What’s so special about Tube Screamers?

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Tubescreamer Pedal

The Ibanez Tube Screamer is arguably the most popular overdrive pedal ever made. The familiar little green box is a common fixture on many pedal boards, particularly for blues guitarists.  It’s fair to say, much of the Tube Screamers popularity came from Stevie Ray Vaughan being a noted user of them.  The TS circuit has been copied, adapted and “improved” by many manufacturers, it may be the most replicated of all overdrive circuits.

I have tried many different overdrive pedals, but it took me a long time to get around to checking out what the Tube Screamer offers. The internet is full of forums and threads on all things Tube Screamer, but you’ll soon notice lots of conflicting opinions about them.

 

What’s so special about Tube Screamers

So, what’s so special about Tube Screamers?  Why do so many people use them? Why do so many people hate them? And why do some people choose to use pedals based on Tube Screamers, made by other manufacturers?

Where it all started, the TS808

First, for those that may not know, let me explain in essence what the Tube Screamer is. It is an overdrive pedal which, when engaged, colors the guitar tone by adding a healthy mid frequency boost, cutting some low-end frequencies at the same time. Of course, you some gain can be added to the signal if needed.

Typically, guitarists use them to push tube amplifiers into further overdrive. The mid boost, and decreased low-end frequencies of the pedal “tighten” the low end of the overall tone, and allow the player to cut through the mix for solos. By boosting the mids, without boosting the low and high frequencies, the guitar is perceived as louder and having greater more clarity.  Which would be pretty much like turning up the amp to make everything louder.

Many rock and metal players use Tube Screamers to tighten the high gain rhythm sounds.  This prevents the typical scooped metal tone becoming muddy and spongy in a live setting, especially when played at high volumes.

 

Tube Screamers in the right context

There is so much hype about Tube Screamers, so many people saying “every guitarist needs a Tube Screamer”, that many guitarists purchase them without realizing what they were designed to do. For many players who want to go from clean to overdriven rhythm tones at the press of a switch, the drop in low-end, and the boost in mid frequencies colors their sound too much, and it ceases to be a natural progression of their tone.  Then come the common complaints of “it makes my tone too thin” and “it’s too aggressive and nasally”. Some go further and say they are rubbish pedals because of these complaints. The way I see it, for these people the TS simply doesn’t fit their application.

So much depends on the type of amplifier used.  Tube Screamers, Fender Stratocasters and Fender Blackface amps are a common combination. Do you know why? Let me tell you!  Stratocasters don’t have a particularly mid heavy tone and the Blackface Fender amps are known for their “scooped” mid-tone (which emphasizes the bass and treble frequencies).  The humble Tube screamer steps in to provide the “missing” mid frequencies, giving a full and musical tone for rhythm and lead.  Many players will kick on a second TS pedal for even bigger lead tones!

Marshall amps are known for their full frequency tone, having a bit of a mid hump. Adding a Tube Screamer pushes those mids even more, forcing them to jump out!  Adding a Tube Screamer to an amplifier which as heavy mid frequencies, such as the Fender Tweed era amplifiers, will result in a particularly nasally tone.

Now, it is important to understand that sound, and particularly guitar tone, is subjective. A good or bad tone is relative to what it is you want your guitar tone to sound like. If you find a tone that you enjoy, which inspires you to play more guitar – go with it!

 

Tube Screamer alternatives

Now is probably a good time to discuss some of the best TS alternatives, and how to use them to achieve the best tones.

The original T-Rex Alberta


I love the old T-Rex Alberta Overdrive and the Wampler Clarksdale Delta Overdrive.  I use these pedals for every gig.  Both are variants on the TS 808 circuit, which according to many is the best TS model.

The T- Rex Alberta Overdrive has all the TS characteristics (mid hump, low-end cut etc), but with a much better switch. The original Ibanez and Maxon models had notoriously unreliable switches. Call me picky, but I like to know for sure I am switching a pedal on or off!  The Wampler Euphoria pedal sounds amazing when positioned after the T-Rex Alberta. When ripping a solo, the Alberta provides the mid boost, and low end cut, pushing the Euphoria to even sweeter gain with a bit of a volume boost. Keep the level high, the gain lower and set the tone knob to taste. Or, bring up the gain a bit, lower the level and use the Alberta with the Euphoria to give heavier, more gainy rhythm tones.

Wampler Clarksdale Overdrive with 3 band EQ

The Wampler Clarksdale Delta Overdrive has active bass and mid controls (the treble works like a typical TS tone control).  This provides the ability to boost the bass and mid controls to finely sculpt lead tones. This is particularly useful when playing clean rhythm parts, then needing a more rounded tone for lead lines.

Travis Feaster, of the WT Feaster Band, has a method of stacking overdrive tones.  This provides singing sustain and a “chewy” tone that is particularly inspiring.  I have incorporated this into my set-up.  The Alberta is my primary always on OD, but then, I “stack” the Clarksdale on top for lead parts.

 

Conclusion

So there you have it, the humble Tube Screamer (and alternatives). Whether you love them or hate them, I would hope we can all appreciate them as a great tool of the trade, but they need to be used appropriately. If you get a chance, give one a try, experience what it does for your tone and make up your own mind. It might not be for you, but then again it may be exactly what you need.

 


Tube Screamers and alternatives

Image Summary
Ibanez TS808 Overdrive Pedal

This is as close to the original are you’re going to get.  The TS808 reissue features the famous JRC4558 chip, which created the beautiful tones of the original TS808 pedals.  With the instantly recongisable square footswitch it sounds and feels exactly like the original.

Price Check 150
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

A classic pedal in its own right. The TS9 can deliver tones from warm and blusey overdrive to a gritty tone metal players will love.

Price Check 150
Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini

Features 100% true bypass (not found in the other TS808 or TS9).  It may be small, but it delivers the same great tone at a fraction of the price.

Price Check 150
Joyo JF-01 Vintage Overdrive Guitar Effect Pedal with True Bypass

OK, it may not have the looks, but it packs a punch. This Chinese made pedal captures all the charm of the original TS at an almost unbelievable price.

Price Check 150
T-Rex ALBERTA-II Dual Overdrive Pedal

Stacking overdrives is so much easier on a dual overdrive pedal.  The overdrive is more transparent than the TS, and includes individual boost and tone controls for each channel.

Price Check 150
Wampler Clarksdale Overdrive Pedal

Whilst faithful to the original TS sounds, the 3 band EQ provides tone shaping, which cannot be rivaled – creating both the classic mid-boost or greater transparency.  With top loading input and output jacks this pedal wastes no space on the board.

Price Check 150

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