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 realised that musicians needed instruments that were simple and light. By 1961, after being mentioned in the music press, Zemaitis started to be approached by leading players who wanted to use his guitars.
Tony was a guitar player so he knew what he wanted to achieve in making guitars and also, playing was a good advert for his guitars. He served his National Service in the army in 1957 playing in a few bands. Afterwards he became an enthusiastic performer in the London blues scene sharing the stage with people like Davey Graham and Long John Baldry. In fact Tony was an accomplished 12-string player (Eric Clapton later told Tony that he remembered seeing him play!).
In the 1960's 12-strings acoustics were extremely rare in the UK and they were Tony's speciality (both playing and making – he did 6-strings too of course). Because of this, more and more Zemaitis guitars were finding their way into the hands of pro players like Ralph McTell and Spencer Davis. His success continued and by 1965 Tony Zemaitis decided to become a full-time self-employed luthier.
This very early Zemaitis 12-strings acoustic guitar was initially ordered by John Flaherty (Irish) in September 1960 and its cost was 12 pounds. John was a member of the Surbiton and Kingston Folk Club who's member ship included John Mayall, Joan Baez, Leadbelly etc. John was getting married and therefore sold the guitar to John Mayall at the Club. John named it "The Monster" as the custom built guitar was huge for the days and it also sounds enormous.
At that time guitars were traded continuously before/during and after gigs, changing hand twice in 3 months would not be uncommon. This happened also to this guitar. John Mayall sold to Diz Dizzly in 1962, Diz sold to Johnny Joyce, a legendary 12 string guitarist, also in 1962, Johnny sold to Derek Segeant in late 62 or early 63. In 1961 Derek had moved to Surrey and alongside Gerry Lockran, Jack Parkinson, Mick Wells and Arthur Johnson formed the Surbiton and Kingston Folk Club which became one of Britain's largest folksong clubs running weekly for 16 years. Major folk singing legends from the USA and Britain and Ireland appeared at the club, Derek's extensive collection of weekly broadsheets, photos and private recordings document this period.
Here is what Derek remembers:
“I certainly did own the Zemaitis 12 string guitar and sold it to a club member Peter Woodward. I remember that Pete used to do floor-spots, he had a loud bass-gravel voice and just about the time he bought the guitar he was calling himself Peetie Woodstraw! I can't remember who I bought it from. I bought it from someone in Battersea 1961/62. I understood at the time that Tony had made 2 about the same time and the other one was bought by Long John Baldry. On the 13th June 1962 The Surbiton and Kingston Folk Cub celebrated its 1st Anniversary and besides Alex Campbell,Sidney Carter and Rory McEwen (all now deceased). Also the late celebrated American 12 string exponent - Fred Gerlach turned up. All came back to my house after the session where we continued playing during the early hours of the next day. Both Rory and Fred played the Zemaitis 12 string guitar and both remarked about its response, volume and super tone.
The guitar can be seen with Derek in a 1964 photograph.
As one can see the guitar was modified from its original settings it still had in 1964. The bridge was modified and also an additional scratch plate was added.
Derek kept the guitar until 1966 when he sold it to Peter Woodward. Later Peter sold to it to Pat Higginbotham, who was the last official owner.
Another famous musician having used a 1960 Zemaitis 12 string was Jimi Hendrix. Although there isn't much to be found about this guitar, it did clearly belong to Jimi Hendrix. It can be seen in his famous '12-string blues' intro to 'a film about Jimi Hendrix', made 3 years after his death. The guitar currently resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.