The History of the Tube Screamer

The History of the Tube Screamer

Love it or hate it, the Tube Screamer is one the most iconic and popular pedals of all time. From SRV and John Mayer to Kirk Hammett and John Frusciante, the Tube Screamer has been used by countless greats throughout the years. No matter what kind of music you’re into, you’ve likely heard Tube Screamers on record more times than you can count. 

But where did this green, mid-boosting box come from? How did the first one come about? Why are they so popular? And what about the various incarnations its had over the years? In today’s blog, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the Tube Screamer and answering all of those questions. 

Photo Credit: GuitarWorld.com

The First Tube Screamer – TS808

First, let’s go back to where it all began—the original Tube Screamer, the TS808

As we recently discussed in another article, Ibanez/Hoshino were known in the 60s and 70s for making knockoffs of guitars from Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, and more. Around the same time though, they started getting into the growing pedal market. 

Ibanez decided to allow Nisshin—another Japanese company that made some pick-ups for Ibanez—to market their own line of effects. These pedals were exactly the same as the ones being sold under the Ibanez name but were instead sold as Maxon pedals. 

In the late 70s, Nisshin started to work on what would eventually become the Tubscreamer. However, they encountered an issue. Roland was making the Boss OD-1 and had already patented solid-state asymmetrical clipping. As a result, Nisshin decided to go with symmetrical clipping instead, which became key to the Tube Screamer’s sound. 

By 1979, the Tube Screamer was on the market and reaching the hands of players all over the world. However, it didn’t become an immediate success. It did well enough to warrant more production and future variations, but it wasn’t the smash hit it was today. 

What is a Tube Screamer?

Before we move onto the next Tube Screamer Ibanez put out, let’s quickly go over the basics of what a Tube Screamer actually is. 

Tonally, Tube Screamers are known for their mids. They provide a solid mid boost while smoothing out the high and low end. This can result in better clarity and cut, particularly in a full band setting. And smooth out the highs and lows can make things sound tighter, also helping in a full mix. 

Tube Screamers traditionally have three knobs—drive, tone, and level. The drive knob adjusts gain/distortion (via symmetrical clipping), tone adjusts the high frequencies, and level adjusts the output volume. It’s a minimal selection, but it’s plenty to sculpt the mid-focused tone many guitarists are looking for. 

There have been countless variations of Tube Screamers over the years, but this is the core of what makes a Tube Screamer a Tube Screamer. The mid boost combined with the ability to control the drive and highs gives you that classic Tube Screamer functionality. 

In terms of use, Tube Screamers are very versatile. They are commonly used to push a tube amp harder, getting classic tube distortion. They can be used to push other pedals as well. SRV, a famous Tube Screamer user, typically used his as more of a volume boost. Many also use them to “clean-up” other distortions like fuzzes. And as we mentioned earlier, another common use is to help cut through a full mix better. 

Those are just a few of the more common uses. Tube Screamers have been used for all sorts of things over the years, including as stand alone distortions. As with many pedals, the Tube Screamer can be a jack-of-all-trades pedal that can be used numerous ways and works well with a variety of amps, pedals, and pickups. 

Photo Credit: Guitar.com

The Classic Tube Screamer – TS9

Now, let’s move on to the second Tube Screamer—the TS9. This pedal was originally released in 1982, and it’s now arguably the most popular Tube Screamer ever made. 

The TS9 is incredibly similar to the original TS808, minus a few key changes. The first thing you’ll notice looking at the two is the larger footswitch. The TS808’s switch was smaller, and they likely decided to make it bigger due to the popularity of Boss pedals and their large switches. 

The other key change is in the tone. Many describe the TS9 as being brighter and harsher than the TS808. Which one sounds better is ultimately up to preference, but given the reverence people have for the TS9, it seems most prefer its tone over the original’s.

One other important thing to note is that TS9 pedals weren’t very consistent from pedal to pedal. According to Ibanez’s product manager at the time, John Lomas, TS9 pedals were being produced with what were essentially leftover parts. This resulted in a lot of tonal variation from pedal to pedal. 

