Amongst the sometimes bizarre, always esoteric lot that is any given group of vintage guitar collectors, the name Antanus Casimere Zemaitis carries a special connotation. The Lithuanian-descended Brit who started building guitars in 1955 was one of few builders of solidbody guitars to earn for his instruments a certain dignified position in the pantheon. In other words, Tony Z’s guitars kicked serious butt. Whether pearl-front, metal-front, disc-front, or just plain wood, the word “Zemaitis” never fails to get the attention of serious guitar collectors.
When Zemaitis died at age 67 in August of 2002, the guitar community lost something special. From his first days as a builder (Ron Wood bought the third guitar he made), his guitars – each made to order and each with its own unique qualities – were in such demand that the waiting list was often several years long. Even if you were Joe Rockstar (and Tony built for some majorly heavy names), you waited. And when Tony passed on, it appeared those who wanted to own a Zemaitis were simply out of luck unless they managed to find one – and could cut a check for tens of thousands of dollars.
Well, that’s no longer true.
The Tokyo-based Zemaitis International division of KSC has picked up the Zemaitis torch, and with the blessing of Tony’s wife, Ann, and son, Tony, Jr., reintroduced the Zemaitis guitar.
Zemaitis International didn’t jump in haphazardly. Wanting to make the product as legit as it could, it spent two years studying Tony’s original drawings, spec sheets, and memos. Then, in an essential move for its credibility, it enlisted the services of Danny O’Brien, the metal engraver who worked with Tony for many years. O’Brien designed the engravings, and the work is done in Japan by an engraver who, like O’Brien, is also a gun engraver.
Now, the new Zemaitis line includes eight guitars, ranging from the top-of-the-line S22ST Shell Top ($20,000 retail) to the S24DT triple-pickup Metal Disc Top ($8,000), as well as a more affordable series of Greco guitars licensed by Zemaitis ($1,800 to $3,300).
And judging by the S22 Metal Top we received for review, the new Z has crossed its T’s and dotted its I’s. The instrument not only packed a wallop of a first impression, but it held up magnificently to extreme scrutiny. From the hand-machined Duralumin (an aircraft aluminum alloy) tailpiece, pickup rings, truss rod cover, control cavity covers, head stock badge, and the 1⁄4″ jackplate (all of which received top-notch engraving) to the dot-and-diamond inlays, neck and headstock binding, gloss lacquer, and fretwork, everything about the S22 is executed with great care. The frets were not only level and highly polished, but they boast cleanly rounded ends. This is some of the best fretwork we’ve ever seen.
The three-piece Honduras mahogany neck is topped with a 12″-radius bound ebony fretboard set into a 13/8″ matching Honduras Mahogany single-cut body. Though the guitar is somewhat smaller that the typical Les Paul, it still weighs in at over nine pounds.
The S22′s two DiMarzio DP103 pickups are hand-filed to a “hair chrome” finish and controlled via separate volume and tone controls and a three-way toggle selector. Also noteworthy was the absolutely spotless, shielded control cavity, Schaller M6 tuners, detailed bone nut, and hand-machined, fully adjustable bridge. From top to bottom, this guitar conveys quality. And the hand-engraved metal top is nothing short of stunning.
The S22 played very well straight out of the case. The combination of the comfortable, slim C-shaped neck and 25″ scale (slightly longer than the standard Gibson scale) gave the guitar a smooth feel. The fretboard and polished frets made bending effortless, while the slim body and deep cutaway give great access, all the way to the 22nd fret.
We tested the S22 through a Crate V5212 tube combo and a Bacino Bac 18 2×12″ tube combo (watch for a review in an upcoming issue) with the H.B.E. Power Screamer (reviewed this month).
All that mahogany and Duralumin help give the Zemaitis a ton of resonant sustain, which was obvious unplugged. And plugged into the Crate’s overdrive channel with the gain set at 2 o’clock, the guitar had a tight, focused sound with very smooth midrange. The pickups have a well-balanced tone, with no mushy overtones or brittle high-end. Just smooth and clear. Through the Crate’s clean channel, the S22 had a smooth, refined tone with plenty of shimmer and round low-end, especially in the middle position.
The volume and tone controls are well-tapered and useful for cleaning up the sound in the overdrive channel, as well softening the highs for a nice jazz sound. The S22 meshed very well with the Bacino Bac 18/Power Screamer combination. With the amp’s controls set at 10 o’clock and the Power Screamer dialed in, the rig roared with sustain and crunch. One gets the feeling that no matter what amp the Zemaitis was plugged into, it would sound good.
Of course, purists will tell you there’s nothing like a real Zemaitis. And that’s true. Each of Tony’s guitars was loaded with character. But it’s hard to imagine any vintage instrument being designed or assembled better than this, or sounding better.
The attention to detail, refined tone, and playability of the S22 are outstanding, and leave no doubt as to KSC’s commitment to the Zemaitis tradition. If you’re impressed by the “Wow!” appeal when you pop open a guitar case, add a new Zemaitis to your wish/gift/long-term goal list. You won’t regret it.
Zemaitis S22 Metal Top
Features Honduras mahogany body and neck, ebony fretboard with 12″ radius, hand-engraved top, Schaller tuners, hand-machined Duralumin bridge and tailpiece, DiMarzioDP103 humbuckers, deluxe case with aluminum handle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.