After the super boutique BB preamp and the more mundane Boss SD-1, the next Tube Screamer alternative to be featured on Guitar Tone Overload is somewhere in the middle. Born in the Boss factories and modified in the workshop of mister Keeley, the Boss BD-2 “Blues Driver” overdrive is not a Tube Screamer copy but a different machine as you will gather from the demo videos below.
I will begin straight away with the videos and will give my thoughts afterward.
Here is how it sounds using single coil pickups, followed by a quick comparison with a Tube Screamer (here an Analogman modded TS9). I have decided that instead of changing the gain on the pedal, I would leave it on three o’clock and change the amount of dirt using the volume knob of the guitar and varying picking dynamics, blues style. This is a testimony to the quality of the pedal as this is not something that every overdrive pedal will do well:
And now here is how it sounds with humbuckers:
My Thoughts about the Keeley BD-2
Robert Keeley took a good overdrive pedal to start with and fine tuned it. When a friend lent me his stock BD-2, it gave me the opportunity to compare it to my Keeley modded one and, of course there are differences but both share the same basic tone. If you cannot afford a Keeley model, chances are that what applies to it will stay more or less true with the stock model.
Here is what the modification brings: a lot more output volume, an “edgier” tone and I would say a bit more gain while being very silent. The relative absence of noise is a quality that most “Boutique” pedals have when compared to mass produced models. There is also a little switch that will make the sound a bit fatter when on and let’s not forget the super bright blue lead!
How does it fare as a Tube Screamer alternative?
The Keeley BD-2 will appeal to people who are looking for a grainier, edgier overdrive pedal. It is not as smooth as a Tube Screamer but in a good way as you have probably noticed from the videos. I even find that with Humbuckers and a little delay, there are some similarities to Robben Ford’s tone. I am not saying it is the same but it is reminiscent of it (in order to get the same tone, you would need his fingers of course).
And there is also a big difference in terms of available gain compared to a Tube Screamer (here an Analogman modded TS9). With the gain on 2 o’clock, the BD-2 matches the gain of the Tube Screamer on max. With the gain on 3 o’clock or more, the Keeley BD-2 comes close to a distortion pedal. This is especially true with Humbuckers (see above the video that I recorded with the Gibson SG).
Also, like any good overdrive pedal, it is very efficient used before an already distorted amp or another distortion pedal in order to give it a kick.
All in all, a worthy alternative to the Tube Screamer if you are looking for a gainier overdrive tone while retaining a blues/rock feel.
A good overdrive pedal is a must have for nearly every guitarist. You can use it against a clean amp to obtain blues and classic rock tones, or you can use it to push an already overdriven amp or distortion pedal to reach for higher gain tones.
After introducing the Xotic BB Preamp as a possible alternative to the ubiquitous Ibanez Tube Screamer, I will now leave the expansive boutique route and go for a cheaper model: the BOSS SD-1. As with my previous post, I have made a video to illustrate my point (see the end of this post).
I know that it is trendy to bash BOSS pedals and that some guitarists only use expansive boutique pedals nowadays but I find this is a bit of an extreme position. There are very good models in the BOSS line and the SD-1, which has been in production for 29 years (!), is surely one of them.
The SD-1 is quite close in conception to a Tube Screamer and not so far tone-wise. It also sports the same three knobs: Drive (amount of overdrive), Level (output Volume) and Tone (Equalization). But I find it to have a bit more grit, it has a more “rock” tone whereas Tube Screamers lean more on the “blues” side (I am over simplifying here). Also, The BOSS SD-1 is a favorite among metal players to be used as a booster, not a main distortion. You won’t get a better and cheaper option to push an already overdriven Marshall amp over the edge.
This is exactly how Zakk Wylde used it for years before getting his own signature overdrive model with MXR. Even the almighty Eddie Van Halen had a BOSS SD-1 in his pedal board in the 90s, presumably used as a boost to give his Peavey amps a kick. In that respect, the level control is very useful on both the Tube Screamer or the SD-1. By cranking it while keeping the gain quite low, you can push any tube amp into natural overdrive.
And did I mention the BOSS SD-1 was cheap? I think I did but check out your favorite shop, you’ll know what I mean. Here in Europe, they go for for about 50€. And 29 years of production means there is plenty of them on the second hand market.
Is this the perfect overdrive? Of course not, otherwise there would be no other on the market. The SD-1 is quite noisy compared to boutique alternatives. The noise level is actually often in favor of boutique pedals when compared to mass produced models. Also, it suffers from the same “bass sucking” problem as Tube Screamers do when used against a clean amp (not so much when used against an already overdriven amp). In band situations, it is usually not a big problem as the bass frequencies are already occupied by other instruments though I can understand why some guitarists have a problem with it. Finally, when I mentioned earlier that it has more grit than a Tube Screamer, it can be a plus or not, depending on your style and preferences.
