Which Tube Screamer Should You Buy?
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the most iconic guitar pedals ever made. It has been used by many of the most famous blues guitarists of all time – including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore and John Mayer, to name just a few. It is a brilliant guitar pedal and one which, if used correctly, can help you produce a variety of beautiful blues tones.
In my recent article – ‘Why Is The Ibanez Tube Screamer So Popular?‘ I covered the key reasons you might want to add a Tube Screamer to your pedalboard. If you’ve decided that one would make a nice addition to your rig, then the next step is deciding which Tube Screamer you should buy.
That is what I will be covering today. Here are 8 of the main different types of Tube Screamer available, and what you need to know about them. I hope this will help you decide which pedal is right for you and will make the best addition to your rig.
Some Opening Thoughts…
Since it was first released in the late 1970s, the Ibanez Tube Screamer has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Its circuitry has been studied in great detail, and there is a lot of information about the tonal differences between different models of the pedal.
Whilst some of the pedals here do have different features and tonal characteristics to one another, many of the pedals listed here are very similar. In fact, in some cases – as with the TS808 and TS9 – the circuitry of the pedals is almost identical. As such, the difference in tone between these pedals is minimal.
The information here is not going to be a study of the minute differences between different models of the pedal. If you are looking for beautiful blues tones, I would suggest your time is better spent looking at other elements of your rig that will have a greater impact on your tone. Instead, here I will outline some of the most significant differences in the tonal characteristics, features and price of different Tube Screamers, where these differences actually exist. I hope this helps you pick the right pedal for your board and get the beautiful blues tones you are after.
The Ibanez TS808 is the original Tube Screamer pedal. Released in the late 1970s, the pedal quickly became popular as a result of its distinctive mid-hump. Like many overdrive pedals out there, the TS808 boosts the signal of your guitar. But it doesn’t boost all frequencies evenly; it disproportionately boosts the mid-range frequencies of your signal.
This helps you cut through the mix, and it pairs up very well with Fender amps and Stratocasters, where the mid-range is lacking. This is why it worked so well for Stevie Ray Vaughan. The pedal put all of the mids back into his sound, adding warmth and beef to his tone.
All of the other pedals listed here are a variation of the TS808. So if you are looking to go for a classic Tube Screamer, the TS808 could be a brilliant choice.
The original TS808 has long been out of production. If you really want to pick up an original, then you can still buy them on sites like Reverb. They don’t come cheap though, with the pedals in good condition starting at around $1250/£1000.
The good news, is that the reissue versions of the pedal are much more affordable. You can buy a new TS808 Reissue for around $180/£170.
One of the more recent variations on the original TS808 is a hand-wired version of the same pedal. Released in 2016, the TS808HW is a boutique offering from Ibanez. It is hand-wired on turret boards, made with high-end Japanese Mogami OEC cable and comes in a special collectors box.
Putting these arguably less significant features to the side, the main difference between this version of the Tube Screamer and the original TS808, is that this pedal is true bypass.
Without getting into a deep discussion on the pros and cons of true bypass and buffered bypass pedals (we can save that for another day!), using a true bypass pedal will better preserve the tone of your guitar and amp when the pedal is disengaged. Regardless of whether you perceive this as a significant benefit or not, it is a key difference to the TS808, which is a buffered bypass pedal.
This modification, along with the hand wiring does come at an additional cost. Of all of the pedals here, this is most expensive, costing around $380/£309. However, for that price you are buying a boutique pedal. So if you want the Tube Screamer tone and are looking for something a bit more ‘special’, then this pedal could be the one for you.
The second variation on the TS808 is perhaps more notable. The TS808DX is a totally different type of pedal, as it combines a TS808 with a clean boost pedal. This boost has a switch which allows you to shift its position in the signal chain to be either before or after the Tube Screamer. As I discussed in more detail here – placing a boost before your overdrive results in more compression and drive in your tone. Conversely, placing it after your overdrive gives you a clean boost of volume, without changing your tone.
When you stack pedals in this way, you can create some beautiful blues tones. It also gives you a lot of tonal versatility. You can use the pedal as a clean boost, just an overdrive, or a combination of the 2. You can then play around with the levels of drive and volume on each side of the pedal to produce a wide range of different tones.
At $250/£190, you get a lot of pedal for your money here. So if you want the Tube Screamer tone with additional features and greater tonal versatility, this pedal could be a brilliant choice.
The TS9 was the first variation that Ibanez released on the original TS808. They first released the TS9 in 1981, and of all of the variations of the Tube Screamer, it is still one of the most popular.
Its circuitry is almost identical to that of the TS808, except for its output. A lot of players believe that this makes the TS9 sound slightly brighter and a bit harsher than the TS808. And so there have long been debates about the pros and cons of each, and their different tonal characteristics.
In reality, the tonal differences of these pedals are often exaggerated. That is not to say that they don’t exist. It is just to say that the TS9 is a very slight tweak on the original Tube Screamer. It is not a wildly different pedal, and as a result it does not produce wildly different tones.
If you want to see an A/B test of the TS808 and TS9 next to each other, head to the 5.36 minute mark of this video from ‘That Pedal Show’. Close your eyes and see if you can hear when the TS808 is being played and when its the TS9. It will hopefully help you realise that the tonal differences between the pedals are very subtle.
I hope it will also help you to decide which of the 2 pedals you prefer. Like the TS808, production of the original TS9 pedals stopped long ago. The good news though, is that unlike the TS808, the TS9 doesn’t hold such a high value. You can pick up originals of the TS9 for a very reasonable price on sites like Reverb. They typically sell for around $450/£350.
