The Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the most popular guitar pedals of all time. Initially made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan, it has since been used by a whole variety of notable blues guitarists, including Gary Moore, Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer, amongst others.
Many aspiring guitarists have added a Tube Screamer to their setup in the hope of achieving similar tones. And I have no doubt that it is one of the first pedals to appear on the pedalboards of blues guitarists all over the world.
But why is this is the case? Why is the Ibanez Tube Screamer such a popular pedal? And why does it appear on the pedalboards of so many famous blues guitarists?
I will answer those questions today. And I hope that in doing so, I can shed light not only on why the Ibanez Tube Screamer is such a popular pedal, but more importantly, if it makes sense to include as part of your rig.
So without further ado, here are the 7 key reasons why the Ibanez Tube Screamer is so popular, and why it could work brilliantly as part of your rig:
1.) It Has The Magic Mid-Hump
The defining characteristic of the Tube Screamer is the ‘mid-hump’ that it produces. Like a lot of overdrive pedals, the Tube Screamer boosts your signal. But unlike a lot of overdrive pedals, it doesn’t boost all parts of the frequency equally. Critically, it disproportionately boosts the mid-range frequencies of your signal. So it doesn’t greatly alter the bottom or top end of your sound. It won’t give your tone a fat bottom end, nor will it make the top end of your tone sharp or strident. It just makes the mid range really punch through.
Tube Screamers perform this function very effectively, and it is part of why they are so popular.
In fact, everything that makes the Ibanez Tube Screamer such a popular pedal relates back to this tonal characteristic. So it is worth keeping in mind as we go through the rest of the points here.
2.) It Pairs Well With Fenders
The combination of a Fender amp and Fender Stratocaster has been used effectively by blues guitarists since the early 1950s. It is a combination that features on thousands of blues records, and has been used by many of the most famous bluesmen of all time. It is a combination that produces a distinctly American sound, and it can be used to produce some killer vintage blues tones.
Both Fender Strats and Fender amps are renowned for lacking in the ‘mids’. Their tones are tight and well defined at the bottom end and bright and sparkly at the top. But in the middle they aren’t so well defined. So you end up with somewhat of a ‘scooped’ tone.
As mentioned above, the Tube Screamer amplifies the middle portion of the signal disproportionately, and puts all of those mids back into the mix. This makes the sound of the Fender guitar and amp combination significantly warmer and fatter. It is a killer tone that is perfect for the blues.
3.) It Has A Killer Dynamic Response
One of the other key reasons the Ibanez Tube Screamer is so popular with blues guitarists, is because of its ‘dynamic response’. Put simply, the pedal responds very well to the way that you play your guitar. If you dig in and use a heavy pick attack, you’ll get a more aggressive and overdriven tone. Conversely, if you back off and play softly, the Tube Screamer will produce a softer and warmer tone. And this is a key reason that Tube Screamers make such great pedals for blues guitarists.
Blues guitar is all about feel. It is about creating light and shade in your playing, expressing your feelings and evoking emotions in your listeners. And it is pretty much impossible to do this effectively without altering your dynamics. So the last thing that you want to do is dial in your tone, only to find that some of your technique gets lost in the mix.
This might sound obvious. But the reality is that a lot of overdrive pedals – and particularly higher gain overdrive and ‘dirt’ pedals – do not respond in this way. They don’t have the same dynamic response, and this makes it a lot harder to express yourself properly. The dynamic response of the Tube Screamer is very strong. And this is one of the key reasons that it remains such a popular guitar pedal.
3.) You Need One To Sound Like Stevie
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first guitarist to popularise the Ibanez Tube Screamer. He recognised the difference the pedal made to the sound of his Fender Vibroverb and Fender Stratocaster combination, and it became a key part of his setup. Vaughan created what we now think of as the classic Tube Screamer tone. It is one of the richest and most beautiful blues tones ever created.
It is also a tone that you will struggle to recreate without a Tube Screamer. Often you can recreate the tones of famous players without having to recreate their setups exactly. But the Tube Screamer produces a very specific tone in the context of certain rigs.
