The Mini Z is amp builder Dr. Z’s (a.k.a. Mike Zaite) entry into the low-watt/single-power-tube practice/recording category of amps. Extremely compact at under one cubic foot in size, and weighing just 22 pounds, the Mini Z uses a single 12AX7 preamp tube, EL84 power tube, and a solidstate rectifier.
The Mini Z gets the distortion party started very early, at about 9 o’clock on the Volume knob (which, by the way shares the faceplate with only the on/off switch and power indicator light). The good Doctor himself suggested we turn the amp up to halfway while turning down the guitar’s volume until we heard the desired clean tone. Employing this method produced a tone that could be described as “clean-er,” but no one who owns a Super 400 is going to grab the Mini Z to pay homage to Wes. Besides, while cleanliness may be next to Godliness, it’s hardly the point of any 5-watt tube amp currently available.
Amps that start their overdrive this soon can max out at 12 o’clock and get buzzy, fizzy, or raspy after that. Not so with the Mini Z. The 8″ Weber C8RS speaker cranks out absolutely gorgeous sounds, and this amp captures the trademark Dr. Z tone that keeps a smile on the faces of everyone from country star Brad Paisley to blues-rock great Smokin’ Joe Kubek. Even though the Mini is the company’s first single-ended amp, its basic tone is trademark Z: a textured overdrive sound with just the right amount of grit.
Sweeping through the volume dial produces tones that start out as just a little more than edgy and grow to being saturated, yet clear. Throughout the volume range, the notes maintain their integrity, never getting muddy or becoming fuzz-like. The Mini does a stellar job of maintaining and even enhancing the tonal qualities of various pickups.
Using the low-output single-coil neck pickup of our first test guitar, the Mini produced some of the edgier SRV tones by 10 o’clock on the volume dial. Turning it clockwise increased both distortion and sustain, both in a very tuneful way. The guitar’s slightly overwound middle pickup produced sweet upper-midrange tones, with good sustain throughout the volume sweep. Even at max volume, the tone maintained its mellow integrity and refused to become harsh or brittle.
The real standout was the bridge pickup. Overwound to imitate a Gibson P-90, it sounded unusually full on the low-end and resisted any tendency toward snarkiness. While the pickup’s natural tendency is to emphasize higher frequencies, the Mini always offered up a full tonal spectrum.
With our two-P-90-equipped guitar, the Mini produced the expected growl, but without the nasally sound that can plague other amps. The guitar’s neck-position pickup, a Rio Grande Jazzbar, is designed with standard P-90 output in mind, and produced a nice, mellow, almost glassy sound that bridged the gap between soapbar and single-coil. As the volume on the Mini was pushed higher and higher, the tone absolutely refused to flab out. Notes retained exceptional definition, even when playing barre chords.
The bridge-position Rio Grande Bluesbar is a high-output unit that can drive any amp to near psychosis. As with the single-coils, the Mini made the bridge pickup sound full and round while retaining the edge for which players move the three-way switch into the down position. Treble projection was forceful without being harsh, and the low end of the notes never disappeared.
The last chance to find a flaw with the Mini’s tone came with the standard humbuckers in a ’57 Les Paul Goldtop reissue. The bridge pickup responded with unusual clarity, however. It was bright, even with the volume knob on the Mini dimed. Note definition was just slightly less than that produced by the Bluesbar, which is remarkable in a humbucker. Flipping the switch to the neck pickup did next to nothing to diminish the clarity of individual notes, even when the Mini was at full throttle. Cool.
The Mini is not designed as a high-gain amp, and it doesn’t sound like one. However, it is possible to get into Santanaland by selecting the neck humbucker and rolling off the tone knob. A Mesa Boogie-like sound can also be achieved using the same method with the neck P-90.
Build quality on the Mini is first-rate. The lack of noise coming out of the speaker, even at full volume with nothing plugged in, attests to the quality components and careful construction inside the amp. The cabinet, covered with extra heavy tolex over plywood, is topped with a genuine leather handle held down with stout, chromed metal brackets. There’s a decent amount of overhang on the top panel of the cabinet, to protect the single knob and switch. The grillecloth is much heavier than usual, and all eight corners of the cabinet have metal protectors. A hidden stand extends from the lower front edge of the amp, to tilt it upward. The care in production even extends to the shipping box. Dr. Z sprays an empty cardboard box with expanding foam, drops in a sheet of plastic to keep the foam from getting onto and inside the amp, then places the amp inside the box. In this way, the amp is cradled in a custom-made foam block which helps it withstand the journey to almost any point on the planet.
If your taste in tone is somewhere between “somewhat clean” and “Fuzz Face,” and you’re looking for a well-built, great-sounding practice or recording amp, consider adding to your to-do list “Check out the Mini Z!”
Contact Dr. Z Amplification, 17011 Broadway Avenue, Maple Heights, OH 44137; phone (216)475-1444′ www.drzamps.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.