The life of a guitar on the road can sometimes be rough but the wear and tear that they go through can add character and interesting stories to the history of the instrument. The same could be said for the beautiful Zemaitis guitars. They may look like just works of art but they can still shred just as much as other guitars. I had a chance to chat with guitar builder, Tommy O’Brien to get the inside scoop on Zemaitis guitars.
Rock|Life: Tommy, please tell us a little about yourself.
Tommy O’Brien: I am a guitar builder, and I’ve worked doing various things in the music industry for 20+ years. I’ve been a professional recording engineer, and the last place I worked was at Fender before coming here. I worked for them for a few years and then came to Zemaitis to take over the quality control here, once they had a brick and mortar establishment. I took over that part of the US operations plus the design for the US side and the operations of our custom shop.
RL: Where did Zemaitis begin?
TO: Tony Zemaitis was the original maker of these guitars in England around 1955. Mostly for himself, he kind of experimented to teach himself how to build guitars, and by the 70s he was getting pretty good at it. There’s a number of guitars from that era that very early on were featured pretty prominently by guys that were in the higher stratosphere of rock guitarists at the time. The third solid body that he made was actually Ron Wood’s Disc Front guitar, which was featured on the Faces album and when he was with the Other Birds and then later on with the Rolling Stones. Also, if you look at some of the old footage of Jimi Hendrix playing in the Rainbow Bridge movie there’s a section where he’s playing a blues song on a Zemaitis 12 string acoustic guitar. The legacy of guys playing Zemaitis guitars early on is pretty incredible.
RL: You said he started in 1955, what was his inspiration behind building guitars?
TO: From what I was able to gather, he was looking for a job basically. He started going into cabinetry, but he realized fairly quickly that he’d rather be making instruments. He played a little guitar so he just kind of started teaching himself how to do it and got better over time. The majority of his building methods were of his own accord. He didn’t necessarily use one person’s technique for building them, he kind of borrowed whatever he thought worked and reworked whatever he thought he knew better. He constantly upgraded as he builded and every guitar was different.
RL: When Tony got started, was it primarily acoustics or solid bodies?
TO: He did acoustics in the beginning, and they went from being very crude instruments to being fairly refined by the time he got to the late 60s. It wasn’t until the late 60’s, early 70’s when he started building solid bodies. I think the company owns one of the very first solid bodies he made in Japan in their vault. It’s super crude, but it’s really neat to see his ideas from the very beginning.
RL: How does Japan factor into the picture when Tony started this in England?
TO: Well, Tony Zemaitis functionally made guitars from around 1955 all the way up until he retired in 2000. And right around 1999-2000, Kanda Shokai approached Tony about whether he’d be interested in having the guitar’s legacy continue or if he wanted it to stay his thing and that’s it. They came to an agreement where he wanted the name to continue and the family wanted the name to continue but he didn’t want to have to be building the guitars anymore and he thought it would be a good combination to have the design ideals that he came up with paired with a company that has consistency of build and high quality to build them. Something that he could never exactly achieve on his own, because it was just him making every single guitar. Because they were hand crafted, they all have eccentricities all over them that are wonderful to look at but when you’re making them in a factory or at a custom shop, you want them all to be perfect. Perfection was definitely something Tony wanted but unfortunately he passed away in 2002. So we continued to work with his family and his son to make sure that the designs were true to what Tony would have wanted, and to this day we still have the original gun engraver who did all of Tony’s metal fronts. They were all hand engraved by Danny O’Brien and he still works with us and designs things for our guitars.
RL: In the early stages of Zemaitis guitars, were the same pearl and metal materials used?
TO: Yeah, all of the forms that we use are very minor variations of the stuff that Tony originally did on his. Tony cut all the little mosaic tiles and pearls and inlayed them onto the guitar. To this day, we do that process exactly the same way. The metal front was his way of shielding the whole guitar all at once, but he realized pretty quickly that instead of only shielding, he could actually make it a decorative part of the guitar as well. So instead of putting an aluminum plate underneath a pick guard, he decided to make an aluminum plate that would serve as a pick guard for the whole front of the guitar.
RL: As a handcrafted instrument, are there noticeable differences from guitar to guitar?
