A kid-sister amp with a grown-up voice.
Any guitarist who has lugged around 4x12s, Super Reverbs, or other heavy-ass combos and stacks in search of big, meaty tones can appreciate the trend toward small amps that snarl. Amp guru Dave Friedman’s latest, the Dirty Shirley Mini, is a new addition to that genus. It’s the little sister of Friedman Amplification’s Dirty Shirley combo, which clocks in at 40 watts and 52 pounds, with a single 12" Celestion G12M Creamback speaker. The Mini is comparatively bantamweight—just 30 pounds and pumping 20 watts of output through a 10", 25-watt Celestion Greenback. It’s an ultra-compact 9 1/2” x 15 1/2” x 16 1/2”. The Shirley is no retiring kid sister. Playing a rough-and-tumble gig in a small room with no amp miking, the Mini blasted along with my trio loud and clear, and since the joint was all concrete and glass, the amp’s absence of reverb was irrelevant. In a bigger, classier dump—where amps would be miked and sound bounced around less like a caffeinated squirrel—the results would have been even better. And the Mini sounded really strong in my home practice space.
Whole Lotta Shirley
With a pair of EL84 power tubes and three 12AX7s pushing the preamp section, the Mini’s goal is clearly British-flavored classic rock tones. And there’s a lot of mojo in that preamp, thanks to a 3-way gain-structure toggle switch. In the middle, the amp is at its cleanest, with lots of headroom and a tone that’s rich but doesn’t get nasty and spanking until the gain control climbs to about 7, with the master at noon. Flip the toggle downwards, with the master and the gain in the same spot, and you’re deep in Marshallville, with opulently ripe mids and a profile that reminded me of Ritchie Blackmore’s epic early-’70s sound. The toggle all the way up tells yet another story, with a brighter, gnarlier, more modern gain structure—good for gut-punching, chugging, and buzzing leads. Oh … and by the way. All three of those settings are loud! The 3-dial EQ is no-frills, but quite responsive. The power switch is a simple on/off with no standby. I missed the standby function when switching instruments, but my tuner pedal did the job amiably. Under the hood—or, at least, inside the well-built Baltic birch cabinet—is an effects send/return and additional 8-ohm and 16-ohm speaker outs.
The panel for the returns and speaker outs is a bit awkward. It’s mounted upside down, so you’ve got to tilt the amp on its face to see it and plug in, which would be challenging on a dark stage. But that’s easily overcome with practice, and clearly that design choice helped keep the Mini mini. Also, the tubes are mounted horizontally to save space. They’re just above the underside of that panel, but easily accessible. The Dirty Shirley Mini’s look is signature Friedman: a recessed control panel at the top rear, silver-and-black grille cloth, and a spare but elegant exterior, with black vinyl snugly fitted to its sturdy cabinet. The Mini feels as if it could take a plunge at a load-in and still start right up (at least after the rush of horror from dropping a $1,799 amp faded).
Plays Well With Others?
Back at the homestead after the gig, I pulled three guitars: a modern Zuzu with coil-tapping, an early-’70s Fender Strat with the requisite single-coils, and an early-’90s Les Paul Classic. All sounded fully and correctly voiced via the Dirty Shirley Mini’s Celestion, although the power, tonal depth, and sustain the amp exhibited with humbuckers was truly a joy. Since I’m pretty good at following directions, I started with suggested EQ settings at 5 for bass, 7 for mids, and treble at 5, and the gain toggle in the middle. That’s what the builder recommends in the manual, identifying that setting as “the Friedman sound.” I began with the gain/master at 5/5, and once I cranked the gain to 7, I’d have been perfectly content if I’d never touched a dial or switch again. But it was more fun to flick the gain stages around, roll off all the mids while cranking the treble and bass to 10, or to turn both those dials to zero and the mids to 10, or play with the treble on 10 and the bass/mids off, or just bass. With the Dirty Shirley Mini, it was impossible to get a bad tone, and the extreme EQ settings inspired ideas for studio sounds. With pedals, the lowest gain setting was, as expected, ideal. But OD, delay, phase, vibrato, and ambient reverb sounded clear with high-gain settings, too—although the overdrive understandably had little effect on tone color in the Shirley Mini’s highest gain stage. Also, as expected, things were quieter when my pedalboard was plugged into the effects loop rather than straight into the front end. The only pedal that performed differently in the loop was my OD, which needed a bit more output for unity. Despite all that goodness, the lil’ Shirley’s 10" speaker does sound a tad compressed to my 12"-speaker-conditioned ears, so I couldn’t resist plugging the Mini’s power section into a Sam Hill custom pine cabinet loaded with a 50-watt 12" Eminence. To my ears, the results sounded a little more harmonically rich and lush. How cool is it to be able to add a 12" extension cab to the Mini? (I did, and the answer is “very!)
The Dirty Shirley Mini rocks! It’s a well-built, great sounding, and compact alternative to 1x12 combos, with a big, flexible voice for its small size, and all the right bones for mean classic tones.
Watch the Review Demo: