REVV in particular and some of the newer makers are getting ever closer. Moreover if playing within a domestic / neighbourly setup - the pedal-route is the only way you can practically operate. I use these pedals in combination with other boosts and EQs and can achieve some pretty stellar tones at relatively reasonable volume levels, although you can’t get quite yet the full frequency response and lovely rich and harmonically complex texture of those very best of Metal-style amps - one day though I think we will get there.

 

I feel that of late REVV Amplification in particular has made great strides forward with its G3 and G4 pedals in producing very realistic proper Metal-amp-like tones - but if you compare with the original Generator Amps at full throttle - the pedals are not quite 100% there yet even though they do both sound fantastic.

 

I see this kind of High Gain / Metal Distortion as being somewhat slightly different in character to say the core Marshall JCM800/900 sound - even though there is a significant degree of overlap. Here we have typically denser, darker and slightly more brutal sounding distortions. A lot of pedals here - including the HM-2 and MT-2 variants are actually very closely related to fuzz circuits - so there are a couple of metal-style fuzz circuits also in this round-up. I feel this selection stands up pretty well on its own merits. If anyone here feels I have missed out something of note - please let me know.

 

Pedals are listed alphabetically by brand:


Abasi Concepts Pathos Distortion - £169

This was a weirdly stealthy release last year - it came into Thomann totally unannounced and I acquired it from there a few days before it was up for sale at Andertons. This is Tosin Abasi's current signature pedal and a collaboration with Brian Wampler as can be seen by the enclosure style - I really consider this a Wampler pedal and file it with its siblings. It has 3-band EQ and 2 modes - Smooth and Edge. I tend to stick entirely with the more biting 'Edge' variety where you get some fantastic modern mids-forward metal rhythm tones. This pedal gets rotated on the same pedal-chain slot alongside the REVV G3, Friedman BE-OD, Keeley Filaments, Wampler Dracarys, Weehbo Bastard and LWA F.O.A.D. - where the G3 currently seems to get the most love - but each pedal is sufficiently distinct to warrant rotation and they all get their time in the spotlight.


Aleks K Production Red Scorpion Mega Distortion V2 - $259 (Direct)

I've mentioned a couple of times on this site that Aleks K pedals could do with some more publicity and support - these are superbly well crafted pedals from Canada, family-made! I really like the bark of the Red Scorpion - particular for rhythm tones, and it is one of the many pedals listed here high on my wishlist. Possibly I prefer Aleks K's Maple Leaf Royal Overdrive a touch more - but that pedal is not in this category. This pedal will be in the collection eventually and on rotation in the G3 slot.


Amptweaker Tight Metal Jr - £149

James Brown's Amptweaker pedals have been on my radar for a long time - and I've just recently decided that for certain of my Metal pedals I much prefer the more compact enclosure sizes - so I will likely be adding the Tight Meal in the Jr format rather than the somewhat more richly featured Pro version. Part of me really wants / needs 3-band EQ - but Amptweaker gets around this by providing plenty of EQ-shaping options via other switches. This is another pedal that is likely to be added to the collection before too long.


AMT Electronics R2 PreAmp (Rectifier) - £130

Russia's AMT pedals are often overlooked, but some of them - like this MESA Rectifier inspired R2 are just too good to be ignored. Very reasonably prices and available from Moscow courtesy of Reverb.com - this is definitely a pedal that I will be adding to the collection (added actually!) - it has a lovely combination of bark and bite with just the right degree of tone-shaping to get the most out of it. Many players ask me about viable MESA distortion options - and at this size my picks are this R2 PreAmp, and MESA's own Throttle Box q.v.


Anarchy Audio Deadwoods Fuzzstortion - c£140 (Reverb.com)

This one arrived just recently from Australia - after a few weeks of transit - mostly courtesy of crappy UK customs delays. I included the Deadwoods in my HM-2 overview as it is a monster high gain fuzz hybrid based on a crossover/mashup/evolution of the Boss HM-2 and Shin-Ei FY-2 circuits. It has a pretty vast range of tones - and although not exactly HM-2, it puts you very much in that ballpark.