TO: Yeah, every single one is different. No two of his original ones are exactly alike. So there are very few parts that will even transfer over from one to the other. He had patterns for some of them, but some of them he would just make a one-off for that particular guitar. While some of things will look similar, they’re not exactly the same on any particular two. The closest I’ve seen, was a guy who purchased patterns from Tony. He had talked with Tony very late in the game about building a guitar for him and Tony actually told him it’s too late, “I’m not building them anymore.” This guy’s name is David Brewis, and for a while he made replicas that were spot on replicas because he bought most of the patterns from Tony Zemaitis after he closed his shop. So that’s the only one that I know of that is near exact to any other Zemaitis guitar. There is a Ron Wood replica floating around that was made by David Brewis under the name “Dave of England” and it’s the only one that is exact in details to any other Zemaitis, and it’s technically not a Zemaitis, but it’s beautiful. Tony’s philosophy was that no two should ever be the same. They should all be individually made for each artist.
RL: Has the creation of Zemaitis guitars changed over the years or do they still have the same “no two guitars are the same” mindset?
TO: It’s a healthy blend of both, like no two of our custom shop guitars are exactly the same, but they do use interchangeable parts and they’re much more in line with each other. If you were to measure every part of it, they’d all be a little different from one to the next. Once you get into our Japanese line models, then yeah they’re uniform to each other, but we do still have an element of handcrafted quality that you can’t duplicate everything perfectly.
RL: How are the metal front designs created? Are they freehanded or engraved by machine?
TO: That’s the cool thing, we have kind of a scope, because that’s an aesthetic that everybody wants on a Zemaitis guitar. We’ve had to make some versions have different processes of etching to create it, and then Danny O’Brien created the artwork for them. Danny, for very special guitars, will still hand engrave them, but he also trained one of the guys in our custom shop to do the hand engraving as well. So some are still hand engraved by Danny O’Brien and some of them are hand engraved by Daiske Hatata and some are just artwork that are either acid etched or laser etched depending on what version of the guitar it is. When they’re the hand engraved ones they look the same if you put them next to each other, but if you look at them detail-wise, they’re not even close to exactly the same because they have to be done by hand. They draw a template on it to have a guideline, but yeah no two passes with a hand engraver are going to be the same. And the cool thing is, no matter where in the line it is there are some models that you can’t do it any other way so even if you get one of the less expensive models, because there’s no other way to do a pearl fret than to cut little pieces of pearl and inlay them, whether the guy was in the custom shop or on the line in Korea, they all have to have the same process. So you can get the Korean model for a couple thousand less than the custom shop, yet you still had one person sitting there cutting little mosaic pieces of pearl and having to inlay them into the guitar. It’s just as time consuming to try and take pieces of pearl and laser cut them to the same shapes as it is to just put them in and make sure that they fit by hand real quick. No matter what process you use, it’s time intensive and has to be kind of a personal project. Even the ones that don’t have a full pearl top, like the superior models that have the little square abalone pearl border around the edge of a black guitar, all of those are set by one lady in Japan. If you get the Japanese model, her job at the factory is to place those and give them a, like she doesn’t necessarily do them by a pattern either, but she sits there and places them so they look like they’re random but pleasing to they eye. It’s kind of insane. I was amazed when I got a chance to go to Japan and tour the factories and look at them for myself, at how much handwork actually went on regardless of what model line it was.
RL: Because of the art element of your guitars, do you have players that are concerned with playing your instruments?
TO: You know what I tell people? We get a lot of people that come to the factory, and I want them to try it in person so that they can really get a feel for it and see if it’s something they love or if they want some changes done, or stuff that I can do to personalize it for them and their sound. Once they have it, you can tell if the person is a person who plays a lot or they’re a person who is collecting it. The guys who use them on stage, they ride these things hard! As you use them, each little ding, each little knick, all the ware that happens just from your arm scraping over the edge of it is going to put story into it. You know? Like the originals had the advantage of being built by one guy for another guy, but now that story comes from you imparting yourself on it. And I think that’s a special thing, like when you see a guitar that has a natural age to it just from being loved, you can tell when something is abused and it’s been well cared for but these are the battle scars of life. That’s kind of cool, and it lends to the artisticness of the guitar.
RL: Is there an audible advantage when using the metal fronts on the guitars or is it just for decoration?
