Dr. Z is one of my favorite amp builders out there. I’m consistently impressed with the build quality, sound, and price points of his models. I own a few of his amps and they are some of my favorite instruments I’ve ever heard. They’ve been fantastically reliable and have ended up on a lot of my gigs and the records I’ve worked on. I first got it in my head that I wanted a Carmen Ghia years before I ever even got to hear one. I grew up in a small-ish town in Virginia and didn’t really run into much modern, ’boutique’ (though I really freaking hate that word…) gear. The store that had all the coolest stuff that I wanted was just a state away in Cary, NC. Though I’ve still never actually gotten to go to Fat Sound Guitars (www.fatsoundguitars.com), I still check their website every now and again as I’ve found they consistently carry the best of the well-known modern gear and also the coolest new gear around. If they think it sounds great then I can pretty much promise you it rocks. Side note here is that the majority of it is ridiculously out of my price range but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome. However, one brand they’ve always stood behind is Dr. Z. After reading about the Carmen Ghia head on their site, I knew it was something I’d need to own. A few years later, after I made it to Nashville, I got the chance to buy a late 90’s Ghia 1×12 combo at a good used price so I snapped it up. I’ve since built a really funky headshell for it since I couldn’t get Dr. Z to sell me a real one (bummed me out, man! If anybody at Z ever reads this- any chance you’ll reconsider?? It’s for a real Z- no faking here, promise!)
So let’s talk about the amp. Again, I won’t bore you with specs you can read on-line and plus, there aren’t many to talk about with a Carmen Ghia. Volume, Tone, Input, Power switch. Mine is an older one and only has a single 8 ohm speaker out and a hard-wired power cable so it’s ridiculously simple but damn, it sounds good. It is absolutely, incredibly dynamic and pickup sensitive. It’s one of those amps that truly sounds like whatever guitar you plug into it. You can hear your guitar, your pickups, your pedals, and especially your hands- for better and for worse. It is NOT a forgiving amp that smoothes stuff out for you. If you have a bad right hand and smack the strings harshly then you are gonna sound like a freaking wall of glass through this amp. Just a fair warning. It’s a mirror to hold up on your playing and therefore definitely not the right amp for everyone. But, it’s been great for me (including times when it taught me how NOT to play and what other gear I own that sounds like total crap). Likewise, the Ghia is extremely sensitive to what sort of speakers you use with it. Mine sounded absolutely miserable with an Eminence Red Fang AlNiCo speaker and pretty bad with Webers and the newer Celestions from overseas. This is not because these speakers are inherently bad! They just have characteristics that get accentuated by the Ghia in a bad way. The AlNiCo’s add additional sponginess that the Ghia really doesn’t need and the other speakers I mentioned have a lot of spiky high end that may help some other amps or just may not even get heard with other amps. Anyway- I love it with my older Celestion Vintage 30 and with my go-to favorite speaker around these days, the WGS Reaper (please, please, please check WGS out at www.wgs4.com- they rock.)
So- I’ve used it all over and it always sounds killer but it does have a few characteristics that can limit its usage in some situations. I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t walk you through them. First off, this thing is saaaaaaaggy… If you don’t know much about the circuit design differences between amps that respond tightly and amps that have a ton of sag, then you really ought to do yourself a huge favor and do some research. In my opinion, it’s one of the most major tonal factors in any amp and it’ll really help you in picking great amps for your own needs. Many amps work sorta down the middle for a lot of versatility and that’s definitely cool, but there are some amps out there that go way down to the ends of the spectrum and that’s cool too. My Carmen Ghia is about as spongey an amp as I’ve ever used but that lends a phenomenal roundness to single notes and a very vintage vibe to rhythm rock chording. However, if you’re wanting any sort of TIGHT rock power chords then you’re gonna need to go somewhere else.
Second point of contention for me is that there is a mid spike in my Ghia that the tone cut control doesn’t affect. It’s not too crazy but it’s definitely there and it’s hard to get rid of. You won’t notice it in a lot of scenarios but with MINE, if I use a Vintage 30 speaker and a Les Paul, there’s a tone in there that’s almost like having a stationary half-cocked wah pedal in your chain (by the way, if you’ve never tried doing that then get to it). It’s a LOTTA honk. It sounds freaking awesome but I’m just warning you that it’s there.
The third point that’s a bummer to me about Dr Z amps in general doesn’t have anything to do with the amps themselves. It’s really just their association with dudes like Brad Paisley. I like Brad a lot but let’s be honest, the guy only has one sound. Even in his ballads, he won’t freaking play a slow solo on a 335 into a Fender Super Reverb or something. Jeebus, man, mix it UP a little, brother! We’re all clear on the tele thing. The reason that is a problem for people like me is its affect on producers and artists hearing with their eyes. None of my Dr Z’s sound ANYTHING like Brad Paisley (especially not in my hands…) but there have been many times that I showed up to sessions with one of my Z’s and had the producer, engineer, or artist see it and go- “nah, let’s use [whatever else I brought]” because in their minds they already know what any Dr Z amp sounds like before they let me plug it in and rock. They are convinced it will be that telecaster, chicken-pickin’ sound and they don’t want that as country music in Nashville goes more and more rock/pop/folk/etc.
So- I feel like I just listed a bunch of negatives but I’m just being honest. Don’t let that deter you from checking one out- just be wary of what speaker/guitar/playing style you’re using when you do. The amp absolutely rules and I will use mine forever but I feel like it’s a ridiculously awesome house that sometimes doesn’t show well (most especially because of it’s amazing honesty).