The Guitar Makers
Tony Zemaitis | Tony Zemaitis
Apart from Patti, what have Clapton and Harrison got in common? Guitars, custom built by Tony Zemaitis.
Tony Zemaitis is among the better-known individual guitar makers in England. His customers include Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Peter Green, Donovan, Rod Stewart and most of the Faces. Clapton's famous "Ivan The Terrible" 12-string was built by Tony and is, apparently, his most prized possession. Between them, The Faces have over 20 Zemaitis instruments, which, in itself, is a pretty good recommendation.
Tony began his working life as a cabinet maker, working on top-quality furniture in places like Windsor Castle and St. Paul's Cathedral. He became interested in the guitar and, with his vast knowledge of wood, decided to build one for himself. "It wasn't brilliant, but it worked quite well," he recalls. He built others and gave them to friends, charging them just enough to cover the cost of the materials. His first "customers" were Davy Graham, John Baldry and Spencer Davis. "They were mainly 12-strings then," explained Tony, "and gradually more people started to come round and ask me to build guitars for them."
Soon, Tony was spending all his lunch hours and most weekends building guitars until he eventually found a job where he could divide his time equally between cabinet making and guitar making. When his boss went broke, Tony took the fateful step and decided to try and make a living building guitars. At first, he had to subsidise the business by doing other odd jobs, including boat-building and decorating, but Tony's guitars gradually caught on and his patience and skill were rewarded.
At first, Tony concentrated on acoustics and only began making electric guitars about six months ago. "I originally made the mistake of building a hollow-bodied electric, which fed back. I had to stuff it full of old socks and pillow cases to kill it off. I sat looking at the wireless one day and I thought to myself 'Well, that's got a metal grid so why shouldn't I do that with a guitar to keep all the extraneous noise down?"'
Tony brought out a guitar he'd recently finished to demonstrate his point. It was a fairly lightweight solid with a beautifully engraved metal front. "Technically, it's a very good thing to do," Tony explained, "because it acts as a common earth to everything. It started out as a bit of a technical exercise using metal fronts, but now it's ended up with some really intricately engraved plates."
Tony has also experimented with various shapes of sound-holes. "I started out making round holes like everybody else, but I found that they 'woofed', particularly on recordings. So I experimented and came to the conclusion that if you have a round hole, then it must be a big one. Otherwise, I put in a D-hole, a heart or an oval. Then you won't get that feedback that a circular shape will give. I found a D shaped hole is very successful for throwing a good spread. A round hole is almost directional at certain frequencies."
I wondered what Tony thought of mass-produced guitars. "When you mass-produce, you can have some very good instruments off the line, but you can also have some very bad ones. How do you differentiate the price? That really is my point. If you could up and down the price according to the quality of the guitar, then you would have a fairer way of doing things. But then, what is a good guitar for one person is a bad guitar for another. The standard isn't what I'd like to see but I do understand their problems. I think these days, people want to see something that isn't mass-produced."
When Tony first started building guitars, they were purely experimental models. "I was teaching myself how to build them," he explained, "and I used to stick a label inside stating that it was an experimental instrument, and sold them off cheaply. But then people would tear off the labels and whip down to their shop and tell them it was a custom model. That upsets me a bit because people are buying my very early experimental guitars and paying much more than they're worth. I wouldn't say they were not properly done, but they are not up to the standard I'd use today. One good thing is that my guitars seem to get better with age, so a lot of the old ones that weren't particularly well-made at least sound O.K."
To enable the guitars to "weather" well with age, Tony chooses his woods very carefully. Either spruce, cedar or mahogany is used for the fronts. The backs are rosewood, maple or walnut, and the fingerboards are always ebony. He prefers to use Schaller machine heads because "they are well-made, nicely geared, presentable and they wear well. I've always found them to be of a consistent quality."
Tony prefers making acoustic guitars as he feels there is more skill involved. "I suppose I was pushed into making electric guitars, in a way," he says, "because that's the way music has gone over the years. In an electric, it's really just a case of making a good neck, and getting some good pick-ups. There's more of a challenge in building an acoustic for me."
Tony is now in the enviable position of having a backlog of orders. He is currently quoting three months for building a guitar but nine months for delivery. "It varies. If you were to order a guitar now," said Tony, "I wouldn't be able to start on it for another six months, and you would get it in about nine months.
I get extremely busy at Christmas time, but as the summer comes on, people are more worried about holidays than guitars, so it does vary. I usually work on two guitars together until I've got to a certain stage, and then I start on another two. Then the first two will have dried off enough for me to carry on polishing them or whatever, so there's usually about four on the go. That's the trouble with a lot of the amateur boys. They can't afford to wait for the wood to dry properly, so they are really rushing things. Once you start to rush it, you'll get cracks and splits and warps and all sorts of things. For instance, on necks I use a four-piece splice. On the cheapest guitar I'll never use less than a three-piece splice. That way, if one piece wants to bend, it'll be held by the other two."
When approached by a customer, Tony takes everything into consideration to determine which type of instrument will be best suited. "What I like to do," he explained, "is to talk to the clients, get to know them, get them to play and see what they're capable of. I try and keep all this in mind when I'm making their guitar and, thank God, ninety-nine out of a hundred times, I come up with a guitar that really suits them. That's where I get my kicks — to see someone pleased with what I've done."
Of all the guitars Tony has built over the years, the one he made for Clapton gave him the most pleasure. "It was a giant 12-string called Ivan The Terrible, and it had a 26 second sustain. An American company tested the length of sustain and when they told me 26 seconds I couldn't believe it. I didn't set out with that purpose in mind when I built it. I thought it would sustain for maybe 17 seconds, which is still very good, but 26 seconds!"
I wondered how Tony worked out the shape on an acoustic guitar. "Well, there's two ways: visually and aurally. If someone wants a waisted guitar, then it's got to nip in at the waist, but then it starts getting a bit more technical. You decide what string length you want and how many frets, and that determines where the bridge is. At that point where the strings hit the soundboard, the lines of sound go along and hit the curve of the body and then reflect back at right angles to the tangent. You have to keep that going as long as you can, and if you trace those, you'll get the position for the bridge and soundhole, so as to get the best sound and tone.
"There again, tone is a very personal thing. Some people like a soft, pretty tone and others like a hard, strident tone. This can then be subdivided by different soundholes, strutting and timbers so you can get quite a variety of sounds from one particular shape."
Tony works to a standard string length of 25⅝ inches from nut to bridge. "I do short-scale guitars as well, but a longer string length gives a better sustain. I've tried pre-amps and all sorts of things built into the guitars but I've come round to Clapton's way of thinking, of keeping it plain and simple. That was brought home to me when I had the first electric I'd built. It had two really cheap pick-ups and it was only a test guitar. All I had at the time was a little five-watt amp, and Clapton came round, plugged it in and I've never heard anything like it. He was telling little stories on the guitar — it was incredible. I wish to God he would record like that."
Tony used to build 35 guitars a year, but for tax reasons he now only builds about 20. "If I did more than that I'd lose money. Then again, I'm fairly satisfied with the way things have gone for me. I've had ten years of hard graft without a single holiday and now I'm just ticking over, and I can take it a bit easier. That's all I want. It's been a natural progression over the years, and as soon as people stop wanting my guitars, then it's time to pack it in."
Feature by Eamonn Percival
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!