JHS Bonsai Multi-Version Tube Screamer

I'm going to admit right off the top I've never owned an Ibanez Tube Screamer, that little green OpAmp-powered monster from the '80s that shaped the distorted guitar sound of a generation. Why? I've mostly been a "guitar into amp with short cord" kind of guy. I've fiddled with a Screamer but never was able to quite work out my relationship with the thing. But circumstances change and needs come upon you. I've got some amps that have drive channels that are, shall we say, less than stellar, and would welcome a little drive help. But the inevitable question always arises, "Which one?" Since its inception in the late 1970s, the Tube Screamer has spawned more versions, modifications, and clones, than probably any other pedal. Many, many players have a strong opinion of just exactly which is the best and which works best with which type of guitar. It really muddies the waters when you are trying to choose. I was moving some gear and decided to invest some of the proceeds in a Screamer and thought, "Why not splurge and get a version that contains as many versions as possible?" I'd read about the JHS Bonsai in the trade magazines and was impressed with descriptions of what went into the pedal. The Bonsai unit offers nine Screamer versions in one box, so I decided to track one down. It is more expensive than most screamers but there's a reason, and we'll find out why later.

The Bonsai is housed in a green-painted aluminum box with a typical medium stomp box footprint. I/O is on the sides and the required standard 9v power jack is on the top. There are three pots, a multi-position rotary switch, a green pilot LED, and an in/out footswitch that provides true bypass. The pedal is a little taller than most pedals of that size but it needs to be to house a bit more, um, "schtuff." By that, I refer to the fact that this is one complex little pedal. I had originally thought that the pedal produced its versions through emulation. Um, no. Then I thought that it just switched a few components in and out to simulate the versions. Um, no. What changed my mind was the description in an article and pictures of the insides of the thing. I came to realize that this is actually nine pedals in one. Best I can tell, there is one power supply powering nine versions of the Screamer, all crammed in the case by the magic of surface mount techgnology. The guys at JHS have included multiple OpAmps including 4558s and R4558Ls, as well as nine sets of the other components. The Screamer versions are selected via the rotary "Mode" switch that controls a central logic chip. Oh, my.

The main board. Click to embiggen
Note the dedication to the original designer.
Courtesy user djchaseb from the Gear Page

The switching board with switch at lower right. Click to embiggen.
Courtesy user djchaseb from the Gear Page

Overall. Click to embiggen
Courtesy user djchaseb from the Gear Page


So, how does this play out? All of the versions are authentic, right down to the component level. They feature different basic output levels, different gains, different blends between clean and dirty signals, and different tone systems (or none at all). For each of the versions, all of that is accurately reproduced, not simulated. No attempt has been made to smooth the differences between them or match levels. In the studio that is great. There is one caveat: You'll have to learn how those characteristics interact with your guitars and amps and learn how to set the controls, depending on the mode. Some versions have high output levels and some low. Some have high gain and some low. Some are bright and some darker.

But the results are outstanding! If your guitar doesn't like a particular version, just switch! The wide variety of versions just about guarantees you can find something useful for your various guitars. I've tried a Les Paul, a Tele, a hot humbucker Strat with coil splitters, an SG, and an ES-335, and there was something for every guitar in the bunch.

Here are the nine versions:
OD-1 - This version reproduces the original, orange Maxon OD-1. It features symmetrical clipping, it inverts the signal, and it doesn't use the tone knob.
TS808 - The original Ibanez small-button green monster with the pronounced midrange.
TS9 - The large-button Screamer. The midrange was shifted slightly lower and there is a bit grittier feel to it.
MSL - This one has higher gain, a fuller bass, and more compression than the previous versions, to accommodate '80s metal.
TS10 - This one features more low-end roll-off, lower gain, and a certain crispness.
XR - This is the EXAR, a Polish clone that offers higher gain, a different sort of distortion, and more transparency than others.
TS7 - The "Tone Lok" version had a "hot" mode switch that offered more distortion and volume. This is the loudest, gainiest version and has extended bass as well.
Keely Mod Version - Robert Keeley modded a version to give smoother mid-range and high frequencies, as well as increased bass response.
JHS Strong Mod - Much cleaner, more powerful, and with more noticeable bass and treble drop-offs.

So, if you are looking for a Tube Screamer and basically want it all, the JHS Bonsai is a great place to start!

JHS Bonsai Page