Like a rock or metal bassist, there is no pedal more essential to your rig than distortion. It gives your bass the harmonic complexity to cut through the mix of a full band. It can give you singing sustain, rich and creamy overtones, and full-on aggressive grit.
Depending on the application, there are a lot of options available in the market for distortion. The selection available can be overwhelming, so today I’m doing a roundup review of nine bass distortion pedals.
For me, the clear winner of the roundup was the Darkglass DAR-VMT because of its versatility and affordability.
Bass Distortion Pedals We Recommend
What’s good: Simple, wide range of sounds, “era” knob
Not so good: Nothing, there’s no downside
Able to do anything from subtle drive to aggressive, roaring metal, the Darkglass Vintage Microtubes is a good choice if I’m only going to have one bass distortion pedal on my board.
The really cool and unique thing about this pedal is the “era” knob. As you turn from left to right, it transports you through time starting in the 70s and ending in modern times.
I was able to dial in The Who one moment and Metallica the next.
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Bass Distortion
What’s good: Classic fuzz tone, Bass Boost/Norm/Dry toggle, affordable
Not so good: Not a standalone distortion pedal, more of an additional effect
While it will provide some drive, the real appeal of this one is the thick, colorful and textured tone that it gives your bass, as well as sustain.
The Big Muff Pi doesn’t have a wide range of sounds of some of the other pedals on this list, but it does its niche well. There are a lot of options to shape the tone with this pedal.
The Bass Boost setting is pretty self-explanatory. It amplifies the low end. I recommend playing with the tone knob while in a bass boost for some scooped sounds.
What’s good: Diode toggling switch provides two distinct settings
Not so good: It’s a higher drive pedal that may not work for all applications
The distortion from this pedal is beefy and aggressive! The MXR M-85 is certainly an over the top distortion that can be hard to tame. It also has a fuzz aspect to it, with much more drive than most standalone fuzz pedals.
A great feature here is the toggle which allows the switch between LED and silicon diodes. The LED has a lot of headroom for dynamic playing, which the silicon is in your face like a brick wall of sound. There’s not much subtlety here. Hard rock and metal only!
Electro Harmonix Bass Soul Food Bass Distortion
What’s good: Transparent overdrive with no fuzziness
Not so good: Might be too mild for some rock and metal
In terms of distortion pedals, Bass Soul Food sits squarely in the “overdrive” category. That means that it boosts the signal and adds character with a little breakup.
It simulates the sound of an overdriven tube amp without having to reach that type of volume. Bear in mind the effect is overall subtle, you’ll want to pair it with other pedals to really see it shine.
It can bring out the best in other pedals that are downstream from it.
Tech 21 RIP Red Ripper
What’s good: 3 band eq, low pass filter,
Not so good: Synth settings are interesting but leave some to be desired
The Tech 21 RIP boasts a lot of features for bass distortion. It’s always exciting to hear all the new types of sounds pedal makers are coming up with these days.
The thing to note on this guy is the RIP knob, a parameter that generates all manner of curious synth sounds. While those were fun, they didn’t quite match up to dedicated synth pedals.
However, with a three-band eq and low pass filter to shape the sound, this pedal is worthy even if we disregard the synth effects.
Darkglass Electronics Microtubes B7K Ultra
What’s good: More tone shaping options than virtually any bass pedal on the market
Not so good: Pricey, not a standalone distortion pedal
This is the ultra version of the Microtubes pedal I ranked as the best. It takes the processor from that one and adds a ton of tone-shaping options – this is actually a bass preamp pedal.
There are four EQ knobs, with two of them having toggle switches to choose which frequency to boost. It has the excellent tone and versatility of its smaller brother.
A super nice feature is the dedicated footswitch for distortion. If it is off, it can be used just as an EQ/ boost pedal. This is great for live gigs to switch between sections of songs.
Source Audio SA141 Soundblox Pro Multiwave Bass Distortion
What’s good: Wide variety of tones, 7 band EQ,
Not so good: Doesn’t excel at conventional distortion and fuzz, difficult to use
This pedal excels at being able to produce a wide range of sounds with its 23 distortion algorithms. These sounds are digital and more in the realm of funk and R&B than rock or metal.
This thing can produce funky synths like Herbie Hancock and other cool effects like octaves. The number of knobs and dials on this may be off-putting to someone wanting something that is good right out of the box.
Pro tip: connect it to an expression pedal to shift between presets in the middle of your playing.
What’s good: Presence and Saturation knobs
Not so good: It removes some low end
As an overdrive pedal, the AGRO works well. It has a unique tone due to the separate saturation and presence knobs which allow for unprecedented control over the sound.
The contour knob is sort of an all in one eq that provides a diverse range of options, though not precise as some may like. This pedal boosts the signal and can add a mild to medium amount of distortion without losing clarity.
It did seem to remove a bit of low end. Depending on your type of playing, this may or may not be an issue.
Source Audio Aftershock Bass Distortion
What’s good: Three types of distortion in one pedal
Not so good: None to speak of
Boasting three different settings: Tube, Heavy, and Fuzz, and with its simplicity of use, this Source Audio pedal is extremely usable right out of the box. It really feels like you’re getting three pedals in one.
In a utilitarian sense, it is one of the best ones I reviewed today. That is to say, if I could only have on bass distortion, this one would make the cut. A great feature is the ability to save presets.
That’s really handy for live gigs where you don’t want to be messing with knobs.
What kind of effect will I be getting with this pedal?
