Paging the good Dr. Z, amp guru to Brad Paisley and Joe Walsh

Mike Zaite, the celebrated boutique-amp designer behind the fabled Dr. Z brand, talks 30 years of hand-wired creations, build quality and endorsements from star players.

dr z mike zaite
Image: Karen Ollis

Full disclosure: I first got to know Dr. Z founder and all-round main man Mike Zaite after reviewing his then-new Z 28 model in this publication in the early 2000s, and we’ve been pals ever since. Through the course of nearly two decades since, I’ve been encouraged to note that while he’s had to roll with the punches of a fickle and challenging market – like any smaller amp maker – he has never lost sight of the objectives he presented to me all those years ago: “Just make a great-sounding amp that’s reliable, and simple, and bring it in at a great price.”

Now here we are in 2019, in Dr. Z’s 30th year of production, and he’s still delighted every time a guitarist ‘gets’ what he’s striven to put into a new design. He’s also still devoted to delivering the same level of professional tone and performance to the young up-and-comer and casual weekend player that he provides for repeat star customers such as Joe Walsh and Brad Paisley.

Hello Cleveland

Much like Leo Fender or Jim Marshall, Zaite is not himself a guitarist. He is, however, a drummer and as a kid, he was a drummer whose parents were generous enough to allow band rehearsals in the basement of the family home in Cleveland, Ohio, meaning there were always old tube amps left behind from week to week for the electronics enthusiast to poke around in.

Dr z amps backline
Mike Zaite has been creating hand-wired amps since 1988, and has seen his creations grace the world’s finest stages and studios

“Man,” says Zaite, “I did some unauthorised modifications, I can tell you that, to quite a few old Fenders and Silvertones and whatever was left at my house.” Which is not to say that “unauthorised” translates to “reckless”. By high school, Zaite had already spent much of his childhood from the mid 50s to late 60s receiving electronics tutelage from his TV-repairman father, and experimenting with the piles of tube gear that littered the home workshop. By the time he was messing with his bandmates’ amps, he very much knew what he was doing.

Zaite formalised this DIY-style education in university by earning a degree in electronics. Afterwards, he set out on a career working in medical-equipment design and manufacturing for General Electric – “doing sophisticated stuff”, as he puts it – and further grounding his skills in an industry where component quality, tolerances, and tight wire runs really matter.

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All the while, though, the music was still in his heart and that was what he really wanted to get back to. “I always liked amps,” he relates, “and started to do some repairs for a lot of friends that were blues players from here in the Cleveland area. And you know how those blues guys are about their amps. They had some great vintage Marshalls and tweed Fenders, so I’d re-tube them and set the bias, nothing fancy, but I got to know them, and I was certainly impressed with the tones of these rich-sounding old amps. I got to thinking, ‘This ain’t so tough. I think I could build something like this…’”

Hell freezes over

In 1988, Zaite launched Dr. Z in grand style, if not to any major fanfare, by building an amp for Joe Walsh, which the guitar star immediately took out with the Eagles on the band’s fabled Hell Freezes Over tour. Zaite had known Walsh from the Cleveland scene years earlier, and retained a close acquaintanceship with his manager, David Spero. Mike had little trouble getting an amp into the artist’s hands after noting that one of Walsh’s precious Vox AC30s had gone up in smoke on a live MTV performance prior to the tour. Whether or not the Eagle would like the creation, though, was another matter.

“I knew Joe’s tech,” says Zaite, “and I got a call from him: ‘You know, Z, Joe brought in that amp you made and he was carrying it in his arms like a baby. He said: ‘A friend of mine made this for me, and I want to use this on the tour.’ And the rest was history. Not that it did a whole lot for me financially, because tickets were $185 a seat for that tour and it went to about six or seven shows!”

Even if the tour didn’t sell a lot of amps for Dr. Z, it proved to Zaite that he had something in these amps of his, and inspired him to push forward with the effort. Just a decade later, Dr. Z was one of the best-respected names outside of the major manufacturers, and had secured a stellar reputation within the industry.

You can’t zap the patient

Anyone who’s spent time admiring the inside of a Dr. Z chassis will note the marriage of fluidity and simplicity that merges with quality components to produce a robust and toneful whole. These remain among several ‘first principles’ in the Z camp, and there are others still inherent in his designs and builds that retain roots in Zaite’s medical-equipment experience.

“I guess I did kind of bring several things with me into some of my designs from my background in medical electronics,” Zaite says. “And, as unfancy a subject as it might be, I certainly put a lot of work into my chassis designs. I use 90-thousandths aluminium chassis, and I chromate-dip them for increased conductivity. It really does make a very breathable, alive base for the amp to be built on.

“And it’s a very good grounding platform,” he adds. “One thing with doing CT scanners or MRI scanners, a lot of time, patients are on some type of life support system or respirator or whatever while they’re being scanned, so there can’t be any ground currents, you know? You can’t zap the patient while you’re trying to take a picture of them.”

mike zaite dr z amps therapy
The inside view of DR. Z’s Therapy model – a 35-watt cathode-biased 6L6 amp with the character of a low-powered tweed Twin

Other hallmarks of the Z ethos include seeking out just the right component for the job and maintaining a consistency from amp to amp, as much as possible – both of which have occasionally required going to great lengths to secure suitable parts.

“One thing that I think does help my amps is the coupling capacitors,” Zaite relates. “The company that makes the old Orange Drops now, SBE, they’re way out in Maine somewhere and what I ended up doing was formulating an older-style cap that was no longer in production, as they had moved on to faster and more powerful caps. I kind of liked the sound of an older-style cap that they made, so I had them build them for me in large lots, so that eliminated deviation from amp to amp, because these caps were all built the same day, and they all had extremely high tolerances.