Boss MZ-2 Digital Metalizer : discontinued - c£100 lightly used (Reverb.com)

Anyone who knows their modulations is aware of how delay and chorus in particular can add 'juice' and depth to distortions. I use chorus, flanger and phaser variously to shape my distortions - obviously for EVH-style sounds but for much more besides. Boss, in recognising this - built a combination pedal back in the day (early 90's) which has a wonderfully biting distortion at its core in SLO mode, but then adds 3 Digital Delay Doubling and 2 Digital Chorus effects options to get progressively heavier flavours of distortion. This pedal is very much within HM-2 and MT-2 territory, so may be too fizzy for some - while for many others it's a sort of secret weapon. It's long since discontinued, but can be had for a pretty reasonable price on Reverb.com - some of these are obviously battered - so make sure you find one in sufficiently reasonable condition.


Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal : discontinued - c£150 lightly used (Reverb.com)

The long-discontinued and still very much in-demand Boss HM-2, the core of the Swedish Death Metal Sound and a tone much loved by metal aficionados the world over - note that several players like to further juice this pedal with an upstream Tube Screamer boost. I did a piece on alternatives to this discontinued pedal - as sometimes the going price for a pristine second hand version is verging on the ridiculous on Reverb.com - but good buys can still be had if you're careful. Right now I consider the XIX Tech HMD-1 an excellent improved alternative for this - there are several larger pedal options too - as well as the much to look forward mini pedal version Angry Swede from Decibelics - which is due any day soon. Many are hoping - as am I that Boss will eventually see its way fit to creating a Wazacraft edition of the HM-2 with the same kind of tone options as the recent Wazacraft MT-2w.


Boss ML-2 Metal Core Distortion - £96

Boss's other often overlooked metal pedal alongside the MZ-2 - this is actually many player's favourite Boss high gain distortion - as it has a more rounded and significantly less fizzy frequency profile than the HM-2 and MT-2. It is also significantly the lowest cost option in this listing - and is actually a really great underrated pedal - although I would of course still prefer to see it with an HM-2 style 3-band plus parametric mids tonal arrangement! This pedal always tends to perform well in metal pedal blind tests, but as with every pedal on this page - it really depends how well the pedal is tuned in and how well it sits within your rig!


Boss MT-2 Metal Zone Keeley 'Twilight Zone' Mod - c£140 lightly used (Reverb.com)

The wrongly much-maligned but still well-loved Metal Zone pedal is nevertheless much improved in its Keeley Modded 'Twilight Zone' edition. I acquired mine from a Japanese vendor on Reverb.com and really like the nips and tucks Robert has done to the default frequency character. The Keeley mod gives you a 3-way mode selector with Stock, Ultra Tube and Triple Diode - the stock version has a much more even and slightly beefed up tonal profile - particular in the mid-range - while the Ultra and Treble Diode modes both give you different degrees of additional frequency boost. The Keeley Mod is a definite upgrade on the stock Boss pedal and provides a slightly different voicing to both the original and new Wazacraft Boss editions - all are perfectly viable choices. I always think it's amusing to know that despite all its detractors this is Boss's second most-sold pedal of all time after the DS-1.


