Tony Zemaitis, Electric Guitar, 1978 - Gregg Parker (Ozz)


Tony Zemaitis
Electric Guitar
The Story Behind

This Custom Zemaitis Les Paul Style guitar, was one of the main guitars of Gregg Parker.

Coming out of Chicago’s South side, Parker’s guitar style represents a blend of friction and finesse and power and intensity. Getting his live playing experiences touring gigs with Chicago Soul acts all over the country in the seventies since the age of 16, and the rock circuit around Chicago, he realized that rock was his chief passion with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as major influences. In 1974 headed for LA, he became lead guitarist and bandleader in Buddy Miles‘ band, touring nationwide with Santana and Funkadelic. Shortly after he formed the semi-legendary supergroup Ozz in 1978, and signed with Epic in 1979, releasing several albums. With ties to Motown execs Parker reconnected to his r&b roots, touring with Marvin Gaye and Edwin Starr in England in 1982 and relocating to London as session guitarist for the British music scene in the 1980s, at Abbey Road and Trident Studios, recording for bands such as Imagination, Dave Ball of Soft Cell. Parker continued to create various rock projects, including Parker with Mitch Mitchell in 1985, releasing a scorching rendition of ‘Black Dog’, selling out the Embassy Club and appearing on The Tube’s heavy metal special. An EMI publishing deal, new label and UrbanRobot album in Germany was followed by the return to his hometown and establishment of the Chicago Blues Museum under his leadership.

Here the story about this guitar:

After founding Ozz, Parker signed with Epic in 1978. A year earlier while working on material in the Bahamas, his manager and mentor had surrounded him with music industry giants such as members of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and Parker played and recorded with them. While back in Hollywood, Parker and Ron Wood continued the friendship and musicianship started in the Bahamas. The two were again hanging out and jamming at Wood’s house in the Hollywood Hills, before Wood went on tour with his and Keith Richard’s The New Barbarians (with Stanley Clarke on bass).

Parker’s manager arranged through Wood to get Gregg his own Zemaitis to record on the Ozz albums. Parker had been friends with Ron Wood since the Bahamas when the Stones were recording the ‘Some Girls’ album, Parker’s manager – after seeing Woody’s and Keith Richard’s Zemaitis collection used in the sessions – became interested in the Stones’ favorite guitars and asked them to order a Les Paul style Zemaitis for Parker as a surprise gift to be used on the Ozz recordings. Woody’s guitar technician Chuch McGhee brought the custom guitar to the Record Plant in Los Angeles in 1978 to be discovered by Parker on the recording studio’s control desk on the first day of recording. His Zemaitis gave both Ozz albums ‘No Prisoners’ and ‘Assassin’ their signature sound and helped them to obtain rock and heavy metal cult status. Recording sessions in England for his projects as well as for top groups of the British music scene at Abbey Road and Trident Studios also featured his favorite ax.

About Tony Zemaitis as compiled by Gregg Parker mainly from the Zemaitis Club site by Keith Smart (England) (a good share of Tony's guitars can be found in the collection):

Tony Zemaitis, the British luthier, became a legend in his own lifetime, and the favored guitar maker for such stars as Ronnie Wood, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton. He pioneered hand-crafted guitars - producing beautifully decorated acoustics with phenomenal sustain and tone; stunning electrics with engraved metal or intricate pearl in-layed fronts. His guitars have attracted more famous players than any other UK maker, and impacted guitar industry internationally, even though Zemaitis achieved all this while working alone, producing only a handful of hand-made guitars each year.

