I will preface this article by stating that I’ve split the High Gain Distortion into two categories - High Gain and Extreme High Gain - where the latter has a more pronounced and slightly tighter punchy mid-range gain structure typically. With these pedals though and their many settings you can largely get the same degree and type of distortion within both groups - so it really does depend very much on how you dial things in - as an example the Rock Fabrik’s Mind Abuse has 3 voicings - with Classic and Vintage belonging more to this group, while the Modern setting is more of the Extreme High Gain distortion type.
So I’ve selected the best 4 per enclosure size that I feel fall most naturally within each specific category. And starting with the Mini pedals, there are actually not that many really properly competent High Gain Mini pedals in this range - with only really Mooer targeting this demographic properly. I feel that there are around half a dozen pretty worthy Mooer candidates - largely from its more recent Micro PreAmp range - within that range of 20 there are around 10 with can be classified as high gain - I’ve already mentioned the two 5150 ones in my previous Brown Sound roundup. To my ears the 2 highest gain Mooer PreAmps are the more recent US Gold 100 (Friedman Brown Eye 100) featured here, and I select the Cali-Dual (MESA/Boogie Dual Rectifier) in the Extreme category. You also have the existing Mooer Mini Blade (Metal Muff clone) and Rage Machine (Digitech Death Metal clone) which are suitably high gain too. I’ve chose the Micro PreAmps here as they each have 3-band EQ alongside 2 Channel Modes. With such an increase in really high quality Boutique mini pedals it’s strange that there aren’t more high gain ones around as those players are typically the more open-minded and more open to such innovation. In any case there are a few forthcoming, including a classy HM-2 clone from Decibelics - of Golden Horse fame.
For compact High Gain pedals - this as usual is where most of the action lies - albeit the Metal contingent also has an unusually high number of larger format pedals too. In any case I did my 15 metal pedal roundup most recently and have selected the most apt and most flexible for this particularl category. In fact I have around half a dozen favourite compact High Gain Pedals - with my one compact High Gain slot currently occupied by the REVV G3, but it has been home to the Friedman BE-OD, Wampler Dracarys, DOD Boneshaker and Boss Keeley-modded Metal Zone (Twilight Zone) - which are still on casual rotation. I would typically assign either the BE-OD or Filaments to this category - selecting the latter for its slightly higher degree of versatility courtesy of its 3 additional voicing switches. I still have a Waza Metal Zone on my wishlist alongside the Boss Metal Core and XIX Tech HMD-1 - but I would probably rather classify those as more in the Extreme High Gain category as I see it. This sort of category is more JCM800/900, while the Extreme is more your super gainey metal amp style - like your Diezel VH4 and Mesa Dual/Triple Rectifiers for example.
There is plenty of choice in the medium enclosure area too, but I have two all-time favourites - the Rock Fabrik Mind Abuse and Wampler Triple Wreck - I’ve decided to slot the Wampler in the Extreme category, while the Mind Abuse sits more comfortably here with its Classic and Vintage modes.
There are a bunch of larger enclosure metal style pedals made by outfits such as Lone Wolf Audio and Dunwich Amps - my Boss Heavy Metal HM-2 Alternatives roundup highlights a lot of these more specialist makers, while my Large Pedal High Gain Overview focuses more on some of the more mainstream operators. In this category I have selected the most versatile ’metal’ pedal overall - Empress’s superb ’Heavy’ which with its two channel setup allows you to set up 2 totally different high gain distortion tones - while most of these dual-pedal types are just an additional boost / higher gain setting. For this category I see the Empress Heavy and Bogner Ecstasy as my main contenders - while most of my other favourite large high gain pedals are more suited to the Extreme category as we shall see in that latter article.
As mentioned, I still have a fair few ’metal’ style pedals on my wishlist. From this current listing - the Keeley Filaments and Rock Fabrik Mind Abuse are down for imminent acquisition - and then there’s a moderate list of a few more of the alternatives.
