Tony Zemaitis originally hit upon the idea of using metal fronts on his electric guitars to suppress noise, and the concept soon evolved to become a stylistic signature for the U.K. builder—especially once engraving was added. This trend continued as Zemaitis introduced mosaic shell tops on his guitars (obviously not for noise purposes), and the result of his excellent craftsmanship and talent for creating what amounted to functional art pieces made Tony the custom builder of choice for many top-name players of the ’70s and ’80s. Zemaitis passed away in 2002, but his legacy lives on thanks to the Japan-based owners of the brand, who worked with Tony and his family to re-create these unique instruments.
The Custom Shop Metal Front is a well-made guitar that features extensive engraving designed by Danny O’Brien, who worked with Zemaitis for many years. The aluminum top, tailpiece, trussrod cover, pickup rings, jack plate, and back plate all wear engraving that is now done by a team of specialists who have been trained in O’Brien’s techniques.
The CSMF-101 may have been inspired by the Les Paul, but it’s a different animal by virtue of its 25”-scale fretboard, 24 frets, solid mahogany body, and machined aluminum bridge with flower-shaped height adjustment wheels. A medium-profile neck with a comfortable “C” shape affords good playability. The frets have well-finished crowns—although the fret ends could have used more attention to make them less prickly. Intonation is solid, but the setup is a bit problematic, as fret buzz is evident in the higher reaches of the fretboard. The action is quite low, so raising it a little—along with some adjusting of the trussrod—would likely take care of the buzzing, while making it easier to perform clean bends higher up the neck.
In the tone department, the CSMF-101 benefits from its pair of DiMarzio Custom PAF hum-buckers, which deliver everything from clear, crisp rhythm tones to beautifully overdriven textures when pushed though a high-gain amp–such as the Mesa/Boogie Mark 5 Twenty-Five and Mesa’s Mini Rectifier 1x12 slant cabinet that I ran it through. The CSMF also paired well with my Komet K60 head, sounding sweet and sustaining at high settings, with an easy transition to a ballsy clean tone when I turned the guitar down. The pickups are definitely well matched for this lively sounding guitar, and even the slight amount of treble roll-off that occurs when the Volume knobs are rolled back helps to ensure the tones remain fat sounding when running through gain channels and/or distortion pedals.
The CSMF-101 is an interesting guitar that, while thoroughly suitable for modern players, also pays tribute to a custom builder who had the right stuff at the right time. Back in the day, Zemaitis instruments were practically unobtainium unless you were a rock star, but the CSMF- 101 (along with the other models in the Zemaitis line) now makes it possible for anyone shopping in the high end of the guitar market to enjoy playing an iconic piece of rock history.
CUSTOM SHOP METAL FRONT CSMF-101
PRICE $5,280 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69"
FRETBOARD Ebony 25" scale, 12 1/32" radius
BRIDGE Custom Zemaitis with stop tailpiece
PICKUPS DiMarzio Custom PAF (neck and bridge)
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way toggle
FACTORY STRINGS Ernie Ball Reg. Slinky, .010-.046
WEIGHT 9.6 lbs
KUDOS Classic Zemaitis vibe and sound.
CONCERNS Some setup issues.