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

by | Sep 1, 2020 | 0 comments

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

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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