Easter 1995: Michael Zaite's phone rings at 7 p.m. On the other end is the soundman at Wilbert's in the Flats, a bar (now closed) that featured live music.
"Hey, Mike, you have to get down here," the soundman says.
"What's going on?" says Zaite, concerned by the urgency in the man's voice.
"The guitarist for John Mayall is really digging your amp; he's been playing it all day!"
Zaite is better known as "Dr. Z" by guitarists all over the world who marvel at his line of handmade amplifiers. Musicians including the Eagles' guitarist Joe Walsh, the Black Crowes, Steve Earle, Boz Scaggs, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers and country artists Lucinda Williams and Brad Paisley all plug into Dr. Z's amps.
The amp in question that night had been left at the bar by Zaite as a demonstration model for the musicians who performed there. Luckily, Buddy Whittington from The Bluesbreakers decided to plug in to it and loved what he heard. Zaite says that is by no means an everyday occurrence.
"It's hard to go after the big players," admits the 49-year-old Zaite, who is sitting in the office of his Maple Heights manufacturing facility surrounded by photos of some of his famous customers. "Basically, they have to talk to you first. I've been lucky and made a lot of friends, so it's been easier to make those connections."
Dr. Z, who pulls his moniker from his first and middle initials, M.D., landed his stable of big name accounts through a network of friends and colleagues in the industry, good press, positive word-of-mouth and, of course, quality products. Zaite invests little in advertising and accepts only as many orders as he can handle.
During his growth, he has twice moved into larger manufacturing facilities and added two employees.
Zaite's father was a television and radio repairman. As a boy, he watched his father repair electronic equipment and recalls with mock pride how he helped repair a Dynakit stereo system at age 13.
"I think he let me solder a few wires together," Zaite says with a laugh. "Ever since then, I've been fascinated with electronics."
Zaite earned a degree in electrical engineering from Cleveland State University before taking a job with a company that manufactured CAT scanners, MRIs and other medical imaging equipment. When the company was bought out by General Electric medical systems in the late 1980s, Zaite was ready for a change.
Combining the two loves of his life -- electronics and music -- seemed like the perfect solution. So with a $3,500 investment in test equipment and materials, he started his amplifier manufacturing and repair business in his Garfield Heights basement in 1988.
The big break
Business was slow but steady for the first couple years while Zaite experimented with the right sound for his amplifiers. In 1991, he called an old Cleveland friend, David Sparrow, who was the manager for Joe Walsh, the Eagles guitarist, popular solo artist and Cleveland native. Zaite asked Sparrow if Walsh would like to try out one of his amplifiers.
That night, Zaite met Walsh. The guitarist took an amp back to his hotel room and literally took it apart -- he was an electronics major at Kent State University. He liked what he saw and heard, and Zaite landed his first major artist.
Two years later, Walsh ordered another amplifier to use on the highly publicized Eagles reunion tour.
"That's kind of when the ball started to get rolling for me," Zaite says. "I got national attention. People wanted to know, 'What's that amp Joe Walsh is using?"
During the tour, Zaite received photos of Walsh next to his amplifiers to use in advertising with the guitarist's full endorsement. He was thrilled and promptly called up Guitar Player Magazine to order a full-page ad with Walsh's pictures.
The only problem was, the ad cost $10,000. Zaite changed his mind.
"I said, 'Wow, there's not enough profit in these to be able to afford that.'"
Instead, Zaite sent one of his amps to the magazine for a critical review, which only cost him the price of the amp. It received glowing praise from the magazine's editors and Zaite's phone started ringing.
"People were interested," he says. "I ran into a little bit of resistance because guitar players are funny people. They want to play it, they want to hear it, they want to feel it. It's kind of a personal thing with them. But then the stores started to order little by little.
"Though that didn't reach everybody nationally, it did keep the ball rolling."
Today, Zaite's amplifiers are in 25 stores across the country, with two large distributors in Europe and the Pacific Rim. Each month, Zaite produces about 50 amplifiers. That translates into annual revenue of $500,000, which Zaite says continues to grow every year.
The first press review earned Zaite attention in more trade magazines, which spread the word about Dr. Z amps to more nationally known artists. While he's proud of the famous guitarists who use his products, Zaite never lets the prestige go to his head.
Where he really makes his sales are to the players who never sign a record contract or perform in front of screaming crowds.
"I think my amps are probably on stage and played more than most boutique amps," Zaite says. "But the large percentage of my business is made up of young professionals. Guys in their 30s and 40s, who always wanted to play guitar or played it when they were high school and stopped when they entered college or a career.
"Now, they can afford the $3,000 guitar and the $2,000 amp and whatever they want, and play for their own enjoyment."
As an indication of his company's success, Dr. Z and 22 other boutique amplifier manufacturers were featured in Guitar Player Magazine in 1997. Today, only seven of those companies besides Dr. Z are still in business.
What little money he spends on print advertising, Zaite makes up for on his Internet site. Although you can't buy directly from the site, customers can listen to sound samples and music samples from Dr. Z's line of eight amplifiers.
Customers are then directed to stores that sell Dr. Z amps. Not only is it inexpensive worldwide advertising, the Web site also serves as a catalog, which saves thousands of dollars on printing.
"I can invest my money in this because I think this is what's happening," Zaite says. "This is where the future is."
Although happy with the steady growth, Zaite envisions moving to a larger facility and adding more employees in the coming years. But, he's wary of expanding too quickly.
With 19 years experience in the manufacturing business before going out on his own, he's seen the pitfalls of rapid expansion without preparation.
"Sometimes success is more difficult to deal with than failure," he says. "Your overhead goes up, you hire more people, you're going through parts at a faster clip and your suppliers start sending you junk. Once you start accepting substandard quality from your suppliers, it trickles down to the quality of your product.
"I can't do that. My name is on the amp forever." How to reach: Dr. Z Amplification, (216) 475-1444 or www.drzamps.com
Morgan Lewis Jr. (email@example.com) is a reporter at SBN Magazine.