Pedals are listed per enclosure size from small to large.
After initially having been put off these little wonders because of too many lacklustre demos of the same. I've latterly come to be really impressed by what most of these are able to deliver. Each Micro PreAmp has Clean / Driven channels / modes and a full complement of 3-band EQ, with onboard cab-sim too. I've already included one of these in the Tweed Drive roundup, and I spent a long time figuring out which were the best of these for high gain deployment. There are around 10 of these PreAmps (out of 20) that could be defined as properly High Gain capable. I've already include the 2 x 5150 types - the Brown Sound 1 and 3, and I've determined that overall my preference is for the More recent 011 and 012 types - or more specifically Dual Rectifier and Brown Eye clones. There are a myriad demos on YouTube and they are definitely not anywhere near all equal. Generally Brett Kingman has the best demos of these. While they do frequently require careful EQ - depending on your guitar and amp / output settings. Largely though you can achieve really great distortion tones with these, and an increasing number of 'metal' players are making great use of these within very minimal and tiny rigs.
My pedal of choice for the compact format slot - by dint of its greater flexibility / versatility courtesy of 3 smart voicing toggle switches. I have it just ahead of the Friedman BE-OD - although many will prefer the core tone of the Friedman. As mentioned above - I have a number of alternatives to call upon, and generally prefer to deploy the REVV G3 in my one compact high gain pedal slot - but I've reserved the G3 for the Extreme High Gain category on this occasion.
There's a large number of quality mid-size enclosure pedals available - including the Red Okko Dominator and various others from outfits like Lone Wolf Audio, Dunwich Amps and Earthbound Audio to name a few. My 2 current favourite mid-size pedals in this category are this Mind Abuse, and the Wampler Triple Wreck - the latter of which I've assigned to the Extreme Gain category. The Mind Abuse has the necessary 3-band EQ, but equally importantly it has a 3-way mode toggle giving you Classic, Vintage and Modern tone profiles. The Version 2 is imminent - with a slightly different colourway, and with the mode selector moving from the side to the top face. So if you want one of these I advise you hold out for a couple of weeks.
Probably the most versatile of all the High Gain pedals - this was the second large format high gain pedal I acquired after the first Diezel VH4. You get to set up 2 totally different tones using a plethora of tone-sculpting controls - EQ, Frequency Focus, Gate and Weight. I have other pedals that go slightly more extreme and have more low-end - but none that are quite as versatile as this one - which really is just excellent in every way. You might think that having shared Hi and Low dials may be a handicap, but because of the Frequency toggles, that impact is minimised. I would personally welcome an updated version with dedicated Hi and Low controls per Channel! As it is though, it's the only pedal really of this type.
'Metal' and 'High Gain' are very subjective categories with many a snooty player stating a total preference for valve-amp generated distortion - while an increasing number are also now fully digital - making use of Axe-FX, Kemper, Helix and similar. Some metal genres are largely to do with pedal choice (HM-2) - and for a 'Home Player' such as myself - you need the pedals to generate the right degree of saturation and distortion at lower volumes. You simply can't blast out a 100 watt amp within a closely packed residential neighbourhood!
Most of my favourite High Gain pedals make use of 3-band EQ and usually have multiple voicing options / settings. There are though many different flavours of metal - covering the 70's vintage more fuzz-style early metal and proto-metal - through the glossy highs of 80's metal, and towards more contemporary tight and mid-pushed percussive modern metal.
All selections are highly subjective and these are my own preferences. These are all high quality pedals - obviously the Mooers are entirely digital and rely on circuit-boards and DSP - while others here make use of clipping and multiple cascading gain stage distortion - you need to start somewhere and go from there. I personally have a very wide palette of favourite high gain sounds and like all the different tonalities for different uses - you really need to find your own way though the maze - but hopefully some of these suggestions will resonate and give you a head-start on your quest.