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Dr. Z: The Mad Scientist of Guitar Amps

Dr. Z: The Mad Scientist of Guitar Amps

Ben Diamond

Michael Dominic Zaite used sign his name with his initials, “M.D.” and it wasn’t long before people were calling him “doctor.”

Today, it seems like his given name has all but disappeared from use. As the founder of Dr. Z Amplification, a boutique guitar amp manufacturer in Maple Heights, Ohio, most people, including some of the world’s most iconic guitarists like Joe Walsh and Brad Paisley, know him as Doc, Dr. Z, or simply Z. This year marks Dr. Z’s 30th anniversary, a testament to brilliant design, some fortuitous relationships, and the dream of a boy from Cleveland who wanted to rock.

Zaite’s musical heritage, as with so many others, began with The Beatles. In his parent’s front room, he watched them perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and realized his calling. He wanted to do that, too. But there was something else he fixated on: the boxes marked “VOX” that stood behind the Liverpool quartet and projected their gorgeous, jangling chords and melodies. Zaite remembers taking the bus to Higbee’s department store in downtown Cleveland to get a glimpse of The Beatles’ signature Vox amps. He would bask in their monolithic presence, soaking up every detail: the diamond-grill cloth, the gold and white trim against their black tolex wrap.

Zaite was a teenager in the ‘60s, so he played drums in a “basement band.” When amps were left at Zaite’s place, he would open them up and peak around. They all used vacuum tube technology for power and tonal characteristics. This was something very familiar to Zaite — there were boxes of Zenith brand tubes lying around his house, which bore a conspicuous lightning bolt “Z.” His father was a TV repairman and needed extra tubes for his repairs. He would become an instrumental figure for the young Zaite, providing a wealth of knowledge on esoteric tube technology and electronics while fostering his early creativity and inventive spirit.

Zaite’s young music career reached its zenith when his band came in second to Joe Walsh’s band, the James Gang, at the 1968 Teen Fair in Cleveland. While Walsh went on to have a successful music career, most notably with the Eagles, Zaite set his eyes on studying electronics at Kent State University. “It just goes to show you that coming in second doesn’t get you very much,” Zaite recalled with a laugh.

Zaite would work in medical electronics for 15 years before starting Dr. Z Amps in 1988. While working on a new amp, Zaite thought of Walsh and decided to send one to him. After a year of radio silence, Zaite got a call from Walsh’s manager. Joe dug the amp. In fact, he dug it so much that he wanted to use it for the Eagle’s 1994 Hell Freezes Over Tour. It was the biggest grossing tour at the time; a tour that united the Eagles after a 14-year hiatus and gave Zaite his first big break. While Joe Walsh played solos to stadiums of frenzied fans, a Dr. Z Amp sat behind him, giving the brand instant credibility and immeasurable exposure. “No one had ever heard of me until then,” Zaite said. “And then all of a sudden, everyone kind of heard of me.”

From there, Dr. Z started to attract a bevy of new artists. Some “Patients of Dr. Z” are  legendary clients such as Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and ZZ Top, but also modern artists such as Tegan and Sara and Cleveland’s own Cloud Nothings. But perhaps none were more unexpected or influential to Dr. Z’s success than country music megastar Brad Paisley. “I’ve met a lot of artists in my life,” Zaite said, “but there’s nobody like Brad.”

When Paisley bought his first Dr. Z amp, Zaite had never heard of him. But Paisley seemed magnetically attracted to Dr. Z’s sound and the artist and engineer would soon become inexorably tied. On Sept. 11, 2001, Paisley happened to be touring in Ohio. But after the tragic events of that infamous day unfolded, Paisley’s next two shows were cancelled. Paisley called Zaite, explained the situation, and asked if he might meet him at his shop. “There’s time’s in your life that you meet someone and there’s just an attraction,” Zaite said. The two connected instantly. As respective masters of their craft, they developed an open dialogue about the nuances guitar tone and amp technology. Soon, they were bouncing ideas off each other and began developing amps together.

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Their latest collaboration, the DB4, marks the fourth time that “Doc and Brad” have collaborated on an amp. Paisley has been an unabashed cheerleader for Dr. Z every step of the way. The cover art for his latest album, Love and War, might as well be a billboard: It shows Brad, Brad’s cowboy hat, and a bright red Dr. Z amp, all seeming to jump at once, suspended in musical ecstasy. Apart from the intangible value of the superstar’s endorsement, Zaite’s relationship with Paisley has pushed him to hone his craft to the highest level. “There’s something about the original-ness of a true artist,” he said. “[There’s] the sound that’s in their head and the sound that they want. And if you can help them achieve that, you become something more than just a manufacturer.”

Zaite continues to be inspired by the past, but isn’t bound to it. Dr. Z carries on the legacy of rock n’ roll by providing “Vintage Tone for Today” while a maintaining a uniqueness all their own. Zaite never did become the rock star he dreamed of in his youth, but his contribution to the sound of visionary artists is no less impressive.

Even with digital music technology gaining more ubiquity, Zaite believes his “heirloom” amps offer something for future generations of musicians to come. “There’s something about musicians. There’s something about that Stratocaster. There’s something about a Stradivarius violin. There’s something about those vintage instruments that make music, that make a sound that’s just so unique and so original and so sought after that they will always be [desired]. They’re never going to go away. No matter what.”

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