Boss MT-2w Metal Zone Wazacraft Edition - £119

Even though I have the exceptional Keeley-modded original Metal Zone - I still want this new Wazacraft edition which achieves a fantastic improved tone - in particular on the custom switch option. Boss have very evidently 'tidied' up the mid-range frequency range somewhat, albeit in a slightly different manner to the Keeley mod. The custom setting in particular sounds especially balanced and richly detailed. There is still plenty of frequency range on tap here though, and you still need to be somewhat careful how you apply the parametric mids - which are still rather sensitive, although not nearly has sensitive as they used to be. The parametric mids has always been the greatest strength as well as weakness of the Metal Zone as too many players did not know how to dial it in, and the relatively small dial is so sensitive that tiny movements can make huge differences. I have quite a number of 'Sensitive' pedals where they need a little more patience and due care and attention - but if you're prepared to put in the time - you can often get stellar results! I feel this pedal will go a long way towards redeeming the Metal Zone's reputation amongst all players - even though many of us supported it from the start - and there will of course be detractors regardless. This is however by any measure a really great modern metal pedal in its latest incarnation, and well worth a look-in.


DOD Boneshaker Distortion by Black Arts Toneworks : discontinued - $150 when new (Reverb.com)

This is an even crazily more sensitive pedal than the Metal Zone as it has a trio of parametric controls for ultimate tonal flexibility. Much like the Metal Zone - several players fail to get on with this pedal - but this Black Arts Toneworks collaboration can also yield rich rewards if you're prepared to put in the time. I personally could have done with a little more gain onboard, but you can't quibble over the versatility of this pedal. It's a touch sad that so many failed to get on with it which resulted in its discontinuation - there are still a few pristine examples that crop up occasionally on Reverb.com - which is where I got mine.


Dunn Effects Blackbeard Fuzzstortion - $165 (Direct)

This is another close cousin to the more conventional distortion pedals and is more closely related to the Anarchy Audio Deadwoods than any other circuit here. They do have quite different circuits at their core - as the Deadwoods is an evolution of a Shin-Ei FY-2 , while this Blackbeard Fuzz is some sort of evolution of a Big Muff Black Russian Circuit - with quite a bit more gain on-tap. Like the Deadwoods it's not exactly the same as the others here, but can be tuned right up into prime metal territory - certainly one for consideration, and another cool fuzz flavour derivation. (Note above demo is of earlier mid-size enclosure version, latest version is more compact).


Engl Reaper Distortion - £105

When you think of legendary Heavy Metal Amps - German heavyweights Diezel and Engl would definitely be high on that list - with each choosing to take a slightly different pedal route. For a long time I had the Diezel VH4-2 pedal as pride of place for my highest gain pedal, but consider that a touch unnecessarily unwieldy nowadays and have switched down to mostly compact plus some medium enclosure metal pedals. The Engl Reaper is its closest approximation to its legendary Powerball amp tone and it's a very reasonably priced option at that, although it does not quite match the power and punch of the original amp.


Friedman BE-OD Distortion - £177

I almost forgot to list this option for the REVV G3 slot - where this is/was the actual original incumbent - for a long time this was my sort of lower higher gain end metal pedal of choice - but a larger number of new pedals have been launched / added since, and the REVV G3 is probably the overall favourite on that slot currently. I really want this pedal to pick up the new changes introduced on the BE-OD Deluxe - i.e. Tightness becomes a toggle selector switch on the side of the pedal, and the former Tightness dial gets given over to a much needed Mids frequency controller. This is a pretty great sounding pedal which many love - but the middle frequencies are so important for so many modern players - including myself. I am hoping for an improved V2 release of this within these next 12 months or so.


Keeley Filaments High Gain Distortion - £179

This pedal was on my wishlist for the longest time - I initially considered it versus the Wampler Dracarys when they both originally came out - but ended up going with the former, and making all manner of priority decisions along the way - while the Filaments was probably superior and more versatile to many of the pedals I initially acquired in its stead. Doing the HM-2 alternatives article finally sealed the deal when I discovered that the Filaments could get you well into that territory alongside a number of other really appealing but generally more dark-side tones. This really is one of the most versatile high gain pedals out there, but it does have quite a distinct core tone and timbre which lends itself more towards those darker and doomier tones! It's in no way an HM-2 clone, but does get you pretty nicely into that territory if you so wish.


