Question: what do David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) and Jack White (the White Stripes, The Raconteurs) have in common?
Answer: they are all avid users of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal and a lot of their recordings would not have been the same without the raunchy, dirty, gritty, fat tone of “the muff”. I will demonstrate in two videos the tone of the Big Muff but first, let’s go briefly over the troubled history of this famous distortion pedal.
The Big Muff originated in the 70s. It is often called a “fuzz” but I rather think it is a distortion pedal as it is quite a departure from the fuzz pedals of the time. Two versions came out in the 70s: the “triangle” Big Muff (triangle because of the shape formed by the knobs) and the “Ram’s head” Big Muff (because there is a little picture of a ram on it).
The maker of the Big Muff, Electro-Harmonix, went bust in 1983. Mike Matthews, its founder, went on to build Big Muff pedals under the Sovtek brand starting in the early 90s (on a side note, Sovtek had a killer line of amps at the time). Electro-Harmonix were “rebooted” later on in the US and they are now very much alive. Their current range of pedals is huge. If you are looking for a brand new Big Muff, you will have to go for the current Big Muff Pi or maybe the little Big Muff which has a smaller casing: those are closest to the “muff tone”. A lot of other pedals currently made by Electro-Harmonix have “Muff” in their names, like the Metal Muff, but they sound quite different from “THE” Big Muff.
The connoisseurs think that the current range of Big Muff is quite inferior sounding to the 70s gear and even to the Sovtek Models. This explains why a number of clones exist like the Ron Sound Hairpie, clone of the US 70s stuff or the Absolutely Analog Green Russian, clone of the Sovtek models. As to the BYOC Beaver, it is a highly regarded kit for you to build your own 70s US Big Muff clone (good luck to get it outside of the US).
If you would like a much more detailed history of the muff, check out this post on Gilmourish. It also tells you which Big Muff version David Gilmour used on the different Pink Floyd albums and tours. You can also visit this awesome site for more details and schematics.
How to get that Big Muff Tone
First of all, let me tell you that the Big Muff is an animal that is difficult to tame. You might try it and think that it sounds really harsh. Know that you really have to use the right amp and will have to play quite loud: don’t think you will get a big smooth tone out of a Big Muff at low volume, especially if you use it on its own.
Used with Humbuckers, the tone goes into “big indie riffage” territory. For this video, I use only the Big Muff with my SG and my little 5W all tube Fender Champ miked with a Shure SM-57 (some reverb was added afterwards in Cubase). The settings on the muff were VOLUME at 10 o’clock, TONE at 10 o’clock and SUSTAIN at 11 o’clock.
The good thing about the Big Muff is that it plays quite well with other pedals. For instance, a compressor placed before will really smooth out the tone whereas an overdrive placed after can remove the relative harshness of the tone, especially at low volume. Use single coil pickups and add a delay to the mix and you might reach the lead tone nirvana, Gilmour style. Here is a video made with a Stratocaster showing the muff interacting with an overdrive or a compressor:
In case you are wondering, the Big Muff I use is a standard current US Big Muff Pi model, no fancy clone or vintage model. As to the Stratocaster, it is a Custom Shop American Classics Stratocaster with Kinman AVn Blues Pickups.
The Settings were as follows:
1974 Fender Silverface Champ (BASS on 10, Treble on 2.5, Volume on 3).
Big Muff settings: VOLUME at 10 o’clock, TONE at 10 o’clock and SUSTAIN at 11 o’clock
BB Preamp Settings: GAIN at 8 o’clock, VOLUME at 1 o’clock, TREBLE at 12 o’clock, BASS at 2 o’clock
Dynacomp settings: OUTPUT at 10 o’clock, SENSITIVITY at 10 o’clock.
DD-3 Settings: LEVEL at 10 o’clock, FEEDBACK at 12 o’clock, TIME at 2 o’clock and MODE at 800ms
I thought it was about time to write my take on the most famous overdrive pedal ever: the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
This little green machine and its clones are ubiquitous because they do two things extremely well:
Used against a clean amp, a Tube Screamer will go from a bluesy to classic rock tone that will cut through the mix thanks to a mid-range hump (check out my videos below).
Used against an already overdriven amp, or even another overdrive or distortion pedal, it will push your tone and will give it more body and sustain. This trick was used by numerous rock and metal players in the 80s, before high gain tube amps arrived.