TO: Yeah definitely! I mean originally his plan for it was purely to eliminate as much hum as he could from the circuit in the pickups, to shield the whole wiring system. The other thing is, when you bolt a solid piece of aluminum across the entire face of the guitar, it changes the timbre of the guitar a little bit. I’m always telling people, no matter how small of a thing it is on a guitar, every piece of it makes a difference. Whether it’s the weight of the paint, the weight of the wood, the density of the wood, every screw makes a guitar a tiny bit different than it was before. So when you bolt a metal plate across the front of it, it changes the sound of the wood, so when we have some of our guitars that are all wood but it’s basically the same pattern as one that has the metal front, they sound a little bit different. They have different qualities to them. There’s a little bit of a bite that the metal ones have and the wood ones have a little more of a nutty woody warmth to them. So choosing the right pickups to balance that is tricky as well, like there’s lots of things that you can tweak on these guitars to make them your own. And that’s something that, I don’t know that we as a company, realized until just recently because with Tony making them, he could play with the recipe constantly every time he made one for somebody new he was playing with that recipe to get it to be the guitar for them. When you’re producing them to basically be all the same, you don’t pay attention to that and once you do realize that, then you have an excellent platform that we can now tweak in lots of different directions. When Tony was building them, he didn’t have the luxury of using any one particular pickup or having them made specifically for him. So he had no loyalty to any particular brand, he used whatever he could get, or whatever people brought in. We can kind of play with the possibilities of putting different kinds of pickups in our guitars as well.
RL: How do you go about picking what pickups go in each guitar?
TO: Well it’s interesting, because these were, up until recently, completely produced in Japan and they were mostly made in the Japan market and then they were trying to manage selling some in the United States and some other places from afar. They couldn’t really keep an ear to the ground to everybody’s different music scene. So they were listening to their music scenes, and where they were popular in Japan, and where they became popular in Japan was with the Japanese metal scene. Which asked for a very specific kind of sound, so a lot of the pickups we initially made for these guitars were voiced with fairly hot humbuckers that pushed the amp’s front end a lot and are kind of darkly voiced which works for a lot of different kinds of music, but there are some guys that want a more vintage tone, and some guys don’t want the pickup to push the front end of the amp at all. They want to use effects to gain the overdrive on the backside, you know? And when I got hired, one of the things that I was able to start doing was test different kinds of pickups in guitars, so now I’ve been able to put together basically a menu of pickups that I know sound good in the guitar but also lend themselves to different musical situations so that if the stock pickups don’t do what you need them to, we can point you in the right direction and build a pickup package for a person to customize the guitar to what they need it to do. Which is really cool. When we role this out as a regular production for our custom shop services here in the States, it will be a way to get a guitar from the factory that is still custom made for you. You don’t have to take one right off the shelf. We can make a guitar how you what you want it to be.
RL: What do you look for choosing to endorse an artist?
TO: Well that’s kind of an interesting thing, we talked about this early on when it was just 3 guys. Just me and two other guys, so you know, we got to have a lot of in depth meetings about what we wanted to do with the company and how to best serve the guys who would want to play these kinds of guitars. How do we reach the guys that want to play this kind of a guitar? Who is that guy? We had meetings where our general manager came in and he said, “Our target demographic guy who plays Zemaitis, his name is Steve. He is 24.” (Laughing) I had to tell him, “I’m sorry, his name is Chris Robert and he lives in Monterey, California. He’s an accountant, or he sells insurance, but he almost fits your demographic.” (Laughing) We looked at those kinds of things, and what we found is that there are big artists who want to use them, there’s a history of artists that have used them in the past, which gives them credibility among rock stars that this is a guitar that has always been a “rock star guitar.” But then we don’t want it to be that exclusive, we want it to be exclusive like this is a guitar that you’ll want to own, but we didn’t want to just exclude a bunch of people and say, “It’s just too expensive for you, sorry.” So when it came to how we approached our endorsements and our artists, we wanted to invite anybody who’s a working musician and really loves the craft and really loves the instruments that they play, to be part of our family. Whether this is the only guitar they play or whether this is just one in a group of guitars that they play… If they’re trying to play hard on the road, in clubs, anywhere, we invite them to sign up for our endorsement page and while we don’t give away guitars, we make them affordable for guys who are really working in the field. It only really helps us for people to see them.
RL: With all the people that you’ve worked with over the years, have you had that one career defining moment?
