Coloring the pedalboards of guitarists of every skill level and artistic persuasion since the late 1970s, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is an often-imitated, never recreated part of electric guitar history, providing the technological basis for some of rock, country, blues, hard rock, and metal’s most instantly recognizable and beloved guitar tones. From light overdrive to searing, all-out distortion, the Tube Screamer has become perhaps the most instantly identifiable and widely-used overdrive pedal on the market, boasting something to offer for almost anyone chasing down raw grit and emotionality in their playing. In this piece, you’ll learn how this 9V giant came to dominate the market and become synonymous with some of rock’s biggest-name players. Additionally, we’ll map out how updated models and imaginative product design have kept the Tube Screamer relevant for almost 40 years.
Beginning in 1979 with the advent of the original TS808, designed by famed engineer S. Tamura, the Tube Screamer quickly became known for its reliability and tonal precision, producing warm, creamy overdrive sounds that coupled perfectly with tube amps by way of the JRC4558 chip. These early effects boxes were hand-wired by the engineers at Maxon electronics (Ibanez’s production partners until 2002) and came readymade with all-analog circuitry packaged in a user-friendly stompbox designed to cut through the mix with a mid-focused EQ curve. Although the fuzz-driven sounds of the British Invasion and the monstrous treble-boosted tones of classic rock pioneers like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin had previously popularized the overdriven sound in rock music in the late ‘70s, there was still a need for an easy-to-use, affordable circuit designed specifically to emulate tube saturation for many types of guitarists due to the ubiquity of cheap and inferior solid-state amplification. Enter the TS-808. The original Tube Screamer filled the void of tube-like saturation for guitarists of all types and has proved its worth many times over with significant and subtle redesigns of this classic model.
The Secret Sauce
Coveted by vintage gearheads and tone obsessives the world over, the legendary status the TS-808 and TS-9 have attained across generations is no accident. Their popularity is due at least in large part to their convenient ability to provide one of the smoothest, most responsive overdrive tones in the world with just three basic knobs – Level, Tone, and Overdrive. But beyond these basic parameters, the single aspect of the pedal that is perhaps the most vitally overlooked to how the Tube Screamer got its reputation for mid-range punch is hidden inside in the form of its non-inverting op-amp system. Using clipping diodes for generating distortion, the op-amp circuit processes clean and distorted signals separately, choosing to distort selective frequencies in order to maintain the integrity of the guitar’s original signal. This is massively helpful in trying to cut through a full-band mix, as this feature increases the responsiveness and clarity of the sound without causing muddiness or brittle highs. The masterful take on the op-amp system is a key feature of the Tube Screamer that makes it perfectly suited for pushing tube amps into overdrive and tightening up ultra-high gain sounds for hard rock and metal guitarists.
Other Vintage Models
As the TS-808 established the standard for what would go on to be the most well-known overdrive pedal of all time, the equally iconic TS-9 came next in line in 1982. It initially sold poorly and was only in production for a few years, featuring the much-maligned JRC2043DD chip which was quickly replaced to reinstate the original op-amp system (modern and reissue TS-9’s are often modified to incorporate the original chip to this day). Nevertheless, during its short tenure on the market, it established itself as a perennial favorite among guitarists like Carlos Santana before going temporarily out of production (it was later reissued in 1993 due to popular demand). Although many TS-9’s from the early 80’s are known to feature numerous different op-amp systems that attempted to supplant the original JRC4458, the main differences between the TS-9 and the original lies in the larger footswitch and the expanded output section, which caused the TS-9 to take on a more biting tone with a high-mid definition that contrasted with the warmth and smoothness of the original 808. Players as diverse as Trey Anastasio, Billie Joe Armstrong, The Edge, and Kim Gordon have all used the TS-9 to cultivate a wide variety of sounds all while maintaining their individual voices as players, proving the staying power of this Tube Screamer model to be almost unparalleled.