Short history of the Tube Screamer
There is a lot of historical resources about Tube Screamer pedals on the internet, the best being probably Analog Man’s Tube Screamer page. I will give you a short rundown here. The first incarnation of the Ibanez Tube Screamer was called TS808. It was launched in the late 70s as a relatively cheap offering and promised, like every other overdrive and distortion pedal, to give you “the natural overdrive of a good tube amplifier”.
As always, everybody was very skeptical but in that case, it is not far off at all! The Tube Screamer became a piece of choice in the rig of numerous pro players and of course the most famous of them at the time was Stevie Ray Vaughan, who, at some stage, even used two Tube Screamers in series!
The TS808 was quite short lived and was replaced by the TS9 in 1982, then the TS10 in 1986 and the TS5 in 1990. After that, this becomes quite complicated as Ibanez decided to bring back the TS9 in 1993 and the TS808 in 2004 while keeping the cheaper TS7 produced since 1999. I have summarized on this chart the years of production of the different models and this is only for the most common models (more on that later):
This means that, as of now, Ibanez is selling 5 different Tube Screamers: the TS808 reissue, TS9 reissue, TS7, TS9DX and TS808HW.
In a nutshell, the differences are as follows:
The early TS808 models made between the late 70s and 1982 have become absolute collector items which explains why Ibanez has decided to bring this model back. Because of its circuit and the chips used for its manufacture, it is considered the “best sounding” Tube Screamer.
The TS9 has its followers, it is a bit brighter than an 808 and was the first “old model” to be reissued in 1993 and more importantly the only one available until 2004. This explains why guys like Analog Man were and are still modifying TS9s to bring them to TS808 specifications using carefully selected components (have a look at Analog Man’s website for the technical details). The mod market has not been killed by the release of the TS808 reissue in 2004 as these are still considered in some ways inferior to the modded TS9s.
The TS7 is a cheap alternative and is part of the tonelok series of effects. I had the chance to try one and it does not sound bad at all. It even features a “more gain” mode that the others don’t have.
The TS9DX was launched in the late 90s as a “super Tube Screamer” offering more sonic possibilities. It can be modified too.
The TS808HW is a very recent model and is supposed to be a TS808 with even better components. Is it a gimmick or not, I could not say but this is clearly a response to all the modders and clone makers.
On top of these currently made models, the discontinued TS5 and TS10 can be found more or less easily but the original TS808s and TS9s from the early eighties are very rare and expensive. To make things more complicated, Ibanez, especially in the late 70s and 80s, were in a pedal making frenzy and some of their more esoteric models are more or less related to the Tube Screamer in their conception. I am thinking of the SD-9 or the strange SM-9 which is a bit of a metal Tube Screamer. Mind you these are a departure from regular Tube Screamers but can be interesting nonetheless. Finally, I must mention that a lot of of “boutique” overdrive pedals are Tube Screamer clones with a twist to make them more appealing than the original one (see the “Clones and components” section after the videos).
Which Tube Screamer should I get?
First off, I would say that I own a TS5 which was the cheapest Tube Screamer ever made. Although it does not sound as good as a TS808 or a modded TS9, it does give you a taste of the Tube Screamer tone. It is said that Stevie Ray Vaughan used several models including a TS-10 at the end of his career which gets to show you that you don’t need a TS808 from 1980 to be cool.
Now I think that the safest choice for a reasonable amount of money is either an Ibanez TS808 or a modified TS9. I personally own an Analog Man modified TS9 and it sounds very very sweet as you will see in the videos below (check out the link for purchase information or go straight to www.buyanalogman.com). Mind you, they are not cheap pedals and I would understand if you’d go for a TS-7 as these are less than half the price of a TS-9. I have seen TS-7 for about 50€ whereas a TS-9 is about 120€ and a TS 808 149€.
As to an original late 70s/early 80s model, I think we have now reached the point of irrationality in terms of pricing, these are collector items. If you have the money and the will to find one, go for it but I would not say it is indispensable. Again, check out Analog Man’s Tube Screamer History page if you are in the market for an old one as there is a lot of details which should help you identify a true vintage one from an almost vintage early 1990s reissue. Be warned about one weakness that all these old Ibanez pedals share, it is the switch! The switch of my TS-5 has become very flaky and I have the same problem with my SM-9. These switches can be replaced but if you don’t have the know how, you will have to find someone to do it.
What is all the fuss?
