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JHS Bonsai Overdrive

A nine position tubescreamer that goes to eleven!

 

by Chris Loeffler

 

 

The world abounds in Tube Screamers

-Not Swearengen

 

I doubt there is any pedal more copied or modified than the Ibanez Tubescreamer (maybe a fuzzface or a RAT?). On of the reasons for this is it accomplishes exactly what guitar players are looking for when it comes to rock and country tones; a mid-range bump to cut through, adequate volume boost to push a strained preamp, and self-generated clipping gain to add thickness and complexity to the amp’s natural distortion. There are literally thousands of takes that now exist (some openly referencing their roots, some obscuring them entirely with black goop and marketing mojo), leaving players looking for which one is the right one for them with mountains of options and opinions to sort through. JHS has their own TS-inspired pedal, and offers mods to current production Ibanez units, so you’d think they’d adequately covered this well-trodden ground. Yet here comes the JHS Bonsai Overdrive.

 

The JHS Bonsai is not just one, but nine Tubescreamer circuits crammed into a standard JHS smallbox enclosure. Centered around a nine-position rotary switch, the JHS Bonsai has standard Volume, Tone, and Drive controls, runs on a standard 9v center negative power supply, and has true-bypass switching.

 

What You Need to Know

 

The JHS Bonsai claims to replicate the following Tubescreamer circuits- Boss OD-1, Ibanez TS-808, Ibanez TS-9, MSL Power Series, Ibanez TS-10, Exar OD-1, Ibanez TS-7 (+mode), Keeley Mod Plus, and JHS Strong Mod. They accomplish through two highly impressive and innovative approaches.

 

First, JHS thoroughly analyzed an original version of each circuit incorporated in the Bonsai through physical circuit dissection and an Audio Precision analyzer. This accounted for tolerance and performance drifts experienced by components (bear in mind the oldest circuit is more than 40 years old) to create exactly the circuit flow that left the manufacturer on day one. Identical circuit path and component values? Check.

 

Second, they engineered an innovative way through the rotary circuit selector to activate components in the exact order needed to create that circuit. In any given mode, there are components (diodes, resisters) that are entirely bypassed. The result is the Bonsai leverages a different electronic path for each of its nine modes to truly create the original circuit, not simply adjust values as happens in a typical mod.

 

I don’t have one of each of the original circuits presented in the Bonsai to A/B against, so my review relied on my ears and famous references on albums. That said, yes there are as noticeable a difference between the modes as can (should) be expected when comparing various TS tweaks, so I can confirm they nailed creating truly different sounding (and behaving, in some cases) modes.

 

A quick run-down of my experience with each mode is as follows-

 

  • OD1- As advertised, this mode has a brighter and moderate gain (for this pedal). The Tone control is disabled for this mode, and it differs technically from the famous TS808 by utilizing asymmetrical clipping. It is a little crunchier and less congested than the TS line.
    808- The magical TS-808 is supposed to be THE tubescreamer model (at least unmodded) that tone hounds want. It has less gain and a significant mid-range bump with a slight peak in the upper-mids.
    TS9- When comparing modes with the 808, the sonic difference isn’t nearly as significant as the price difference! The mids seemed to be a bit lower in focus and I experienced it as slightly more exaggerated. I found it more to my liking than the 808 mode when pushing a bright and scooped (Fender) amp, but there was a more noticeable EQ shift.
    • MSL- While there is more gain and bass on tap than any of the previous modes, it’s a far cry from any metal I’ve heard, and has the undeniable TS vocal-thing happening.
    • TS10- This was a bit of a trip, as it is indeed lower gain, lower bass, and slightly more hi-fi. It does well in bringing focus and clarity to leads and is a bit less flabby on smaller speakers.
    • XR- Probably the least “tubescreamer” of the bunch, there is less mid-hump and either more gain or a differently structured gain. I like this one, and while “transparent” isn’t the word that comes to mind when compared to a KoT, Timmy, etc, it is the most natural sounding of the bunch.
    • TS7- This is a rude, crude take on the Tubescreamer. I get why this one would be overlooked by classic rock guys, and it almost worked best into a clean amp with the pedal’s gain cranked. All in, it feels tighter than the other modes.
    • Keeley- The the TS7 is tighter in gain structure, the Keeley Mod sounds tighter in frequency. It is smoother and really bumps the highs and lows for a fuller sound. This is the most refined sounding, but almost loses some of the TS-into-hot-amp advantages with its refined tone.
    • JHS- Probably the cleanest of the modes from a gain standpoint, and really lets the mids do the talking, significantly shelving the farthest reaches of the low end while boosting the highs.

 

All three knobs (Volume, Drive, Tone) behave differently and have different limits depending on the circuit, so discussing them as a global phenomenon is a fool’s errand.

 

One stray observation- Whatever the circuit design put in place to accommodate the switching, the Bonsai is as quiet (quieter, in many cases) than similary Tubescreamers I tested it against; Ibanez, boutique, or otherwise. I was glad to hear that the complex level of signal path switching in no way compromised signal-to-noise ratio.

 

Limitations

 

Due to the nature of different parts being used in each circuit, the output level varies greatly between certain settings.

 

Conclusion

 

The JHS Bonsai may be the first (and last) step future TS-seekers will take, and it is a fantastic place to start. With nine variations to explore, if you can’t find your sound you likely don’t want anything inspired by a Tubescreamer. As a studio tool, the opportunity to access these subtle-but-important shades of TS could be crucial to getting the right place in the mix before a production wizard takes over, and it is a pleasure to demo the different modes to find which ones your amp loves best. Even if the Bonsai isn’t your final stop in the search for the perfect TS (G.A.S. is a hell of a drug), it will take you MUCH further towards that final tweak than buying and flipping a half dozen boutique clones. - HC -

 

Resources

 

JHS Bonsai Product Page

 

Buy JHS Bonsai at Amazon.com ($194.95)

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

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