Tony Zemaitis

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Tony Zemaitis
Born(1935-04-10)10 April 1935
Died17 August 2002(2002-08-17) (aged 67)
Occupationguitar maker
ChildrenTony Zemaitis, Jr.

Tony Zemaitis (1935 – 17 August 2002) was a British luthier from London. He is mostly known for his "metal top" electric guitars,[1][2] which were used by some notable rock musicians of that era.

Under the leadership of his son Tony Zemaitis, Jr., Zemaitis Guitars company continued this guitar-making style after the luthier's death in 2002.

Early years[edit]

Metal Front guitar

Zemaitis (born as Antanas Kazimeras Žemaitis) was born 1935 in London, England of Lithuanian family and left school at the age of sixteen to help out with family finances. He took up a five-year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker, but it was only when he found an old damaged guitar in his family attic that he found his real passion in life. After completing his national service, Zemaitis expanded this hobby in 1957 by producing a few basic guitars to learn about construction, soundhole shapes, tonewood, and string length. He experimented with differing multi-stringed instruments with some of these models making their way onto the folk scene. In 1960 he began selling his guitars at a price to cover the materials he used and soon realized that musicians needed simple and light instruments. By 1961, after being mentioned in the music press, Zemaitis started to be approached by leading players who wanted to use his guitars.

1970s: fame[edit]

Keith Richards playing a Zemaitis guitar in 1975.

In 1970 Zemaitis started experimenting with placing a metal shield on the top of the guitar to eliminate microphonic noise picked up by the guitars' pickups. His first metal top guitar prototype was purchased by Tony McPhee, while the second was for Ronnie Wood of Rolling Stones fame (he was in the Faces at the time). Wood played the instrument on The Faces' Top of the Pops appearance in 1971, and the shiny appearance of the guitar raised an incredible amount of interest from guitar players. Zemaitis asked gun engraver Danny O'Brien to do artistic engravings on the metal top and other metal parts and started building custom-order guitars for the rich and famous. His most famous guitars are Ronnie Wood's 24-fret metal top guitars (a total of four guitars were built for Wood), which he used from 1971 until 1995, Ronnie Wood's "Desert Island" (or "Slide on This") metal disc top guitar, Keith Richards' 5-string "Skull&Bones" guitar, Eric Clapton's "Ivan the Terrible" 12-string acoustic guitar, various acoustics and resonators for George Harrison and basses and resonator for Ronnie Lane. In 1978, he made a unique acoustic bass for David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.[3]

Aside from metal top guitars, from the mid-70s Zemaitis also started decorating the tops of his guitars with elaborate pearl inlay, either figures like dragons and skulls and bones or complete mosaic-like inlaid tops. These guitars command the highest prices.


Example of a Zemaitis "Student model".

In the 1980s Zemaitis launched a "student model" guitar that would allow people to upgrade his guitar when it was affordable but this proved too popular and time-consuming. He quickly realized that this model threatened to overshadow all other guitar production so it was discontinued. The 1980s were also a time when Zemaitis started to take more orders for guitars than was physically possible to produce and he had to start turning down work.


Zemaitis "Disc" guitar, a close copy of the original model built for and used by Ron Wood.

The 1990s saw a massive increase in the collectability of Zemaitis' guitars and the appearance of forgeries. These forgeries in "new" and "second hand" guise at first glance may look genuine but they will not sound like a true Zemaitis due to the use of second-rate materials. During his 39 years of production, Zemaitis had a policy of never making any two guitars the same, while at the same time limiting himself to the production of only ten guitars a year to ensure the quality of each model.


Zemaitis retired in 2000 and died two years later. Zemaitis Guitars of Tokyo, Japan, has continued the Zemaitis guitar-making style. Led by Tony Zemaitis, Jr., the company has continued to employ O'Brien as an engraver.

In 2007, American economist-turned-fraudster Al Parish bought an acoustic guitar owned by George Harrison and made by Zemaitis for $150,000.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Greenwood, Alan; Hembree, Gil (2009). The Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 289. ISBN 978-1884883217. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
  2. ^ Rogers, Dave (2005). Warman's Vintage Guitars Field Guide: Values and Identification. Krause Publications. p. 371. ISBN 0896892239. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
  3. ^ David Gilmour's legendary 'Black Strat' comes to auction, Christie's, 29 January 2019, retrieved 29 January 2019
  4. ^ "'Hey Joe', was that guitar tied to fraud case played by Jim". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. 18 June 2007. Retrieved 8 September 2015.