In our post covering the best Big Muff pedals, we posited that the contest of the most-cloned pedal came down to a race between the Muff and the Ibanez Tube Screamer. I suppose, given some time to think about it, you might also add the Klon Centaur to that list. (Watch this space — we may get to a post about that in the future.)
The history of the Ibanez Tube Screamer — which we naturally included on our best overdrive pedals post — is not quite as twisting as that of the Big Muff, but has its fair share of intrigue. It was originally designed in the 1970s by Susumu Tamura, rose to notable prominence in the 1980s, and remains the standard bearer to which all other overdrives are compared.
This is a touch on the reductive side, but it’s fair to say that every inquiry about an overdrive pedal can start with, “Is it Tube Screamer-y? Tube Screamer-ish?” Or, as our friend Henning says, “Tube-y Scream-y.” You get the picture.
Like the Big Muff, there are versions and variants worth knowing about. The original was the TS808 and was actually produced by Maxon, who has employed Mr. Tamura for a very long time. Next was the TS9, which was brighter and had slightly higher gain and employed a range of op-amps instead of the venerated JRC-4558 chip. These are the two main versions everyone talks about. There was also the TS10, TS5, and TS7, but none of those were quite as well loved.
Something so ubiquitous could never be left alone. And, like the Klon, you could find yourself staring down the barrel of a $1,000+ purchase if you really, really want an original TS-808. Nonsense, I say. Given that the most popular way to start a pedal company is to develop your own take on the Tube Screamer, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to really, really good sounding take-offs. I’m not just talking about cheap Chinese clones, although you know something? Even those are worth a look. Almost every pedal company going has their own Screamer version, which is good for you, the guitar-playing consumer.
Unlike the Big Muff post, we won’t include a version of the Tube Screamer from Ibanez. As mentioned, you can find it perched atop our best overdrive pedals post where it (arguably) belongs. This list is dedicated to the wealth of high-quality versions made by any number of other companies.
To be totally fair, most of them are pricier than the current-generation TS9 or Tube Screamer Mini. Most are even probably pricier than the TS808 currently being made. Still, some of the “boutique” makers use higher-quality components and some folks (like me) just like the smaller makers. The point is: options are good, and we are bringing you ten of them.
As a note before we begin, we didn’t put the Maxon OD808, Maxon OD-9 or Maxon ST-9 Pro+ on this list. They’re virtually identical to the Ibanez offerings and are even still made in the same factory.
Love the mid-pushed, lightly distorted sound of the Tube Screamer but want something more? Check out our list of the 10 best Tube Screamer clone pedals.
1. EarthQuaker Devices Dunes V2 Mega Ultimate Overdrive
In our best boost & overdrive combo pedals post, we included the big brother to this pick, the Palisades. If you’ve already got a booster you love and don’t have room on your board for the larger footprint, EQD also offer this to give you much of the same functionality in a smaller package.
Primarily based around the TS808, the Dunes offers three switches in addition to the standard-issue TS Tone, Volume, and Gain knobs. The switch at the top allows you to set your clipping mode preference between MOSFET (tight and crunchy), Silicon (which mimics the original TS808 sound), and no diode clipping to drive the op-amp. There’s a Normal/Bright switch that selects between full fat and chimer EQ curves. Finally, the Bandwidth switch allows you to choose between Stock, which is the original TS808 sound and Full Range, which backs off some of the low-end roll-off endemic to great Tube Screamers.
In addition to all that, you get true bypass, soft touch relay switching and top-mount jacks. It also looks pretty nice, too.
Need more options? Browse more EarthQuaker Devices products here.
2. Electro-Harmonix East River Drive Classic Overdrive Pedal
Another TS808 take-off, this version comes from Electro-Harmonix, in the fine tradition of that company’s relatively low-cost options. Like the Soul Food that we included in our best cheap effects post (which is meant to be a cheap Klon clone), the East River Drive replicates the circuitry and control set of the original exactly.
Based around the aforementioned JRC-4558 chip, this pedal creates that well-known symmetrical clipping for a few dollars less than the current generation TS9 from Ibanez. The familiar controls of Volume, Drive, and Tone are present, and it’s even mostly green.
The switch is a standard clicky true bypass, but it’s in a pedalboard-friendly MXR-sized enclosure. This is probably a pretty close approximation of the 80s TS808s, with a lower gain range and a pronounced bass roll-off and no expanded EQ set to offset that. Still, the price is certainly right.