Antanus Tony Casimere Zemaitis’ desire to create lead him to take up an apprenticeship in cabinet making, to produce high quality furniture. Interested in guitar playing, he borrowed a Tatay acoustic guitar, made a copy of it with some ‘improvements’. With each guitar he developed his skills and worked on ways to improve playability and tone (at this time there was little information on how to construct guitars). Initially he built guitars for friends for the cost of materials and soon guitar making became as much his hobby as playing. An enthusiastic performer in the London blues scene, he shared the stage with people like Davey Graham and Long John Baldry. In the 1960s 12-strings acoustics were extremely rare in the UK and they were Tony's speciality (both playing and making). The first one known to be produced is in our collection. More and more Zemaitis guitars were finding their way into the hands of pro players like Ralph McTell and Spencer Davis. As a full-time self-employed luthier, he worked from his house in Balham, London which soon became a centre for social gatherings with musicians. Maybe enquiring about a guitar or simply calling in on the way home from the Marc Bolan’s Zemaitis and Billy Gibbons’ Zemaitis studio, including Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Marc Bolan, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane. Guitar making was not yet an established industry; tools, materials and components suppliers did not exist so Tony had to use all his ingenuity to source or failing that, make the items required for his guitars. Zemaitis produced delicate inlays around the sound holes and even on the fretboard. His friend Danny O’Brien, a master engraver, introduced high-quality engraving to the name badges, truss-rod covers and, later on, the trademark Metal Front electrics. In the studio, session players found Zemaitis excellent for recording (and still are). Eric Clapton, Donovan and countless other guitarists were playing his acoustic guitars by the close of the sixties. No accepting standard practice, Zemaitis continued to test new ideas with ‘prototypes’, with some to go onto become mainstream; others becoming his signature models: he made some guitars with ‘compensated’ or slanted frets (two years before Rickenbacker issued a slanted fret model).

In the 1960s, Zemaitis started making electric guitars; initial black lacquer finish but soon he produced his famous Metal Front. His original idea was to shield the guitar and reduce the hum found in many mainstream guitars. These highly decorative, individually hand engraved works of art were favored by rock's elite: Ron Wood, Marc Bolan, Peter Frampton, Greg Lake and others. In our collection the one of Gary Grainger / Richie Sambora and Martin Quittenton.

In the seventies, Zemaitis built an acoustic bass for Ronnie Wood, who had wanted a big acoustic bass like the ones used in Mexican bands, which were not available back then. In the sixties, before custom pickups with high output were available, he built electric guitars with on-board pre-amps to boost the signal, which you can hear this sound on Ronnie Wood’s guitar on many of The Faces tracks. Many loved the Metal Fronts, as they are flashy stage guitars. Zemaitis looked for other ways achieve the same eye-catching effect and went on to produce his Pearl Fronts – electric guitars with the front completely covered in a mosaic of abalone. His instruments have a unique sound and feel; for example his 12-string acoustics are so easy to fret they feel like 6 strings. He developed guitar building by instinct and translated players’ requests into a reality. After borrowing Eric's 12-string, George Harrison started to collect Zemaitis. So many top players (and ordinary mortals) would get the bug for collecting these guitars. Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane all built up fine collections. Zemaitis guitars became so sought after that collectors like George Harrison and Ron Wood would buy them as gifts for their friends: Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins, Alvin Lee, Gregg Parker. Zemaitis is now mostly known for the sound of his electric guitars. In 1971, Ron Wood appeared on Top of The Pops, a BBC TV music show, playing a Zemaitis metal engraved front guitar, awing all guitarists.

In the latter part of his career, Zemaitis only made electric guitars and only produced 6 to 10 instruments a year; just like in his early days. His guitars became targets of counterfeiters and also speculators, who would order a guitar, then immediately sell it on at great profit. But Zemaitis could not be bought. He made guitars for ordinary people and the most famous musicians in the world, with many top players becoming friends. Fans of his guitars had fun was tracking down Zemaitis to get their own Zemaitis.

He turned down numerous offers for the use of his name and never advertised. The other quality that is hard to define was the complete knowledge of how a guitar worked, even down to how the strings vibrate. The decoration that he was so famous for was not allowed to interfere with this underlying principle. Zemaitis knew how guitars worked, and importantly (often by observing mainstream manufacturers), what didn’t work.

He turned down many inquiries including some from pros, if he didn’t believe the guitar would be right. Inflated prices in the nineties spawned a lot of fakes and unauthorized copies. Today people are still selling fakes; they appear regularly on the Internet. They don't play like the genuine article; Zemaitis's guitars have soul. He retired from guitar making in 2000, he passed away in August 2002. His wife and son licensed the name to Zemaitis International, who built a Zemaitis museum in Tokyo dedicated to Tony Zemaitis; it includes some rare guitars, Joe Walsh, Richie Sambora & Joe Perry some of his cars and other memorabilia.

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