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The Doctor Is In!
What’s an electric guitar without an amp? Let’s be honest, rock wouldn’t have been birthed until some crusty bluesman cranked his tiny tube amp to 12 so he could be heard over the blaring horns and drums. The amp is almost as paramount to a player’s tone and style as his guitar, maybe more. And in recent years, the boutique and vintage amplifier market has experienced a major resurgence in interest from hobbyists to professional touring musicians.
Boutique amp company Dr. Z Amplification debuted in 1988 and they haven’t stopped growing since. The company has been gaining respect worldwide from professional players and they continue to add major artists to their top-notch roster. I had a minute to speak with Michael Zaite (aka Dr. Z himself) about how he started the company and made the transition from medical technology to building tube amps.
Can you tell me where you’re from and what got you interested in amplifiers?
Cleveland is my home. My dad was a TV repairman and I grew up in the Fifties; the basement of my house was similar to an electronics shop. My dad was gracious enough to teach me a little bit about how tubes worked and the unique processes and construction behind tubes. Anyway, when I was younger there were lots of bands, every house up the street had a basement band and I played drums in the Sixties. So this was a cool time to be a young person and involved in music, because there were so many bands practicing and musicians jamming – eventually many guitar players were leaving their amps at my house (laughs). I could repair things. I was always the guy that when people bought electronics, they would grab me and ask for my opinion of what to buy. I also have a background in medical electronics; I worked in that field for 15 years.
I read in Dave Hunter’s Guitar Tube Amp Handbook that you are a drummer, when did you make the transition to guitars and guitar amps?
I suppose what brought me to making amps was this boutique builder renaissance around 1988 and there was this Guitar Player issue, the “amp issue,” and I want to say that the deciding factor for me. I was so intrigued by these amp gurus – they showed Jim Marshall, Paul Rivera, and Jose Arredondo who did the mods for Eddie Van Halen’s amps – it was all the hotshot builders of the time. I started doing repairs and I had a great knowledge of tubes and test tube equipment. So I started out doing mundane maintenance work on my friends’ amps.
Who are your favorite artists and what guitar tones influenced the most you when you were younger?
Of course Steely Dan. I like Santana, especially in the early ’60s and ’70s – that was amazing music to me. Also John McLaughlin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck. He’s a master of the Stratocaster and stuns me. He makes the most vocal sounds with a guitar, and of course Jimi Hendrix, too. In terms of guitar tone, I do believe all my amps have that basic vintage type tone that works very well with pedals. If you look at any of those players, they play in concert with pedals to get to their sustain and they play like concert violinists. They always have a basic Fender or Marshall style amp; the amps they played had to have a consistency from venue to venue. I spend a lot of time not really trying to cop a specific tone, my idea is to make the Mercedes Benz of guitar amps and make the most reliable and trustworthy amp for a player.
When you were initially designing Dr. Z amps, did you have any mentors that you would refer to for building advice?
At the time I started, there was such antiquated technology and in the Seventies, mainly solid-state circuits were taught in schools. I learned about tube amps from my father, but besides him I met a guy named Charlie Jobe and if you look at some of the old jazz Hammond organ players records, you will see credits to Charlie Jobe. He was the premier Hammond organ repairman at the time and as fate would have it, he lived in Berea, a suburb of Cleveland. I went to his house and it was filled with amps and speakers and all kinds of electronic doodads. He had a MIDI-controlled guitar and saxophone and sometimes he would entertain people with those instruments. Charlie was a wealth of knowledge and gave me so much information – I recall him working on Jimmy Smith’s organ and he would tell me all kinds of stories about the designing Jimmy’s equipment and working the backline at his shows.
One day, I asked Charlie about a reverb amp chassis that he had sitting on top of an organ. I though, ‘Hey these things would make really cool guitar amps.’ So I bought a few from him and this is how the original Dr. Z Carmen Ghia evolved, from this reverb chassis. I put a volume and tone control on it and it made a great little amp. I then reached a point where I ran out of the chassis and I remember being a little worried there wouldn’t be more, but then I went to the Columbus Guitar Show with a couple Carmen Ghia and some guy says, ‘Wow those are Hammond O-35 chassis, right? I can sell 300 to you !’ (laughs)
When developing Dr. Z amplifiers, did you have a target audience in mind? For instance, do you assess what hobbyists want to play as opposed to touring performers?
Because of the scene in Cleveland it’s basically blues guys, and this was the time of Stevie Ray Vaughan, so I have worked with lots of blues guitarists. I believe the magic is in a player’s fingers, the amp is an instrument they use to make their music. You can plug Brad Paisley into his signature amp and a solid state practice amp and he will be able to play the same things and sound like Brad Paisley, the same goes for Jeff Beck, Walter Becker, any of these guys. I don’t have any huge endorsement deals, the simple fact the guy is playing my amps and likes my amp, to me that’s an endorsement.
