Cause & Effects: Tube Screamer season has arrived – but why do guitarists love this pedal so much?

In his latest column, ThorpyFX founder Adrian Thorpe gives us a brief history of the Tubescreamer – and tells us why it’s worthy of a place on our pedalboard.

Maxon and Ibanez Tubescreamers

Maxon and Ibanez Tubescreamers

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With the UK in the midst of an unprecedented heatwave for which we are ill prepared, I find myself wondering what could be causing the heat. Global warming? A cyclical change seen before? The Earth tilting on its axis?

No, the only logical conclusion is that it’s the fifth of our global seasons – Tube Screamer Season. TS SZN is green, it’s mean, and if you’ve been following the boutique pedal launch news over the last few weeks, you’ll see that it’s so hot right now.

There have been literally thousands of iterations on the TS circuit released over the years, chances are you have one (or more than one) on your pedalboard right now – but what makes this humble overdrive pedal so special that 40 years later, people are still tweaking the design to put their own unique spin on it?

What is a Tube Screamer?

The Tube Screamer pedal was invented in 1979 by electronics engineer Susumu Tamura, while working for the effects company Maxon. Initially called the OD-808 and sold by Maxon, it was quickly licensed to Ibanez and put in a green box similar to their Overdrive II. The name, meanwhile, was changed to TS-808.

Designed to produce a subtle, softer distortion than other pedals of the era, the design brief called for a pedal that could better blend with the player’s guitar and amplifier without destroying the character of either – the . The brief was met and the legendary Tube Screamer overdrive was created, with its characteristic mid-focused soft clipping sound. Over the years, Ibanez introduced a Tube Screamer variant into pretty much all of their model ranges, from the cheapest plastic models all the way up to their hand-wired series.

Amp FAQ Ibanez TS9

Part of the TS’s success is down to the players who’ve used them, and for that you can read ‘pretty much everyone’, but some stand out from the crowd because so many others want to capture their tone and therefore have played a huge part in popularising the Tube Screamer.

Perhaps the best example of this is Stevie Ray Vaughan. SRV’s tone remains the benchmark for many, and the key element of this is often cited to by his use of TS9 Tube Screamers and Fender Vibroverb amps. Other users who have played a significant part in popularising the Screamer amongst guitarists include Eric Johnson, Brad Paisley, and John Mayer, who uses the TS10 variant.

It’s not just blues-rock either – from the 1990s, when metal bands began using them almost as mid-boost EQs to add more distortion and tighten the mid frequencies of their already cranked amps – a trick still used today.

Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan. Image: David Redfern / Redferns

So why are there so many TS-derived pedals on the market?

To get to the bottom of this we have to go back to the earliest days of the boutique and DIY pedal scene. In those early days, big players like Keeley and Analogman made a name for themselves by offering modification services for existing pedals, most notably the Tube Screamer.

In an era where there was far less choice on your board, these mods offered more control over the low-end frequencies, true bypass switching and a host of new sounds from the ubiquitous green box. It didn’t take long for pros to catch on to these modded pedals, with everyone from the Edge (Keeley) to Kenny Wayne Shepherd (Analogman) using tweaked TS pedals before long.

Robert Keeley was one of the first TS modders

This was replicated within the DIY scene, with companies such as Monte Allums selling kits to help owners modify their pedals. This went further with the first boutique Tube Screamer-style pedals, driven by the likes of the Clay Jones and the Landgraff Dynamic overdrives.

This created something of a feedback loop, whereby the pedals were de-gooped [‘gooping’ is a process where boutique builders would dip circuits in resin to discourage people from copying their designs – Ed], cloned and reproduced by the DIY community before new pedals with the same modifications were released by brands as new products entirely.

The Tube Screamer feedback loop even has its own language in the online guitar community – terms like YATS (Yet Another Tube Screamer) and JAFOD (I’ll let you Google that one) used to unflatteringly describe new variants on the TS recipe. The loop is infinite, especially considering that the original 808 was rumoured to be based on Boss’s OD-1, only with the clipping section altered for symmetrical clipping.

EQD Plumes Overdrive
The Plumes from Earthquaker Devices is one of many modern TS-derived boutique pedals

So what is it about the Tube Screamer, why all the love?

Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer
Ibanez TS-9 Tubescreamer

More than anything else, this pedal is instantly gratifying to play. After more than 40 years on the market, it still does exactly what’s expected of it: creates pleasing overdriven sounds at lower amplitudes for those with volume concerns and for those using loud clean amps. For metalheads, it tightens up the distortion – a TS9 into a Dual Rectifier is heavy-riff heaven for good reason. Truthfully, there isn’t much to dislike about the Tube Screamer.

Do you need one in your pedal arsenal?

It’s a pedal – so of course my default answer is yes. But do you need 10 variants? If so, JHS (almost) has you covered with its very clever nine-way Bonsai 9 Way Screamer pedal. Do you need an enhanced Tube Screamer? If so, Origin Effects just released the Halcyon Green Overdrive and Brian Wampler his tiny TS10 variant, the Moxie. Whatever your budget and whatever your tastes, there’s probably a Tube Screamer for you.

Origin Effects Halcyon Green Drive
Image: Origin Effects

But what if I don’t like Tube Screamers?

All is not lost. The seasons of guitar change in a heartbeat, and both Bluesbreaker and Klon seasons are just around the corner. These seasons are like Tube Screamer season, only with a little more transparency and a boatload of magic diodes. But don’t fret if you’re equally uninspired by these pedals – there are many manufacturers making unique pedals not based on these three circuits. The world is yours.

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