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World of Dean

The radical guitar designer tears into Dimebag, new Washburns, old Deans, and everything else in sight. Please buckle your seatbelts.

Unless you've been spelunking in a deep subterranean grotto for the last year, you know that Dean guitars are staging a comeback. Even vintage models from the late 1970s and early '80s are jumping up in value, thanks to Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, who until only recently was a steadfast Dean user (he now endorses Washburn). So who exactly is Dean? Meet Dean Zelinsky, probably the youngest man to ever start a successful guitar company. Dean made top-quality solidbody guitars and basses for nearly 14 years before getting out of the 6-string business altogether. Nevertheless, Dean axes were -- and still are -- played by many of rock's electric royalty. Now, in a rare interview, Mr. Zelinsky emerges from obscurity to skewer the industry and anything else that moves. Give this man a talk show!

Do you remember the first guitar you ever owned as a kid?

At the music store where I took lessons, there was a cherry-red Gibson SG with three humbuckers hanging there. I wanted it in the worst way and asked my father for it every day. So Christmas rolled around and I was expecting the SG, but instead I got a Gibson ES-120 semi-hollowbody with no cutaways, a brown sunburst, and one soap-bar pickup. You've never seen a kid more disappointed when he got a guitar for Christmas. It was terrible -- no switches and just two knobs. What a bummer.

Who were some of your favorite guitar players back then?

Johnny Winter, who used a Gibson Firebird, was my favorite player at the time. To me, he was an incredible blues guitar player -- I wish I had done something with him as far as Dean guitars. Another of my favorites was Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, a great blues player and a good friend of mine. Blues guitarists were a major early influence for me. Later, I got to appreciate players like Eric Clapton.

What about the first guitar you ever built?

Our first Dean prototype was a Flying V-type with the original V headstock and Dean wings. Actually, the very first Dean guitar never really got finished, and it had 77-0001 as the serial number (it was made in 1977). We always knew it was the first Dean guitar, but it just kind of hung around the factory. One day someone asked if they could take it, and I said okay. I don't even remember who took it! But I think it was a friend, so it's floating around somewhere. Maybe the proud owner will read this.

How many models did you have in the Dean line back then?

Originally we had three models. The V was the first. Then we had the Z, based on the Gibson Explorer. And the ML was a combination of a V and a Z. The ML is the one that Dimebag Darrell has been making more famous recently.

What did ML stand for?

Matt Lynn, who was my best friend growing up. He was a great guitarist and we used to play guitars together -- we were like brothers. When we were 16, Matt got cancer and he died within six months, so I named the ML after him.

Right after high school, you started Dean Guitars?

Yeah, my senior year in high school, I got out of school at noon. So I rented a place and started doing custom repair work on guitars. Later, I rented a 4,000 square-foot place and started making Dean guitars. I was basically making "on-stage" guitars with a lot of features: humbuckers, maple tops, shaved necks, nice hardware, state-of-the-art electronics. Like nice vintage Gibsons, but new.

How many V's, Z's, ML's and Elites did you make?

American-made, probably 6,000 to 7,000. Maybe 8,000. It's been several years and I haven't looked back.

Who were some of your favorite players who played Deans?

I'd say Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. I really liked the Cars, and Elliott Easton played several Deans. I always dealt directly with the artists -- there was no one else in my company who handled that. I spent most of my time going backstage and hustling guitars in the early stages. Then it was more word-of-mouth. For example, I was sitting by the pool at the Fountainbleu Hilton in Miami talking to Billy Gibbons and Sammy Hagar. And Billy says to Sammy, "How come you don't play a Dean guitar?" And Sammy says, "Cause he never made me one." So I said, "What do you want?" And the next thing you know, the guitar -- a red Dean -- is on the cover of Sammy's Voice of America album, and in the "I Can't Drive 55" video, too.

What about pictures in the Dean ads and endor-sements?

You want to know my overview on the Dean ads and endorsements? Chicks sold more guitars than rock stars.

I saved some guitar magazines from the early '80s when you were doing that stuff, and everyone else copied your ads of women holding guitars! They don't do that anymore. Now they've got dorky-looking guys with long hair.

I know, the ads are pretty bad now. You can quote me.

I mean the whole point of playing guitar was so you could meet these women, right?

Exactly. You played the guitar so you could get laid. And I knew that, but I guess the older guys at other companies didn't want to admit it. We did very limited endorsement ads, cause we found that a "hot chick" sold more guitars than a hot rock star. My basic concern on endorsements was that the artists would play Dean guitars and they would show up in videos, magazines, and on TV.

Tell me about those whit furry Dean guitars in ZZ Top's "Legs" video -- the ones that spun around 360š on their belts.

That's real sheepskin on those guitars! Billy Gibbons was at a party with Def Leppard in London, and he called me at like two in the morning. Billy said he was shipping me some sheepskins and he wanted them on a Dean guitar! So I said fine, and a week later the sheepskins show up at my factory, and I made a guitar and a bass. We used a horse-hair trimmer -- I was dating a girl who trained horses at the time -- and we trimmed the sheepskin under the strings. Then Billy and (ZZ Top bassist) Dusty Hill wanted the spinning units on them. I never knew hat set of guitars would become so famous.

Any other custom Deans you made?

Yeah, there's one I want back -- the only real Dean doubleneck ever made, a Bel-Aire type. To me, it was the most beautiful doubleneck I ever saw, too. The Bel-Aire was our answer to the Strat-type, bolt-on neck. The bodies were made, painted, and assembled in Chicago, while the necks were from Japan. In any case, I made the doubleneck for Rik Emmett of Triumph and a week after I shipped it to him -- the most elaborate Dean ever built -- I got a letter from him saying that he would never play it, and he's going to endorse Yamaha. And I never got that doubleneck back.

