Charles Darwin would have been pleased to witness the ascension of best distortion effect pedals of all time as they evolved from simple fuzz tones to sophisticated mini processors with multiple gain and filtering stages, electronic switching, and, in some cases, effects such as chorus and delay. These three boxes from the ’70s and ’80s provide an overview of how quicklydistortion technology advanced in the days before the rack revolution sent stompboxes scurrying back to the primordial pond.

Electra Overdrive

Though best known for its ’70s-era guitars that featured interchangeable effects modules, Electra also produced a variety of pedals. One of its simplest offerings was the Overdrive, which, despite having a modern-style FET footswitch, was a basic op-amp clipper with a Depth (gain) control. The Overdrives specialty is a fuzzy grind that becomes more massive as you turn up the gain. Though strong in output, the Overdrive is dynamically weak–it doesn’t clean up well when you turn down your guitar. But if all you want is brute-force distortion and aren’t concerned about “tube” tone, the Overdrive is a hip find.

Washburn AD-3 Stack in a Box

A quantum leap from the Overdrive is this little powerhouse, which sports a much more complex circuit utilizing a pair of 558 op-amps and eight transistors. The AD-3’s Distortion, Level, and Tone controls provide a wide range of fat-sounding grind. This pedal can do the creamy tube thing, but its forte is wicked-sounding distortion with sustain for days. This is a shredder box par excellence, and with the Tone control at about ten o’clock and the Distortion anywhere close to maximum, you get thick, buttery burn that still allows the natural voice of your guitar to come through.

Ibanez SS20 Session-Man II

In 1987, Ibanez introduced its first multi-effects pedal, the SS10 Session-Man, which featured distortion and chorus that could be combined in series or parallel. Sporting the same Pepto Bismol paint scheme, the SS20 is a distortion/delay unit that similarly allows for series or parallel operation. As with the original model, the SS20 has a latch on the left side of its metal housing that flips the footswitch open for quick battery replacement.

Distortion and delay go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and the SS20 combines them in novel ways. The Distortion, Distortion Tone, and Distortion Level controls provide textures that range from mild tube-style overdrive to saturated tones with lots of sustain. By pegging the Delay Time control (which tops-out at only about 250ms) with the Mode switch in the Series position, you get tanky distortion effects that sound like they’re being pumped through varying lengths of concrete pipe. Select the Parallel setting and you can mix the distortion and delay to create anything from bouncy, reflective echoes (with a hint of distortion) to heavy, in-your-face grind with a pronounced slap-back shimmer–reminiscent of what you might hear if you had Slash and Scotty Moore wailing on the same part in unison. There are also two trimpots under the footswitch cover for adjusting delay level and feedback. The former is mostly useful for turning off the delay, but high feedback settings allow you to preset the SS20 to unleash wild, runaway-delay effects at the touch of a button. Not easy to find, but a must-have box for anyone who yearns to grind on the wild side.