TO: I can absolutely give you a moment, it was a surreal moment I think for all three of us, because it was still when it was just the three of us. One of our artists, who is a blues hall of famer, his name is Joe Louis Walker. He came in and was looking to be endorsed and he wanted to look at guitars, and I had just put together a guitar that morning that was my demo guitar, where I built special pickup rings to put TB Jones pickups in one of our Zemaitis guitars just to see how they would sound and if it was a good match or not, and I liked it. But I had only had it together for about 45 minutes and Joe came in with is band and they tried about 10 guitars and then he tried that guitar and decided that was it. He wanted that one. So he took it, and then about week later he said, “I’m going to be playing out in Beverly Hills for a BB King tribute concert put on by the Grammy Foundation, and I want you guys to come and bring some of the guitars. And we’re like, “Oh! Fantastic!” So he said, “I’m not going to bring a tech, can you tech for me? You set up the guitar, I like how it plays, come out with me.” So we go out there and the place is chalked full of incredible guitarists. You couldn’t throw a rock and not hit somebody of noteworthy-ness in the head. And we were sharing a dressing room with Slash, and Joe Bonamassa is just hanging out, it was just silly. Derek Trucks comes in and wants to show Joe Bonamassa and Joe (Louis Walker) his 1957 Gold Top Les Paul which is two numbers away from Duane Allman’s. It was ridiculous! The house band was Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band from Conan O’Brien. Out of that experience I became friends with Jimmy Vivino and he ended up using one of our guitars the next week on Conan O’Brien and still has it. I got to meet all these people in one night. Everyone would stop by and look at the guitars and say, “Holy crap, these are awesome.” Whether they personally use those kinds of guitars or not, it was a fun night. It was a pretty eye-opening deal.
RL: Are they primarily active, passive, kind of both?
TO: These are all passive. I’ve actually gotten that question from a number of artists, because Tony Zemaitis actually did a lot of experimentation with active systems. But he had a number of passive circuitries that he came up with and he used a lot, but people normally remember the guitars that had all the knobs and all sorts of switches and things like that. When the Japanese took over, they decided for ease of purpose and uniformity that they would only use circuits that: 1. Zemaitis designed, and 2. That were passive so that it would make it easier to pair them with pickups and be able to go back and forth with different things. So right now, I haven’t been able to play around with too many active circuits, because we want to try and keep them uniform as far as the circuitry goes. But, I’ve been able to tailor the pickup selections to work with those circuits that are already in the guitars.
RL: Is there anything about Zemaitis that people may not know? About your instruments, or the company itself?
TO: There is one thing that I’ve been working to help people understand, and this benefits a lot of guitar companies, because a lot of guitar companies are using a particular kind of wood and it gets, not a bad name but it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. There’s a lot of guitars that are using Eastern Mahogany on certain models, and it’s gotten a bum rap because it’s a less expensive wood so they come generally with guitar companies who want to take a mahogany body that looks really good but they don’t want it to be a top tier expensive guitar. It has two names, Eastern Mahogany or Nato wood, and we use it for our Korean mahogany bodies. The Japanese stuff is all African Mahogany and the Korean versions are Eastern Mahogany. The benefits of Eastern Mahogany are that it shares all the same tonal qualities as the African Mahogany. If you were to put it on a scope it’s low and mid qualities would be identical to African Mahogany. But when you get to the high register, Eastern Mahogany performs a little better, but it’s cheaper because it’s a sustainable wood that’s not on anyone’s list of endangered woods whatsoever. So, it’s inexpensive, but it’s not a cheap wood. It’s just a quality wood that doesn’t cost a lot. And I don’t know how often I have to explain that to people, because they’re like, “Oh they’re just using that cheap Eastern Mahogany wood.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s good!”
RL: Anything exciting planned for Zemaitis in the near future?
TO: Yes. I’ve got several things that we’re going to be doing here in the future both for Zemaitis and for the overall company. One is the plan for the pickup program and the custom shop pickup service and packages. That’s something we are going to do fairly soon, because we’re basically at the tail end of testing all of it and choosing which ones we like and we hope to have that on the website pretty soon. The other thing we’ve been playing with is the idea of doing custom artwork for the metal fronts. For Winter NAMM this year, I think we’re going to have people really take a look at some of the custom stuff we can do and some of the new things we can do with those metal tops that while it’s the same guitar, it offers a whole new realm of possibilities for what they look like. And that’s just our custom shop here in the States doing that. Also at NAMM we’re going to do the relaunch here in the United States for Greco Guitars, which hasn’t been here in the State for like 30 years. So that has the potential to be a very interesting thing because we’ll be able to do, more traditional and non-traditional guitars in the Greco line of guitars that will be underneath the Zemaitis line. The Zemaitis line is the flagship, high-end guitars, and the Greco’s kind of fill in the gap for everybody else who wants something interesting. We’re also going to try and introduce a new line of Zemaitis guitars that are hollow and semi-hollow bodies as well as chambered ones. So we’re adding some new flavors to the mix, while keeping the aesthetics and the aura alive but bringing some new stuff to it.