From the first notes of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood,” you can hear it loud and clear; that snarly tone is not just pure Stratocaster and amplifier! To get that bluesy edge, Vaughan plugged into a small green box – an Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro.
SRV used the Tube Screamer to drive his amplifier – either a Fender Vibroverb or a Dumble Steel String Singer, depending on accounts. The boost gain of the TS-808 pushed the amp to new levels of creamy distortion, adding a grit, a bite, a scream. It also thickened his tone to make his single-coil Strat sound – dare we say it? – almost like a humbucker-equipped Les Paul. But not quite. It was a unique tone, one that SRV cooked up, tasted, added a bit more spice, then adjusted again to create what became his trademark sound on his trademark solo on his trademark song.
“I use the Tube Screamer because of the Tone knob,” he told writer Frank Joseph just after the release of the Texas Flood album in 1983. “That way, you can vary the distortion and tonal range. You can turn it on slightly to get a Guitar Slim tone, which is how I use it, or wide open so your guitar sounds like it should jump up and bite you.”
Thanks in large part to Vaughan, the Tube Screamer has become one of the most widely used and beloved stompboxes of all time. Ironically, it was not a hit upon its debut, and the original versions of the TS-808 and successor TS9 were only produced for two or three years each.
The TS-808 was first marketed by Ibanez starting in about 1979; “Ibanez” was the “stage name” of the Hoshino Gakki company of Nagoya, Japan, which began in 1908 as a musical-instrument-sales division of a bookstore chain.
Ibanez was first known for its wacky electric guitars, but became infamous for its exacting copies of Fender, Gibson, and Rickenbacker models that ended in a legal slap of the hand. But while guitars like the Iceman remain collector faves, it was the accompanying Tube Screamer pedal that emerged as the company’s greatest offering.
The creation of Nisshin electronics designer S. Tamura, who used a simple clipping circuit to craft the pedal’s voice (its subtleness was central to the effect), the pedal was produced by the Nisshin Onpa company’s Maxon division, then licensed to Ibanez. A version was also issued under the Maxon moniker.
The pedal made its debut in the late ’70s, when most amp makers were embracing the bad new world of solidstate amps. Like Roland’s Boss OD-1 OverDrive of the same vintage, it was basically a tube simulator. The OD-1, however, clipped the guitar’s signal asymmetrically, similar to the effect of a vacuum tube, trimming the top and the bottom of the sound wave differently, resulting in a harsher sound. The TS-808 clipped it symmetrically, producing a smoother voice. This aided the Tube Screamer in preserving the original dynamics and clarity of the input signal and preventing it from getting too coarse or too muddy.
The TS-808 had an Overdrive knob to control distortion and a Level knob to adjust output volume. Differing from the original OD-1, it also had a Tone knob to dial in the amount of treble, and this became key to its flexibility.
A major component of the Tube Screamer’s tone came thanks to its operational amplifier (opamp) integrated-circuit chip. The early versions of the TS-808 (which featured the Ibanez logo followed by the trademark symbol) used either Malaysian-made Texas Instruments RC4558P or Japanese Radio Corporation JRC4558D chips. Both have their fans, though some also love the rare TL4558P chip that was sometimes used. But if a simple integrated-circuit opamp chip can boast cachet, it’s the JRC4558D.
Still, the TS-808 only survived in production from circa 1979 until ’81, when updated as the TS9 and offered from 1982 through ’84/’85. The TS9 had a revised output section, giving it a brighter sound but at the expense of the TS-808’s famed smoothness. It also flaunted a larger on-off foot switch, likely to counter one of the Boss pedal’s best, easy-to-use features. Yet like too many other early stompboxes such as Arbiter’s Fuzz Face, the TS9 suffered from feckless parts sourcing, thus lacking consistent sound from batch to batch.
To keep up with changing tastes, the TS9 was revised in 1984 as the Euro-model ST9 Super Tube Screamer with added Mid Boost control, STL Super Tube in ’85, the TS10 Tube Screamer Classic of 1986-’93, TS5 Tubescreamer Soundtank of 1991-’98, and TS7 of 2000-’10.
The original TS9 was reissued in ’92, followed in ’98 by the TS9DX Turbo and TS9B for basses in ’11. The TS-808 was reissued in ’04, along with the hand-wired TS808HW in ’08.
Plugging a 1956 Strat into an original TS-808 with that vaunted JRC4558D chip and then into a narrow-panel tweed Deluxe, you instantly hear the pedal working. On a small amp that overdrives easily (such as the Deluxe), you can run the Tube Screamer clean with a low Drive setting and high Level, to push the amp to more distortion. On a larger, cleaner amp, you can dial the Drive up about halfway, set the Tone at a quarter, and the Level to three-quarters to dirty the sound. The result is more sustain, edge, and harmonic lushness. Dial it harder, and you can achieve fuzz.
The difference between a vintage TS-808 and a reissue is easy to hear, but there’s a dramatic price differential, too. That’s why numerous techs offer a variety of mods – from retro specs to hotrodding – for reissues. Still, the reissue sounds great on its own.
Stevie Ray Vaughan also used his TS-808 on the Texas Flood instrumental “Testify,” where he ran the signal into a wah, working the two effects together to cook up a sonic stew.
“You can get some wild sounds out of ’em ’cause one of ’em drives the other one and then it goes from there…” SRV told writer Steven Rosen in ’85. “So by the time it gets to the amp, it’s like – it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun.”
SRV had fun with Tube Screamers throughout his career, using the TS-808, then the TS9 and TS10 when they arrived. When he covered Jimi Hendrix tunes, he added a Fuzz Face for a harder rock sound. But to play the blues, it was pure little green box.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.