The Venerable Tube Screamer

Blake History

Todays guest post comes to you from John Sagers. John is a professor of history who happens to have a passion for guitars, effects, and cranked amps.

The Ibanez Tube Screamer is a true classic in the realm of effects pedals and many revered boutique pedals have a Tube Screamer in their family trees. Originally designed to emulate the sound of an over driven tube amp when played through a solid state rig, guitarists soon found out that the Tube Screamer particularly excelled at driving a mildly over-driven tube amp into sweet sustained distortion.

Ibanez began in 1908 when the Hoshino company opened a sheet music company in Nagoya, Japan. The company later distributed the “Ibanez” Spanish guitar. Opening an office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ibanez marketed inexpensive copies of classic guitar designs in the United States. By the mid-1970s, after a major lawsuit, Ibanez ceased making copies and focused exclusively on its own guitar designs.

Around the same time, Ibanez started adding effects pedals to its catalog of products. In the 1970s, solid-state amps were marketed as lighter-weight and more reliable than older tube amps. However, guitarists often found the sound of solid state distortion to be harsh and much less pleasing than what over-driven tube amps produced. Clearly there was a need for more convincing amp overdrive emulation. Since the Boss OD-1 overdrive pedal with asymmetrical clipping (distorting the top and bottom of the sound wave differently) was already patented, S. Tamura designed the Tube Screamer with the JRC4558C integrated circuit chip to produce symmetrical clipping. The first Tube Screamer was released as the TS808 in 1979 and was produced for Ibanez by the Nisshin Corporation. Nisshin also marketed the pedal under its own Maxon brand.

There were several versions of the Tube Screamer issued in the 1980s the most famous of which was the TS9 in 1982. At first Tube Screamers did not sell well and it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that they really started to catch on with various reissues of TS808s and TS9s available ever since. Nowadays, the pedal is famous for its smooth overdrive and mid-range boost that add sustain and help guitar parts to stand out in a band mix.

Although many artists ha incorporated Tube Screamers into their rigs, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the name most associated with the pedal. Vaughan used the Tube Screamer, Fuzz Face, Octavia, and briefly Univibe pedals together with Fender Super Reverb and Dumble Six String Singer amps to achieve his signature sound. He apparently did not see any special magic in the TS808 as he changed to TS9s and TS10s as new versions became available. For guitarists seeking to emulate Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone, a Strat with heavy gauge strings tuned down a half step, Tube Screamer, wah, and a cranked Fender amp are where to start.

Many guitarists today use overdrive pedals either in front of a clean amp to emulate the sound of tube distortion or to push further an already driven tube amp. These pedals come in many variations in terms of gain and the specific frequencies they boost and cut, but the Tube Screamer remains a key standard to which other designs are frequently compared.

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