Guitar Playerwas founded in 1967 by pedal-steel player and music store owner Bud Eastman, and this magazine regularly covered the instrument from the early years, most notably via Rusty Young’s “Steel Symposium” columns. That said, I can’t recall reading a pedal-steel review in GP—let alone a tube amp designed for one—but we are about to right the latter omission by featuring the new Surgical Steel head. From the outset, Dr. Z founder Mike Zaite reports that he wanted to “Create an amp that would clearly reproduce notes from an instrument with .070-gauge strings, accurately generate correct frequencies when bending strings and using alternate tunings, and output a rich and sustaining tone with adequate wattage.” To accomplish these goals he chose a unique preamp design based on a EF86 pentode tube, which has the advantage of accepting inputs of various voltages, such as those from volume pedals, and reproducing them accurately without distorting the signal as disproportionately as 12AX7 tubes do. Downstream from the 3-band EQ section and tube-driven effects loop, the SS also features an ultra-linear output stage that makes full use of the richness, articulation, and excellent headroom that a pair of powerful KT88 tubes can deliver. For reference, a single KT88 (the “KT” being a British abbreviation for “kin-kless tetrode”) is good for 46 watts!
It all adds up to making the Surgical Steel a supremely clear and girthy sounding amp. Tested though a Mesa/Boogie 2x12 recto cabinet or (more cautiously) an open-back Bogner 1x12 with a Celestion G-12 65, the SS tracked volume changes beautifully, whether the signals were hitting it via volume pedal or the volume knobs on several 6-string electrics (including a Les Paul, a Tele, and an Epiphone “Treasure” Firebird). The SS’s inherent design allows for very smooth yet effective transitions between cleaner/sweeter and tougher/more muscular tones, especially if you have the luxury of running it turned up a bit up—a.k.a. loud!
Along with a bevy of pedal-steel converts to the blessings of tube amplification, Dr. Z reported that Joe Walsh started using the SS last year because it sounded so good with his pedalboard for live playing. No doubt, the amp’s ability to pump out a big, well-defined sound at higher volumes does make it a great choice for stompbox users, and with drive and/or modulation pedals running in the front end along with a good ambience effect in the FX loop (such as the new MXR Reverb I used), the SS proves itself to be a versatile amp with a voicing that requires very little touching of the tone controls to get excellent sounds from humbuckers and single-coils. Suitable for a lot of styles when it gets right down to it, I found this amp quite fun to play even on smaller gigs where the volume had to be kept in check, as it punches through with amazing clarity and presence even when throttled way back.
The build quality is yet another important element here, as Dr. Z’s traditional hand-wiring and use of high-grade components makes the Surgical Steel rugged, easy to service, and just plain cool to look at if you’re the type who likes geeking out on chassis design.
The bottom line is Dr. Z has presented a unique amplifier for a very specific type of instrument, but also one that has many qualities that players of standard guitars will appreciate. We even tried it out on bass, although some change of EQ would be needed for optimal 4-string tones. Suffice to say, however, that if you’re looking for clean, loud, and tube powered, the Surgical Steel is in a league of its own. It’s a platform that is increasing in popularity thanks to the tremendous growth of stompbox effects, and with Americana and roots country bands requiring ever more pedal-steel sweetness in their music, the timing of the Surgical Steel really couldn’t be better. Well done!
PRICE $1,999 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass
POWER 90 watts
TUBES 1 x EF86, 1 x 12DW7, 1x 12AX7 2 x KT88
EXTRAS Effects loop. Three speaker outs (4Ω, 8Ω, 16Ω)
WEIGHT 32 lbs
KUDOS Excellent build quality. Superior clean headroom. Designed for pedal-steel but also excels for stompbox-savvy guitarists.