The B.K. Butler Tube Driver: Tube Powered Guitar Overdrive Pedal
BK Butler Tube Driver
Hello fellow gear enthusiasts and guitar lovers one and all!
I wanted to write a blog post about a recent acquisition to my effects arsenal: The B.K. Butler Tube Driver! I got this pedal last week when I was going around Dallas on one of my guitar safari’s.
“Guitar Safari”: Noun, 1. “An expedition to observe or hunt vintage and rare guitars, or related items like amplifiers or effects, in their natural habitat."
I like to go on guitar safaris as often as I can. It’s a great way to keep up with what’s selling on the vintage black market, learn what players are currently into using, and hopefully get some great deals on pieces for my collection. For me, it’s how I satisfy the Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) itch whenever it comes up.
“Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or G.A.S.”: Noun, 1. “the all-consuming desire to expand your collection of musical gear ... Bank balances have been battered and marriages destroyed, but by god there’s been some lovely gear bought."
Last week I stumbled upon an original B.K. Butler Tube Driver at an undisclosed location where an older musician was looking to trade his out for a newer overdrive pedal. No one had been interested in this pedal for some reason, so I took up his offer to come over and check it out. I brought my own guitar, cord, and used his Fender Twin Reverb a la Eric Johnson when I tested it. It sounded absolutely glorious with my Fender Stratocaster, and the range of tones I could coax out of this little box was unreal. I could go from a subtle boost, to a thick overdrive, to a raging heavy metal inspired crunch. I could even get close to Big Muff tonal territory! Needless to say, I just had to have it, so after a quick haggle I opened my wallet and $100 later it was in the car cruising back to the studio! After a quick Google search, it turns out this is a vintage original pedal and they can go from anywhere from $350 to $550. Score! Good Deals are out there if you just look!
What Exactly is the B.K. Butler Tube Driver and How Does it Work?
The B.K. Butler Tube Driver is one of those “holy grail” pedals in the lore of guitar enthusiasts like myself. The legend of tone surrounding this pedal is of mythic proportions, whether it’s because of the infamous guitarists like David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, the reverend Billy F. Gibbons, Joe Bonnamassa, Keith Urban, one of the Kings of Tone Eric Johnson, or the countless threads on internet forums of average joe guitarists saying how the Tube Driver revolutionized their tone, it’s of the pedals that has name recognition for sure.
The Tube Driver is unique compared to other overdrive pedals in that it utilizes both traditional IC circuitry for overdriving gain stages, and plate voltages controlling a single 12ax7 preamp tube like in a traditional guitar amplifier. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a preamp tube, just like there is inside your guitar amplifier, inside this pedal. And it works. This blew my mind the first time someone explained this to me.
Basically, when you run your electric guitar through a Tube Driver to your amplifier of choice, it is essentially acting as if you are running through a small overdriven tube amplifier and sending its overdriven tube signal to your guitar amplifier. If you know the sound of turning your tube amplifier up and getting the tubes to sag and create distortion, then you’ll understand the general concept of this pedal. The IC chip overdrives your guitar’s signal and then sends it to the tube to “color the sound” identically to tube overdrive. Inside the pedal, the tube is set to work at only 12 volts (much less working voltage than what tubes are hit with inside a guitar tube amplifier) in what is referred to as “Starved Plate” voltage. By starving the tube of voltage and controlling what low voltage it operates at, you can force the tube to distort at much lower volume levels than what is traditionally possible in guitar amplifiers. The really cool part of the pedal’s design is that you can switch tubes inside the unit to give the pedal different styles of distortion. This can lead to a whole other realm of experimentation for your guitar playing!
BK Butler Tube Driver (Inside)
The Tube Drive looks like something off of the original Star Trek television series from the 1960s. With it’s strange chassis color, highly colorful knobs, and LED bulbs signaling what’s happening; it looks like something Mr. Sulu would use sending the U.S.S. Enterprise to warp. The pedal lives in a substantially large, custom-made steel enclosure with the transformer sitting inside the chassis. The pedal measures 7.25”L x 4”W x 3.5”D and weighs 2.5 lbs.! That’s pretty huge for a single pedal! But if you think about it, the pedal needs to be that large to fit the tube inside the unit, as well having enough circulation for the tube to cool. On both sides of the unit there are three air vents that help the unit stay cool. The pedal features four control knobs labeled from left to right: Out Level (the level the effect is sending out to the amplifier), E.Q. Hi Lo (knobs similar to EQ knobs on vintage Fender Amplifiers that control how much highs or lows the affected signal has), and Tube Drive (how hard you are driving the single preamp tube inside the pedal). It also conveniently has its own three prong plug power supply hardwired into the unit itself so you don’t have to worry about how you are going to power this beast!
I find the B.K. Butler Tube Driver pedal to have its own signature voice that sounds unlike any other pedal on the market. I used to always play on friend’s Tube Drivers whenever I got the chance, but never had the opportunity to own one of my own. I highly recommend seeking out one and trying it for yourself!
Since this pedal has been around for over 30 years and has been well loved by some of the greatest guitarists in that time, I decided to give everyone a short cliff note version of the B.K. Butler Tube Driver history. The Tube Driver was actually conceived in 1975 by Mr. Butler when he disassembled a phonograph preamp and made an overdrive unit for his organ in a RadioShack enclosure. When the results sounded great, he began making a small number by hand for his friends, where one eventually landed in the hands of guitarists. In 1979, Mr. Butler began making his own units under his own B.K. Butler Brand where each pedal was still made solely by his own hands in his home. As sales numbers increased by the mid 80’s, Mr. Butler went to use Chandler Industries as a distributer for his pedal and the unit took on it’s famous tan and black hue it’s known for.