So if you are looking to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you need to add a Tube Screamer to your setup. When paired with a Fender Strat and a Fender tube amp, it will transform your sound and help you capture those vintage Texas tones.
4.) It Is Surprisingly Versatile
Although the Ibanez Tube Screamer is strongly associated with Stevie Ray Vaughan, it is a surprisingly versatile guitar pedal. If you pair a Tube Screamer with a Fender tube amp and a Fender Strat, you will get the classic Tube Screamer sound. But you can get beautiful tones using different combinations, too.
Gary Moore crafted a beautiful tone by pairing a Tube Screamer with a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp – either a 1959 Super Lead or a JTM45.
Unlike Fender amps and Fender Strats, Gibson guitars and Marshall amps are not lacking in the mids. So combining them with a Tube Screamer produces quite a different effect. In the case of Gary Moore, adding a Tube Screamer into the mix pushed the combination of his Marshall amp and Les Paul to its breaking point. He added more distortion to his sound, as well as the sustain that was a characteristic part of his tone.
And Moore is just one other notable guitarist who used a Tube Screamer. The pedal has been used by a whole variety of different guitarists across a range of different genres; from soft rock, to punk rock, to heavy metal. Of course, a Tube Screamer will help you sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, but it can help you to produce a lot of other tones too.
5.) You Get 2 for 1
Part of the versatility of the Tube Screamer is that it can perform 2 different functions, and do both very well. Firstly – and unsurprisingly – it can be used as an overdrive pedal. You can create overdrive and compression within the pedal itself to change your tone. And if you really crank the drive knob on the pedal, you can produce some pretty heavy tones. So if you favour a more overdriven blues tone, you can use a Tube Screamer in this way to great effect.
Secondly, you can use the Tube Screamer as a boost pedal. If you set the drive level very low, and crank the volume (as shown in the image here), the pedal acts like a boost. And in fact this is how you create the ‘classic’ Tube Screamer tone. Stevie Ray Vaughan very rarely used a lot of drive on his Tube Screamer. Instead he cranked the volume and used the pedal to push his amp into overdrive.
The key here is to put the Tube Screamer in front of an amp that is on the verge of breakup. When you step on the pedal, it will push your amp harder and you’ll get those beautiful vintage blues tones. It will also produce its famous mid-hump sound. That will give you the typical Tube Screamer tone. It will also really help you cut through the mix in a live setting.
6.) It Helps With Gain Stacking
Stacking overdrive pedals is a brilliant way of creating a range of different tones. But it is not without its challenges. If you stack the wrong types of pedal into one another, or if you dial in too much gain on the pedals, you can end up with an unfocused, muddy tone. This is a particular problem if you are playing in a band setting. The last thing you want is to step on an overdrive pedal, ready to hit your big solo, only to find you get totally lost in the mix.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer can really help here. As a result of its pronounced mid hump, it can add a lot of focus to a heavily overdriven sound. It is for this reason that in more recent years the pedal has also become popular amongst heavy metal guitarists. These players use a lot of distortion, but they don’t want that distortion to sound mushy. So they place a Tube Screamer in front of a high output amp to tighten up their sound.
If you are stacking overdrive pedals or if you favour a more overdriven blues rock tone, then adding a Tube Screamer to your setup could really help improve your tone.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, just some of the key reasons that the Ibanez Tube Screamer is favoured by so many blues guitarists. I hope the information here helps give you the information you need to decide if a Tube Screamer makes sense as part of your rig.
If you decide that it does, then the next decision is which Tube Screamer it is you should buy. I have spoken here about the Tube Screamer as if it is just one pedal, but that is a little misleading.
Since the original TS808 pedal was made in the late 1970s, there have been various different versions of the Tube Screamer. And some of these have slightly different tonal characteristics that are worth noting.
But don’t worry – I will be covering all of the different versions of the Tube Screamer, as well as some alternatives to the pedal, over my next couple of articles. So keep an eye out for those. And if you have any questions or comments in the meantime, pop them in the box below or send me an email on [email protected]