Interview:A Conversation with Dean Zelinsky
Remember that ZZ Top "Legs" video from the '80s? You know, the one with those wild, wooly, spinning guitars. Those bizarre axes were just a footnote in the trajectory of Dean Guitars and its one-man moving force, Dean Zelinsky. During the '70s and '80s Dean guitars and basses were everywhere. Perhaps most visibly, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was a big proponent of Dean' modern looks and sonics. But there were lots of others too, such as Sammy Hagar and Elliott Easton of The Cars as well as the esteemed jazz bassist Jeff Berlin who swore by their Deans. We caught up with Dean on route to his office recently and he graciously answered our questions.
MF: How did you get started building guitars?
DZ: I started playing guitar when I was ten. I was one of these guys that when he gets something, he has to take it apart. About the age of sixteen, I really started working on them; fixing them. I was in high school and I didn't really like it very much. They had this work-study program where you could leave school every day at noon and go work for school credit. The only thing was, I wanted to be self-employed. Since the program didn't provide for that, the school agreed to make an exception for me. So I went out and rented a little repair shop for $100 per month. So I'd go to school until noon then I'd go to my shop and repair guitars until eight or nine at night. And that's where I got my formal training. That and two tours through the Gibson plant. And then I graduated from high school and realized that I didn't want to be a repairman the rest of my life. What I really wanted was to build guitars. So I rented a larger shop and began tooling up.
MF: Did you perceive some kind of vacuum in the guitar marketplace that you felt you could fill?
DZ: There was a huge vacuum. People in those days wanted flashy stage guitars like Explorers and Flying V's, and things like that. Companies like Gibson were making them, but they were stripped down and bare-bones models, putting all the electronics in the pick guard, using cheap woods, and charging a lot of money for them. My concept was to take all the quality things that went into the '59 Les Paul and put them into a flashy stage guitar. So initially we had the V, the Z, and the ML models. But ours had flame maple tops and beautiful sunburst finishes, electronics set right in the wood, ebony fingerboards, full bindings - all the things you want in an expensive guitar.
MF: In those early days, how did you get the word out; get artists to give them a try?
DZ: Well, pretty much, I got kind of lucky. I think it was the thirteenth guitar we had built that I sold to a guy called Kerry Livgren in a band called Kansas. The NAMM show that year was in Atlanta. Kerry calls me and says he'd played every guitar at the show, and the one he really likes is mine. At that point, Kansas were all over the radio. They had just broken with that song, "Wayward Son". He was leaving on a tour in a few days and he went out with a Dean guitar. So I think I was pretty lucky. A lot of guitar makers work for years to get their instruments placed with a big star.
MF: So that was a real foot in the door for you?
DZ: Yeah. It gave us instant credibility. After that, it was a lot of getting backstage carrying five or six guitars and meeting the players. And my luck seemed to hold up, because right after Kansas, the Cars broke, and they called me saying they wanted some Deans. Ric Ocasek had actually bought one in a music store. Then Elliot Easton, their guitarist, called me up because he was left-handed and he wanted one custom made. Then we had the Doobie Brothers playing them early on, and also Heart. So in the first year or two, we had some top bands spreading the word about Dean.
MF: In that era, what do you look back on as being your favorite model or models?
DZ: I think I'd have to say the ML. It was an original. And what amazed me most was that we had some of the world's most conservative guitar players using them. And then there were guys like Dave Mason - he played an ML. It kind of amazed me that this guitar that I'd designed at eighteen or nineteen, virtually just out of high school became a staple among metal players as well as straight rock acts.
MF: How do you account for that - that a lot of middle-of-the-road acts adopted this edgy looking and sounding guitar? Was it the sonics or what?
DZ: Yeah, I gotta say, it was the sound of that guitar. But I think the shape had something to do with it too. It was a relatively thin guitar that was spread out over a lot of surface that got incredible tone and sustain. I knew it was a good-sounding guitar, but one time Dave Mason came by and tried three or four different Deans. And he was going for a sound. He didn't care too much about the looks. He kept coming back to the ML, listening, listening, listening. Then he says, 'This thing is great.' After that, I made one of those MLs for Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. I shipped it down to him. He sent me a letter back saying it sure is pretty and that he couldn't wait to give it a few whacks. Then I get a call from him a few months later-they've been in the studio and he just keeps going back to this ML. That "Eliminator" record was virtually all Dean ML. That was later confirmed in a conversation I had with their producer-manager, Bill Hamm, who I met down in Florida. He told me, 'Man that ML guitar, in the studio, every time we tried using something else, we'd say nope and go back to that ML.' That really confirmed that the guitar had a unique tone unto itself.
