Green Giant: History of the Tube Screamer

A historical account of guitardom's most iconic overdrive pedal—the Ibanez Tube Screamer.

First designed by one S. Tamura in the late '70s, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is arguably the most beloved of overdrive pedals. It's been rocked by guitar greats as diverse as Eric Johnson, Trey Anastasio, and Brad Paisley, and some would go as far as saying no single pedal has had a greater impact on musical expression or played as important a role in the development of effects modification.

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.

Humble Beginnings
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.

Model: TS808
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.

The TS Hits Its Stride

Model: TS9
Series: 9 Series
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Same basic configuration as
TS808 but with a bigger footswitch
and 9V AC operation.
Country of Origin: Japan

Despite the popularity and Holy Grail

status attained by the original TS808, the

Tube Screamer wasn't left alone—and

plenty of pedal lovers are glad. Perhaps the

most popular of all Tube Screamers, the

TS9 replaced the TS808 in 1982 with the

introduction of the 9 Series. The TS9 was

slightly brighter and a little less smooth

sounding than the 808. The two were

almost identical internally, apart from the

TS9's expanded output. The footswitch got

bigger, too. Nine Series pedals had a footswitch

that took up approximately a third

of the pedal—a move clearly intended to

compete with the easy-to-stomp design of

Boss pedals. However, one drawback of the

new Tube Screamer, according to Lomas,

was that TS9s were built with a somewhat

random sourcing of parts—basically whatever

was readily available at the time of

manufacture. This resulted in TS9s that

varied widely in tone from batch to batch.

“[The introduction of the TS9] was

not a magical moment by any stretch of

the imagination," Lomas says. “The public

didn't give a rat's ass—not for the longest

time. It caught on much later. I would say

guys really started talking about it in the

late '80s, and by 1990 it was really starting

to roll along." Since there was little demand

for the TS9 when it came out, it was out of

production by 1985. Ibanez then released

a new series of stompboxes, the Master

Series, without a Tube Screamer in the

lineup. Instead, it included the Super Tube

STL—a 4-knob affair with a Tube Screamer

circuit and a 2-band EQ. According to

“Analog Mike" Piera—a noted stompbox

expert whose company, Analog Man, began

modifying Tube Screamers to original specs

in the mid 1990s—the STL was similar

to the rare (and very valuable) European

ST-9 Super Tube Screamer that was never

released in the US.

Model: ST9
Series: 9 Series
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Mid Boost, Tone, Level
Notes: Mid Boost control added.
Breifly available in Europe but not
in the US. Extremely rare.
Country of Origin: Japan
Model: STL Super Tube
Series: Master/L
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Level, Bite, Bright
Notes: Not officially a Tube
screamer, but uses a Tube
Screamer circuit with a 2-band EQ.
Country of Origin: Japan

The Master Series only ran for one year,

though—and the Tube Screamer wasn't

M.I.A. for long. In 1986, Ibanez released

the brightly colored Power Series (aka the

10 Series), which boasted a new, high-fidelity

TS10 with quieter circuitry that

eliminated the vexatious chirp that older

Tube Screamers sometimes emitted when all

the controls were turned up. However, these

alterations affected the burgeoning star's

signature tone, and the TS10 wasn't as well

received as Hoshino hoped. Thanks to blues

and blues-rock mavens like SRV, many

players were getting hooked on the tones of

TS808 and TS9 Tube Screamers.

Model: TS10
Series: Power/10 Series
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Changed cosmetically to
match the 10 series. John Mayer's
current Tube Screamer of choice.
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Model: TS5
Series: Soundtank
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Changed cosmetically to
match the Soundtank series of
smaller, plastic pedals.
Country of Origin: Taiwan

Piera says that, until the recent use of

TS10s by players such as John Mayer,

TS10s had remained undesirable. “I still

hate them," he says, calling it a “disposable"

pedal. “They used cheap, proprietary parts—

jacks, switches, and pots that often break and

can't be replaced, because the sturdy parts

used in handmade, handwired pedals like

the TS9 won't fit. They have circuit boards

that have all these parts mounted on them

that break off, just so they could make pedals

cheaply with machine soldering."

Lomas explains how the economy

affected the quality of manufacturing during

those years. “When I first joined the

company," says Lomas, “back around '83

or '84, it was, like, 260 yen to the dollar.

Today, it's around 77 or 78. Back around

'85, the yen started a turnaround and was

coming down to about 150, 160—and

they [Hoshino] were crapping their pants.

They used to be able to take anything that

was made in Japan and throw it out on the

US market and make money because it was

good quality and the exchange rate was

very favorable for the yen. Then, suddenly,

they had to start worrying about making

things cost effectively."

When Ibanez launched its Soundtank

effects line in 1991, the new TS5 Tube

Screamer's design goal was to capture the

sound of the older, vintage units at cheaper

costs by using streamlined manufacturing

techniques. The TS5 was not handwired

like the TS9 and TS808, and it was eventually

sold in a high-impact plastic case,

rather than the original metal casing. The

TS5's circuit is comparable to the TS9, but

it was made by Taiwan-based manufacturer

Daphon rather than Nisshin, and it featured

smaller, cheaper components.

