Built with a Volume, Tone and Drive control, the Tube Screamer has built its reputation on the back of a tight, controlled bottom end as well as crisp, biting attack.
The Tube Screamer is a hugely successful overdrive pedal, its three knob design being almost-endlessly emulated, reproduced, reviewed and modified. It’s a hugely versatile pedal, being usable as a boost pedal or alternatively as your main, gritty and overdriven tone.
Built with a Volume, Tone and Drive control, the Tube Screamer has built its reputation on the back of a tight, controlled bottom end as well as crisp, biting attack. It also offers a mid-range boost, making it perfect for solos and leads, being used by blues players and metalheads alike.
The Tube Screamer history begins with the TS808, released in the late 70s. Japanese company Maxon was bought on board as an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), and they designed and produced Tube Screamers, and their revisions from 1971-2002.
Before the first Maxon-designed TS808 Tube Screamer were the Ibanez Overdrive and Overdrive-II pedals, offering more distortion than the Tubescreamer. The TS808 was designed to push the preamp section of a tube amplifier, providing overdrive and distortion, so it was a cleaner circuit.
The early 80s saw the introduction of the “9” Series of pedals, that included the TS-9 Tube Screamer as well as a Chorus, Compressor, two EQs and more. In addition to the TS-9 was the SD-9 Sonic Distortion, SM-9 Super Metal and the very rare ST-9 Super Tube Screamer that included an additional Mid Boost along with the traditional Volume, Tone and Drive knobs.
The “9” Series was produced from 1981-1985 and 1986 saw the introduction of the Power Series of pedals that included a TS10 Tube Screamer, featuring three times as many changes to the circuit between the TS808 and TS-9. The following years saw the introduction of pedals like the TS5 Soundtrak Tube Screamer and TS7 Tone-Lok, both built from plastic casing that suffered from both electrical interference as well as being so lightweight that they were a struggle to stay put when being stomped on and off.
2016 saw Ibanez reverting to classic designs, offering a limited edition TS808HW (handwired) and used desirable JRC4558D chips. A TST808X was also available with an additional (blendable) 20dB boost.
Maxon and Ibanez had split in 2002, and Maxon continued to produce their own versions of the TS9 and TS808, as well as pedals similar to the “9” Series, albeit with Maxon branding and logos. Maxon falls under the larger Nisshin Onpa company, who produced pickups for Greco and Aria
The original design of the Tube Screamer was intended to deviate from the transistorised fuzzes of the 60s. The design produced symmetrical distortion for a softer effect, the output not acting like a hard-limit like a more traditional distortion or fuzz. Original designs used transistor buffers at both the input and output to preserve the dynamics of the signal rather than limiting them as the signal begins to clip and distort.
The Tone control is a post-distortion circuit, allowing for a cleaner and more defined output. This provides more control on your overdriven tone, also enabling you to push signal harder into your tube amp without further ruining the dynamics that are already preserved by the symmetrical gain circuit.
Famous users include players like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Reba Myers, John Frusciante, Kim Gordon, John Mayer, Cliff Burton (on bass!), Ellie Rowsell and Larkin Poe.
SRV would use his Tube Screamer to drive his leads for a tighter, more controlled tone, while players like Code Orange’s Reba Myers uses it as a foundation in her otherwise abrasive, industrial-influenced tone. Cliff Burton used a TS9 for his Metallica bass rig, both providing grit, dynamic and control to his already stellar bass-playing.
In 2011 Ibanez released the TS9B, a Tube Screamer intended for bass, with a circuit more tuned to bass frequencies. Since then, a multitude of revisions have come from both Ibanez and others, including Ibanez’s Nu Tube Screamer and increasingly shrinking designs, the Tube Screamer Mini now being available.