DZ: That was a kind of cute story. ZZ Top had been using Deans for quite some time. Then one day Billy calls me up and we started talking about some stage guitars for an upcoming tour. So we came up with these fluorescent guitars that would actually glow on stage. Later when Billy was touring England he calls me one night. I guess he'd been partying with the guys from Def Leppard. And so he puts those guys on the phone and we worked out a couple of designs right then and there with them. Then Billy gets back on the phone and says, 'Hey man, I'm sending you these sheepskins. I want you to put them on some guitars for me.' I told him fine, no problem. A few days later the sheepskins show up and I get a call from Billy saying to put a nickel in it. He's making this video and wants to use the sheepskin-covered guitars. So I built the guitars. Then I started putting on the skins. I had to shave them down under the strings using these big horse shears. I remember the Fedex guy waiting while I was gluing on the last pieces.
MF: This was a real 11th-hour deal huh?
DZ: You've got the picture. We threw them in a case and put them in a box and the next day they were filming the video.
MF: Were you involved with the guitars spinning on the band's belts, or was that something that was done in the filming?
DZ: No, I was involved with that. I found these special casters that would let them rotate.
MF: I gather you've had a pretty strong ongoing relationship with Billy Gibbons.
DZ: Oh yeah. We had a mutual friend. Billy used to call me all the time on the phone and we'd talk shop. I had known him for quite a while before I built him a guitar.
MF: Where do you rank him among rock guitarists?
DZ: He's right there... one of the very best. But even greater than his guitar playing is his ingenuity in two areas. Number one, he knows how to put together great shows and great music, and the other thing he does brilliantly is he knows how to sustain a career. He's been able to stay out there in a way only a few others can talk about. Only a handful, like the Stones, and a very few others.
MF: Back in the days you were producing instruments for Billy Gibbons and Elliot Easton, how big an operation was Dean Guitars?
DZ: We only had about thirty people in the plant in those days, plus some reps out on the road. I wore a lot of hats. I managed the production which didn't leave too much time to deal with artists. We were never a huge operation. We were high end and real quality conscious.
MF: I understand that at one time there were Dean guitars in the Sears catalog. I was curious how that came about.
DZ: That was in the decadent '80s, when the market got to be about how cheap could you sell a Floyd Rose with a guitar attached. Sears approached us and I went for it. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best idea.
MF: Jeff Berlin is a bassist whose name has been associated with Dean for a long time. Can you tell me about that?
DZ: Jeff is a guy I used to run into at NAMM shows way back doing clinics. He was just a phenomenal bass player. The relationship was born later because we built him a custom bass, and the process took a long time. He collaborated with our head luthier, Ben Chafin. It was a process of trial and error. But they kept at it until they got to a bass that bowled everybody over. Then we put them into production.
MF: I was wondering if you could talk about your motives behind leaving the guitar business in 1991.
DZ: When I started the business, it was because I had a vision that was to do with high-end guitars; guitars that I liked. But the music and the business changed a lot over time. By 1991, I took a hard look at it and said this is not why I got in the guitar business. I was kind of burned out having been at it since I was eighteen years old. And I really wanted to pursue some other things in my life. The guitar business was going through a lot of changes. A lot of the companies that were at the top of the heap aren't around today. I decided I'd had enough and decided to sell it. I took nine years off and didn't really look back.
MF: I understand you were doing custom furniture design during your time away from the guitar business.
DZ: Yeah. I was doing very high end custom work - expensive furniture, built to order.
MF: Were there any skills you picked up during that hiatus that you were able to bring back to guitar building?
DZ: A very popular process I developed in the furniture business was duplicating stone which we've used on some guitars here.
MF: Is this some sort of a lamination process?
DZ: It's a laminated process with a polyester resin edge. That's something we've toyed with, but pretty much if you've been in the guitar business, the furniture business is like baby woodworking. Guitars are so sophisticated to build. I did keep my hands dirty, so to speak, working with wood. And even though it wasn't guitars, my furniture designs were very contemporary. I've actually got a lot of furniture in Michael Jordan's home.
MF: So in the nine years you were doing the furniture gig, you didn't build any guitars at all?
DZ: I didn't build guitars, I didn't play guitars, I didn't even look at guitar magazines.
MF: What inspired your return to the guitar business?
DZ: I guess I had had enough of the furniture business and I was looking for something to do. I'd get calls on an almost weekly basis from people saying, hey Dean, your guitars are really happening. And I even ignored that for about a year. Then one day, I thought maybe I should go down there to Florida and see what Dean was doing. So I did. And what I saw and heard was so exciting, I gotta say I got all charged up and it was like starting all over again . The guitars were gorgeous, the marketing was cool, and I started getting excited about guitars again. The company was so different, it was refreshing.
MF: So Armadillo Enterprises, the new owner of Dean, was bringing more sophistication to the business compared to when you were a one-man enterprise?
DZ: Well, it was a very different company. A lot more acoustics, a very expanded line of basses. But they also had all the original models I had designed, plus some hot new solidbody electrics. And I just got all excited about marketing guitars again. So I got to talking with the Armadillo people, and we struck a deal...
