Opening the case of a Zemaitis "metal front" guitar is a like being walked to the rim of the Grand Canyon blindfolded and having the cloth ripped away off to reveal the vista. They’re breathtaking guitars—but also breathtakingly expensive. Unless you’re rock royalty, owning a Zemaitis has traditionally been a pipe dream. Enter the Generation 2 MFA-101 NT, a Korean-built Zemaitis that combines the quality and splendor of early-’70s originals with a price that regular players can afford.
Knight’s Armor Tony Zemaitis, who passed away in 2002, arrived at his signature metal-front design while trying to solve a practical problem. Bothered by the buzzing that lighting, poor wiring, and funky electronics could cause, he noticed how effective a little metal shielding on a Stratocaster could be. He took the concept a step further, designing an electric guitar with a hand-engraved metal front plate that was both a pickguard and a work of art. When Ron Wood purchased Zemaitis’ second prototype—featuring a round metal plate engraved with a pirate’s map—and used it on the Faces’ 1971 album A Nod Is As Good As a Wink…to a Blind Horse, the guitar maker’s future was cast. Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and other A-list players all bought Zemaitis’ guitars.
Over the years varying Zemaitis designs emerged, including solidbody and pearl-front models, though metal fronts like the MFA-101 NT remain the company’s visual signature. Another constant has been master engraver Danny O’Brien, who Zemaitis recruited to create the very first metal front. O’Brien still designs the engravings, including the one on the Generation 2.
Though the Generation 2 is accessibly priced, it’s not remotely austere. O’Brien’s engraving design appears to be influenced by Greek and Victorian floral motifs. Even the solid stop tailpiece is engraved. The neck features bold white binding, prominent medium-sized frets, a sweet diamond-dot-diamond inlay at the 12th fret, an engraved truss rod cover, and the classy Z-in-a-metal-diamond badge. Even the caramel-colored nato (eastern mahogany) of the body and neck looks and feels luxurious.
The rosewood fretboard, 1.69" nut width, and 25" scale feel slim and super comfortable. The two-octave range lends a shred-ready feel, and all frets are easily accessible thanks to a deep cutaway with ergonomically contoured edges. The smooth satin finish makes it easy to get around.
Bright, articulate, and powerful, the MFA-101 NT has an old soul that harkens back to ’70s classic rock, providing the kind of sustained, ringing, and gnarly tones Ron Wood dispensed on Stones and Faces tracks and James Honeyman-Scott conjured on “Tattooed Love Boys.”
But for all its luxurious looks, the Generation 2 is a simple machine. There are no surprises in the three-way switching, two-humbucker configuration, or Les Paul-style dual volume and tone pots—though you may be surprised by the awesome rock growl that emanates from just about any amp when the D2 Classic bridge pickup is engaged.
The guitar’s character is fine-sandpaper rough, even when plugged into a loud, clean Fender Twin. I slammed the MFA-101 NT into a Mesa-Boogie Dual Rectifier just for kicks, and it roared, though it was more fun playing the six-string through vintage amps (like a ratty Vox Pacemaker) that are raw and ripe with midrange. Even here (and even with a Big Muff in the mix) the bridge pickup’s natural snap kept notes distinct.
To sidle up a little closer to that historic Faces sound, I dug out a ’63 Supro Lightning Bolt amp and dropped the guitar into open-E tuning. Paydirt: an array of sweet-and-dirty blues tones that recalled Muddy Waters or Hound Dog Taylor rockin’ the Hide Away Lounge. The Zemaitis is a ticket to greasy slide guitar heaven.
The results were nearly as cool in the combined pickup position, which removes just the right amount of bridge pickup edge. In fact, my only pickup quibble is that the neck unit lacks some bite and upper midrange punch, and could have delivered deeper low-end.
The Zemaitis Generation 2 Metal Front Series MFA-101 NT takes your breath away with its remarkable looks, playability, and ergonomics. It delivers an impressive combination of vintage tones and modern snarl. Depending on your style, the lack of low-end depth and presence from the neck pickup could be a drawback. There’s also the sticker shock of paying more than two grand for an imported instrument, even one as immaculately built as this. But if you’re one of the many guitarists who has longed for the visual impact only a Zemaitis can deliver, the Generation 2 is the easiest way to obtain it. It’s a sweet-sounding and great-playing guitar, regardless of price.
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