Talk From The Rock Room: Tools of the Trade: Ronnie Lane’s Zemaitis Bass Guitar – 'Still Hear the Echo'

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tools of the Trade: Ronnie Lane’s Zemaitis Bass Guitar – 'Still Hear the Echo'

When I think of the rock and roll legends, ‘Faces’, I think of a heavy rock and roll swagger and a musical celebration. Substantial images of Rod Stewart's flamboyant stage dress, Ronnie Wood’s poofter hair style, Kenney Jones powerful stick hits, Mac’s tickling of the blacks and whites, and the band’s on stage drunken revelry flash through my minds eye. Most importantly are the on stage mental pictures of the band’s ‘tools of the trade’, Woody’s guilded Zemaitis guitar and the subject of this rant, Ronnie Lane’s sleek black custom Zemaitis bass.

Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, founding member of Small Faces and Faces as well as being one of rocks finest songwriters was one hell of a bass player. Lane was adept at both guitar and bass, but his rumbling bass tone in the mid 1960’s was a defining sound for Mod culture. Lane played with a pick and slapped his hollow bodied Gibson, coaxing rotund notes and smooth weaving bass lines for Small Faces. Lane used a number of guitars and basses throughout his musical career beginning with the aforementioned hollow body Gibson, Harmony, and moving into custom instruments and his eventual solid body Zemaitis bass by the time of Faces in 1969. Lane would also become associated with a Zemaitis resonator acoustic following his departure form Faces.

In the early 1950’s, luthier Tony Zemaitis, who started his career as a cabinetmaker began to repair and build acoustic guitars for his associates and friends. After a stint in the military Zemaitis started to become more ‘professional’ with the development of his instruments. By the 1960’s word was spreading amongst blues players around the UK eventually causing his 12 string acoustic guitars to be placed into the hands of players like Eric Clapton and Spencer Davis.

Continuing to improve his methods, Zemaitis began to develop electric guitars with a number of prototypes entering into the emerging rock and roll scene. Tony’s guitars were soon being given test runs by George Harrison, Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix. Creating what would soon be the defining element of his guitars, Zemaitis started to include the recognizable metal front which he deemed was to reduce the humming of electric guitars which it was successful at. His metal adorned guitars also began to include ornate engraved headstocks and plates which soon became their identifying element. Friend and customer Danny O’Brien was brought on by Zemaitis to decorate the headstocks and the front plates with beautiful custom designs. (to this day these are still being replicated, often by machines).

At some point in 1969 and during the formative stages of ‘Faces’ one of Zemaitis guitars made it to the ‘two Ronnie’s’ of the band, Ronnie Wood and Lane. When the 'Ronnie's first started coming to the Zemaitis show, Tony wasn't aware of who they were. What he did know is that they kept returning for his guitars! Both Ronnie’s have been pictured with and used a few different Zemaitis basses and guitars during their Faces time. Some 1970 footage, and a picture included here shows Lane playing his first Tony Zemaitis creation.

By 1971 Lane would be playing the bass that most defined him and the ‘Faces’ greatest years. Lane’s Les Paul shaped black electric solid body Zemaitis bass was what Tony Zemaitis referred to as a ‘one off’.  He told the current owner of the instrument Bob Daisley that he built the instrument specifically for Lane and that Ronnie brought along his own pickups for the bass. He revealed that Lane had a set of the straight pole vintage early 1050’s Fender bass pickups and installed those in the bass. Zemaitis also stated the Ronnie Lane requested that a plate be installed where the neck joint is located on the bass. When Zemaitis told Lane that the neck was not a ‘bolt on’ and that the instrument would not require the plate Ronnie insisted on installing one as Ronnie Wood had one as well. The ‘rock room’ is under of the assumption that the first Zemaitis bass Lane received is this one here, and then Lane returned to get the subject of this post, the ‘torty’ black Zemaitis made to his specifications. While Lane’s Harmony’s from his Small Faces days were 30” scale, the Zemaitis was 32”. For his custom pieces Tony Zemaitis would measure the musicians hand and then build the instrument accordingly.

The bass guitar's funky aesthetic just bellows 'rock and roll'; a sleek black chrome hot rod look, an ornate patterned aluminum head stock and a horny Les Paul shape, but a bit more menacing. Two steely rails enclose the pick up's. The 'rock room' is unable to confirm the type of wood used for the body of the bass. I will assume that the fret board is rosewood, but don't hold me too it. In addition to the look, the bass contain four tone control knobs, two for each respective pick up, as well as a volume control on the guitar's top horn. There is a silver double bridge and the instrument resided in its own custom made Zemaitis 'coffin shaped' case.

The bass guitar’s rotund tone fit key in lock with Lane’s heavy handed thumping approach to the bass. While Lane could lay down a melody on his four string with the best of them, his fat looping phrases and funky turnarounds were the focus of the sturdy foundation of the band.  Played through a classic Ampeg flip top B-15 cabinet the guitar takes on a thick lead tone when locked in with Kenney Jones big banging sticks. Lane's lead in to 'Three Button Hand Me Down' from the band's debut encapsulates Lane's approach, technique and his instrument. A rich warm buzz emanates from Lane's picked string wounds as his bass playing alternates between lead lines and a foundational rumbling.

As stated Lane, played his 'tort' bass for Faces peak touring years (71-72) before receiving and being pictured with an additional Zemaitis bass for his final year with the group. This instrument can be seen below. It is aesthetically similar to the subject of this rant, but with a more compact body and some snazzy angled pickups. This bass can be seen and heard in action here.

Some of the most exciting existing live 'Faces' footage comes from a BBC broadcast called 'Sounds for Saturday' broadcast in 1972. Plonk's rig is fully on display and cranked to the max. The band has reached a lofty summit of their live concert abilities. Enjoy Lane's thick melodicism on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' and his funky improv's on 'Too Much Woman'. Lane was a rocker's rocker who moved air and kept the rhythm down in the bottom. Such a unique man and player deserved a custom instrument to share his gift. Lane's 'tort' Faces touring bass fit the bill. Following his departure from Faces in mid-1973 to enjoy greater freedom for his songwriting and voice, Lane began to play more often a Zemaitis resonator guitar (built in 1971) which immediately became his main instrument for playing with Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance. Once his songwriting was allowed blossomed fully, Lane decided to strum and sing his creations rather than anchor them to the earth. We are lucky and thankful he had the ability to do both flawlessly.

Faces- First Step (Album)




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