The essence of the Tube Screamer’s appeal—what multitudes of similar designs that it has inspired over the years aim to capture—are the subtly pleasing qualities it induces as it interacts with a tube amp: As you increase the amplitude of an input signal to overload a tube amp’s preamp, it distorts the signal in a way that adds sustain, edge, and harmonic liveliness, while preserving the innate tonal characteristics of the guitar and amp—and without obscuring the player’s dynamics. For the Tube Screamer, the design goal was to distort the signal symmetrically, not asymmetrically like a vacuum tube does.
Stompboxes emerged as the guitarist’s tone-warping tool of choice in the wake of the guitar mania fueled by British Invasion bands like the Stones, the Beatles, and the Kinks in the mid 1960s, and then Hendrix, Beck, and Cream toward the end of that decade. Though these bands predominantly relied on tube amps for classic tones, the new sounds they injected into their signal paths via pedals were made possible by the 1948 invention of the transistor. Pedals quickly became one of the most cost-effective, convenient, and instantaneous ways to generate the exciting new sounds that shaped rock ’n’ roll—and modern culture by extension. By the late ’60s, the market was flooded with portable sound-modifying devices, and effects became commonplace in pop music. Sonic expression was forever changed.
Series: Top Ten
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: First Tube screamer. Considered by some to be the holy grail of overdrives.
Country of Origin: Japan
Ibanez and its parent company, Hoshino, were infamous in the late ’60s and early ’70s for their Fender, Gibson, and Rickenbacker knockoffs. Unsurprisingly, it also added effects pedals to its lineup by the mid ’70s. These pedals were actually manufactured by Nisshin, a Japanese company that produced pickups for some Ibanez guitars. In a curious business arrangement, Nisshin was allowed to market its own line of effects, which were identical to those it made for Ibanez, and they were sold under the Maxon brand name. By the late ’70s, Nisshin was developing the first Tube Screamer—the famed TS808 that debuted in 1979 and that was later popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others. According to former Ibanez product manager John Lomas, when the Tube Screamer was created, Roland—a major Japanese competitor—was producing the Boss OD-1 OverDrive and already had a patent on solid-state asymmetrical clipping. This prompted Nisshin to use symmetrical clipping in the Tube Screamer.
“If you look at the schematic between a Tube Screamer and a Boss OD-1, they’re almost exactly the same thing,” Lomas says. “The OD-1, though, is what they call an asymmetrical clipper. When you put a signal in it, it does not distort the top and bottom of the soundwave the same. Instead, it distorts one differently—the way a tube would. The original Boss OverDrive was designed to be a tube simulator, which was really big back then because, of course, most amplifiers were starting to get away from tubes. They were solid-state, and they really sounded like shit. So there was a market for tube-simulation pedals. I believe that’s probably why the Tube Screamer was named the Tube Screamer.”
The TS808 also differed from the OD-1 in that it had a Tone control, featured a common JRC 4558D integrated circuit (IC) chip, and had a small rectangular footswitch. “The Tube Screamer was really the first pedal I saw that had an IC in it,” says Lomas. “All the overdrives prior to the Tube Screamer were built around transistors.” Lomas contends that the sweet, vocal midrange sound the TS808 is known for has everything to do with that JRC4558D IC chip—which explains why Lomas and many other overdrive aficionados prefer the sound of the original over other permutations of the pedal that have emerged over the years.