KHDK Dark Blood Distortion - £189

Kirk Hammett's signature pedal for sure has a lot of fans - while I still feel it could have done with 3-band EQ and a little more gain on-tap. It nevertheless sufficiently captures his core dynamics and with 'Doom' voicing dial and Hi/Lo gain toggle-switch it delivers sufficient versatility for most of his fans. I currently have this as a nice to have pedal rather than a metal pedal essential - but for many it will do the job just fine.


Lone Wolf Audio F.O.A.D. Distortion - £189

Lone Wolf Audio is much more famous for its large and medium-size pedals like the Left Hand Wrath HM-2 clone. This compact edition though is the signature pedal for Norwegian Black Metal band Darkthrone and suitably captures that rather mid-pushed modern tonality. The four dials on offer are the classic Volume, Gain and Tone plus an EQ Shift which acts as a sort of low pass filter to remove bass frequencies for a punchier attack/tone. This pedal gets a fair amount of rotation on the REVV G3 slot - it has a slightly different timbre to it, but it could probably overall do with some more tone-shaping options as an updated future version.


MESA Engineering Throttle Box Distortion - £185

As mentioned for the AMT R2 above - that and this pedal are the only proper compact edition MESA Rectifier style pedals that I'm aware of. As always I would have preferred 3-band EQ, but we do have a the Lo/Hi gain mode selector alongside Mid Cut control to give you most of the voicing options you would want. This is a decent if not quite stellar replication of the much loved MESA sound - because of the greater tone-shaping abilities I feel I would more likely side with the AMT R2. There are several pedals here that give you a MESA-eque tone, but only two properly dedicated varieties - would be interesting to know here if I've overlooked some other notable alternatives. I feel that MESA good probably do with an update of this pedal with a few more tone-shaping options - particularly in light of much improved competition of late.


REVV G3 Distortion - £199

And so to the first of the REVV Amplification pedals - this was quite the revelation when launched around Easter of last year - a genuine modern amp-like heavy-hitter metal style pedal which received almost uniformly rapturous applause - and was very quickly added to my chain. Obviously it pretty faithfully captures Channel 3 of the very highly regarded REVV Generator Amps - and runs that pretty close in dynamics and richness of texture. It is currently the principal choice on the next-highest level of gain saturation in my pedal-chain. This is just a really classic modern mid-pushed amp-like metal pedal that should be high on everyone's wishlist if you don't already have it.


REVV G4 Distortion - £199

Announced in the run-up to Christmas, and in my hands on January 10th - well in advance of NAMM, this REVV Generator Channel 4 pedal gives you even more metal oomph than the well-received G3. I had been running my Wampler Triple Wreck in the typical Diezel VH4-2 slot and quickly decided that the G4 could really sort of replace both of those - for a more full-frequency style of metal - with more of a low end push and significantly more gain saturation than the G3. Those 2 pedals actually really complement each other and give you the perfect range of modern metal tones with a particularly dynamic and texturally rich amp-like delivery. It's hard to say which I prefer more - the G3 or G4 - each has its moments on any given day. These are currently my preferred 'Metal' pairing at the higher levels of gain - but I do also accompany those with a MI Effects Megalith Delta and Empress Heavy - so a variety of metal tones all-round. I feel that the G4 can deliver MESA Rectifier style tones pretty well too - so if you're looking for that kind of tonality and want the most versatility currently out there in this form factor - then this is a very good choice for that too.


VS Audio Operation Trinity Distortion - €183 (Direct)

Within Greek maker VS Audio's neat and compact range there is the sort of High Gain Distortion Operation Trinity which kind of straddles my High Gain and Distortion categories. As Ola (Englund) says - this is not quite a full throttle metal pedal like most of these others - but it does deliver more than satisfactory saturated gain tones particularly good for rhythm playing. This is the simplest pedal on offer here - with just the very minimal 3 dials - Volume, Gain and Tone. I would have liked to see a few more tone-shaping controls here - voicing / gain stage toggle and 3-Band EQ would be nice for a V2.


