The Guitars of Tony Zemaitis

What have Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ron Wood, Keith Richards David Gilmour, James Honeyman-Scott, Peter Green, Marc Bolan, Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan all had in common? Besides the obvious, they were clients of British guitar maker Tony Zemaitis. The appeal of Zemaitis’ hand-built guitars is understandable, as no two were exactly alike, yet they all had the playability, sound, and—importantly—look that made them stand out from the production-line fare of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. If you were a well-heeled rocker during those times, it was practically a rite of passage to visit Zemaitis at his workshop to order a custom guitar or bass.
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Zemaitis hardly advertised, yet he could never keep up with the orders—which began pouring in during the mid 1960s and didn’t cease until he passed away in 2002. He essentially created the modern boutique guitar business, and he remained its principle exponent for his entire career. It’s rare when a luthier is able to transcend from craftsman status to becoming a celebrated artist, but that’s exactly what Zemaitis did.

Humble Beginnings

Born in 1935, Zemaitis became interested in guitar at age 16. In a handwritten biography he sent to GP in 1988, Zemaitis told of having to make his first guitar, as he wasn’t able to afford one.

“I found an old guitar body in the attic of our old London house, made a neck of sorts and a bridge, strung it up with racing-bike cables, and I have been hooked ever since,” he wrote.

Soon after, Zemaitis took an apprenticeship in the high-end furniture trade. Armed with a knowledge of woods, glues, joints, and finishes, he set about to build a guitar from off-cuts of wood he’d saved, using a photograph of a classical instrument for guidance.

“The guitar was very successful by anybody’s standards, and was eventually stolen, ending up in Paris,” Zemaitis recalled. “I guess you could say it was the beginning of my export business.”

The Road to the Top

During the next several years, Zemaitis built a number of guitars that were basically test beds for different construction techniques and designs—such as double backs and sides and interior drone strings—which he sold for the cost of the wood. Around this time, Zemaitis also took a part-time job with a noted furniture designer who worked exclusively for Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and St. Pauls Cathedral.

In 1957, Zemaitis did his required stint in the military, where he also played in a skiffle group. Upon returning to civilian life, he went back to work on the orders he’d received—such as the acoustic 12-string he made in 1960 (a “cheapie” model by his own admission) that would eventually find its way to Jimi Hendrix. In describing this formative period, Zemaitis wrote: “Around 1965, I went full-time into guitar making, and that’s when I met and made instruments for Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Peter Green, and Ron Wood. By now, the post brought more orders than I could manage, so I had to concentrate on the pros.”

By 1970, Zemaitis had become successful enough to move some 30 miles from London to Chatham in Kent. “I’d been on TV a few times, owned Ferraris and Jaguars, and was very busy,” he recalled.

In his letter, Zemaitis sometimes sounded like a country squire as he spoke of wine making and building a replica of a 1930s German biplane, but guitars continued to be the main focus in his life.

“I still build for pros, students, and anyone really into guitar, and I’m still a ‘one man band,’” he wrote. “Mass production has always seemed so soulless for the factory worker and the buyer, though it’s not for me to criticize. I can’t help but chuckle at ‘limited editions’ of 5,000 instruments, though. I don’t think I’ve even made 1,000 guitars in total yet!

“I started simple, only later elevating my homemade instruments into a more professional ‘handmade.’ Now I see a proliferation of builders—some very good—and bid them all good luck. Just remember to love the guitar as well as the money—as the rewards are far less in financial terms than many clients would suspect. But to have Tom Paxton do an impromptu concert for my family, to hear Greg Lake write a new song upon picking up his new A/C 12, or see Eric Clapton and George Harrison jamming in our living room, that is reward beyond price.”