It’s a fair indicator of a product’s influence when it becomes synonymous with a general sound. The Ibanez Tube Screamer has this kind of relationship with overdrive. If you’ve been in the studio, or have come into contact with guitarist types, they might have talked about a “Tube Screamer” tone. The pedal is so famous that it owns an entire effect.
So what makes this little green box so glorious? Let’s explore the pedal that was born from intense competition and continued to restlessly evolve, all the while remaining true to its roots.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is the little green overdrive machine that just won’t quit. It made its name in the midst of hot competition, enticing generations of guitarists along the way.
A Long Build Up
Rockers have been distorting guitar sounds in a variety of ways since the early ’50s. Yet, the concept of distortion in these times must have been a huge conceptual hurdle to traverse. The fact that the early pioneers of this tone were pushing equipment into the red – essentially what the gear is not supposed to do – might not have come naturally at first.
But when the sound gripped the rock and roll scene by storm, entirely new ways of approaching the guitar were formed. These early efforts were made in era before stompboxes, by driving tubes into overdrive territory, but it wasn’t long before companies started developing devices that specifically created crunch.
Fuzz pedals hit the scene in the ’60s, but as anyone who has compared overdrive and fuzz effects knows, they’re very different beasts. Fuzz infused the psyched out tones of the counter culture with an over-the-top distortion, an extreme and obviously affected treatment of the guitar. The more subdued tones of overdrive were still likely to be extracted from valve amps.
A slew of pedal developments in the late 1970s was to shake all that up though. Ibanez released a few overdrive models before the Tube Screamer hit the scene, but these were more akin to a fuzz than a sophisticated tube-like tone. The first compact pedal to approximate this sound was the BOSS OD-1, a classic in its own right.
Other notable overdrive and distortion pedals of the time include the MXR Distortion + and another BOSS model, the DS-1. Yet neither of these pedals rivalled the Tube Screamer when it came to a characterful and classy overdriven sound.
Its character made the pedal the perfect partner for guitar amps. The three incredibly simple controls, overdrive, level and tone, meant that it could be placed in front of a guitar amp, as a way to boost the level going into the amp, and tip it over the edge into distortion.
The versatility of the Tube Screamer also makes it a great option for stacking. For example, using it as a clean boost, then sending it into another more aggressive distortion or fuzz can result in a tone that is more than the sum of its parts.
As you can imagine with a pedal that possesses such simple sophistication, it kept a few of its secrets under the hood. The original Tube Screamer – the TS-808 – was designed by Susumu Tamura with the objective of competing with the aforementioned BOSS OD-1 and MXR Distortion +.
It employed an op-amp circuit which produces the gentle overdrive that is typically associated with the Tube Screamer: symmetrical clipping. This style of distortion earns its name by clipping both the negative and positive amplitude peaks of a waveform equally. This circuitry puts out a sound that is redolent of vacuum tube breakup.
Much has also been made of the chips that are at the heart of the Tube Screamer. The original – and some say the best – was the JRC 4558 chip. There were inconsistencies in chip installation throughout the early life of the pedal, which gave rise to mods from the likes of Analogman. So if you have an old Tube Screamer and it doesn’t sound the way that the you hear about in the hushed and reverent tones of those who have experienced the wonders of the original, there is help out there!
The evolution of the Tube Screamer continued, with varying degrees of success. The TS-9 came out in the early ’80s – the most aesthetically recognisable model and the favourite to many. Later in the ’80s and ’90s, the 10 and 5 series emerged respectively, with bizarre looks compared to the original. The TS7, or ToneLok model, ditched the green altogether.
It’s difficult to understand the motivation behind these models, other than Ibanez attempting to create something new and novel in this established line. It seems they did see the sense in capitalising on the cult status of the TS-808 and TS-9 models though, with a host of reissues that put these classics front and centre. Since 2004, the TS-808 reissue has been in production, with a hand wired, deluxe version hitting the market in 2008.
Ibanez have even expanded their remit to collaborate with other companies. For example, they teamed up with KORG to create the NuTube Screamer (complete with KORG’s NuTube technology). They also tapped boutique Japanese stompbox maker Vemurum for the TSV-808 model, which is inspired by the latter’s cult classic Jan Ray overdrive.
And so the tale of this diminutive hero of overdrive continues. Is there any end to the Tube Screamer story in sight? It doesn’t seem likely. You might think that this humble pedal with only three controls hasn’t got anything else to reveal, but this is not only contradicted by its many variations over the decades, but by the way that people continue to seek out the original, or modify it. It all points to a future that will see the Tube Screamer continue to grace pedal boards all over the world.