Dave's Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part I

I frequently receive messages from guitarists who are in the market for something new in a boutique amp, but are baffled by the broad selection available today. We thought it would be a good idea, therefore, to occasionally devote a column to building a “Boutique Amp Guide": a roundup of about half a dozen makers for each installment, with some basic history, build and style notes on each, and a few pointers on what their amps are particularly good at.

This will be an ongoing series and I hope to cover most of the more widely available makers in the course of it, so if you don’t see info here on a brand you’re investigating, check back soon—or feel free to send me a reminder to include a particular make you’re interested in.

Dr Z

Founded in 1988, Dr Z has long been one of the biggest names on the boutique scene, and several key factors have helped to keep it that way. The amps are hand-wired using high-quality components yet they sell at prices somewhat below the average for the breed, they are consistently reliable, they are relatively simple to use and to dial in, and they sound great.

The Dr Z lineup is a broad one these days, with plenty of diversity, but the amps tent to be linked by certain signature characteristics of clarity, punchiness, and playing dynamics, and perhaps an equal blending of British and American voicings. While you can cop plenty of classic tones on Dr Z amps, this maker doesn’t offer copies or clones of any vintage amps, and instead develop original circuits aimed at achieving specific voices that are of use to the contemporary professional guitarist. Dr Z amps are also frequently applauded for how well they pair with effects making them go-to pedal platforms many gearheds.

Asked if he has any over-arching build philosophy, Dr Z’s Mike Zaite told me he strove to “not over-process the signal, but just give a nice, broad bandwidth and let the player’s fingers be the manager… Make something that’s reliable, and simple, and bring it in at a great price.”

  • Key Model: Carmen Ghia (as well as the Maz 18)
  • Recommended For: Juicy cranked-up EL84 tones with a lot of touch sensitivity, where lower volumes and a compact platform are desired
  • Famous Dr Z Users: Brad Paisley, Buddy Whittington


Fryette Amplification is based in Los Angeles, where former pro guitarist Steve Fryette made a name for himself repairing and modding amps on the kicking musical scene of the ’80s and early ’90s after departing his native Seattle. Fryette founded VHT in the late ’80s (only changing his brand name to his own surname a few years ago), and quickly developed a reputation for scorching preamps linked to bold, punchy power amps, which together made a major splash on the contemporary rock scene.

The majority of Fryette’s amps are built on quality printed-circuit-boards. Today, Fryette offers a select yet diverse palette of flavors, from super high-gain channel switchers to meaty old-school single-channel amps, and all are known for their impressive signal purity and useful versatility. When you need an amp with three channels that each run the gamut of vintage to modern voices, footswitchable boosts and FX loops, and a plethora of back-panel connectivity, Fryette is a good place to look.

  • Key Model: Sig:X
  • Recommended For: Modern high-gain rock and metal, especially where big power and optimum versatility is required
  • Famous Users: David Torn, Page Hamilton


Richard Goodsell of Atlanta, GA, was working on Hammond organs and Leslie cabinets for several years before deciding to convert a spare Hammond tube chassis into a small guitar amp. The result would become the Super 17, Goodsell’s flagship, a dual-EL84 amp producing 17 watts which is now in its fourth iteration as the Mark IV. Goodsell amps are all hand-wired using quality components, and tend toward the more compact end of the scale, too, which has made them a popular club amp with many city dwellers in particular.

While the Super 17’s format implies a certain Voxy nature, it tends to have a crisper tone and more headroom than that name usually entails. The Mark IV version ups the EG stage from a single Tone control to a full complement of Treble, Middle and Bass in a cathode-follower circuit derived from the tweed Fender Bassman, while still including great-sounding tube reverb and tremolo. Goodsell’s larger amps include the 33 Custom (double the 17’s output stage) and Black Dog 50 (with two EL34s), and others.

  • Key Model: Super 17 (now in Mark IV edition)
  • Recommended For: Players needing a great grab’n’go 17-watter in a compact package: juicy tone, impressive headroom, and good reverb and trem
  • Famous Users: Vince Gill, Big Head Todd


One of the first big post-Boogie names on the California hot-rod scene, Michael Soldano still enjoys a reputation as one of the most talented designers of high-gain contemporary rock amps. Soldano entered the game in 1987 on the back of his hugely popular Super Lead Overdrive (SLO), released the ferocious Decatone in 1997 to celebrate his 10th anniversary, and is still going strong with a wide range of offerings, from the small but mighty Astroverb 16 to a selection of 100-watters such as the Lucky 13 and Avenger (while still producing the popular SLO, Decatone and others). Flavor-wise, Soldano amps are very much “American rock”, and to that end he mostly favors 6L6 output tubes to get the job done. Construction is of the printed-circuit-board variety, but done to a high standard with quality components and thick, robust boards.

  • Key Model: SLO
  • Recommended For: Contemporary American high-gain tones plus respectable cleans, where a ton of output power is needed
  • Famous Users: Mark Knopfler, Steve Vai, George Lynch


The clever, compact, and groovily space-retro creations of Michael Swart have frequently been the choice of guitarists demanding a lot in a little bitty package for a little over a decade now. Working out of Wilmington, NC, Swart is a long-time musician and recording studio owner who took to building his own amps to achieve what he was looking for in the studio. His work is best recognized for the throwback Valco-like cabinets that house most of his combos, and for the ton of tone and features they squeeze into a small package (witness the single-ended ST-Atomic Jr with tube-driven reverb, and all weighing in at just 18 lbs).

The Atomic Space Tone has long been the flagship of the brand—offering 15 watts of 6V6-generated tube tone, tube-driven tremolo and reverb, and a single 12” speaker all in a 18”x15.5”x9.5” package weighing just 29 lbs—but the lineup now also includes the dual-6L6-powered, 45-watt Space Tone Forty-Five, a true-stereo dual-single-ended ST-Stereo head, and other variations on the theme. All are distinctly Yank-leaning tone-wise, and are built with hand wired circuits throughout.

  • Key Model: Atomic Space Tone
  • Recommended For: Players seeking über-compact grab’n’go functionality in a great-sounding 15-watt tube combo with tremolo and reverb
  • Famous Users: Jeff Tweedy, Dean Wareham, Matthew Sweet

Two Rock

Bill Krinard and Joe Mloganoski founded California-based Two-Rock Amplification in 1999 out of a quest to achieve extremely clear and articulate clean tones and creamy Dumble-like overdrive, using ultra-high-end components and construction. The pair sold an amp to Carlos Santana while the company was still in its infancy, and quickly gathered a string of major players on its artists roster, developing a reputation as one of the premier makers at the upper echelon of the boutique market in the process. Although they do make some relatively smaller 22-watt models in the Studio Pro series, Two-Rock is mainly known for its big, powerful 50- and 100-watters, which typically have footswitchable overdrive channels and useful extra performance features such as buffered effects loops, added FET preamp stages, and other extras.

The company continues to evolve and several of its earlier models have been retired, but the current lineup remains comprehensive. Two-Rock has also made a point of offering amps that are optimized for players who use front-end effects for their overdrive and distortion tones, such as the Sensor range, which includes 22-, 50- and 100-watt heads.

  • Key Model: Classic Reverb
  • Recommended For: The full gamut from pristine cleans to thick, creamy overdrive, with useful performance features
  • Famous Users: John Mayer, Matt Schofield, Steve Kimock


Read More of Dave's Boutique Amp Guide:


Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books, Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

See some of Dave's books on Reverb here.

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