To say Tony Zemaitis made eye-catching instruments would mean uttering one of the great understatements in modern luthiery.
A cabinetmaker of Lithuanian heritage, Antonio “Tony” Zemaitis (1935-2002) began building guitars in the 1960s and while his client list reads like a Who’s Who of British rock, he is remembered primarily for his “metal front” electric instruments, which by the early ’70s were seen in the hands of Ron Wood and bassist Ronnie Lane of the Faces. Each metal-front had a distinct look thanks to the skills of gun engraver Danny O’Brien, and among the most distinctive of such models was a massive doubleneck made for Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (“The Bass Space,” September ’06).
One of Zemaitis’ most recognizable (and visually striking) instruments of the era was “Ivan the Terrible,” a jumbo-sized 12-string acoustic made for Eric Clapton, who used it in 1969 on the one and only album recorded by Blind Faith. In various accounts, Clapton has recalled that the guitar was the first Zemaitis built with the heart-shaped soundhole, and that it was played by George Harrison and Dave Mason. “Ivan” was sold by Clapton at a Crossroads Centre benefit auction in 2004, where it brought $253,900.
Zemaitis made other acoustic instruments, and in the ’70s ventured into the realm of the acoustic bass, previously occupied by instruments such as Mexican guitarrons and the 1930s Gibson Mando-Bass. Zemaitis would ultimately handcraft special-order acoustic basses for David Gilmour, Ron Wood, Mike Oldfield, and Tony Visconti. Veteran Zemaitis retailer Phil Winfield believes the fretted acoustic bass made for Oldfield, creator of Tubular Bells, was possibly the first one made, and the 1972 fretless instrument seen here may have been the second.
The original owner of this instrument was Jeff Allen, who ran a musical equipment rental company and a recording studio in London. Allen reportedly ordered the instrument due to the increasing number of artists who were seeking an acoustic bass sound.
In terms of construction, the bass has a mahogany neck, fretless rosewood fingerboard, spruce top, and solid mahogany back and sides. The bridge and string retainer are hand-carved rosewood, with abalone inlay on the latter.
The jagged headstock silhouette is fairly common to Zemaitis basses, as is the decorative red wood-stain stripe in its center. The fingerboard may lack frets, but side dots provide position reference.
Curiously, this bass doesn’t seem to have a truss rod; no truss rod cover is visible, but Winfield reports that the neck on this example is “super-straight.”
The overall length of the bass is 48″. Its upper bout is 123/4″ wide, and the lower bout is 181/2″ wide. The body depth isn’t quite uniform – it’s 4″ deep at the neck end, 41/2″ deep at the bridge end. Scale is 34″ inches. It weighs five pounds, nine ounces, and is nicely-balanced.
The heart-shaped soundhole is an obvious aesthetic facet, but Winfield noted that he cannot detect any sonic differences in the instrument and other similar instruments that had soundholes of different shapes.
“We should bear in mind the experimentation of T.Z.’s soundholes around this time,” Winfield emphasized. “‘Ivan the Terrible,’ a moon-shaped soundhole on a guitar for (folk singer) Donovan, another heart-hole guitar for Ron Wood, etc. He also built instruments with a harp-shaped soundhole.”
The instrument has a sound described by Winfield as “loud, but excellent; very earthy, very woody, almost like an upright bass.”
It doesn’t appear Allen ordered any particular woods on this bass. “Nothing (was) specified by the owner,” Winfield averred. “Most were happy to get what they got. I have spoken to owners who received different builds from what was ordered, but no one complained.
“The funniest story in this regard involved Ron Wood, who insisted that his disc-front have a bolt-on neck,” he added. “T.Z. explained that he didn’t do bolt-on necks, but Wood was adamant. So Tony built a glued-neck disc-front and simply screwed a neck plate on it. The screws do not go through the body at all – it looks like a bolt-on, but isn’t!”
A comparison of this instrument to a 1978 acoustic bass ordered by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (pictured in Tony Bacon’s The Ultimate Guitar Book) underlines the individuality of each Zemaitis creation. Like this one, Gilmour’s has a spruce top and heart-shaped soundhole. However, the later instrument has an ebony fingerboard, which, while fretless, has lines and position markers on its face. Gilmour’s also has a maple back and sides, and the bridge and string retainer are ebony. There’s also the aforementioned truss rod cover, engraved with Gilmour’s name.
Long before the advent of “unplugged” music, Tony Zemaitis created rare and unique instruments, including a few rare and acclaimed basses. Their reputations now resonate worldwide.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.