The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Tube Screamer
The Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer overdrive pedal is one of those guitar effects that has attained almost mythical status. It’s an unassuming, green stompbox with three small knobs, but in the right hands, it packs a wallop. Guitar players as diverse as blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan and Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett have relied on it for their sound.
The first Tube Screamer was the TS808, produced in the 1970s. By the early ‘80s the TS9 was born, but it didn’t stick around long. From 1985 to 1992 Ibanez put out a few different Tube Screamers, but each was a shadow of the TS808 and TS9. I remember the TS5 Sound Tank in particular, an affordable little plastic version from the early '90s. The guitar world missed the classic, analog masterpiece. So, in 1992 Ibanez reissued the TS9, and in 2004 the TS808.
As for me, I’ve had my TS9 reissue for over ten years. I’ve used it with various amplifiers, most recently my Marshall tube combo. It’s still in great shape, and it’s one of those pedals I simply couldn’t part with. In fact, I included it in my list of essential guitar effects pedals. If you were only allowed to own one distortion pedal for the rest of your life, there are good arguments it ought to be a Tube Screamer.
This article is intended to give a basic overview of the TS9 sound, its uses for different styles of music and with different amps, as well as a look at the different options available today.
Based on the name alone, you'd think this is a distortion pedal capable of face-melting high-gain sounds. It can help you with that, which we will get to a bit later, but the basic sound of the pedal is nothing of the sort. It’s a pretty simple design with three knobs:
- Drive: Controls the amount of gain.
- Tone: Adjusts the tonal character.
- Level: Controls the output signal.
This is an overdrive pedal, not a heavy distortion pedal. The sound is crunchy, warm, midrange and smooth. This is that sweet overdrive sound you get when you push a tube amp just past the breaking point. If I were a blues, lighter rock or country guitar player, this is what I’d be looking for.
In fact, it was the sound a looked for when I was in a band like that. I put my Tube Screamer in front of a Traynor tube combo amp for a little extra oomph. It worked great. While I wasn’t looking for heavy distortion it gave me the crunch I needed, and it tightened up my tone a bit.
The Tube Screamer sounds just fine with a solid-state amp, but it really makes a tube amp light up. Any distortion pedal will help push a tube amp harder into overdrive. Of course sound matters a whole lot, and there are a few good options out there for this purpose. The TS9 is a the top of any list, and for me, it has worked very well for everything from blues to extreme metal.
If you play blues, country or certain styles of classic rock this pedal is pretty easy to figure out. Put it in your signal chain, set your amp up for clean sounds and step on this little green box whenever you need to kick in that crunch.
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Using the Tube Screamer for Metal and Hard Rock
Metal and hard rock players have used the TS9 since the ‘80s, and this obviously isn’t a metal distortion pedal. So, how do you use a Tube Screamer for metal? You have a couple of options here. Bear in mind both of these examples assume you are playing through a tube amp.
This first idea is to use the gain from the pedal in conjunction with the gain from your amp. This pushes your amp harder into overdrive, but it also colors the signal with the tone from the pedal. Since this is a great-sounding pedal you might not mind.
The key here is to get a mix of pedal and amp distortion that’s to your liking. For me, I set my Marshall DSL to the Ultra Gain channel, Lead 2, with the gain at about six. This is already some decent heavy distortion. Then, I set the TS9 with the Drive maxed and the Tone and Level each at about noon. I like this sound, and it retains enough of my Marshall tone while adding a ton of gain and sustain and tightening up the sound.
The second option is to use the TS9 as more of a boost. This may be the method of choice for players with amps that are already putting out high-gain distortion, such as the Peavey 6505. In this case, you leave the Drive at its lowest setting and crank the Level, adjusting the Tone control as you wish.
This is an alternative method I sometimes use with my Marshall, and in this case, I’d crank the amp’s gain control to the max. The purpose of the pedal in this setup isn’t to directly add distortion but to push the amp harder (indirectly creating a bit more distortion) and also to tighten up and compress the sound.
So what about using the Tube Screamer for metal with a solid-state amp? I played through a Peavey Bandit, one of the older American-made versions, for a long time. This amp already has a lot of gain and compression, and I never felt the need to add a pedal. But I did experiment from time to time, especially with the Clean channel, and with the Lead channel in vintage mode.
If you have a solid-state amp you don’t feel has enough firepower, you can certainly employ method one above. There are no tubes to cook of course, but you can take advantage of the overdrive and tone of the TS9 to pile some thick distortion on your amp’s already distorted sound.
Aside from the TS9, there are a bunch of Tube Screamers and similar models on the market today:
- TS808: This is a reissue of the original Ibanez TS808, right down to the same chip, according to Ibanez. The 808 has a smoother sound than the TS9, and some players prefer it.
- TS Mini: Mini versions of guitar stuff, such as amp heads and pedals, are pretty popular today for some reason. This is the Mini Tube Screamer, and you can save a couple of bucks if you go small.
- TS9DX: The warm sound of the TS808 with additional modes for Turbo, Hot and TS9. It’s a Tube Screamer with a wider range of tonal options and a little more gain.
- TS808DX: This two-button pedal gives you the overdrive of the TS808 along with a boost function. Players have used the Tube Screamer for both purposes, so this pedal lets you do both at once.
- TS808HW: This is a limited-production pedal made with hand-selected, premium components. It will set you back a bit, but if you need a top-end pedal this certainly fills the bill.
- Maxon OD808: This isn’t an Ibanez product, but it’s preferred by some players as an outstanding TS808 reissue. This company designed the original pedals for Ibanez back in the ‘70s.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer TS9 is among the most revered pedals in the history of rock guitar. It’s warm and crunchy, and on its own can form a foundation of the sound for blues, country, and rock guitarists. It even works for metal guitarists, thickening and tightening their sound and adding a little more gain.
It's also worth noting that this is one of the most modded pedals in the history of the guitar. Few discussions can take place without someone suggesting you tear the thing apart and switch around some components. That’s a bit beyond me, but I’d love to hear about any mods or changes you’ve made to your unit in the comments below.
Is it the best overdrive pedal for you? Who knows? There are a lot of great distortion pedals, and those by brands like Boss and MXR are certainly worth consideration. But there is no arguing that the TS9 is a classic, and for many guitar players it is all they need. Try one and figure it out. My guess is once you add one to your list of pedals you’ll never want to get rid of it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.