In this first video, I am comparing my Analogman modded TS9 Tube Screamer with the SD-1 using a Fender Stratocaster. I use various amount of gain and show at the end how it can be used to boost an amp, and a distortion pedal (a Proco RAT 2):
Gear used for the video: American Classics Stratocaster fitted with Kinman AVn blues pickups and 1974 Fender Champ. The amp was miked with a RODE NT-4. The recording was transferred into Cubase 5 to optimize the volume (compression) and add a hint of reverb.
In this second video, I show how The SD1 and the TS9 sound with a Gibson SG 61 reissue equipped with Humbuckers:
Gear used for the video: Gibson SG 61 Reissue with stock pickups and 1974 Fender Champ. The amp was miked with a RODE NT-4. The recording was transferred into Cubase 5 to optimize the volume (compression) and add a hint of reverb.
Although the Tube Screamer is the king of overdrives, a few pedals that have come out in the past decade could have a claim to the throne.
I have decided to start this series of posts dedicated to Tube Screamer alternatives with the Xotic BB Preamp. Released around 2005, it has become quite popular and is used by guys like Andy Timmons and Greg Howe. And speaking of Andy Timmons, he even had a signature BB Preamp model made by Xotic.
Update Feb 2012: there is an interesting piece of info that came out following the release of the BB Preamp-comp by the Xotic custom shop. The standard BB Preamp was modified to have less compression after serial number 3643. My BB Preamp has a serial number of 526 so the video demos below show the “compressed” version. Interestingly enough, the limited Andy Timmons edition of the BB Preamp featured the extra compression of the early BB Preamp. In order to please everybody, The BB Preamp-comp features a toggle switch to go from no compression at all, to a bit compressed (current BB Preamp) and to more compressed (early BB Preamp and Andy Timmons models). You can read all the details here.
The BB Preamp, much like the Tube Screamer, is extremely good at two things:
Used with a clean amp, it will provide you with a very credible and articulated overdrive tone.
Used before an already overdriven amp or even a distortion pedal, it will give you more sustain and fatness.
But this is where the comparison stops. The BB Preamp is not a Tube Screamer clone. Some guitarists don’t like the Tube Screamer because they feel it sucks too much bass out of their tone and also that it is a bit tame. The BB Preamp addresses these issues and adds some welcomed improvements such as a massive volume boost capacity and a very effective two band EQ instead of the single tone control of the Tube Screamer. Also, the BB Preamp is built with excellent components and is quite silent. This also means it is a bit pricey (MSRP US$ 200) as this really is a boutique pedal, not a cheapo knock-off.
The result is an amazing overdrive pedal which can get quite wilder than a Tube Screamer. BB actually stands for “Blues Breaker”, an obvious reference to early Marshall amps. They were nicknamed “Blues Breaker” after they were used by Eric Clapton on the now uber famous “John Mayall and the Blues Breakers” album. And indeed, the BB Preamp is quite “Marshally”… in a good way.
I have a nice story about Xotic customer support. I bought my BB Preamp over the Internet about five years ago when it was just out (the serial number is in the 500 on my pedal). Last year, I lost two of the plastic knobs, the little screws that were holding them got loose. I wrote Xotic asking them if they could sell me some knobs. I received a reply a few hours later and it said : “just give me the serial number of your pedal and I will send you some knobs”. A few days later, I had fours knobs delivered to my home in Holland, free of charge. That’s what I call service…
Used with a clean amp
There are many ways to use the BB Preamp. Let’s start with how it sounds compared to a Tube Screamer against a clean Fender Champ tube amp. I start with a clean tone then switch on alternatively my Analogman modded TS-9 Tube Screamer and the BB Preamp.
And now with a Gibson SG 61 Reissue equipped with humbuckers:
For these two videos, the settings were:
Tube Screamer Settings: DRIVE at 3 o’clock, TONE at 10 o’clock and LEVEL at 1 o’clock.
BB Preamp settings: GAIN at 2 o’clock, VOLUME at 1 o’clock, TREBLE at 11 o’clock and BASS at 12 o’clock.
Used as a booster
And now used with a Proco RAT 2 as a booster with almost no gain and the volume at 2. This is a moderate amount of boost, you can go way further but be careful with the noise level. This is not a BB preamp problem per se, this pedal is actually quite silent but this is the bane of any heavy boosting and high levels of gain.
As you can hear, the sustain and fatness increase but the basic tone stays the same. It also works well against clean amps. With a strat and a bit of boost from the BB Preamp, it really “sparkles”.
For this video, I had plugged the BB Preamp before the Proco RAT 2 and had the following settings:
BB Preamp settings: GAIN at 8 o’clock, VOLUME at 2 o’clock, TREBLE at 11 o’clock and BASS at 1 o’clock.
Proco RAT 2 settings: DISTORTION at 10 o’clock, FILTER at 3 o’clock and VOLUME at 2 o’clock.
Remark: for all the videos of this post, the Fender Champ was miked by a Shure SM-57 and recorded by a BOSS Micro-BR. The recordings were then transferred into Cubase 5 to add some reverb and volume.
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.