“I didn’t have to say: ‘Why does this amp sound a little brighter, or a little darker, or a little harsher?’ So these are the old Sprague 417-type caps, and they’re polyester, not Polypropylene like the newer Orange Drop caps are. To me, they’re a little more like the old yellow Astrons that sound so wonderful in original tweed Fender amps.”

Country cousins

Dr. Z segued into the Nashville market in grand style in the late 90s when budding Tele-meister Brad Paisley purchased a stock Dr. Z Mazerati in 1999, and he and Zaite collaborated on the fast, responsive Prescription Extra Strength model shortly thereafter. Since then, Zaite and Paisley have collaborated on three further official releases, including the Stang Ray (intended to re-create the EF86-driven channel of Paisley’s prized early AC30), the Z Wreck (inspired by Ken Fischer’s Trainwreck amps), and another pentode preamp design – this time using a 5879 tube – dubbed the DB4 (Doc & Brad #4).

Given such star approval, the Dr. Z brand has proliferated in the country market in general, where other boutique amp makers have often struggled to make inroads. As Zaite puts it: “A lot of guys that I talk to in this industry don’t even try to pursue that area, and I say: ‘That’s fine, leave it for me!’ The country players today are a little different. They’re not playing Peaveys anymore. They’re going for a more modern kind of tone, and they like to experiment, too. And man, they’re great guitar players – and they like to buy stuff!”

A fifth collaborative effort between Zaite and Paisley bloomed in 2018 in the form of a Dr. Z recreation of a rare early Vox AC100 head that the artist had fallen for, but which could be troublesome on the road because of the excessive heat produced by its four EL34 output tubes.

“Being cathode-biased,” says Zaite, “unlike the later fixed-bias AC100s that were more common, it probably puts out only about 80 watts, but it sounds fantastic. The key to the thing, though, was the output transformer. That is the real heart of the tone of most vintage amps. And I just happened to be talking to an engineer at [transformer makers] Heyboer while working on this thing for Brad, and he said: ‘Oh, I’ve got that OT in my files! I had an early AC100 in here a few years ago, so I blueprinted the transformers.’ I finished building the thing and plugged Brad into it, and he was floored. He loved it.”

So far, the big 80-watter has only been available in limited numbers as Master Builds constructed entirely by Zaite himself, although there could be scope for a wider release in the near future. Meanwhile, however, Zaite’s artist-signature focus is trained on another model: the new Z-Master, designed to emulate the original ’59 tweed 3×10 Fender Bandmaster combo that Joe Walsh gave to Pete Townshend in 1970. That amp, along with a late-50s Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body guitar, quickly became the sound of Townshend’s guitar on The Who’s ’71 album Who’s Next and much of his work after… yet its loss had long haunted Walsh.

“Joe said to me: ‘Man, that was such a great-sounding amp, I never should have given it to Pete Townshend!’, ha ha!” Zaite tells us. “So I studied the originals and the schematics and the parts, and started putting an amp together. And once again, the key to it was in the output transformer. It’s a 4-ohm Triad transformer feeding an odd 2.7-ohm load from the three 10-inch, 8-ohm speakers wired in parallel, and it’s a huge part of that amp’s sound. And yet again, I had this huge stroke of luck with the thing: I contacted my guy at the current Triad company, and he said: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got the specs for that one here in my files!’”

Care in the community

While never straying from his original design and manufacturing standards, Zaite has still had to adapt to a lot change in the amp industry over the course of 30 years. “Today’s customers need great-sounding low-powered tube amps,” he tells us, “due to the volume police, either at a small club or at home, to insure domestic tranquility. It is a feat to create big-sounding amps at whisper volume levels, but that’s what they’re asking for.”

dr z amps mike zaite
Mike Zaite got into amp building by making “unauthorised modifications” to Fenders and Silvertones left in his Cleveland practice room. Image: Karen Ollis

One way he’s getting there is by way of a new half-power circuit that has been installed on many of the Dr Z amps with four output tubes. “I’d say I have had great success with it, because I see other builders using it on their amps. It is a true half-power circuit that does not alter or change the amp’s tone, only cuts its output power exactly in half.”

Another of current players’ demands is seen in the need for built-in effects loops that don’t color or alter either the effects’ sounds or the amp’s core tone, and here Zaite has found an out-sourced solution: Metro Amps Zero Loss Effects Loop boards. “This is a brilliant design by George Metropoulos that drops in, works on high voltage, and supplies a perfect connection for effects in an amp. This board is also used by many other amp builders as the standard for effect loops.”

For all the kudos he’s received for his own work, Zaite is also quick to admire worthwhile new creations by other amp makers; any of whom might otherwise be regarded as ‘competitors’. “For the most part,” he says, “it’s a pretty small world, and we tend to support each other, those of us who have been around a while, at least. I have been really impressed by the work of Mark Bartel, for example. His new line demonstrates a very unique building technique that generates a wonderful-sounding original amp.

“The designs by Steve Carr are very original, too, while still traditional in their warm tones. His new Telstar is unique in its use of different paired output tubes to achieve a very original sound. And Todd Sharp is another original designer with his JOAT line of amps. Todd’s approach and keen ear make for very original amp that satisfies the most discerning professional.”

Talk to these and other notable boutique-amp makers and chances are, you’ll hear a lot of admiration reflected right back on Mike Zaite and his Dr. Z brand, yet this senior member of the community remains ever humble regarding his own abilities. “I’m not any kind of genius designer,” he says, “I’m no Ken Fischer or Alexander Dumble. But I’m a solid engineer and I’m a good builder. I can research a new idea, and I can figure out how to do it right.”

Find out more about Dr. Z Amplification at drzamps.com.

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