Amp Distortion vs. Pedal Distortion (Gain Compared)

Glorious gain and sweet distortion are the bread and butter of your guitar tone.

Interestingly, some players say it makes up 80% of your sound! Especially when gain matters in musical genres such as metal and rock.

However, is there a big difference between distortion from a pedal or using the distortion from an amp. Which option is the best for your rig?

Distortion pedals are considered more versatile with more parameters to shape your ideal sound. Their downfall is that some cheap pedals can sound unnatural. In contrast, the majority valve amp distortion provides a more, smoother, and overall, more well-rounded distortion.

As you can see, distortion is delivered to your signal chain in various forms. This article will explore amp and pedal distortions comparing both sources of gain.

Pedal Gain vs. Amp Gain- Table Comparison

To better understand and visualize the benefits and drawbacks of both amp gain and distortion pedals, look at this table:

 Tube/Valve Amp DistortionSolid-State Amp DistortionDistortion Pedals
ToneTube amps offer a smooth, rich and organic tone when cranked which amp purists love. Tube amp distortion is regarded as the pinnacle of amp tone.Solid-state amps still sound slightly digital and fuzzy but are sounding more realistic with every new model released.Tends to be more tinny and fuzzy than their amp counterparts. Although some pedals try to recreate valve distortion pedals they don’t offer the full experience.
VersatilityDifferent amp brands sound different so whatever amp you use you are essentially stuck with the core distortion. Highly versatile, solid-states can achieve a number of tones as they still use digital technology depending on the amp in use.Very versatile, essentially a sculpt your ideal distortion sound regardless of the amp you are using.
FunctionSweet tube amp distortion is only achieved when the amp is achieved at rehearsal and gigging volumes and not for bedrom use. Solid-state distortion sounds better at lower volumes but is very usable for gigging if the amp has enough wattage.Pedal distortions can saturate at low volumes which is ideal for bedroom practice volumes and can replace the main sound from a bad sounding amplifier if it sounds good enough. 

With tone making up a significant part of the end sound produced in guitars, picking out the right distortion method should be high on the priority list.

Comparing Different Amps – Distortion Tone

As I discuss the pros and cons of amp distortion, we have to analyze each type of amp: these are tube, solid-state, and digital guitar amps.

Tube/Valve Amps – Distortion Quality

One of the words that come to mind with amp distortion is “Smooth”, “warm,” and “organic.”

They are described as the ‘holy grail’ of distortion for their natural clipping and sweet overtones.

Valve amps will maintain a sharp tone at both high and low volume settings, which is another addition to the list of versatile benefits provided by amp distortion.

The problem is that to achieve the ‘sweet spot,’ you have to apply lots of volumes to push the tubes causing sweet saturation and ‘break-up.’

Therefore, valve amps are not the best for practicing at low volumes without using an amp attenuator. Furthermore, tube amps are expensive and more fragile compared to other types of amps.

However, their sound is unmatched when it comes to natural and organic distortion, which is yet to be replicated by their solid-state and digital counterparts.

Solid-State Amps – Distortion Quality

When it comes to their distortion sound, most solid-state amplifiers can produce realistic and natural distortion, which sounds similar to tube amps.

However, all of them fall short at replicating the sweet valve tone experience, although they produce a good impersonation.

The common complaint about solid-states is they still have a hint of digital and fuzzy to their sound. This is because most solid-states use diodes and transistors to produce their unique sound instead of power tubes.

After owning the Boss Katana 100W (one of the best solid-state amps out there), I must admit it does emit a slightly digital sound (although a good sound), so it still does not compare to valve distortion in my opinion.

On the other hand, solid-states are far more versatile, reliable, and cost a lot less than valve amps, making them great as practice and gigging companions.

For this reason, solid-state amps are quickly becoming the go-to choice for the everyday gigging guitar players.   

How Versatile is Amp Distortion?

When you purchase an amp, you are stuck with that main sound whether it’s a Fender, Marshall, Vox, etc.

So you better like the core sound of the dirt section before you buy it. Secondly, amps include very little in terms of intricately tweaking your separate distortion sound.

Sure, you can adjust your amps EQ, (treble, middle, bass), but you cannot alter your distortion separately unlike a pedal, especially if you have a single channel amp.

Dual or multi-channel amps have slightly more to change your gain preferences on each channel.

For example, with a pedal, you can tweak the distortion level and treble, mids, and bass. Whereas an amp only allows you to tweak your main EQ that affects your sound as a whole. 

And for this reason, amps are slightly less versatile when it comes to tone tweaking than distortion pedals.

This is especially true of tube amps as they have no digital capabilities. Whereas digital amps and some solid-states are likely to have this function.