Need more options? Browse more Electro-Harmonix products here.
3. JHS Bonsai 9 Way Screamer Overdrive Pedal
Much like the Muffuletta on our best Big Muff pedals post, the JHS take on the Tube Screamer doesn’t settle for approximating just one. No, instead this relatively new pedal is a take on nine different TS circuits with the exact signal path of each wired into one small enclosure.
In addition to the expected Volume, Drive, and Tone knobs, there’s the nine-way selector switch. First is the OD-1, which is actually a Boss circuit from 1977. Then the TS808, TS9, MSL Metal Screamer, TS10, Exar OD-1 (a Polish variant), TS7, Keeley Mod Plus, and the JHS Strong Mod. If you’re a player who loves this famous mid-boosting overdrive, this is just about the end-all, be-all.
It’s priced to match, to be sure, but it’s a far cry cheaper than trying to get your hands on an actual vintage version of some of these. If you don’t want nine versions, but are interested in what JHS makes of a Tube Screamer, you could also consider the Moonshine, which lets you mix in your clean signal.
Need more options? Browse more JHS products here.
4. Boss BD-2W Blues Driver Waza Craft
Since the Bonsai brought up Boss, we’ll talk about their offering next. This is a bit of an interesting one. For one thing, whether you go for the higher-end Waza version or the standard offering, the Blues Driver is a pedalboard staple. It’s not flashy and it doesn’t get the same billing as its green counterpart, but you’ll see it on a wide variety of boards as a utility player gain-stacker. It may not be the main drive tone (but then again, it might just), but it does a very good thing.
You might have expected to see the Super Overdrive in this spot, especially given that changing a couple of components can turn it into a TS808, more or less. It might be fair to say, then, that the Blues Driver, with its higher gain range, is more like a TS9. If you kick around the gear boards of the internet, you’ll find plenty of people suggesting the BD-2 as a suitable Tube Screamer stand-in. As ever, use your ears to decide.
If you opt for the Waza Craft version, you’ll actually get both versions of the BD-2 circuit. The switch between the ever-present Level, Tone, and Gain knobs selects between S (for Standard) and C (for Custom). Standard is the original BD-2, while Custom adds a fuller-range sound and a touch more gain. Being a Boss pedal, this is buffered bypass, but they use a decent buffer, so consider this not only for its wonderful gain-stacking abilities, but also if you happen to be in need of a buffer.
Need more options? Browse more Boss products here.
5. Wampler Pedals Clarksdale V2 Delta Overdrive Effects Pedal
Like EarthQuaker, Brian Wampler was overrun with requests to do his take on the Tube Screamer. If you’ve ever watched his channel, you’ll know that he does several deep-dives into what makes the circuit work, how to make subtle tweaks to it, and how best to run one into your amp. This is a man intimately familiar with every component that goes into a TS-style pedal.
Wampler’s Clarksdale is a TS808 type that offers far, far more flexibility than most versions out there. There are Volume and Gain knobs, of course, but instead of a tone pot, there’s a three-band EQ. The Bass and Mid controls are active, meaning you can boost or cut those frequencies by 15dB, while the Treble pot is like the tone control on a traditional Tube Screamer. The switch in the middle allows you to customize the clipping; Big is more open, higher gain, more touch-sensitive, and Smooth is more compressed and closer to the original 808 circuit.
As with the Dunes, you get top-mounted jacks, silent true bypass switching, and you can even run this one at 9 or 18 volts if you want more headroom. There’s a lot more gain on tap in this pedal than your average 808, and with the active EQ, plenty of room for finding your voice.
Need more options? Browse more Wampler products here.
6. Nobels ODR-1 Overdrive Effect Pedal
Fans of Andertons videos will know this unit. The Nobels company makes but one pedal these days, and it is this: the ODR-1. It was the original non-Tube Screamer Tube Screamer and is favored by Capt. Lee Anderton for doing the mid-pushed boost job. Technically, what’s available today is a re-issue, but is a very faithful one.
Controls are Drive, Level, and the elegantly-named Spectrum. Spectrum is tone, of which there is just more in comparison to the 808 from which it derives. This has a wider frequency range, which is particularly noticeable in the lower-mids. It’s less compressed than the Ibanez version, but has a similar gain range. To my ears, the note definition is considerably better than a lot of TS variants, so if you’re doing a lot of complex chord voicings, this might be the one to consider.
