Fuzz vs Distortion: Which is Best / What’s The Difference?

When it comes to pedals, things can get messy quickly – and expensive. But what is the difference between fuzz and distortion? And which is best for certain styles of music? Let’s find out…


When it comes to pedals, modern bands tend to love them. You have bands like YOB or TOOL that simply wouldn’t be able to achieve their sound without pedals. But other, more straight forward bands like Lamb of God, Deftones, and Metallica also use pedals, just in a different way.

Pedals are an essential tool in any guitarists box of tricks. But to a total newcomer, the world of guitar pedals can get confusing pretty quickly. You have myriad options when it comes to pedals – everything from octave pedals to chorus pedals to flangers and reverb.

Two of the most commonly bought pedals, however, are the trusty distortion pedal and the fuzz pedal. Both are essentially distortion pedals but there is a difference between the two pedal options. And the one that works for you will depend on what style of music you plan on creating.

As with most things related to guitar, it really all comes down to tone. What do you want to do with your pedal? What is your goal guitar sound? If you want to play heavy music, you will need a distortion or fuzz pedal – but which do you go for? Let’s find out…

Fuzz vs. Distortion Pedal: What’s The Difference?

Both pedals can and are used in heavy music, things like metal, punk and doom, as well as rock music. But there are massive differences between how they sound. And this is important because it will have a direct affect on the sound you create with your guitar.

A distortion pedal is more aggressive than a simple overdrive pedal – it completely augments the signal, adding in piles of aggressive sounding nastiness. It also massively boosts the sustain too. This is why they are used by metal bands like Pantera, Slipknot, OPETH, Tool, and pretty much any other bands that sound heavy.

MXR M66S Classic Overdrive Guitar Effects Pedal
The MXR M66S Classic Overdrive Guitar Effects Pedal is one of the most-loved and truly affordable distortion pedals on the market right now. It costs $59.99 and it sounds monsterously good!

With a fuzz pedal, you get similar elements in play – the signal is augmented to sound heavier and darker – but everything is more saturated, as if the signal is wrapped in something warm and organic, something fuzzy. A fuzz pedal will clip your sound massively too. Technically, fuzz pedals use square-wave clipping whereby the distortion is compressed to create something new. Add in heavy saturation and you get your classic fuzz tone with plenty of low end and buckets of sustain.

big muff fuzz pedal
The Electro-Harmonix Op-Amp Big Muff Pi Fuzz is one of the best selling, most popular fuzz pedals on the market. It sounds great. And at less than $100, it is pretty darn affordable too.

Fuzz pedals are used, predominantly, by doom and sludge bands. Although, you’ll also find plenty of other rock bands using them – The Smashing Pumpkins, QOTSA, Sonic Youth. If you’re going for more of a doom or sludge vibe, something like YOB or Electric Wizard, you will almost certainly need a fuzz pedal to achieve the sound.

All of the most popular doom, stoner, and sludge bands get their heavy, punishing sound through a combination of low-tunings (usually C or B Standard), fuzz pedals, and great-sounding guitars (like these ones) and solid amps, usually really expensive old-school tube amps like a Laney, Orange, Marshall, or a HIWATT – although these types of amps are very, very pricey.

OK, that’s pedals out the way. But what if you’re using a guitar amp simulator either on your PC – something like BIAS FX 2 or STL AmpHub? Again, all of the above rules about pedals apply. Only in this instance, we’ll be talking about fuzz and distortion as a digital effect that is applied to your guitar once it is hooked up to your computer.

Fuzz vs Distortion: What’s The Difference?

If you want a clear but extremely heavy sound, you’ll want to go with distortion. With distortion, you’re altering the audio signal – clipping it – to make it rougher, more aggressive. It adds in more harmonic saturation and sustain than a clean signal. Fuzz is similar just with way more clipping which is what creates its distinctive fuzziness.

The idea behind fuzz pedals initially was to create a sound unlike anything you could extract from the amp naturally with overdrive. Fuzz pedals achieved this by using square-wave clipping which compresses the distorted signal to create a warmer, fatter, fuzzier sound – this is where the name “fuzz” came from.

You get WAY less clarity with fuzz pedals and effects, however, so if you want to hear lots of detail in your recordings and when you play live, you’ll want to opt for distortion over fuzz.

Again, you can augment both fuzz and distortion effects as you please, dialing up the effect or toning it down. All the best guitar tones – like Mike Scheidt’s or Adam Jones’ – are the product of years of experience, testing, and trial and error with hardware, amps, guitars, and a million and one potential settings. It’s an art form, basically.

For bedroom players, those without access to reams of hardware, the best way to develop sounds, either through pedals or amp simulator software, is to experiment. But knowing your tone in your head first is always a good place to start. Me? I like a heavy tone but I don’t want to lose any clarity, so I usually opt for distortion pedals and effects.

If you want to play slow, low-tuned doom metal – stuff like Electric Wizard – you’re looking at fuzz effects and/or pedals. Fuzz is basically the sound of doom metal. It is as integral to the doom sound as the guitar itself. Just be warned: fuzz isn’t great for fast playing. This is why fuzz is so popular in doom, stoner, and sludge – it is nice and slow.

When To Use Fuzz

If you’re playing slow metal or doom, fuzz is ideal. If you tune your guitar down to Drop D or Drop C or even Drop B and Drop A, fuzz is ideal. It will give you that quintessential doom metal sound. It will sound big, it will sound fuzzy, and your slow riffs will sound like a mountain falling in on itself.

When To Use Distortion

Most metal – well, a good chunk of it – is fast. Metallica plays fast, so do Mastodon. Lamb of God is another good example of a band where distortion, not fuzz, is essential. If you want to play fast and sound heavy, you’ll need distortion.

With distortion, your guitar’s tone will still sound massively heavy but it will not lose any clarity in the mids and highs, unlike with fuzz. This is why bands like Mastodon, Metallica, TRIVIUM, Lamb of God, Slipknot, and any other band that plays fast, complex metal use distortion pedals instead of fuzz pedals.

Simple, right?


Fuzz vs Distortion: Which is Best / What’s The Difference?

BEST DISTORTION PEDALS

Perfect for metal, rock, blues, and stoner rock/metal. These are the best new pedals we have tested in the last 12 months…

The Best Distortion Pedals Right Now ↗


Fuzz vs Distortion: Which is Best / What’s The Difference?

BEST FUZZ PEDALS

Looking for a proper BIG sound? Wanna play doom or sludge metal? You’ll need a decent fuzz pedal in that case. Here’s our current favorite options…

The Best Fuzz Pedals Right Now ↗


Richard

Richard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.

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