Transition/Building a Legacy
After the TS-9 briefly fell out of favor, the ST-9 “Super” Tube Screamer, produced only in 1984, was introduced. It notably included an onboard mid boost to further help guitarists stand out in the mix of a full band. The four-knob STL Super Tube model (sold exclusively in Europe) was similar to the ST-9, and was part of the Ibanez MASTER series. It did not feature a Tube Screamer by name and was only produced in 1985, showing that Ibanez was searching for innovations that could couple their established reputation for quality with a more cheaply-made, mass-produced alternative. Unfortunately, this strategy largely backfired. While the renowned TS-808 and TS-9 benefitted from hand-wired electronics, additional models such as the TS-5 and TS-7 “TONE LOK” were factory made, using cheap parts that made for a less secure chassis and, by most accounts, less robust and reliable sound. While these models did not last long, they pointed the way to other models that informed design aspects that have stuck around to this day.
This leads us to the TS-10, introduced in 1986. Featuring an MC4558 op-amp system, the TS-10 provided a more affordable and slightly modified iteration of the classic Tube Screamer. It is known to be brighter and more high-gain than the TS-808 and has been put to use by many significant players, representing perhaps the most accessible player-grade vintage model available today (since it has not been reissued). Perhaps the guitarist who is most often identified with the Tube Screamer is Texas blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, who all but revolutionized the instrument with his lightning-fast, almost scarily emotive playing. What many don’t know, however, is that according to his longtime tech Rene Martinez, Vaughan actually played through a TS-10 in addition to the TS-9 and TS-808 models, making him one of the more renowned artists to upgrade as the design and circuitry evolved over time, often using two Tube Screamers in tandem at low-gain and higher-gain settings, respectively, to get the kind of massive sustain that was unavailable on his predominantly clean Dumble and Marshall Major amps (Trey Anastasio also famously employs this technique). John Mayer and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, in their reverence for SRV, each adopted TS-10’s during their careers to try and channel some of the magic they heard in the sound of the Texas legend. The common misconception about Vaughan’s supposed preference for the 808 is built on the assumption that a blues player would be remiss not to rely on the ‘warmest’ of all Tube Screamers, but Stevie was unafraid to innovate and follow his own ears, preferring the extra bite and treble of subsequent TS-9 and TS-10. Pictures of his touring rig also corroborate this surprising fact. In just a handful of years in the spotlight, Vaughan influenced thousands of amateur guitarists to try the pedal for themselves, and it remains a huge part of his tonal legacy, in addition to his iconic playing style.
To this day, Ibanez continues to push the envelope, adapting and evolving the famous Tube Screamer line into a multitude of products with the modern guitarist in mind. These include specialized versions of the original Tube Screamer such as the TS9B Bass Tube Screamer (used notably by Nick Harmer of Death Cab for Cutie) the TS9DX (used notably by Steve Vai), the TS808HW hand-wired edition, the Tube Screamer Mini, and the NTS Nu Tube Screamer, co-designed by Korg and Ibanez. Each of these models offers a distinct twist on the reliable sound of the original, adding modal flexibility and low-end in the case of the TS9DX, maneuverability for the modern pedalboard in the case of the TS Mini, craftsmanship and vintage flair in the case of the TS808HW, and a wholly redesigned diode system and brand new design in the Nu Tube Screamer. The company has even ventured into the realm of amps with built-in features mimicking that of its most iconic pedal line. The op-amp circuits of the original 808 have been preserved in many of these newer models, but with key innovations. Notably, the size and portability of the TS Mini means it packs a massive punch for its size, and with all of the features you would expect from a Tube Screamer, the Mini can help any tube amp reach its full capacity while taking up minimal space on your board.
The NTS Nu Tube Screamer, one of Ibanez’s newest inventions, offers similarly exciting new tonal possibilities and striking design in its unprecedented all-tube circuitry, even including a mix knob to provide added sensitivity and balance to an already great pedal. These are just some of the reasons the Tube Screamer has remained the most frequently copied overdrive in an ever-changing world of boutique pedals with massive price tags. For its tonal reliability, prestige, and affordability, it’s hard to go wrong with the Tube Screamer. As is evidenced by the iconic status of this pedal, in any deep dive into the history of guitar effects, one is bound to run into the Ibanez Tube Screamer, whether it be at the feet of Buddy Guy, Noel Gallagher, or Kirk Hammett. No matter which design you prefer, the Tube Screamer still sets the standard for overdriven tone, proving itself as versatile and robust as it is easy to use. Here’s hoping it will survive for generations to come.