Well I will now try to demonstrate why the Ibanez Tube Screamer is so sought after and why you might well end up adding one to your rig if you haven’t done it already.
First, with a Strat, it can do the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone as well as some more classic rock tones. Alas, it will not give you SRV’s fingers and there is obviously more to his tone than a Tube Screamer but I find you can get pretty close. In this video, I play my American Classics Custom Shop Strat equipped with noiseless Kinman pickups.
The guitar goes into the Analog Man modded TS-9 Tube Screamer and a Fender Silverface Champ. I show various drive and level settings. At high level settings, the pedal is pushing the amp into breakup, pretty cool! The amp was close miked with an SM-57 and some reverb was added in Cubase 5. At the end, I show briefly what it can do to a distortion pedal (a Pro Co RAT 2 in this case), namely increase the sustain and add some fatness.
And now the same pedal and amp with a gibson SG 61 reissue:
I don’t share the opinion that a Tube Screamer is not very well adapted to Humbucker pickups. My theory is that people say that because the Tube Screamer lets the tone of the guitar through and a Humbucker based guitar will obviously sound totally differently from a single coil based one. You will not get the “quack” of a Stratocaster of a Telecaster but it is interesting nonetheless. And I am talking about using it against a clean amp because against an overdriven amp, a humbucker guitar and a Tube Screamer are an excellent match (ask 80s metal guitarists…).
Clones and components
And because a post about the Tube Screamer would not be complete without mentioning the JRC4558D op-amp chip that was used in the TS808, you will have to know that some of the original TS808 were not made using the JRC4558D but another cheaper alternative called RC4558P and these still sound great. Anyway, this chip is one of the major differences between the TS808 and the reissue TS9 so for the latter, the mod consists, amongst other things, in replacing the existing chip with a JRC4558D. I will stop here on the subject as I am not a specialist in electronics and there are entire websites devoted to this issues such as here and here.
Although I am not going to mention all the vendors making clones of Tube Screamers, I think I should mention Maxon. Maxon was actually making the Tube Screamers for Ibanez in the early days and they have now a full line of effects including a TS808 clone named OD808 which has gathered a lot of praise. Is it really a clone if it is made by the company that made the originals? 😉
Finally I know that I mention Analog Man a lot in this post, it is only because he is the original Tube Screamer modder and stick to a pure vintage tone philosophy. The other famous modder, Robert Keeley, seems to have less of a pure vintage approach in his Tube Screamer mods which does not mean they are bad at all but I don’t have first hand experience with those, hence will keep my big mouth shut.
There is much more to say about Tube Screamers and I will post follow-ups but I hope you will get from this post why this is such a popular pedal. Actually, to me, it is almost like the natural extension of any electric guitar. So, if you don’t have one, check it out! If you have any questions or remarks, feel free to leave a comment.
Back in the 90s (circa 1993), I had been playing for a few years and had spent all my summer job money on a vintage Vox AC-30. It is truly an amazing amp and still is today but being a one channel non master volume amp, the only way to get some overdrive out of it was to crank it. And believe me, a cranked AC-30 is pretty loud – as in bandmates covering their ears the fist time I did it.
Anyway, I decided to buy a distortion pedal and back in those days there was not the choice we have today, especially in a pre-internet smallish student town in Eastern France. So I went to the local store and the guy said: “we have these new Marshall pedals, pretty cool to get a Marshall tone out of a clean amp”. So I bought a Marshall Shredmaster and it was my main distortion pedal for a good 10 years.
The Shredmaster was not the first pedal Marshall had released. In the 80s, they had one pedal on offering, the “guv’nor” which is still coveted by some players today. In the early 90s, they released three pedals aimed at different publics: the Bluesbreaker, the Drivemaster and the Shredmaster.
The Bluesbreaker was a pretty light overdrive, the Drivemaster was supposed to sound like a Marshall JCM-800 (think classic rock) and the Shredmaster was a high gain pedal. It would not qualify as very high gain nowadays but at the time it was. The Shredmaster has been replaced in the Marshall pedal lineup by a much higher gain model: the jackhammer. As its name indicates, it was aimed at the shredding audience but the most famous guitarists to have used it are not exactly known for shredding, I am talking about Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Actually, once it was known they were users of the Shredmaster, the prices for the pedal on the second hand market rose considerably.
