More and more these days, we see
guitar-gear design mirroring the
design approach of computer technology—minimizing and miniaturizing while still
increasing power. We’ve seen a relative flood
of microscopic pedal casings, cigarette-box
amps, and lithium cell-powered effects. Like
so many new technologies, not all have a
lasting presence. But since being founded
in 2008, ZT Amplifiers has built a reputation
among top-flight players for their very
smart efforts to shrink the guitar amplifier.
Players like Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy, and Lee
Ranaldo have all embraced the sturdy, light,
and tiny ZT amps that produce huge sound.
While you’d be forgiven for thinking
ZT couldn’t go much smaller, the company
recently released their smallest piece
to date—the 35-watt Lunchbox Junior.
Weighing in at just five pounds and half
the size of its older sibling, the Lunchbox,
the Junior is armed with a couldn’t-be-easier
control set while offering clever features like
an output from which you can power your
pedals. Like its big brother, the Junior sounds
deceptively tube-like in terms of response
and warmth, and given this diminutive amp’s
size-to-sound ratio, there may be a new contender
for the Micro Amp Land crown.
Smart, Streamlined Features
With just three knobs on the top panel, the
Lunchbox Junior has the fewest controls of
any amp in the product line. But the control
set is not unlike, say, a Fender Champ.
The volume, tone, and gain parameters
work like any familiar amplifier. Turn up
the volume for more output, and increase
gain if you’re looking for more saturation,
crunch, and bite. When the tone control
is at in the 12 o’clock position, you’ll have
a neutral EQ, while turning clockwise will
increase treble/decrease bass, and vice versa.
The back panel is where the Junior
really has an upper hand in the micro-amp
competition. The power cord is detachable,
which makes the Junior even better
suited for travel. ZT also added an 1/8"
headphone/line out jack for those times
you want to use the amp in stealth back at
the hotel room, backstage, or late night in
the bedroom. It’s also worth noting that
a 1/8" jack is typically way easier to track
down, more compact, and eliminates the
need for a 1/4" inch adaptor that many
amps require. Another perk is the 12V DC
input that can be used for an aftermarket
ZT battery pack or cigarette lighter adaptor.
(That’s right—you can jam in the back
of the van!) And the 9V DC output can be
used to power your effects pedals—eliminating
the need for wall warts and batteries.
Now you won’t have to fire up a generator
to add killer amp sounds—and for that
matter, wah, fuzz, and delay for your campfire
sing-alongs. “On Top of Old Smokey”
will never sound the same.
It’s clear from a single look that the
Lunchbox Junior is built to travel. ZT went
for a slick, metal-flake finish on the fiberboard
casing that won’t scuff or tear, and
also gives it the cool look of a glam-rock
MacBook Pro. The single, 5" speaker is
shielded by a metal grate that lends a street-tough
visual appeal—wearing the reflective
ZT badge like a button on a jean jacket.
Overall, the Junior is stylish and impressively
built—tough enough to stand road brutality,
and cool looking enough to sit in the
living room next to your record collection.
This Mouse Screams!
One of the keys to getting the most out of
the Junior is to set it up high. I suppose
you could get away with placing it on the
floor with a mic, but for the sake of projection
and better access to the controls, you
should put the little guy in a high chair.
With a Telecaster in hand and all the dials
around 12 o’clock, the Junior sang at a very
suitable studio or bedroom volume. That
said, the 35 watts on tap means the Junior
can easily put out enough power to wake
As far as the tone goes, the ZT
Lunchbox Junior has a very cool thing
going on. Like the ZT Club (reviewed in
the May 2010 issue), there is a fantastic,
tube-like warmth that you just don’t hear
in many solid-state rigs—and certainly
not solid-state amps of this size. When
strumming a simple 1st position chord
with the Tele, I heard a character-rich set
of overtones and each note had a pleasing
roundness—instead of the brittle, sterile
harshness that steers most folks away from
It’s useful to become familiar with the
interplay between the volume and gain
parameters. They effect each other significantly
and it’s easy to muddy up an otherwise
sweet tone if you’re not careful. Singlecoils
seemed best able to withstand heavy
gain without falling into this trap. Keeping
the Junior’s volume around 3 o’clock will
produce a nice Fender-y punch—that
smoky, dark twang that’s perfect for a
bluesman. A Les Paul’s humbuckers will
drive the speaker into less pleasing distortion
zones when the gain and volume are
cranked. Adding treble with the tone knob
can help clean up the mud a little bit, but
heavy crunch at maximum volumes isn’t
the Junior’s best hand. There’s a reason ZT
has found fans in players like Cline and
Ranaldo—guitarists that work from cleaner,
more detailed, fundamental amp tones. And
it’s no surprise that that the Junior is an
excellent base for pedal enthusiasts. Dialing
up a neutral tone and throwing your
favorite dirtboxes in the mix feels second
nature with the Junior, and the clarity and
harmonic depth of the amp works well with
With its 5" speaker, the Lunchbox Junior
certainly won’t be the right stage amp for
everyone. But it’s much, much more than
just a simple practice amp. With a tonal
foundation that blows away most small solid-state amps, this ZT will be a lifesaver for
everything from live-radio sessions to smaller
gigs when you don’t want to hassle with a
larger combo. The size-to-volume ratio is
nothing short of remarkable. And the design
has a cool, retro/modern feel that is likely to
please aesthetes from both sides of the fence.
It’s a nice step away from the plastic chunkiness
that dooms a lot of compact amps.
And at $149, the ZT Lunchbox Junior isn’t
much more than your average stomp box.
If it’s good tone in a tiny package that you
require, this is a very smart deal indeed.