JHS made waves in 2015 with its Muffuletta, which offered five analog recreations of various Big Muff circuits in a single stomp. Their latest pedal, the Bonsai, applies this circuit consolidation strategy to the many variations of the Tube Screamer—and even some of the pedals that inspired the little green machine. JHS owner Josh Scott used favorites from his personal collection as reference for the Bonsai’s circuits and used software analysis to hone the subtle differences between versions. The sonic results—and the versatility—are impressive.
Many Fingers of the Tree
The Bonsai has nine modes—OD-1, TS808, TS9, MSL “Metal Screamer,” TS10, Exar OD-1, TS7 (+), Keeley Mod Plus, and JHS Strong Mod. For my test, I used an Ernie Ball/Music Man Axis Sport and a Mesa/Boogie Lone Star Special’s clean channel. My first test was a comparison of the Bonsai’s TS9 mode to my own TS9. I set both pedals with gain at 1 o’clock, tone at noon, and volume around 10 o’clock. And here, the Bonsai was more or less spot-on. With the gain at zero it seemed like the Bonsai was slightly cleaner and a touch more transparent than my TS9—particularly when I plucked double-stop passages using my fingers to control the dynamics.
The interesting thing about the Bonsai is that it doesn’t just strictly replicate Ibanez Tube Screamers. OD-1 mode is based on Boss’ 1977 OD-1, the overdrive that inspired the Tube Screamer. Like the original OD-1, the Bonsai OD-1 mode takes the tone control out of the signal path. It’s predictably more open and brash.
While Tube Screamers are typically low-to-mid-gain affairs, the Bonsai also has some higher-gain modes. The TS7 (+) mode is the most aggressive sounding among them, which was immediately apparent as I scrolled through the modes with the gain all the way off. When I hit the TS7 (+) mode, I heard a huge spike in volume.
With the gain at zero, it seemed like the Bonsai was slightly cleaner and a touch more transparent than my TS-9.
Even with the gain off, there’s a lot of dirt and sustain on tap. With the gain bumped to around 3 o’clock, the pedal delivered assertive classic rock tones that were more distortion than overdrive. I compared this mode to MSL, the other higher gain mode, and found the MSL to be darker, slightly lower in volume, and a tad spongier. With its softer attack, the MSL mode is a nice fit for ’80s studio leads or even fusion playing. (While they were on the high-gain train, I wish they had also created a mode based on Ibanez’s excellent SD-9).
The last mode, JHS, is based on JHS’ “strong mod,” which has more focus in the high end. With gain and tone knobs both at noon, the JHS mode seemed like the loudest of the nine. It was also among the most open sounding. Yet it retained a nice balance of creaminess for single-note lines. When I rolled down my guitar’s volume knob, the JHS mode cleaned up very nicely, allowing me to get a clean-ish sound for chords that I could readily dial up to an aggressive, vibrant lead tone.
Given all the available tones and modes, it’s tempting to think of the Bonsai as a multi-effects unit that can switch between different shades of TS tone mid-performance. That’s not really the point of the pedal, however. The streamlined analog design means there’s no foot switching between modes. The mode selector itself makes an audible “click” when you switch between voices. So it’s most practical to pick a mode that suits a given guitar, amp, or mood and run with it.
You could argue that every guitarist should have a Tube Screamer. But if you’ve ever wondered which variation is right for you, dread that voyage to the snarky pedal forums no more. JHS has put nine very solid-sounding versions right at your fingertips.
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