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Zemaitis Guitars – “Art with Strings”

Zemaitis Guitars

Photos by Mark Miller

Tony Zemaitis began designing custom-built Zemaitis guitars in the 1960s. His clients included Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and many more.

Tony Zemaitis was born in London in 1935. In the 1950s he began playing acoustic guitar, and not being able to afford to buy one, he decided to make his own. Following National Service, he became an enthusiastic performer in the London blues scene sharing the stage with the likes of Davey Graham and Long John Baldry and became an accomplished 12-string guitar player.

In the 1960s, he began to make a name for himself as a “go to” for high quality hand-made 12-string guitars, selling them to the likes of Ralph McTell, Spencer Davis, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. His reputation soon spread and in 1965 Zemaitis become a full-time self-employed guitar luthier.

Tony worked from the family home in Balham, south west London and musicians would ‘pop-in’ on their way home from the studio to sample his wife Anne’s home-made ice cream, to jam and buy a Zemaitis Guitar from Tony. This includes some of the biggest names in British rock and pop music – Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Marc Bolan, Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. Add to this list other Zemaitis guitar players –Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney and David Gilmour to name a few, and Tony Zemaitis very quickly became the custom guitar maker of choice for many of the biggest artists around.

There are different designs and styles, both electric and acoustic that now change hands for an exuberant amount of money. No two were ever the same. Others were completely unique like Keith Richards’ 5-string custom-built Macabre Guitar and Eric Clapton’s “Ivan the Terrible” 12-string acoustic which was sold at a Christies charity auction for £130,00 in 2004; and other very recognisable Zemaitis Guitars like the Disc Front, Metal Front and Pearl Front.

Apparently the Zemaitis Family sat in awe when Ronnie Wood appeared on Top Of The Pops with The Faces in 1971 playing a Zemaitis Metal Front.

The Zemaitis Guitar Owners Club was formed in 1996 by Keith Smart, with the full approval of Tony Zemaitis. Keith is an avid fan of Zemaitis Guitars with a collection that includes Ronnie Lane’s “Ooh La La” Zemaitis Acoustic Resonator. The Club has helped auction houses and musicians with related questions about Zemaitis instruments, including helping to sell originals and how to spot fakes.

Tony Zemaitis retired from making guitars in 2000 and sadly passed away in 2002. But Zemaitis Guitars are still made under license and continue to be sort out by musicians of all generations. Among them, Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno who I have seen perform on separate occasions with a Zemaitis Acoustic and a Zemaitis Metal Front.

Zemaitis Guitars not only sound great, they look stunning. The original guitars are beautifully crafted “art with strings”. I only wish I had bought one from Tony back in the 1980s – he was then living in the Medway Towns and had a workshop in Chatham – when I first became aware of his stunning guitars through a friend who had two!

For more information on the history, famous players and a gallery of Zemaitis Guitars, visit the Zemaitis Guitar Owners Club website. Become a member of the club and receive the Z Gazette.