Rebirth of a Classic

Perhaps the resurrection of the TS9 was

inevitable, but Lomas contributed to its

legacy first by insisting on the 1992 reissue

of the TS9, and then by developing

the TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer. He says

when he took over product development in

1990, he immediately started pushing for a

TS9 reissue. Used TS9s were selling in stores

for well over $250, when Ibanez itself was

selling used units to dealers for five bucks.

Lomas says management was wary. Nisshin

wanted to move toward digital technology

and had no interest in going “backward" to

the old analog products—which is somewhat

ironic, Lomas notes, considering that

Nisshin is producing many of the older analog

effects now. “At the time," he says, “they

thought we were crazy."

But money often talks when words

fall short. After prolonged browbeating,

Nisshin started to see the dollar signs that

had convinced Lomas, and they authorized

the reissue. Lomas recalls how he and his

colleagues spent weeks buying every original

TS9 they could get their hands on in

order to ensure that the pending reissue

was an exact replica. As they cracked open

and examined the pedals, they found that

almost every one had a Toshiba TA75558

IC chip rather than the JRC chip commonly

found in TS808s. “Since 90, 95 percent

of TS9s had that chip," says Lomas, “that's

what we decided to put back in it." He

recalls with a hint of nostalgia the way the

company boasted about the reissue when it

finally came out—about how it was made

in the same factory as the original. “It was

even built by the same middle-aged ladies.

It was a dead, nuts-on copy," he says. Even

the manual was identical—dated 1981, for

authenticity. More than 5,000 sold within

weeks of the release, and Ibanez estimates it

has sold 10,000–12,000 TS9 reissues each

year over the last decade.

Model: TS9 Reissue
Series: 9 Series
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Faithful reproduction of the original TS9
Country of Origin: Japan
Model: TS9DX
Series: 9 Series
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level, Mode
Notes: Offers traditional Tube Screamer tones, as well as three additional modes with increasing amounts of volume and bass response.
Country of Origin: Japan

With the success of the TS9 reissue, the

TS9DX seemed like a no-brainer. According

to Lomas, the company watched, a glint of

envy in its eye, as Dunlop multi-load wah

pedals flew off the shelves. Hoshino felt it

needed a Tube Screamer with different modes

for output and distortion, and it seemed the

only thing to do was to get in on the action.

So, in 1998, Lomas designed the DX for

players who craved more volume, distortion,

and low end. In addition to the

Drive, Tone, and Level knobs that had

already become Tube Screamer staples,

he added a fourth knob with four mode

positions: TS9, +, Hot, and Turbo, each

one adding low end and increasing volume

to some degree. The circuit is exactly the

same as that of the original TS9, but the

mode switch changes certain components'

parameters via clipping diodes and tone

capacitors. The + mode is grittier than the

original TS9, whereas Hot yields a crunchier

tone with boosted mids, and Turbo, the

most powerful of the four modes, projects

a thicker, more modern sound.

“I wanted to come up with something

that would be as true to the Tube

Screamer tonality as possible, so that at

least in one position it would be a classic

Tube Screamer," says Lomas. “That's where

I came up with the concept of varying the

clippers. I didn't want any digital simulation

because, in my mind, it just wouldn't

be a Tube Screamer then."

A Legacy of Mids

In the past decade, the Tube Screamer has

continued to evolve with new editions

such as the TS7 Tone-Lok, the TS808

reissue, the TS9B—the first Tube Screamer for bass—and the

2010 introduction of the Tube Screamer

amp—an ultra-portable, low-wattage

amp (available in head and combo versions)

that incorporates a selectable Tube

Screamer circuit in its preamp. So far,

15-watt head and combo models are

available, although models with varying

wattages are rumored to be in the works.

Despite the Tube Screamer's many

variations, Ibanez electronics merchandiser

Frank Facciolo says its legendary

sound is rooted in its characteristic midrange

presence. Lomas agrees. “It's still

one of the best things to overdrive any

tube amplifier with," he says. “It just does

magical things to tubes."

Model: TS7
Series: ToneLok
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Knobs can be recessed into the pedal to avoid setting changes or knob breakage. Hot switch adds extra distortion.
Country of Origin: China
Model: TS808 Reissue
Series: N/A
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Faithful reproduction of the original Ts808.
Country of Origin: Japan
Model: TS808HW
Series: N/A
Knob Configuration: Overdrive, Tone, Level
Notes: Handwired version of the TS808. First TS to feature true-bypass switching. Very limited production.
Country of Origin: Japan
Model: TS9B
Series: 9 Series
Knob Configuration: Drive, Level, Bass, Treble, Mix
Notes: First Tube Screamer designed for bassists. Features
a 2-band EQ and a mix control.
Country of Origin: Japan