Perhaps nothing fundamentally alters your sound as dramatically as the tight crunch of a hard-clipped heavy metal sound. The sound of heavy metal music has changed a lot since Steppenwolf coined the term in “Born to be Wild,” from hard overdrive to lo-fi fuzz to Marshall walls-of-sound, all the way to the iconic ‘80s and ‘90s sounds shaped by Peavey and Mesa, respectively. And there are pedals for ALL of these styles.
If you’re wanting to fine tune your metal distortion with a pedal or two (or 10), check out the wide variety of models here. They’re all quite different from each other in price and style, and altogether cover almost the entire historical range of metal. Whether you want to palm mute some dropped-Ds or shred into the stratosphere on a pentatonic scale, these pedals absolutely wail.
Boss Metal Zone MT-2 ($100)
The Boss MT-2 Metal Zone is affordable, simple, and easy-to-mod, all while giving you a wider range of settings than many pedals that cost double. In addition to a three-knob EQ, the MT-2 also has a separate knob that adjusts the frequency of your mids, making it incredibly easy to scoop them for a mid-’80s sound or boost them for a more nasally British tone.
The gain control is responsive—maybe too much—to the point that you rarely ever need to take it past 1 o’clock. Putting a boost pedal in front of this thing pronounces its awesomeness even more. From a heavy crunch to a grinding fuzz, the MT-2 is an excellent first pedal for budding shredders.
Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff ($125)
Given their acclaim, we barely even have to mention that the original versions of the EHX Big Muff are excellent metal pedals that provide a hugely distorted sound with near-endless sustain. And now, EHX has added the Metal Muff to its lineup of Big Muff variations.
This pedal has the unmistakable sound of standard Big Muffs, but it also has a few added tweaks. Instead of a simple tone knob, it has knobs for hi, mid, and lo. Even cooler, there’s a separate top boost with both an adjustable knob and a bypass switch, perfect for dialing in that just-a-bit-extra sound you want for a cutting lead, which you can then release at the tap of a foot. The Metal Muff also comes in a tiny “nano” package, with two knobs, for about $70.
ProCo Rat 2 ($100)
Another great, affordable, and wholly iconic distortion pedal is the ProCo Rat 2. If you’re looking for the crunch of a Marshall stack with a compressed tightness that something like a Big Muff lacks, this is the pedal for you. Pair it with a Marshall and you’ll get the sonic mayhem perfection of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All or Blur’s “Song 2.”
The Rat 2 is brutally simple, with knobs for volume level and distortion gain. Instead of an EQ or tone knob, there’s a filter control that serves as a sort of tone-in-reverse—the more to the right you turn it, the lower in frequency it gets. One minor quirk of the Rat is that its volume needs to be turned way up for unity gain. Keep it at the regular 12 o’clock and your volume will actually drop when you bust from clean to distortion. Beyond that, this is perhaps the quintessential early ‘80s metal pedal.
Mesa/Boogie Throttle Box ($350)
Mesa Engineering holds a special place in rock history. Players like Santana and Keith Richards were using their hot-rodded, high gain amps in the 1970s, but the company’s Rectifier series amps of the early ‘90s were game-changers for the sound of modern metal. With the Throttle Box, you’ve got the high gain sound of a dual rectifier in a box (although, granted, it can be a bit more expensive than our aforementioned pedals).
Here’s what the Throttle Box delivers: Hi and Lo distortion switchable modes, perfect for when you need searing distortion for both rhythm and leads. It’s got a tone knob as well as the same 5-band EQ that many Mesa amps feature, and this EQ is assignable to either or both of the modes. This is an endlessly capable pedal. And if you’re worried about the price, it’s still much cheaper than a Mesa/Boogie amp, and there’s a smaller version available for $200. Pick it up and start busting out the Korn.
Amptweaker Tight Metal ST ($200)
We can’t talk about iconic metal sounds without mentioning the Peavey 5150, made famous by Eddie Van Halen in the 1980s. James Brown, the engineer behind the 5150, now produces Amptweaker pedals, and the Tight Metal ST is a tone monster. It pushes out high-but-tight gain that is perfect for intricate riffing, palm muting, and hypersonic thrash runs.
You can adjust the tone for classic metal crunch, or switch to Thrash mode for a more scooped, bass-heavy mode that kills it on riffs. A built-in, adjustable noise gate also keeps background noise to a minimum. This thing excels at high gain, hard-clipped distortion, and it has the ability to just stop at a moment’s notice. It’s even got its own “Sidetrak” effects loop, which turns on when the distortion is switched off. This pedal also comes in a higher-end “pro” version that is more in line with the Throttle Box, as well as a pared-down “Jr.” model.
No matter your budget or style, one of these pedals is sure to aid in your chunking, shredding, or squealing. Here’s a quick roundup of our top picks:
- First-timers should check out the Metal Zone.
- If looking for a more classic, wide-open sound, pick the Metal Muff.
- For good ol’ dirty metal, the Rat is a classic that is still incredibly easy on the budget.
- For full sonic versatility and a more modern sound, the Throttle Box is a clear winner. The Tight Metal offers almost as much versatility, but with a more classic sound.
Now get out there and crank the volume!