The same is true of the TS9 Reissue pedals. You can buy one of these pedals new for around $100/£120. So if you are looking for the classic Tube Screamer sound and don’t believe there is a noticeable difference between the TS9 and the TS808, this could be a great and slightly cheaper option.
In 1998, Ibanez released the TS9DX Turbo – a further variation on the TS9. This features the same circuity as the TS9, but gives the option of more gain, with the addition of the ‘+’, ‘hot’ and ‘Turbo’ modes.
Every time you engage one of these modes, the pedal adds quite a bit of bottom end and volume. In this way, it shifts away from the typical sound of a Tube Screamer.
So if you are looking for the classic ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan‘ style Tube Screamer tone, I wouldn’t recommend the TS9DX Turbo. Instead I would suggest opting for either the TS808 or the TS9, both of which Vaughan used during his career.
Conversely, if you just want to get close to that classic sound, and you are interested in producing a range of more diverse overdrive tones, this could be a great addition to your rig.
At $120/£120 this is slightly more expensive than the standalone TS9, but cheaper than the TS808 reissue.
If you are looking for great value, then the more recently released Tube Screamer Mini is a brilliant choice. This is modelled on the TS808, but packaged in a much smaller enclosure.
Tonally, there is very little difference between the Mini, and a TS808 Reissue. If you head to the 12.15 minute mark of the same ‘That Pedal Show’ video I linked above, you can hear a direct comparison between the 2 pedals. And again if you close your eyes you will observe that there is very little that separates them.
So if you want to save space on your pedalboard as well as save a bit of money, the Tube Screamer Mini could be a brilliant choice.
At $80/£60, you will struggle to find many other pedals of this quality for a similar price.
In 2018, Ibanez released a Tube Screamer that represented a more significant departure from their previous models. The ‘Nu Tubescreamer‘ has many of the standard features of the TS808, with the addition of a Korg Nutube mini vacuum tube. The idea here is that the addition of the Nutube technology improves the dynamic response of the pedal, and captures the sound of a tube amp compressing.
In addition to the controls you’d find on a TS808 or TS9, there is also a ‘Mix’ control for the clean signal. According to Ibanez, this controls the balance of the clean and overdriven signals:
The center position will create a mix equivalent to that of traditional Tubescreamers. Turning the knob counterclockwise, injects more of the clean signal while still retaining a traditional Tubescreamer mid boost. Turning it clockwise will decrease the clean tone and when fully clockwise, the clean tone disappears producing a fuller overdriven signal.
In reality I am not convinced that there is a huge tonal difference between this pedal and the TS808 or TS9. You can hear the pedals A/B/C tested on this video from Anderton’s TV. Admittedly, in this demonstration they are running the amps with more gain than you would if you were trying to produce a vintage blues tone. But despite this, there is not much difference at all between the Nu Tubescreamer and the original models.
Having said that, like the hand-wired version of the TS808, the Nu Tubescreamer is true bypass. It also allows up to an 18V power supply, which gives you more headroom in the pedal when the volume is increased.
At $250/£180, this is one of the pricier pedals listed here, and so probably wouldn’t be my first choice. Of course, if the true bypass and 18V power supply features are particularly important to you then it could make a great addition to your rig.
The TS10 – An Honourable Mention
Over the years, Ibanez have released a vast number of different Tube Screamer pedals. These include the TS5, TS7, the ST9 Super Tube Screamer and the TS10.
Of these, the TS10 is the most significant. The circuitry of the TS10 represented quite a shift away from both the TS808 and the TS9. The pedal was only made for a few years, partly because they were manufactured with cheaper jack pots which often broke or fell apart.
However despite this, the TS10 remains one of the more popular Tube Screamer models that is no longer in production. This is largely because Stevie Ray Vaughan played one towards the end of his career, but also because the TS10 is John Mayer’s Tube Screamer of choice.
As is true of most of the pedals listed in this article, the tonal characteristics and pros and cons of the TS10 have been subjected to intense scrutiny. And again, as is often the case, there is rarely any consensus one way or another from those doing the scrutinising.
Of the tone tests that I’ve heard, there is a difference between the TS10 and Ts808 and TS9. But again this difference is marginal. If you are a big John Mayer fan, then it could make sense to go down the TS10 route. But if you do, you will have to opt for a second hand pedal, as the TS10 is no longer in production and there is no reissue version of the pedal. Fortunately, original TS10s are nowhere near as costly as original TS808s. You can buy them on Reverb for around $350/£300.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, the main variations of the Tube Screamer that you need to know about. As I suggested earlier, some of the more significant differences between these pedals are not related to their tonal characteristics, but rather to their features and price.
That is not to say there aren’t differences. It is just to say that if/when you are looking to buy a Tube Screamer, try not to sweat too much over some of the more subtle differences between variations of the pedal. Look at the features of the pedal and the price. Then consider how important the Tube Screamer is going to be in the context of your rig. If you are looking to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or John Mayer, it makes more sense to splash out – either on a vintage pedal, or one of the classic reissue pedals. If that isn’t the case, then I would recommend going for one of the more basic options listed here.
Whatever you decide to go for though, good luck! I hope adding a Tube Screamer to your board gets you closer to achieving the beautiful blues tones you are looking for 😁 And if you have any questions – or if there is anything I can help with – just post in the comments below or send me an email on [email protected]