Small, light, and super-powerful, this solid-state amp is a blank slate that brims with character.
Super powerful. Light and compact. Versatile EQ and gain controls. Surprising character and color for a solid-state amp.
Absence of tube-amp compression. Expensive.
ZT Custom Shop Lee Ranaldo Club
Ease of Use:
ZT amps don’t fit easily into traditional amplifier product categories. They’re not wired or voiced to cop tweed, British, or American amplifier sounds. And depending on your perspective, they can either look streamlined or a little too much like a random tech appliance.
But playing the ZT Lee Ranaldo Club, a chameleonic, compact, portable, lightweight, 220-watt, 1x12 solid-state powerhouse, makes you wonder if ZT amps aren’t a category all their own—one especially well suited to the making of modern music. Like many ZT amps, the Lee Ranaldo Club is both a blank slate and capable of communicating color and character—a feat of duality it achieves via high headroom, versatile gain and EQ controls, and an amenable relationship to effects of all kinds. Along with the small-but-potent ethos that informs all ZT designs, this flexibility makes it ideal for space constrained, big-city dwelling artists with wide stylistic vocabularies. But the Lee Ranaldo Club isn’t built solely for that purpose. Impressively, it can hang with traditional tube amps onstage and offer many cool tone alternatives in the studio
ZT’s newest Club series amp is part of the company's custom shop series (which are considerably more expensive than most stock ZT models). It was created with Lee Ranaldo, who, with Sonic Youth and as a solo artist, practically defines the stylistically divergent, big-city dwelling guitarist. Ranaldo’s vocabulary is built on delicate-to-violent playing dynamics, overdrive and delay textures, looping, and most importantly, alternate tunings bubbling over with complex harmonics—tones and textures that expose and overwhelm a lousy amp fast, in other words.
Handling complex textures and sounds isn’t difficult for the Lee Ranaldo Club. A fundamental reason is the Club’s ample headroom. I A/B’d the Club with a 30-watt Fender Tremolux and 50-watt Fender Bassman, both through a 2x12 cabinet with 75-watt Warehouse speakers. When comparing the amps alone and together, it’s hard not to be struck by how loud and clean the Club remains as the Fenders compress and distort. For a little box not much bigger than the 12" neodymium speaker at its heart, it can be dangerously, painfully, and impressively loud.
All this horsepower wouldn’t be worth much were it not for the Club’s ability to corral and shape it. And the 3-band EQ section is a powerful, versatile tool for manipulating the Club’s output. Each of the three EQ controls have exceptional range. The treble can be rolled back to smoky, blunted extremes that are killer for shaping unusual fuzz and overdrive tones. But it’s best for adding oxygen and a capacity for pointillist-level overtone detail. I could spend days playing open-tuned electric 12-string with a little delay at these aerated settings—bathing in the darting and percolating overtones. The bass control is equally wide-ranging, providing thoughtfully voiced counterweight to the lively high end. And because the Club has so much headroom, you can shape very present, full-spectrum bass tones free of compression and distortion—it’s little wonder jazz-influenced players like Nels Cline have been exploiting the low end capabilities of ZT amps for years.
Of Mids and Mass
The mid control is the most idiosyncratic of the EQ knobs. My favorite settings live around the 9 o’clock and noon range. Past noon, the midrange control colors the output considerably, adding snorkely and, at times, almost wah-like filtered tones. These advanced mid settings can sound Mick Ronson-cool or claustrophobic, depending on your approach. But they can also make an overdrive really snarl. Not surprisingly, the real potential of the strong midrange voice becomes most apparent when using Lee Ranaldo-style open tunings. A tuning made up of Cs and Gs in octaves and doubles sounded beautiful at the airiest mid range settings, but became positively orchestral at bold midrange settings—lending low-mid register notes a cello-like presence that contributes dimension and depth, animates harmonics, and contributes balance and ballast to the ample sparkling highs and clear bottom end.
The gain control is another remarkably sensitive tool for sculpting the Club’s output. Most gain settings have an organic, tube-like softness around the edges. And in the first two thirds of its range, this knob provides many subtle overdrive shadings that deliver weight and depth. The upper third of the gain control’s range, however, generates rich tube-like grind that can be shaped in very specific ways with the EQ. It’s invaluable for pairing the Club with thin single-coils, though I achieved the meatiest overdrive results with humbuckers (and in particular, a Telecaster Deluxe with Curtis Novak reproductions of ’70s Fender Wide Range humbuckers—which is not surprisingly, a favored Lee Ranaldo tone recipe).
One of the amp’s most impressive performance attributes is its ability to handle effects—and not just the pretty delays and rich modulation units that reveal extra detail when paired with high-headroom amps. The ZT sounds super cool with fuzz. And while it lacks the tube compression that can flatter really gnarly fuzz units, the high headroom and flexible EQ enable you to highlight fuzz overtones and shape the amp’s reactivity to fuzz in other constructive ways. I attacked the Club with Big Muffs, Tone Benders, and Fuzzrites, and each sounded killer at neutral amp settings. Inevitably, some fuzzes will demand treble attenuation from the amp. There just isn’t enough of the compression and sag to round off the sharper corners the way a tube amp does. But I could make a case for each of these effects sounding more fresh and exciting when run through the ZT’s transparent circuitry.
If you’re a solid-state amp skeptic, the USA-built Lee Ranaldo Club will probably shift your perceptions dramatically. It’s warm, rich, and even earthy in its tonality at times. I did miss a sense of amp compression on some occasions. But while you don’t sense picking sensitivity in quite the way you would with a tube amplifier, it’s lively, reactive, and responsive. That it delivers so much potency and sonic flexibility in such a light and compact package is a wonder.
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