Can you tell me a little bit about your new amps the Antidote and the Therapy? Are they based on any particular circuit or are they an original design?
The Antidote is basically an amp that a certain cabinet and speaker manufacturer approached me to make. They wanted a JTM45 voiced amp, 45-watt amp. I was the first guy to release the KT-66 tube amp and my claim to fame with that was that the very First Editors Pick from Guitar Player was for the Dr. Z Route 66, it was the first amp to receive that accolade. So the Antidote was supposed to be like a JTM45, I didn’t copy a schematic at all, I never do that! Tube technology really hasn’t changed too much since the Fifties, but I always tweak and season my designs to add a unique flavor. Every builder is rehashing designs, but I didn’t want to merely copy the JTM45 design. So when I developed the Antidote, I took the amp and sent it to a well-known blues guitarist named David Holt from Austin. He played it and did a demo and then I developed the product even more from there. David liked the amp so much that he encouraged me to release it onto the market with my Dr. Z name stamped on it. He loved the sound of the blended internal channels and the polished EQ circuit and presence control on the Antidote.
The Therapy was the evolution from that, using the Antidote and the sound of low-powered Tweed Twin 2×12 as its blueprint or springboard design. It’s a 6l6 tube amp with a great master volume control, the amp has pristine cleans and a beautiful overdrive with around 35w. It can be used at home or on stage. Right now Brad Paisley, Steve Miller and Walter Becker all have Therapy amps in their rigs.
What are some design principles that you live by? Do you believe in simple circuits vs. complicated circuits, handwired vs. modern PCB construction, custom speaker designs?
I make a turret board and I like turret pins more than eyelets. The problem with eyelets is that they attract moisture and too much interaction between components occurs. The little eyelets and you can build a stalactite of solder if you’re not careful! (laughs) Stuff that uses PCB boards has to be shipped off to populate the circuit boards, but I can do all that stuff in house so that cuts down on my production time. We are all good at modifying turret boards and do a very nice job of hand building a reliable and handy amp.
Do you have a favorite preamp tube and guitar speaker?
As far as 12AX7s are concerned, I use current production tubes and some of the NOS (New Old Stock or vintage) tubes sound great, but you can’t build a company from NOS tubes. The Tung-Sol reissue 12AX7 is a really, really fine sounding 12AX7, one of my favorites of current production tubes. As far as EL84 tubes, I use old Russian military tubes in my Z-Wreck and I have close to 800 in house. I bought 600 in the last three or four months, since they are reasonably priced. As far as current production, the EHX EL-84 tubes are close to that. They sound a lot like the Russian NOS and hardly have any tube rattle.
Can you recommend any “best buys” in the used amp market for our readers?
Fender makes the Blues Jr and that’s a great little amp, dollar for dollar, pound for pound. It’s very solid and inexpensive. In terms of vintage stuff, the Gibson GA-40 is a wonderful amp! It’s a great, great sounding amp and they’re priced fairly reasonable. If you want higher gain, modern sounds, the Blackstar equipment is stellar.
What advice would you give to builders and entrepreneurs who want to break into the guitar amplifier industry?
Stay true to your art, do what you do because you love it. Don’t get into it and think, ‘I’m going to make a lot of money,’ because the competition is way too strong. I was able to start at a time when there wasn’t much competition, so I was able to get my amps into the hands of artists. I’m not some electronics genius like Ken Fischer, but I put together a nice, reliable product.
When I was a kid, there was this department store downtown that sold Vox amps and I would go there all the time. I was mesmerized by those amps; I would just go and stare at them. That stuff motivated me to build and do the designs I do. I kinda take those sounds of yesteryear, the sounds I love and I evolved them. One thing that’s helped me grow and stay big is exporting, as exporting makes up about 35% of my revenue.
Are there any modern builders that inspire you?
Tone King, Two Rock, Mark from Victoria Amps and Bad Cat. We all communicate together and have a mutual respect for each other. It’s amazing how there’s a really small group of boutique builders; we all know this is a difficult business to be in, so if you made an amp that sucked, in the matter of a week a customer would know because of the Internet.
Any last words?
Next year, I’m releasing a Dr. Z pedal and it’s basically going to be a channel of the Maz and Jazz designs, built into a six-knob JFET pedal. It has an EQ control with cut and drive. Now you can get this pedal and it will allow you to turn your Maz 18 into a dual channel amp. I hope that it will be on the shelves by early 2015.