Which rock star hit you up for the most guitars?

Definitely Elliott Easton of the Cars. I once made the most gorgeous Dean for him that had gold parts, gold strings, gold in-lays, etc., and at a Madison Square Garden concert, he smashes it onstage. Then he calls me up and wants a new one!

Getting back to endorsers, there was a certain type of endorser we would call a "guitar whore." These were guys who appeared in an ad for a guitar company, then the next month you'd see them in an ad for another guitar company. And sometimes you'd be running an ad, and then six pages later, the same guy would be appearing with another guitar. Eventually, the guitar makers started talking to each other in order to find out who did what to whom.

You have some parallels with another famous guitar maker, Dan Armstrong. His guitars are highly collectible now, as yours are. And you both sold guitars through the Sears catalog at one point.

Right, but Dean Guitars were a little different story. In the late 1980s, a buyer from Sears approached me because they wanted to upgrade and have a respected brand of guitars; like upgrading to a brand of jeans like Levis. It worked out really well, but then Sears changed buyers.

A Danelectro guitar probably sold for $39 in the Sears catalog in the 1960's, but now it's a collectible going for $500!

Right. Kinder like shit turning gold.

Leo Fender made guitars for 19 years, then sold his company in 1965 to CBS. Why would someone sell the right to their name?

Because he got a lot of money. My story's a little different. I'm sure Leo Fender's reasons and my reasons were totally different. Leo got 12 million dollars, which was a lot of money at the time. You gotta respect him for what de did: built a great company, then cashed out selling to a big conglomerate. In 1969, a Fender Strat sold for about $400, and a Cadillac automobile sold for $7,000. When I got out (of the business), the Cadillac was selling for $40,000, but the Fender guitar was selling for $199. I got out because the game had changed, and I didn't like what it had become. It was, "How cheap can you sell a Floyd Rose tremolo with a Strat copy attached to it?"

When I first got in the industry in 1976, I could build a quality guitar and fill a void in the market. I loved that aspect of it. Curly maple tops, binding, sunburst finishes, humbuckers, great necks -- we made a high-quality, Gibson-style stage guitar. Like the vintage ones everyone wanted, but new. But in the late '80s, everything out there was bolt-on neck and made in Korea. It took the sizzle out of it. I mean, Eddie Van Halen put together a Strat-type guitar in his garage, and painted it with Testor's paint. He changed the concept, and the Koreans were there to capitalize on it. The glamour of making a fine instrument wasn't appreciated then. We were giving people the things they wanted in a vintage guitar -- such as PAF pickups and curly maple top -- in a fine, new guitar. You couldn't get those from Gibson at that time! It was like when AMF took over Harley. Then when the Harley Davidson family took back Harley, they became real Harleys again. (Author's note: Tired of the ever-more competitive guitar business, Dean sold Dean Guitars to Tropical Music in 1990 for an undisclosed price.)

What do you think about the popularity of Deans now, especially with Dimebag Darrell of Pantera?

Well, guitars are like fashion: it's who's hot and what they are playing. For example, Guns 'N Roses broke when Gibson guitars were at their nadir. Now Slash is out there playing the flashy, high-end Gibsons again, and all of a sudden Gibsons are hot again, through no fault of Gibson's. Now, Dimebag Darrell is not only a noticeable, hot player, but also a guitar collector. And he's risen to fame, which has done a lot for the value of a Dean guitar. A used Dean standard would sell for $400 out of the paper, and now they go for $1,200, which is around what they went for originally. They've held their value.

How do you feel about Washburn's Dimebag Darrell signature guitar?

Tropical Music paid for the use of the Dean name, and Washburn has copied the Dean trademark wings on the headstock. I'm sure Washburn's version of those wings won't fly at the trademark office. Washburn had the opportunity to buy me out but they were the low-bidder. The thing is, I talked to Darrell's manager and Darrell was looking for me six months before he signed with Washburn. He wanted me to build the guitars direct, and he just couldn't find me! So he went with Washburn.

Do you ever think you'll make guitars again? Something like Leo Fender did with G&L Guitars?

It's been on my mind a lot lately. As you know, I'm in the handcrafted furniture business now (Dean Barrett Custom Furniture in Highland park, Illinois). If I ever feel the time is right, I could flip the switch and make custom guitars. I wouldn't mass-produce them. I'd make high-quality, limited-edition guitars that are serial numbered, autographed, authenticated; i.e., real Dean guitars. People could call direct, talk about neck, finish, pickups, and have a custom guitar, which would be made for them personally, like we used to do for rock stars. Maybe have a handful of distributors worldwide, but still keep it personal. I definitely don't want to get into a big overhead business, fighting for market share, competing on price. I'd go above the fray -- guitars at $2,500 and up. If a significant number of people responded and I felt there was a market, I'd do it.

One last question. A New York auction house recently offered the "first Fender guitar," a 1949 prototype made by Leo Fender and George Fullerton, for $475,000. It didn't sell because the highest bid was only $425,000. They said it was arguably the most historically significant guitar ever made, because it paved the way for mass-produced solidbody electric guitars, the backbone of popular music. Any comments?

I wouldn't pay that much for a plank of wood with strings. In life it's not necessarily how much it's worth -- it's how much you've got.

So in the end, what's your view on the state of the industry today?

I think it sucks! It's dead and waiting for someone to reanimate it. Anyway, the industry is now looking for the next great band or the next Jimi Hendrix. That's the way it's always been and the way it always will be.

December 1995 -- Guitar Shop

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