Contents of the Tony Zemaitis worshop


14th October 2022

Gardiner Houlgate is delighted to announce the sale of the contents of the Tony Zemaitis workshop, sold on behlaf of Ann and Tony Zemaitis Jr. A sale featuring a large selection of tools and related items that the legendary British maker used to craft many of his fine guitars. The sale of the workshop is accompanied by handmade furniture made by Tony for the Zemaitis family home, along with a large selection of memorabilia from his various celebrity clients, including personal letters from the likes of George Harrison, Peter Frampton, Gilby Clarke, Mike Oldfield, Donavan and many more. 

A Foreword by Keith Smart - Chairman, Zemaitis Guitar Owners club.

Tony Zemaitis was a genius. I do not use that description lightly. Born in 1935, even as a child Tony was always making things. After attending grammar school Tony gained a 5 year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. A number of other Luthiers also followed this route to guitar making. Some of the furniture that Tony worked on is in Buckingham Palace and Windsor castle.

In the fifties Tony borrowed a friend’s Tatay (Czechoslovakian made) acoustic guitar and made a copy of it. He started making more guitars for friends, just for the cost of materials. Each time refining the design.

By the 1960’s Tony was making 12 string acoustics, a rare sight in Great Britain at this time.

Tony called them “Street basses” and tuned them to low C. He played his guitar in coffee shops and clubs in London. His acoustics started to be played by top professional players, who recognised the sound and build quality. Tony’s acoustics recorded well in the studio. Players like Ralph McTell, Long John Baldry and Spencer Davis played them. Incredibly, these players kept Tony’s guitars all their professional lives.

In 1965 Tony turned professional. Tony’s workshop was in Balham, London. Clients and visitors included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Marc Bolan, Donovan just to name a few!

Tony’s 12 string acoustics were very easy to play, compared with those made by other makers. His cabinet making skills enabling him to produce ornate inlays on the fretboard and body of his instruments. He experimented with various bracing on his acoustic and sound holes. His early acoustic did not need a truss rod. I have played early examples and can tell you the necks are still straight!

Tony was a trail blazer. There were no manuals or even tools available to him, so Tony made his own! Tony was very knowledgeable about the physics of guitar playing. He once explained to me how a guitar was never perfectly in tune, and how tuning was a compromise. In the sixties Tony came up with the idea of “Compensated frets”. These were frets set at a slight angle to help with intonation. Rickenbacker later came up with “Slanted frets” using the same theory. Eric Clapton approached Tony after buying a second hand Zemaitis  12 string acoustic, about building a unique acoustic guitar for himself. The fabulous instrument that Tony made was nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” and had tremendous sustain.

Tony started making electric guitars in the sixties, but it was the “Metal front” guitars that really made players gasp! The idea was to produce more shielding to eliminate hum from the electrics. However, when Tony asked his friend, Master engraver Danny O’Brien to engrave some of the metal work, the guitar also became a work of art! Tony was one of the first small guitar makers to produce guitars with built in pre-amps to boost the sound.  A number were fitted to the early metal fronts. Back in the day, there were no bridges, tail pieces etc for sale, again, Tony made his own. The Custom bridges were a sight to behold. He made a rod for his own back though, because when bridges became available, customers still requested the Custom bridge! The first batch of metal fronts were made in 1971, the first one sold to Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs (he still has it), Ronnie Wood and Marc Bolan both bought one. Ronnie still has his, Marc’s is now owned by Paul McCartney. Tony’s instruments started appearing on television. I remember watching Ronnie Wood with the Faces playing a Zemaitis metal front on television, “Wow look at that guitar, what is it?” It was the same for lots of guitarists that night watching TOP OF THE POPS”, when the Rod Stewart and the Faces played “Maggie May”.

Tony didn’t stop there though, he started making guitars with pearl applied to the front in a mosaic pattern. His idea was, these were stage guitars and the lights from the stage would dance round them. He was right.

Tony’s guitars were played by legends, a who’s who of rock aristocracy, Marc Bolan, Donovan, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Gilby Clake, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Eric Clapton and even Bob Dylan! By 1971 he had moved his workshop to Kent. He still had many famous clients visit him there, Giby Clarke of Guns and Roses even brought a film crew!

Tony passed away in 2002, he leaves a fantastic legacy of guitars. The family have now decided it is time to dismantle his workshop. This will be a unique opportunity for admirers of Tony’s work to acquire a special memory. If those tools could speak, all the famous players who have had instruments made by Tony, what stories they could tell. I spent many happy times with Tony in there, looking at the walls, festooned with photos, letters from George Harrison or Peter Frampton. If all of this work was not enough, Tony also built two aircraft in his back garden! He was a genius and I miss him. Grab a piece of history from the workshop of a legend.

Keith Smart.

Chairman, Zemaitis Guitar Owners club.

The auction of over 100 lots will take place on 7th & 8th December 2022 (Sale order TBC). A special thanks goes out to Keith Smart for his help and advice. Accomapnying photos of Tony in his workshop - Copyright: Keith Smart

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