The Shredmaster has a lot of fans but also a lot of detractors, I know that a lot of guitarists who have tried it or owned it think it does not live up to its reputation. Quite frankly, I think the Shredmaster was truly one of the first “Marshall in a box” pedal: properly setup and plugged in a good tube amp, it really does wonders. Mind you, as I have mentioned earlier, it does not have that much gain depending on your perspective and this is where people get disappointed if they expect a “death metal” kind of tone, although it can probably do it with the right type of guitar and/or a boost. That said I think it does cover everything from blues to classic rock and 80s shredding alike while retaining a true Marshall color. Moreover, the equalisation section featuring bass, treble and a contour knob to scoop frequency is pretty efficient. It is completed by the classical gain and volume knobs. I find the gain most efficient between 2 o’clock and the maximum setting, the first half is frankly a bit useless. The volume will give you a nice boost but nothing over the top.
I have recorded several videos of the Shredmaster plugged into a little 5 Watt all tube Fender Silverface Champ. It is a fairly bright amp so I had the following settings:
On the Champ: Volume 2.5, Bass 10 Treble 2
On the Shredmaster : Gain 3 o’clock, bass 1 o’clock, contour 8 o’clock (minimum), treble 9 o’clock, volume 2 o’clock
The Shredmaster is plugged directly into the Champ which was miked by a Shure SM-57. The reverb was added in Cubase 5 afterwards and I used the Reverence 3s Plate Reverb setting.
With a Gibson SG 61 Reissue, here is how it sounds:
And with a 1978 Telecaster equipped with stock pickups:
And a last one with the SG that shows a more “classic rock sound”:
I have improvised in these videos so pardon the mistakes.
The Shredmaster is not made anymore so you will have to look on the second hand market to find one. You might also want to check the Hellrazor from Pure Analog Effects which is a very reasonably priced Shredmaster clone. There is also word that the distortion side of the Jekyll and Hyde from Visual Sound has a circuit close to the Shredmaster but I must say that the samples on the vendor’s website sound a lot heavier than a Shredmaster so I am not too sure about that.
Whether you find a real one or get a clone, happy shredding!
I would like to introduce this “Timeless Classics” series about effects with a pedal that I discovered quite recently (about two years ago) after trying and owning a lot of distortion/overdrive pedals: The Proco Rat-2.
The Rat 2 is the granddaughter of the RAT, released at the end of the 70s and whose 1985 reissue model has just been announced by Proco. The RAT has been the pedal of choice of a number of guitarists including at some stage Jeff Beck.
My model has a below 300000 serial number. According to Robert Keeley (who knows a thing or two about effects), the RAT 2 made after serial number 300000 (early 2008) are of inferior quality. I have not been able to compare mine to a more recent model tonewise so I will not comment first hand on that. Nonetheless, if you have your eyes on a second hand RAT 2, you might want to check the serial number under the pedal.
Anyway, I find the RAT highly effective. It can go from a nice overdriven sound at lower gain settings to a fat slightly fuzzy distortion at higher gain settings. If you are into lower gain overdrive type of sounds there is a lot of alternatives but for high gain distortion types of sound (and for a reasonable price) it is pretty unique. The filter is very effective and works differently from most pedals as it cuts highs as you increase it. A slight variation can make a big difference. The volume will not provide a huge boost but a boost nonetheless. Gilmourish has an excellent piece about the RAT and explains why it is a good staple distortion pedal.
In particular, I find it as effective with single coils as it is with humbuckers which is where I find most distortion pedals to be lacking. I have recorded two videos showing the fat tone you can get from a Telecaster and a RAT. I understand this type of hairy fat tone is not everyone’s cup of tea but if it is what you are looking for, chances are a proco RAT 2 will do it for you.
In these clips, the settings on the RAT 2 are as follows: gain 2 o’clock, filter 3 o’clock, volume 2 o’clock.
First using a 1978 Telecaster with stock pickups through a 5 watts all tube 1974 Fender Silverface champ miked by a Shure SM-57 pluggeg into a Boss Micro-BR recorder (some BOSS DD-3 delay added mid way and BOSS RV-3 reverb always on):
Update 24-10-2010: here is another video of my Telecaster, the Proco Rat 2 and my trusty Fender amp (same as video above). The sound quality is better and you get to hear how it sounds with a slapback echo added in the second part of the video.
And now the same guitar and the same pedals through a Marshall JM-1 Preamp set clean and plugged directly into the recorder (I have used the “clean 1” channel with a gain of 9):