Jacks on this are top mounted, and there’s also a Remote input, if you should need it. If you watch a lot of pedal YouTube, as I do, you’ll know all about this pedal. If you don’t, it’s probably because it’s something of an industry secret and a favorite of session musicians.
To be fair to the Nobels, there’s some disagreement out there over whether it qualifies as a TS clone. Brian Wampler thinks it doesn’t and that dude knows his way around a circuit. I’ve included it here because it’s often referenced in the same conversation at they end of the day, they do a similar job for a lot of setups. It’s also just great and reasonably priced, so it’s worth your consideration.
7. T-Rex Alberta Classic Series Overdrive Pedal
Toward the end of 2017, T-Rex re-released their Classic line of their original three pedals, all of which are handmade in Denmark. Among those was the re-issue of the original Alberta, which is their take on a lower-gain Tube Screamer. Their literature refers to Stevie Ray Vaughan, which indicates that this leans more toward the TS9 circuit. That said, they say it’s “lower gain and less strident than Stevie’s pedal,” so make of that conclusion what you will.
Controls are, as you might expect, Gain, Level, and Tone. Along with the lower gain range, this pedal is a lot like the Nobels in that some players note an overall enhancement to the sound of their rig. Could be psychosomatic, but one advantage to these being handmade (which in part explains the somewhat-exorbitant price) is that while the original circuit is used, the values of each component are matched not necessarily to spec, but to the best sound. Each unit is distinct and hand-tuned so that all the parts work very well together. It’s definitely a high-end offering, and you’ll opt for this if you’ve been chasing vintage units around and really want this one in particular, since a lot of boutique pedals are handmade these days and don’t quite go for this kind of price.
If you want more bang for your buck, you could opt for the Alberta II, which is not handmade in Denmark, and as a result is a hugely-flexible dual overdrive for about $60 less.
Need more options? Browse more T-Rex products here.
8. Keeley Red Dirt Overdrive
Like JHS, Keeley was first known for modding popular, widely-available pedals. Among these was the Ibanez TS9, for which Keeley developed 12 distinct changes to improve the circuit, which they called the Keeley Mod Plus. Around 2012, they incorporated all of these into a release of their own and called it the Red Dirt.
If you think the controls are Drive, Tone, and Volume, you are completely right. There’s one additional switch that, like the Wampler, let you choose your gain range between Lo and Hi. You should hear a more open drive sound, with less pickup loading thanks to the JFET input buffer. Like the Nobels, this is really known for its clarity and cut.
If you want even more flexibility and pedalboard space for less, opt for the Red Dirt Mini. In addition to the same knobs, there are four dip switches inside that let you choose from four different overdrive styles: Distortion, Overdrive, Crunch, and Amp. These move this well beyond the realm of any Tube Screamer and into far more heavily distorted territory.
Need more options? Browse more Keeley products here.
9. Mad Professor Little Green Wonder Distortion Effects Pedal
If you have your heart set on a TS pedal handmade in Europe but don’t quite have $300 to shell out, never fear. The kind people at Mad Professor are happy to handwire their Little Green Wonder and sell it to you for a price that is more comparable to those made in the U.S. Possibly the most transparent of this genre, the Mad Professor take offers a very similar circuit to the others on this list, but does not have the same mid-bump and bass roll-off that is available elsewhere. This is what you’d get if you set the Clarksdale to Big and never changed it again.
Controls include Volume, Drive, and Body. The last of these dials in the lower-mids and treble at the same time. Starting at noon, if you turn it counter-clockwise, you get the bass and treble boosts, while clockwise boosts only the treble. The focus of this pedal is really on headroom for improved dynamics and feel, as well as allowing you to choose where to put it in your tone stacking chain.
Need more options? Browse more Mad Professor products here.
10. Way Huge Green Rhino Mini MKIV
Our last pick ends where we began this journey: with an overdrive pedal in a green box. This offering from Way Huge is the fourth iteration of their take on a Tube Screamer circuit, building further flexibility into their smallest enclosure yet (which is still a little on the large side, really).
Naturally, you get knobs for Volume, Tone, and Drive. There are also two knobs to either side of the Tone knob which, like the Clarksdale, allow for boosting or cutting those frequencies by 12dB. This allows for really finite shaping so you can develop a Screamer tone that matches your rig perfectly. If you want to snap back to a more traditional Screamer, the switch between Volume and Drive can be flipped up to Classic, which defeats those two tone knobs. All that’s left is the TS9ish circuit from the original Green Rhino.
Need more options? Browse more Way Huge products here.