Other than that, the TS9 is the same as the TS808. It had the same controls, same mid focused tone, and the same iconic green paint. However, the TS9 is the pedal that ended up becoming the true classic. 

Endless Iteration

After the TS9’s introduction, the Tube Screamer started to really take off. With folks SRV using them, countless players went out and bought their own Tube Screamers. And this led to a long, seemingly endless, line of various Tube Screamers. 

In 1984, Ibanez released the ST9. These pedals had an added mid-control but were only sold in Europe. ST9 pedals are now very rare due to their single year of production and limited sale. They also released the STL Super Tube in 1985. This pedal was a Tube Screamer circuit with a small EQ, but it wasn’t an official Tube Screamer. 

The next iteration of the Tube Screamer was from the Power Series (also known as the 10 series). The TS10 hit the market in 1986 and was marketed as a new and improved, high fidelity Tube Screamer. They had circuitry that eliminated a frequent hiss/harshness issue with older Tube Screamers when cranked to maxx. 

However, those changes also changed the Tube Screamer’s tone. Many hated the TS10 for years, insisting that the tone was worse. These pedals also used cheaper parts that made it easier to mass produce them. They ended up being more prone to breaking, and repairs were difficult since parts from the TS9 or TS808 wouldn’t fit. 

All that said, the TS10 was John Mayer’s Tube Screamer of choice for years. It was also used by SRV. Mayer and SRV’s use of the pedal made it the must have Tube Screamer for a lot of their fans, and it has since become a less hated pedal than it used to be. 

In 1991, Ibanez introduced another Tube Screamer—the TS5. This pedal was part of the Soundtank series, and it was an attempt to make a pedal more like the classic TS9. It has incredibly similar circuitry and functionality, but there were a few differences. It was in a plastic enclosure instead of metal, and it used cheaper, smaller parts.

Despite all this iteration, none of these pedals truly captured the magic of the original TS9, at least in the eyes of many platers. And it was only a matter of time before Ibanez brought it back. 

Photo Credit: Sweetwater.com

Modern Tube Screamers

In 1992, Ibanez finally brought back the TS9. It took a lot of convincing from Lomas to get Ibanez and Nisshin on-board, but the success was undeniable once it hit the market. 

Players were elated to have access to TS9s they didn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for second hand, and Ibanez claims to sell over 10,000 units each year. Ibanez still makes the TS9 today, and it’s one of the best selling pedals on the market. 

Looking outward, there are now countless Tube Screamer-like pedals on the market, ranging from nearly identical clones to pedals that greatly expand upon the classic Tube Screamer design. 

Way Huge Effects makes the Green Rhino, which adds frequency and curve controls to the Tube Screamer set-up. There’s the Earthquaker Plumes, which has been a big success in recent years. It offers three different clipping modes—symmetrical LED, clean boost, and asymmetrical—providing a refreshing take on an old classic. The JHS Bonsai offers nine Tube Screamers in one, letting you access sounds from the TS808, TS9, TS10, and more in a single pedal. And the Earthquaker Palisades expands upon the Tube Screamer by offering multiple gain stages, allowing for unique combinations.  

No matter what sort of Tube Screamer you like, there’s plenty of options these days. Whether you want a cheap Tube Screamer clone or an expensive boutique Tube Screamer with endless options, there’s one for you. And with how popular these pedals have become, it’s no surprise that there are so many variations available. 

Big Mids and an Even Bigger Legacy

The Tube Screamer started out as a simple idea, but it ended up becoming one of the most iconic and popular pedals of all time. From the original TS808 and the now iconic TS9 to the TS10 and TS5, Ibanez made countless Tube Screamers over the years. It may have taken some time for them to really catch on, but once they did, they quickly took their place as one of the most important pedals in guitar history. 

These days, there is an endless supply of Tube Screamers ranging from clones and copies to clever new versions and improved variations. It’s clear that Tube Screamers aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll continue to be an essential pedal for many. So set-up your board, put on some fresh Stringjoys, turn on a Tube Screamer, and enjoy some mid-boosted magic.