Zemaitis Z-JHS/R

Highly regarded for his eclectic, metal- and shell-topped solidbody guitars, the late British luthier Tony Zemaitis was also a creator of some very unique acoustic instruments—many of which featured unusual soundhole shapes. Zemaitis undoubtedly wanted to make his instruments stand out, but there was another reason why he placed so much emphasis on the soundhole. As he told GP in 1988: “You will often see my acoustic soundholes in “D”, heart, oval, and scalloped patterns. Why? It all harkens back to my earlier days before transducers came along, when I was trying to change the beam of sound from an acoustic into a more recordable ‘flash’ for the microphone to pick up. Most of the sound comes from the belly of the guitar, but different shape and size soundholes do make a difference.”
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Cardiac Arrest

Based on a classic Zemaitis jumbo design, the new Irish-made Z-JHS/R is eye candy of a high order. Let’s start with the soundhole—er, heart—which is highlighted by a nearly 34"-wide bezel of bright abalone. The theme continues with 13 mother-of-pearl, heart-with-arrow inlays on the fretboard and bridge. Abalone and wood binding rims the top of the guitar, while the maple-edged headstock sports hand-engraved aluminum plates for the logo and trussrod cover. “Gimme more,” you say? Flip the Z-JHS over and witness a wood center strip with carefully mitered inlaid wood lines that parallel the strip and radiate out to surround the dark rosewood back. Another rectangular wood accent is set into the butt end of the guitar. The detail work is quite impressive overall, and very reminiscent of the trimmings often seen on ritzy antique furniture. The only significant flub I spotted was a tiny bit of color bleed from the black-painted peghead facing onto the adjacent maple trim.

The Right Stuff

The Z-JHS’s build quality is totally up to snuff, too, as you can see by taking a peek into the inner spaces. The braces are smoothly sanded and installed in a clean, tight manner with no evidence of sloppy gluing or construction debris. The crown-with-mustache bridge is beautifully carved, and the neck is a masterful piece of architecture that comprises nine pieces of mahogany, sycamore, walnut, and purpleheart. Besides looking incredible, the neck has a very sweet playing feel—thanks to the medium-thick “C” profile, polished frets, and smooth bone nut. The edges of the ebony fretboard are glass smooth, though you can definitely feel the ends of the frets as you run your hand along the board. Perhaps the ebony shrank a bit during the journey from damp Ireland to dry California, thereby making the fret ends a tad exposed.

The lacquer finish on this guitar has a lovely texture, and although described as “satin,” it actually seems more like a gloss finish that has been hand rubbed with fine steel wool to produce the velvety sheen that typically comes with age and a lot of handling. However achieved, it’s very nice.

Beast in the Beauty

Though a fairly large guitar, the fact that the Z-JHS weighs only a smidgen over 5 lbs is a testament to the aging and selection of its woods, as well as its light, springy construction. The payoff is not only a comfy guitar to hold, but also one that literally pumps out big, open tones. “Gushing” is the word that comes to mind when strumming the Z-JHS—which responds to even a light attack on the strings with a deep, full-bodied tone that fills the space around you with airy harmonics. The Z-JHS’s midrange is warm and punchy, and the highs are sparklingly clear and detailed. You get a feeling of real muscle behind the notes, and the overall playing experience is akin to power steering—little effort is required to elicit strong, colorful textures from this guitar. The intonation deserves credit for the togetherness of the tones, too, and whoever set up the Z-JHS did so in a manner that produces spot-on intonation when comparing harmonics and notes at the 12th fret. Chords also sound sweet and consistent when played in low and high positions.

Price of Glory

Owing to its considerable cost, the Z-JHS is a guitar that’s more likely to be locked away as a cherished icon of the Zemaitis legacy, rather than to be deployed in the real world of acoustic gigs. And that’s kind of a shame, because it has what it takes to be an excellent stage and/or recording instrument. Perhaps a less cosmetically extravagant version could be offered at a price that more working players could afford. After all, Tony Zemaitis may have catered to wealthy musicians, but he also loved making instruments for, as he put it, “students and anyone really into guitar.” In the meantime, however, if you’ve got the bucks to spend on something really special, the Z-JHS definitely fits the bill.