When an audio signal is pushed beyond its intended potential, the signal starts to clip or distort. Distortion pedals deliberately clip the audio signal to produce a broken and saturated sound.
In laymen’s terms, distortion pedals add grit and dirt to the dry signal and sound epic! What you get is a boosted and more dominant sound, perfect for cutting through the mix and thickening up your tone.
Distortion pedals are not the same as overdrive pedals. Before overdrive and distortion, overdrive could only be achieved through cranking the amp up to its highest possible level. It wasn’t particularly practical, but it added a bit of crunch.
Overdrive pedals work to recreate that natural sound of an amplifier being pushed to its limit; the sound is clipped but not dramatically. A D-pedal then is kind of like the twisted little brother of an overdrive pedal. It’s an extension of overdrive in a much harsher way.
Distortion compresses the signal to produce a sustained, high-gain sound much more so than overdrive. The effect is less dynamic than overdrive so you cannot be in any way quiet with distortion —oh no, distortion is for the highest possible volume and heaviness.
And fuzz… fuzz is where distortion gets even crazier. Fuzz pedals clip the original waveform of the signal so much so that it becomes a solid square wave rather than a boosted version of the original waveform. It’s an even further extension of distortion and creates a woolly, broken sound.
What should I look for when buying one?
There’s certainly no shortage of bass distortion pedals on the market so it mostly boils down to personal preference. Distortion comes in its varieties of tone and amount of gain that can be dialed in.
Distortion pedals offer anything from a simple grit, right the way up to earplug-inducing brutality. A subtle distortion adds thickness that’s a little smoother than say a metal distortion that opts to generate the highest possible amount of heaviness and gain.
The amount of gain you’re hoping to achieve is entirely dependent on you. For example, a metal distortion pedal won’t cut the mustard for rock — it’s purposefully built for a bone-crunching sound.
That being said, most decent D pedals will offer a range of distorted sounds. If you are a little on the fence for how distorted you want the signal to be, a pedal with that grants control over the amount of gain that can be blended in is key. For tone malleability, i.e. being able to roll back the mid, highs and lows, look for pedals that will do this.
Most distortion pedals will allow for tone control, but generally, there is a certain type of overdriven sound they’re hoping to evoke like a vintage, trebly sound or a fat and warm sound.
For the most effective bass distortion, you’ll need a pedal that covers lower ranged frequencies though. Bass guitar has a naturally low pitch and therefore needs a lower boost, but I’ll explain in more detail later.
Beyond whether how well a pedal actually functions, your tastes and intended sounds are the most important factor. Read reviews and watch YouTube videos of people playing a pedal you have in mind so that you can get a better picture of how it sounds.
One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that not every distortion pedal that works for guitar will work as effectively with bass, which leads me to…
Is it smart to use guitar distortion pedals with a bass guitar?
Unfortunately, there is no short answer; it depends on the pedal. Although guitar distortion pedals will function with bass, don’t expect every distortion pedal to respond well to your bass signal. Those pesky guitarists have a much wider playing field when it comes to distortion pedals.
Essentially, bass frequencies are far too low for what a lot of D pedals for guitar are aiming to boost. Guitars naturally play a higher frequency than bass guitars, so most guitar DP’s are built with those higher frequencies in mind.
For example, a guitar D pedal that’s trebly is not going to work so well with your low-pitched bass sound. It will work, but it will suck out most of the bass tone. Distortion pedals for a guitar that has a warmer and a more naturally bassy tone are a better alternative, but again, it will work but not as well as distortion pedals specifically designed for bass guitars — don’t worry we’ll get to that. The more considerate of manufacturers of DP’s cater for both guitar and bass, but not all, so look out for that.
As with anything related to music, there’s always room for experimentation. You can still explore the sounds of guitar distortion pedals because they will still function with bass; just know that they’re not all intended to support bass frequencies.
Is there any bass guitar dedicated distortion pedals?
Don’t despair! There most certainly are bass guitar dedicated distortion pedals – like the ones we have reviewed. They all belong to dedicated distortion pedals.
As mentioned earlier, the bass guitar needs that lower-pitched support, with that in mind, there are more than a few bass specific D pedals – as.
There are undeniably not as many specific distortion pedals for bass than there is for guitar, but there’s nothing stopping you from using a distortion pedal intended for guitar. A lot will work relatively well just make sure that they do.
SO, WHERE DOES bass distortion pedal GO IN THE SIGNAL PATH?
Hmm…conventionally, distortion pedals go near the beginning of the signal chain.
You have your input, then from that, there’s a tuner, volume pedals, any pitch shifters, filters, or compressors and then, conventionally, your distortion will go slap bang there, before anything like delay or reverb and then finally the amp.
This is the most logical setup because if a distortion pedal is placed later in the signal path it’s essentially amplifying and distorting the effect or effects of anything that came before it.
Funnily enough, most people don’t want their reverb to sound distorted hence it being put after the distortion pedal or any pedal that boosts volume or gain. If the D pedal is affecting tone too, then again, people tend to want it early in the signal path because it’s kind of a base layer for the overall sound and everything else after it is simply modifying that basic layer.
With the usual setup, unwanted noise is kept to a minimum and tone is kept flexible. That being said, be experimental! You might want to put your overdrive last in the chain; it might not sound great, but at least you will be going against the grain a bit and are exploring different sounds. It’s a bit limiting to follow the standard guidelines; the desired sound is, as always, up to you.