Although originally stating it was a Chandler product, by 1986 B.K. Butler put his own name on the pedal’s front: “Tube Driver, Concept and Design by B.K. Butler”. Where things start to get a little murky in the history is the following year in 1987, when Mr. Butler severed his ties with Chandler Industries. In response Chandler Industries made a few copies of the Tube Driver (that are still out on the black market) in an attempt to capitalize on the market Butler created. After a few trips to court Butler won complete control over his intellectual property and began handmaking his pedals as he always had done. The problem for most players looking for vintage Tube Drivers nowadays is to make sure they are original BK Butler made ones and not the knockoffs that were sent into the market by Chandler and other companies.
From 1989 to 2000, Butler created a slew of different versions of the Tube Driver. Some had an added midrange control in the EQ section, some had more low end in the drive section, some had more gain on tap, some were different colors, but they all had the same engineer designing them by hand. The Tube Driver reached the pinnacle of its design in 1993 when Butler released the Tube Works 911 Tube Driver, named after Mr. Butler’s favorite car the Porsche 911. All other variants of this pedal that were released were based on this design. By 2005, the only way to purchase a Tube Driver, other than the inflated prices on the used market, were through Butler’s website and contact him to make you one by hand.
As I previously mentioned in my intro, the Tube Driver has been used by many famous guitarists who are all known for their superior guitar tone. But for many tone obsessed guitarists, the Tube Driver represents two individual players’ sound more than others: David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and Texas Guitar Hero Eric Johnson. Both David and Eric were early adopters of the Tube Driver and have used them on countless recordings in the span of their careers. With David Gilmour think of the 1990’s Pink Floyd Album “Bell Division” and live on the Pulse tour with solos on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, and “Coming Back to Life”. With Eric Johnson look no further than his famous guitar piece “Cliffs of Dover” from Via Musicom.
So far, I find the pedal to be extremely musical and can get a wide range of sounds from the pedal depending on what guitar and amp combination I use. So far, remember I’ve only owned one of these for a week so my tastes are ever evolving with it, my favorite combinations have been Stratocasters or Les Paul Specials through Fender Amplifiers like the Twin Reverb, Tweed 1959 Bassman, Super Reverb, and Brown Vibroverb with 2x10s. I also briefly experimented with a Mesa Boogie channel switching 1x12 combo. The Strat, Tube Driver, Bassman combo won out in my opinion. I was able to get my favorite David Gilmour solo tones very easily with this combination! I found that if you use a delay with just the Tube Driver and a Stratocaster you get most of David’s overdriven tones. If you want it heavier for songs like Echoes or Stuff off of Wish You Were Here, adding a Big Muff in conjunction with the Tube Driver will get a much more refined aggressive guitar tone like David’s. I haven’t tried it with a Marshall yet, but I will this week in the studio! With the Fender amps it felt like the Tube Driver responded like a Marshall in a box.
I also find that using the Tube Driver with crunchier amps can lead to retaining that distortion character but smoothing out the tone. Playing lead this way, it not only smooths the overall tone out, but thickens the high strings for lead and can add more thumpy low end to your bass signal. The tone thickening can only be described as it makes it “more in your face with presence”. When crunchier amplifiers are set to louder volumes, I found that the Tube Driver removes the sound your pick attacking the strings which sounds more like there isn’t as many stops in the sound while it’s thicker and sustaining. It certainly makes the guitar “feel different” under your fingers while you play.
Famous Players and Their Usage
Eric Johnson tends to use his BK Butler Tube Driver through a cranked Marshall Plexi for his lead sound. It results in a no pick attack sound, with a smooth, sweet violin like sustain like on the song “Cliffs of Dover”.
David Gilmour would use a BK Butler Tube Driver into either Hiwatt amps or cleaner Marshall amplifiers with high headroom. Sometimes he would employ as much as three different Tube Drivers to have control over various settings he enjoyed playing with. This way he can go from crunchy rhythm tones, to lead tones, to over the top sustain. He often uses it in conjunction with a Big Muff for more sustain and soaring lead lines. To me this is the definitive Gilmour tone.
Billy Gibbons has used Tube Drivers for years. Ironically 1990’s versions of the Tube Driver were tuned in the setup phase to ZZ Top’s “Tush”. Currently Billy’s guitar rig uses a custom chrome plated Tube Driver.
Joe Satriani used a Tube Driver on most of Surfing with the Alien, his most iconic record. It’s all over the entire album!
Complications as Far as I Can See It
So far depending on my usage, it seems the Tube Driver doesn’t play nice with other pedals. It is very finicky about the order of where you put things. I.e. Big Muff before Tube Driver etc. You’ll know the pedal chain is wrong when you hear a lot of noise being interjecting into your overall guitar sound. So, for all of you plug in, play, and forget about it type of players, be forewarned that this unit takes some time to learn where it operates best. I’ve also found that the proximity of the Tube Driver to your amp, or other effects can inject noise as well. Placement of the Tube Driver from the wall, and from the amplifier is equally important. It seems Eric Johnson’s notorious heightened sense of things that can threaten your precious tone is certainly right here.