Tony Zemaitis the British luthier became a legend in his own lifetime. The favoured guitar maker for such stars as Ronnie Wood, George Harrison, Eric Clapton… the list goes on. He pioneered hand-crafted guitars – producing beautifully decorated acoustics with phenomenal sustain and tone; stunning electrics with engraved metal or intricate pearl inlayed fronts; and all were such great guitars to play! These instruments are truly “Art with Strings”.
Zemaitis Guitars have attracted more famous players than any other UK maker. With most of the UK guitar industry established in a tradition of ‘small makers’, rarely having an impact internationally, Tony Zemaitis was the one to buck the trend – amazingly he achieved all this while working alone, producing only a handful of hand-made guitars each year.
Let’s look at the history behind the man…
The Formative Years
Antanus Casimere Zemaitis, or Tony as he liked to be called, was born in London in 1935.
According to his sister Angela, Tony was always making things as a child – from flying airplanes to cycles. Even though he studied classics at a grammar school, his desire to create lead him to take up an apprenticeship in cabinet making. He went on to produce high quality furniture at The Chelsea Studio and some of his items are in Windsor Castle!
Tony became interested in playing the guitar but did not have the money to spend on one (they were very dear in 1950s Britain), so he borrowed a Tatay acoustic guitar and made a copy of it… making some ‘improvements’ along the way. Tony’s 5-year apprenticeship learning invaluable cabinet making skills come into their own.
Tony made another guitar, then another – each time developing his skills and working on ways to improve playability and tone (at this time there was little information on how to construct guitars). Initially he built guitars for friends for the cost of materials and soon guitar making became as much his hobby as playing.
Tony was a guitar player so he knew what he wanted to achieve in making guitars and also, playing was a good advert for his guitars. He served his National Service in the army in 1957 playing in a few bands. Afterwards he became an enthusiastic performer in the London blues scene sharing the stage with people like Davey Graham and Long John Baldry. In fact Tony was an accomplished 12-string player (Eric Clapton later told Tony that he remembered seeing him play!).
In the 1960’s 12-strings acoustics were extremely rare in the UK and they were Tony’s speciality (both playing and making – he did 6-strings too of course). Because of this, more and more Zemaitis guitars were finding their way into the hands of pro players like Ralph McTell and Spencer Davis. His success continued and by 1965 Tony Zemaitis decided to become a full-time self-employed luthier.
Tony worked from his house in Balham, London which soon became a centre for social gatherings with musicians. Maybe enquiring about a guitar or simply calling in on the way home from the studio, you never know who would be sitting there eating Ann’s home made ice cream or jamming. The roll call would make an interesting ‘super group’ – Eric Clapton / George Harrison / Marc Bolan / Ron Wood / Ronnie Lane etc.
A remarkable fact was that he achieved all of this in the days before guitar making became an established industry; tools, materials and components suppliers did not exist so Tony had to use all his ingenuity to source or failing that, make the items required for his guitars.
Tony produced delicate inlays around the sound holes and even on the fretboard. His guitars featured various shaped sound holes, heart shaped, Moon Shaped (for Donovan), D shaped and others. Also by teaming up with his friend (and customer) Danny O’Brien, a Master Engraver, Tony also introduced high-quality engraving to the name badges, truss-rod covers and, later on, his trademark Metal Front electrics (see below).
Tony experimented with his own individual methods of construction; he experimented with woods and bracing. His acoustic guitars received praise for their tone and phenomenal sustain. In the studio, session players found they were excellent for recording (and still are). Eric Clapton, Donovan and countless other guitarists were playing Tony’s acoustic guitars by the close of the sixties. They understood that Tony’s acoustic guitars recorded well in the studio.
Tony didn’t stick to “accepted practice” and throughout his career was making what he called ‘prototypes’ to test new ideas. Some of his ideas would go onto become mainstream; others became his signature models. Here are some examples:
Tony made some guitars with ‘compensated’ or slanted frets (two years before Rickenbacker issued a slanted fret model).
In the ‘swinging sixties’ Tony started making electric guitars; initially black lacquer finish but soon he produced his famous Metal Front. His original idea was to shield the guitar and reduce the hum found in many mainstream guitars. Tony’s first Metal Front guitar was made for Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs (Tony McPhee still has this guitar) and the idea was successful in more ways than one. Not only did it reduce noise but also Metal Fronts became one of Tony’s famous models – the highly decorative, individually hand engraved works of art so much favoured by rock’s elite: Ron Wood had the second metal front guitar ever built; Marc Bolan, Peter Frampton, Greg Lake are other famous owners.
