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Zemaitis Tribal Tattoo Review

Zemaitis is again visually dazzling with the Tribal Tattoo

In the rarified world of elite guitar builders only a handful can claim they have directly supplied instruments to A-list performers. Only one can say that he was the sole builder for four decades worth of superstars: Tony Zemaitis. Although Tony Zemaitis may have passed on, many of his designs live on thanks to the Zemaitis team, his long-term engraver, Danny O’Brien, and the master builders of Greco, Japan. Historically, each of Zemaitis’ guitars is different and original, so saying there is a “standard” model would be an injustice. However, during his lifetime, Tony Zemaitis produced several single-cut guitars; the company’s latest rendition is the Tribal Tattoo.

"Although I have never had one myself, my son David has some tattoos and it was his suggestion that a tattoo design might work on a guitar, so I asked him to design a tattoo motif for me." - Danny O''Brien

Danny O’Brien came up with a new idea for an engraved top while talking with his son. “I’ve always been fascinated by tattoo designs,” said O’Brien. “Although I have never had one myself, my son David has some tattoos and it was his suggestion that a tattoo design might work on a guitar, so I asked him to design a tattoo motif for me. I sent the drawing to Zemaitis International and they approved it, so I engraved the prototype and it worked well.”

The Tribal Tattoo isn’t a big bodied guitar like a Les Paul; it is by all measures fairly small. Reminiscent of other guitars in the MF500 series, the Tribal Tattoo measures 17” from butt end to upper bout, 6.5” across the waist and 12” across the widest point. It has a 24-fret, 25” scale length neck which suggests the guitar may be neck heavy and awkward to play seated. Not so fast; the mahogany body with engraved duralumin has enough heft to drop the rear end of the guitar just enough so you aren’t doing one-armed curls all night, while the deeply cut waist allows it to sit comfortably on your thigh when playing cross-legged.

The Tribal Tattoo is equipped with a dual set of DiMarzio DP103 pickups. A lot of premium guitars use custom wound pickups that are either completed in-house or subcontracted to boutique winders, so the choice of DiMarzios feels like an attempt to be true to Tony’s original guitars. According to Phil Winfield at Maverick Music, Tony Zemaitis used a wide variety of pickups with his guitars, as the availability of aftermarket pickups in Britain during the seventies was practically nil. A customer could specify what sort of pickups they wanted, but Tony’s favorites were from Gibson. It wasn’t unusual for Tony to use Kent Armstrong, John Birch, Mighty Mites or whatever he could find in short order. Some of Tony’s original guitars were equipped with DiMarzio pickups and their choice here feels like a bit of nostalgia.

Tony Zemaitis’ original idea was to use a silver top as a way to lessen electro-magnetic hum, but it was ultimately deemed unacceptable because of excessive cost and tarnishing issues. Duralumin was eventually selected because it acted as a shield and was stain resistant. Its use here for the overlays, covers and top brings an air of authenticity to the Tribal Tattoo, and the engraving work was absolutely spectacular.

Fire it Up
One of the first things you notice about playing the Tribal Tattoo is that it’s still reasonably weighted (8.5 lbs). Although there’s a resemblance to a sixties Gibson slim taper which feels great in the hand, the fret dressing is far superior. Even with new binding on the sides, the neck has a nice, “lived-in” feel. The guitar’s shallow heel block gives it remarkably good access past the octave, especially for such a narrow single-cut body.

I fired up my default amp, a blackface Fender Princeton Reverb, twisted the volume knob to 7 and let it rip – I was greeted with an instant Faces-era Ronnie Wood tone. The amp growled and barked like an attack dog but still exhibited lots of clarity and chime. Backing things down a bit, the Tribal Tattoo delivered a fat humbucker tone, but with more note-to-note definition than your garden variety Les Paul. I credit the 25”, 24-fret neck with a lot of the guitar’s bell-like qualities. If you want that throaty, Les Paul-esque tone the Tribal Tattoo is happy to oblige simply by rolling back the Tone knobs.

Next up was the Fender’s ill-behaved, Northern California cousin, a Mesa Boogie Subway Reverb Rocket. Some might consider it a poor man’s Mark Series, but it has got it where it counts. Running the Tribal Tattoo through the Mesa’s lead channel produced plenty of EL84-based crunch; flicking on the neck pickup with the volume full up made it easy to squeeze out Santana-esque lead tones.

Finally I broke out the heavy artillery: Mesa’s infamous Contour mode. For those of you not familiar with this setting, the Contour mode produces an instant scooped tone and dramatically increases the amount of distortion and volume. Usually my SH-1 ‘59 Duncan-equipped Guild Bluesbird falls apart at these saturated distortion levels, but the DP103 DiMarzios maintained their focus. Better yet, the highs remained intact, instead of becoming fuzzed out.

As much as the Tribal Tattoo can rock out with the best of them, the clean tones were pristine; this guitar would be a fingerpicker’s delight. The Tribal Tattoo delivers dynamic touch sensitivity with plenty of focus and articulation. Although it lacks a certain woodiness to its clean tones, darker jazz tones can be coaxed out of its duralumin-topped mahogany body. In addition to its high-quality construction, there are a couple of notable extras that come with the Tribal Tattoo. First is a faux crocodile case with a cool burnished aluminum handle and stamped aluminum Zemaitis badge. Inside the case there were more extras like a McLarnen motorsport-inspired tool kit, a cleaning cloth and a customized reusable fretboard protector. Very cool.

I should note that I was slightly disappointed in a couple of things. First, when I received it the pickup toggle had broken while shipping and three of the four control knobs were loose on their posts. Second, I have a feeling that someone who is paying top dollar for a guitar may be turned off by the standard DiMarzio pickups – a feeling that would surely be formed with the eyes instead of the ears.

The Final Mojo
What do you do when your superlatives become superfluous? Do you simply give up or do like Shakespeare and make up your own words? The Zemaitis Tribal Tattoo represents the end product of a team of masters at work. Danny O’Brien estimated that it takes him at least 40 hours of work with a graver and chisel to produce his original designs. Some may think the metal top is superficial, but I think it adds to the clarity of the guitar, even when subjected to ultra-saturated distortion levels.

In terms of playability, tone and ergonomics, the Tribal Tattoo is a top-tier guitar that anyone would be proud to add to their collection. Not only will you get an outstanding solidbody guitar but a fantastic piece of historical art. For those of you lacking deep pockets, Zemaitis will be offering a GZ version of the Tribal Tattoo. The GZ line is made in the same shop as the Custom version and share the same pickups, but they differ in materials (seasoned Honduras mahogany versus regular mahogany; a hand-rubbed lacquer finish versus a ultra thin polyurethane finish). Similarly, the GZ will feature engravings and etchings done in-house rather than by Danny O’Brien.

Special thanks to Gary Brawer at Brawer Guitar and Bass Repair in San Francisco for an emergency repair; to Maverick Music’s owner, Phil Winfield, of Charlotte, North Carolina for sharing his insights into Tony’s original guitars; and to Danny O’Brien for answering my numerous questions about his craft.

Buy if...
you want an articulate, well-playing guitar with its own look
Skip if...
you want to recede gently into the background

MSRP GZ Version $4000-5000 Metal-Front Custom $12,000 - Zemaitis -

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