Distortion pedals are normally used to simulate overdriven tube amplifiers. They can also be use with tube amplifiers to produce higher gain tones. DIstortion effects are common in almost every style of poular music.
Distortion is a generic term used to cover all styles of distortion effects pedals, but they can also be broken down into several categories.
The first type of distortion pedals were fuzz boxes. They produced a distorted tone that allowed guitar players to play singing leads. Like the name says, the tone was more “fuzz” than tube distortion, sounding like a damaged speaker cone, Still, fuzz pedals can be heard on countless recordings from the 60’s (think of the opening guitar riff in the Rolling Stone’s I Can’t Get No Satisfaction or just about any of Jimi Hendrix’s riffs.) Fuzz pedals remain popular today.
This term usually refers to solid state transistor distortion, which is a harsher type of distortion than tube distortion but still more “amp-like” than fuzz pedals. These pedals were the second generation of distortion boxes.
These pedals attempt to accurately reproduce tube-type distortion. Some even use real preamp tubes in their circuitry. These pedals are often used in conjunction with a tube amp to push the amp into higher gain tones.
These pedals emulate the multistage gain of modern tube amplifiers producing a high gain, saturated distortion that works well for soaring leads or metal styles.