Wampler Dracarys High Gain Distortion - £189

Back at the time when both this and the Keeley Filaments were released in short succession I went with this over the Keeley - being a fan of Ola Englund and his core tone and with GOT at its height - it kind of fitted that the Dracarys was the one selected - while in retrospect the Keeley Filaments is the more capable and versatile pedal. That's not to say that the Dracarys doesn't do its job well - as an Ola-style modern chug tone - this is a pretty good match, but overall the pedal doesn't have a huge degree of variety even with its 3-band EQ, and I always felt it could do with a touch more gain. I still like this pedal, and it still features in my rotation, but feel that this pedal could have been even better executed than it was with just a couple of minor tweaks.


Weehbo Bastard Low End Distortion - £179

This is totally an under-the-radar and under-appreciated pedal - weirdly classified as a Low End Distortion - because of how much low end frequency it preserves in its core tone. As Brett demonstrate above though this pedal has plenty of bite and aggression and would make for a perfect modern sort of Metal tone - not quite as dark and doomy as some here - but really with plenty of range on tap. This may well be my next acquisition. Update - I did get one of these and it sounds pretty much as expected - I find that it could do with a little more volume onboard - I've tried running at both 9V and 18V - but I still feel it good do with a notch or two more. Most of my other Metal style pedals are pretty fantastic in the output and gain department - but there are some here too that could do with just a little bit more - still a great core tone here - and of course it sounds best on the most open / middle setting of 3-way toggle. Lots of people gave got those details wrong - the 3 modes here are - Dark, Modern and Old School going from left to right.


XIX Tech HMD-1 Distortion - £167 (Reverb.com)

And last but certainly not least we have the excellent HM-2 clone from Russian outfit XIX Tech - I have been chasing up Dmitry for when more of these are going to be available (I just missed out on last year's run) and he says there is a new batch coming in March (I've already reserved mine). This was the surprise winner in my HM-2 alternatives feature - where with its very unique Focus control - which offers increased separation of the twin peaking frequencies in the mid-range character which are so instrumental in the HM-2 sound. With far superior tone control, internal voltage increased to 22V and more gain on tap - this is a considerably beefed up version of the HM-2 which most fans of that sound should love - it's also very fairly priced - but do note that there will be customs import charges added to the displayed total.


Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in the intro, I have 12 of these listed already in the collection and getting regular rotation in my pedal-chain - and have most of these others here on my ever burgeoning wishlist. Few of these are like for like - certainly not in terms of tonality, punch or overall saturation. Some here are more modern with mid-push, some are slightly fuzz-aligned, some are more bass-heavy / vintage or scooped - but I feel very much that this selection holds up to any - there are all kinds of weird 'Metal' and High Gain pedal selections on the web with no rhyme or reason to them at all really - while I feel that this group is particularly well curated.

 

I am always one for versatility and practicality - so I'm a big fan of pedals with a lot of range onboard - which can achieve a variety of tones. While some are much more significantly limited in their scope. Many of the Boss pedals get a bad rep, but even though several could do with some modern nips and tucks - the old pedals can still sound great if you deploy them correctly and use in combination with other upstream boosts and downstream EQs to make up for any perceived shortcomings.

 

Those that are definitely down for imminent acquisition include the Aleks K Red Scorpion, and XIX Tech HMD-1 - I will also add the newish Metal Zone Waza soon enough. As always and being the eternal opportunist - when and how they get added to the collection depends very much on pricing, availability, priorities and prevailing mood.

 

I don't really wish to single out any for particular mention - but it is evident that the new REVV distortions are finding a lot of favour currently, and the new Boss Metal Zone Wazacraft has been very well received. I also have the inkling of a feeling that Boss will be releasing some new format of the HM-2 in the not too distant future.

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Stefan Karlsson
Stefan Karlsson
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