MF: What is your role in Dean nowadays?
DZ: I wear a lot of hats today still. Not nearly as many as I used to though. I'm overseeing the USA guitar production. I travel the country visiting music stores, and I'm pretty much in charge of artist relations and get involved with various aspects of marketing.
MF: Do you still do design work?
DZ: We wanted to come out with USA guitars again. We have our custom shop line, but we wanted to come out with a USA-made production line. We've put together an operation in Florida and we're coming out with three guitars that are exactly the same models I originally introduced in 1977, which are the V, the Z, and the ML. And these are the exact guitars we made back then. They'll be known as the Time Capsule series. Actually these new models are based on our 1981 production. Between '77 and '81 there were a number of revisions at which point we stopped refining them; we felt they were fully developed at that point. We're not calling the new guitars reissues like Fender® and some of the other manufacturers do because that implies that there have been changes made to the original. These are exactly the same guitars we made back then, using the same materials, the same DiMarzio pickups, and the same guy, me, overseeing production. They have the same finishes and the original Dean neck. The original necks had a slight vee shape to the back of them and a rounded overbinding that absolutely no one has duplicated since then. That's why we're calling them Time Capsules. It's as though time has stood still. And the first fifty of each model will be numbered and signed by me.
MF: Do you have plans to take this direction out to other models?
DZ: Yes, we're now introducing the Cadillac which is the fourth model. It was also the fourth model I introduced way back when. Then I have two new designs. One is called the Dean Hardtail.
MF: And what's that going to be about?
DZ: It's a double cutaway archtop with a carved curly maple top.
MF: What kind of electronics will it have?
DZ: The DiMarzio pickups, four knobs - you know, the basic two-humbucker guitar. But we've got a lot of plans for this guitar using some unique metal parts. This is your carved top, no-binding model-very clean with ebony 'boards. It's a pretty traditional, but contemporary look. Of course, we have to keep in mind that we are still seeing a strong demand for the old Deans that are radically shaped.
MF: Where do you see the guitar market going?
DZ: Well, I have a maybe not so unique view of the guitar market. The electric guitar through its history has always been subject to departures, but it always seems to come back to the fundamentals: two or three pickups, a nice piece of wood, three or four knobs. We've gone through trends during my lifetime in the business with things like brass hardware, extensive electronics, MIDI, seven strings, Floyd Roses-all the different variations. But at the end of the day, it always seems to come back on center.
MF: Do you think there's a parallel between that and the music itself? We tend to go though all these permutations in rock, pop, jazz, etc., but in the end the music comes back to the basic forms like twelve-bar blues.
DZ: I think the music's driving it at the end of the day. The electric guitar works pretty well the way it was originally designed. And if somebody knows how to really play, they've got a beautiful piece of wood, six strings, and a couple of pickups, you don't need any more. All the gimmicks and the bells and the whistles and all that stuff that's come along over the years hasn't really held water because it always comes back to the basics. I guess I'm a traditionalist in that sense. You can make a great-sounding guitar, and other than that, it's rock 'n' roll fashion. Not that I've necessarily got anything against that. The direction we're taking with these new hardtails is all about fashion. They'll still have the incredible woods and the great electronics that people are looking for in a guitar. A gorgeous, great-feeling neck, but they'll also be definitely about fashion.
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MF: Are there other things going on at Dean you'd like to talk about?
DZ: I spend a lot of time these days going to music stores around the country, I meet and greet dealers and sell a lot of guitars. And I've got to say, even though I am a part of the business again, no one else has been able to touch Dean. There's a lot of excitement in the line these days over the acoustic guitars we're making with all the exotic woods-the Exoticas. No one else has been able to create the looks, the sound, the feel of them at anywhere near the price. The Exoticas are probably our hottest-selling guitars. They're highly figured acoustics with spruce tops, abalone bindings, and we list them for around five-hundred bucks. When I take them to music stores and ask the owners what they think the
Exoticas retail for, the least I hear is $900. Usually it's around eleven or twelve-hundred. We've got the FM model with flame maple listing at $439 which is an unbelievable value. It's basically the same guitar with great electronics. I think the heart of the company is gorgeous guitars with incredible values. Every line, whether its the acoustics, the basses, or the electric solidbodies represent fantastic value.
MF: We've had a great response to those quilted top Edge basses. We sell them at $440 and they fly out the door.
DZ: That the really exciting thing about Dean these days. We're giving consumers incredible value. And being back here at Dean now, it feels like I'm back home. Everything comes so easy, so natural.
MF: So you're back where you belong?
DZ: Yeah. I live and breathe guitars and the guitar industry, and the ideas just keep on flowing.
MF: So it sounds like you've got the best of all worlds going. You're back in the business again, doing creative stuff with guitars without the the headaches of dealing with the lawyers and the accountants and all of that. You get to do the things you like and excel at.
DZ: You've got that 100% right.
MF: Dean, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.