Zemaitis Guitar

Tony Z and the Cult of the Zemaitis Guitar
Tony Z and the Cult of the Zemaitis Guitar

While England has produced some notable guitar brands, such as Burns, Shergold and Eggle, it is rare for an individual maker to gain acceptance in a world where an “established name” bias results in irrational prejudices and stigmas. Few English builders have won international recognition, although some, like Dick Knight and John Diggins (JD guitars), have made guitars and basses for the likes of Paul McCartney (Knight) and Mark King (JD). However, despite such high-profile endorsements, other “name” players did not latch on to these instruments in a big way. Knight, now in his late 80s, is no longer making guitars, while JD, despite some success, has yet to gain the foothold he deserves, given the undeniable quality, sound, and craftsmanship of his guitars.

Paradoxically, the only English maker who has broken through into the privileged position of superstar patronage remains a little-known recluse shunning the spotlight and building eccentric one-off guitars, much as he has done since the late 1950s.

Manfully resisting the temptation to cash in on his endorser list and begin mass production, Tony Zemaitis is the very personification of England’s cottage industry tradition, where small is beautiful and independence is freedom.

Indeed, few makers can, in truth, claim the freedom of Zemaitis, for he will never make an instrument he does not want to, whatever the financial incentive. Preferring to deal with friends and players, rather than dealers or collectors, Zemaitis claims he has never been interested in big business and that his building started as “…a pleasant hobby for an amateur player, and to the most extent remains so.”

Born Antanus Casimere Zemaitis, of Lithuanian descent, Tony Z (as he is known to his friends), began a five-year apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker in 1951. Tony recalls repairing his first guitar in 1952 and completing his first acceptable guitar – a nylon-strung classical – in l955. Following national service (1955 to ’57), guitars became Tony’s overriding passion and, despite still being predominantly a hobby, his instruments began finding their way onto a burgeoning London folk scene.

Perhaps the first Zemaitis model to create a real stir was the long-scale and low-tuned 12-string Tony refers to as a “…street bass strung low” (tuned four frets down, to C). However, despite his growing success, it was not until l965 that Zemaitis summoned the courage to embark upon the often-precarious career as a self-employed maker. At this point he rationalized the Zemaitis line into the Standard, Superior and Custom; gradings relative to work/time/cost and quality, as opposed to any specific design considerations.

The first metal-front Zemaitis guitar was made for Tony McPhee, of the Groundhogs, in the late ’60s. Zemaitis observed what he considered design faults on Fender guitars, relating to the positioning of the pickups in relationship to the strings. His answer was to add a preamp, which would enable him to set the pickups further away from the strings, thus avoiding feedback, wolf notes and intonation problems. While looking through an amateur radio magazine in search of an appropriate preamp, Zemaitis noticed that every unit had a metal chassis with the components mounted on it. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to apply the same principle to the guitar, and the metal-front Zemaitis was born!

By sheer coincidence, one of Tony’s customers at the time was Danny O’Brien, a guitarist by nature, but shotgun engraver by trade. Soon, Danny was engraving plates for the headstocks of Tony’s guitars and it was he who suggested engraving the fronts, as well. The first real exposure for these unusual guitars came when Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood bought metal-front number three, which was actually the second Zemaitis engraved by Danny. The success of the Faces in the early ’70s ensured Tony’s guitars would be seen far and wide, as both Wood and bassist Ronnie “Plonk” Lane toured relentlessly with their then-unfamiliar metal-fronted guitars.

While Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Donovan had already endorsed Tony’s instruments and earned him a fair amount of helpful press, it was the metal-fronts that caught the attention of both the public and the music press. The orders came flooding in, many from overseas, and Tony was in the fortunate position of having to turn down work.

Consequently, secondhand metal-fronts began changing hands for higher prices than new ones, which was a sure sign Zemaitis had established a worldwide reputation with a resulting demand, which has continued unabated well into the l990s. As a mark of admiration and support, there are now flourishing Zemaitis owners clubs in England, the U.S and Japan, and the cost of his instruments on the secondhand market continues to spiral into the realm of 1958-’60 Les Paul flametops. This development has, however, resulted in some unfortunate practices. Like the aforementioned Les Pauls, the Zemaitis metal-front has fallen victim to the forgers, as the consistently high asking price for these guitars has made it increasingly profitable for the unscrupulous.

Although the best-known Zemaitis guitars are indisputably the Les Paul-influenced metal-fronts, Tony has produced a bewildering variety of instruments, ranging from Eric Clapton’s Ivan the Terrible (a 20-inch wide, six-inch deep acoustic 12-string), to flat-tops with crescent moon (Don-ovan), Star (George Harrison) and heart-shaped soundholes. The top-of-the line Zemaitis Custom Deluxe, with its Les Paul-inspired shape and pearl mosaic, rather than metal top, is basically a more ornate version of his basic design, shape, size and overall specifications, which have changed little since he made the guitar for Tony McPhee.

Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and Gilby Clarke (formerly with Guns n’ Roses) are amongst the present-day “name” guitarists eagerly awaiting delivery of their custom-ordered Zemaitis guitars. The exposure and endorsement through use (the best kind of endorsement) by such players will further consolidate the reputation of this quiet, unassuming man, promoting greater desirability for his guitars, as well as introducing them to new generations of guitarists and guitar enthusiasts.

Few independent makers of solidbody guitars claim the success of Zemaitis, and I can think of none (excepting the occasional rare D’Aquisto solidbody) which command such a high price in the secondhand market.

Lane Succumbs to MS
The news every fan of Ronnie Lane, The Small Faces and/or the Faces has long dreaded was broken June 5 when Lane finally succumbed to multiple sclerosis.
Lane had a special place in the hearts of those who owned Zemaitis guitars, due to his efforts to promote the brand by playing them and introducing other musicians to their unique qualities.

Lane’s musical compositions were unique; rooted in vaudeville and country stylings. In 1970s England, he was playing his brand of country music long before it became popular.

Lane and Steve Marriott spent part of the 1960s writing classic songs as part of The Small Faces. These tunes continue to influence generations, and only lately have the two received acknowledgment as a significant songwriting force of their time.

Tony Zemaitis and his wife, Ann, called Lane “Mr. Sunshine” because he was always in good spirits, despite his battle with M.S. Beloved by the biggest names in rock and roll, his stature was obvious in the late ’70s when musicians including Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Billy Wyman, Jeff Beck, Kenney Jones and others gathered in London’s Royal Albert Hall to play a benefit that raised money to fight the crippling disease.

Later, Lane moved to America, where he lived for a time in Austin, Texas, before moving to Colorado, where he lived with his wife, Susan.

Prior to his death, Ron’s brother, Stan, discovered some old recordings of Lane. They are currently being made ready for release, and the Zemaitis Owners Club is compiling a publication dedicated to him. If you information, stories, or photos, you are asked to please contact the club at 4 Rosemead, Bridge Road, Chertsey, Surrey, KT16 8JJ, England.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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