Stomp boxes don’t come much more iconic than the Ibanez Tube Screamer. Arguably the most beloved overdrive pedal of all time, it’s an institution in everything from country to blues to heavy metal. The Edge; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Michael Schenker and Noel Gallagher – all have used a Tube Screamer to sculpt their tone at one time or another.
In this article, we’re going to look at the birth of the Tube Screamer, its humble beginnings and why it has that sweet, vocal mid-range hump it’s so celebrated for.
By the late 1960s, the guitar pedal market was booming. Spurred by the popularization of the transistor in the 1950s, manufacturers started producing pedals with dramatic tone-altering capabilities. These were readily bought by a generation of guitarists seeking to expand their sound; for the likes of Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, stomp boxes were a gateway to bold new tonal possibilities.
At this time, when Ibanez – and its parent company, Hoshino – saw a burgeoning market in the world of rock ‘n’ roll instruments, they jumped on it. Today, Ibanez is respected as a leading instrument manufacturer. But, in the ‘70s, they were infamous for their knockoffs of guitars made popular by Gibson, Fender and Rickenbacker.
As the decade wore on, and the market for guitar pedals boomed, Ibanez got in on the game. Or rather, Nisshin, the company that produced the pickups for Ibanez guitars, did. As Premier Guitar notes:
“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 1970s, Nisshin was working on what would become the very first Tube Screamer. In true Ibanez fashion, their aim was to imitate an already popular stomp box. At the time, Roland’s Boss OD-1 – a classic overdrive in its own right – was making waves, and Ibanez wanted a piece of the market. The problem, though, was that Boss had the patent on asymmetrical clipping. As former Ibanez product manager John Lomas notes, the solution was to use symmetrical clipping instead:
“If you look at the schematic between a Tube Screamer and a Boss OD-1, they’re almost exactly the same thing. 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.”
It wasn’t just the symmetrical clipping that gave the TS its unique tonal qualities though. The Tube Screamer was one of the first pedals to include an integrated circuit (IC) chip. While that JRC 4558D was a common part at the time, the sound it brought to the Tube Screamer was unique. According to Lomas, it was the JRC 4558D that gave the Tube Screamer its characteristic sweet, midrange sound, contrasting the tone of earlier overdrive pedals built around transistors.
The first ever Tube Screamer – the TS808 – came to mass market in 1979. In 1982, it was replaced with the TS9; slightly brighter and a little less smooth than its predecessor. It was the TS9 that would eventually propel the Tube Screamer to legendary status (though not until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the pedal’s popularity hit its stride), but for many, the original TS808 is still the definitive Tube Screamer, and the greatest overdrive pedal ever made.
Do you use a Tube Screamer? What’s your favourite overdrive pedal on the market? Share your stories in he comments.