Reasons To Use Your Amps Gain Over Pedals

  • You have a great sounding tube/valve or solid-state amp
  • You believe pedals are a cheap imitation of pristine sounding amps
  • You have limited pedalboard space and prioritize other pedals
  • You do not want to rely on pedals in fear they break during a gig

Distortion Pedals – Overview

Therefore, it’s hard to discuss pedal distortion in its entirety with such a spectrum of choice.

With that said, in my opinion, tube amp distortion sounds way more natural compared to a pedal.

The reason is that the majority of distortion pedals use digital chip modeling to produce their tone.

Distortion Pedals – How Do They Sound?

Keep in mind, not all distortion pedals are created equally! Various pedals are designed to sound different depending on the unit. Hence why pedals can offer you a wider selection of tones compared to an amp.

For example, distortion pedals are designed to either…

  • Replicate iconic amp tones in a handy pedal
  • Sound fuzzy
  • Sound loose or tight
  • Sound aggressive
  • Sound subtle
  • Add warm creamy overdrive

Therefore, it depends on what tone you like and what sound you want to create!

Keep in mind, a complaint about budget pedals ($20-$50) sounds harsh and fuzzy with harsh clipping. Therefore, budget distortion pedals should be avoided as your main gigging sound unless this is the sound you want.

You should read my thorough article covering cheap vs expensive pedals (here!) comparing the differences, functions, and uses for cheap pedals.

If you have an excellent distortion pedal they can undoubtedly be utilized for your main dirt section.

Keep in mind, various distortion pedals are designed to be subtle, merely complimenting your amp’s tone.

In contrast, some pedal sound ‘in your face’ and are firmly the center of attention when it comes to your foundational guitar tone.

With the right distortion pedal in your pedalboard, you can use this as your main dirt sound without using the gain from your amp. Again the perfect distortion sound depends on your personal tastes.

Pedal Gain vs Amp Gain (Video Comparisson)

Should You Use a Distortion Pedal Over Your Tube Amp Distortion?

In my opinion, I would never use a distortion pedal to replace the distortion from a good valve amp.

The reason is they are the holy grail when it comes to natural distortion, as discussed above.

On the other hand, if you were to utilize your amp as a pedal platform amp, then you could certainly build your sound around pedals as there is a great selection of distortion pedals to create a unique and personal sound.

How Versatile Are Distortion Pedals?

1. A Pedal Offers More Tonal Customization

Unlike amps, a distortion pedal allows the user to adjust the core sound of your distortion sound, whether that’s tweaking the gain, bass, mids, or top end. Whereas, an amp only offers the gain dial to adjust saturation.

The majority of distortion pedals allow you to tweak the gain, treble, middle, and bass.

Furthermore, higher spec pedals offer a mid boost switch, bass boost switch, or blend parameters hence why pedals give a guitar player more distortion customization than an amp.

Interestingly, this becomes useful for genres such as metal. Metal players mostly play close attention to the mids when sculpting their heavy and snarling metal tone.

A pedal gives them more control over their distortion sound whether they are scooped or subtle, depending on the sub-genre.

We have extensively covered a selection of the best distortion pedals for metal here (our review guide)

2. Various Pedals Include Channel Selectors

Higher priced pedals ($150+) offer two or three channels to allow you to switch to different distortion sounds. (example video below)

An example of this is from popular distortion pedals such as the Friedman BE-OD Deluxe and the Empress Effects Heavy, amongst many others.

This provides a guitar player lots of flexibility for switching to desired guitar tones on the fly.

For example, channel switch one could be your settings for a tight rhythm tone. Channel two can be your screaming lead tone with more bite and gain. And channel three could be set up as your crunch sound. 

Hence why this setup gives a guitar player without a multi-channel amp to switch to different gain presets with a simple footswitch.

The beauty of distortion pedals is that you can alter the core tone of your amp altogether. Keep your amps gain on 0 and use your desired distortion pedal as your primary method for adding dirt to your signal chain.

This depends on the amp in question, as mentioned above. However, pedals are so popular because they can change your sound completely.

In contrast, distortion pedals can be used to enhance and complement your amp’s tone. They offer a varied blend of sounds to create something new and unique.

Reasons To Use a Distortion Pedal Over Your Amp’s Gain

  • To utilize as your primary distortion if you don’t like the tone of the distortion from your amplifier
  • To blend the sound of your amp and a distortion/overdrive pedal for something new
  • If you have a single channel amp and want to switch to different tones such as rhythm and lead.
  • If your amp does not have a footswitch to switch to clean and overdrive
  • To use as a boost switch for more gain during a solo
  • You want to experiment with different guitar tones

Final Thoughts

Both amp distortion and pedal distortion are reliable sources of electric guitar distortion, although their purposes, functions, and traits vary significantly. Since there is no clear winner in this comparison, your decision depends on what kind of sound you are looking for and what genre you are playing. The bottom line is whatever works for you is what you should stick with.


Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

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