In the seventies Tony built an acoustic bass for Ronnie Wood. Ronnie had wanted a big acoustic bass like the ones used in Mexican bands. Today, the local music shop all stock acoustic basses, but Ron Wood’s bass and later, Dave Gilmour’s acoustic bass were, at the time considered amazing!
In the 60s before custom pickups with high output were available, Tony built electric guitars with on-board pre-amps to boost the signal. (You can hear this sound on Ronnie Wood’s guitar on many of The Faces tracks).
The pros loved the Metal Fronts, as they are great stage guitars. Tony looked for other ways achieve the same eye-catching effect and went on to produce his Pearl Fronts – electric guitars with the front completely covered in a mosaic of abalone. These top-of-the-range guitars became another iconic Zemaitis model with players including Ronnie Wood (again!) and James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders.
Ivan the Terrible – 12 String Acoustic Guitar made for Eric Clapton taken from Tony Zemaitis’ scrap bookTony’s instruments have a unique sound and feel; for example his12-string acoustics are so easy to fret they feel like 6 strings. Tony developed guitar building by instinct and translated players’ requests into a reality.
After borrowing Eric’s 12-string, George Harrison started to collect Tony’s instruments. So many top players (and us ordinary mortals) would get the bug for collecting Tony’s guitars. Ron Wood and Ronnie lane all built up fine collections.
Tony’s instruments were becoming so sought after that collectors like George Harrison would buy them as gifts for their friends: Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Alvin Lee etc.
Most people associate Tony with the flamboyant electric guitars. In 1971 Ronnie Wood appeared on TOP OF THE POPS (BBC TV music show) playing a Zemaitis metal front guitar. This is a pivotal moment in a lot of Zemaitis owners’ lives! We sat in awe of this engraved metal fronted guitar!
In the latter part of his career, Tony only made electric guitars and only produced 6 to 10 instruments a year (even in his early days he didn’t make many more – one man could not do that!). So his guitars became targets of counterfeiters and also speculators. The latter would order a guitar from Tony then immediately sell it on at great profit.
Tony Zemaitis – The Man
But Tony could not be bought. He made guitars for the most famous musicians in the world and also the postman! Fame did not impress Tony and that is why so many top players became friends. He turned down numerous offers for the use of his name and never advertised (part of the fun was tracking down Tony).
The other quality that is hard to define was the complete knowledge of how a guitar worked, even down to how the strings vibrate. Tony explained that a guitar would never be in tune, it was always a compromise. As mentioned previously he even experimented with frets that were slightly angled to allow for this (he called them compensated frets).
Tony was a man of great integrity. He wanted to make great playing and sounding guitars (even his cheaper Student series are great guitars). The decoration that he was so famous for was not allowed to interfere with this underlying principle. Tony knew how guitars worked, and importantly (often by observing mainstream manufacturers), what didn’t work. Because of this he turned down many, many enquiries including some from pros, if he didn’t believe the guitar would be right. (He refused to build a Mickey Mouse design and also a guitar that ‘you could get in and play from inside’!!)
Inflated prices in the nineties spawned a lot of fakes and unauthorised copies. Today people are still selling fakes; they appear regularly on the Internet. They don’t play like the genuine article; Tony’s guitars have soul.
Away from guitars, Tony was an avid car fanatic! He owned a ‘who’s who’ of cars including two E-Types, a Ferrari, a Porsche, numerous kit/custom cars and a ‘beefed’ up Mini GT. He would be just as happy talking about cars as guitars. When he wasn’t crafting guitars or tinkering with his cars, he made a couple of full-size light aircraft!
Tony retired from guitar making in 2000. He was very active and contributed stories and advice to The Zemaitis Guitar Owners Club.
He sadly passed away on 17th August 2002.
He was an amazing man and changed peoples lives.
The Future of Zemaitis Guitars
Zemaitis lives on!
When Tony retired he was approached by some enthusiast who wanted to continue his tradition of high quality custom guitars. Unfortunately Tony passed away before any arrangement could be reached. Tony’s wife, Ann, and his son, Tony Junior, both felt it was important that the name and tradition of Zemaitis guitars continue, and so with their support, the rebirth of Zemaitis guitars has become a reality in Zemaitis International.
Engraver Danny O’Brien, Tony’s lifelong friend and collaborator is still producing the engraving for Zemaitis Guitars and Tony Junior has been involved in helping new Zemaitis ‘fine tune’ these new guitars “to get them as close to dad’s as possible”. Zemaitis International has built a Zemaitis museum in Tokyo dedicated to Tony Zemaitis; it includes some rare guitars, some of Tony’s cars and other memorabilia.