Conversation with Dean Zelinsky - Part 1: The Early Years
April 5, 2014
Hi Dean. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I’d like to start with just a little history. You started Dean Guitars a long time ago. You were actually still in high school?
I was just out of high school. During my high school days, I actually had my own guitar repair shop. I used to get out of school at noon and work on guitars well into the night.
When was that?
1975. It was in the early days of high school work/study programs. School half a day then work half a day and get credit. I told my counselor I wanted to do that but needed to be self-employed. He flat out said “You can’t do that.” I replied, “Well, I’m going to drop out of school ‘cause I need to build guitars.” So all the counselors had a meeting and they made a special accommodation for me. I was the first student to be self-employed in the program.
How did it come about from the beginning? Were you always interested in guitars as a kid? Did you play? How did that happen?
Yes – I played guitar since I think I was 10…when I saw The Monkees on TV. I really wanted a guitar. My Mother bought me a guitar out of a display window they were taking down at Marshall Fields. They sold her the guitar for a dollar… it only had one string when I got it. I soon upgraded to a better guitar. I was really into playing but in high school I also started gearing on my own guitars. I was the kind of kid…if my parents bought me a record player, I took it apart and put it back together before playing a record.
So you were into how things worked. What made you want to repair guitars - was it something that just happened or was it a design, a plan that you had?
It was more of a necessity thing. During my high school days, I wanted guitars. Being handy, I could buy messed up guitars on the cheap, fix ‘em, and own ‘em. A name brand guitar with a broken neck, I could buy for a hundred dollars, put the neck back on, fix the finish and would be like new.
So you started flipping guitars?
Yes, a bit – I started flipping guitars and I was always gearing – most kids are afraid to take off the truss rod cover and adjust their truss rod. I quickly figured out how to make a guitar play better. When I was about sixteen and I used to hang out at this local music store and take lessons. And finally I said to the owner, “Why don’t you let me do repairs for you?” He said, “Oh, you can do repairs?" He went into the store basement and got an SG that someone had smashed against a foundation wall. The head was off and in two pieces. There was a neck and the whole control cavity was shattered. I totally rebuilt the thing, put it back together and painted it. The guy was impressed and gave me all the store repair work.
So you said, “Hey, I’m good at this?”
That was part of it. Someone had given me a brand new Fender guitar with a ding in it to repair, and I go to repair the ding and things went south. So instead of putting a little black fill and hitting it with clear, I now had to shoot a whole new sunburst which I’d never done before. Meanwhile I’ve got a customer’s guitar so you figure out pretty quick how to spray a sunburst. I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, doing all that.
So, were you listening to music and going to concerts too?
I was playing guitar and jamming with my friends and being a typical high school kid…went to concerts but wasn’t a concert junky.
So how does that morph into the full blown company?
Well I graduated high school and had to get serious about my future. I like nice things, fast cars and women…the usual, and didn’t think the life of a guitar repairman would provide for my desires. So that was a big part of it. And, nobody was making really cool guitars like Explorers and Flying Vs. I saw an opportunity to make a difference in the guitar business.
So, I can’t even grasp how you go from that concept to being in full-blown production. So, how does that work?
Neither can I (laughing), looking back. I was 18 and when I look at 18 year olds today, it makes me wonder how I was thinking I could start a guitar factory at that age. But, I remember during my high school days, lying awake at night thinking about how to tool a guitar factory. Truthfully, I was never into building a guitar, I was into manufacturing. Though I could hand build a guitar, I really wanted to be in manufacturing. My Father was in manufacturing, my roots were in manufacturing. So, when I was eighteen, I started tooling a factory. My only formal training was two tours of the Gibson guitar factory. Gibson was in Kalamazoo, Michigan at that time. On Wednesday’s they had factory tours. I went on two occasions, the first time I kinda saw how everything was…the second time I was more taking notes. That’s the first time I saw routers and shapers in a production situation. I came back to Chicago and I went to see a machinery guy downtown, I started to explain, “I need a machine that looks like this and does this” and he said, “an overarm router, I got it” and I said “I need a machine that does…”, “A double spindle shaper, I got it.” So I just started tooling a factory. I really don’t know how I thought I could manufacture guitars.
Well, you didn’t know you couldn’t, right?
Yeah – I guess that’s the most reasonable answer.
So how long did it take before you were in production mode?
From the time I started tooling the factory, it was like a year of just buying machinery, working on my designs, tooling, working on production procedures to the point where we could almost build a guitar.
Do you remember the first sale you made? Who was the first guitar you sold to?
Well, what happened is, I had been tooling this factory for many months. An uncle of mine stopped by one day just to see what I was doing. During the visit, he said to me, “How ya gonna sell all these?” I replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’m going take an ad in Guitar Player Magazine” which was about the only magazine in those days. He then said, “I got a friend who dabbles in marketing, maybe he can help you.” So he introduced me to Zan Skolnik. Zan wrote plays and used to work for Illinois Bell Telephone Company. He came over, saw what I was doing and said, “I love it. I want to do your marketing.” He wasn’t exactly a rock kind of guy but I needed some marketing help…I hired him. Zan found out about the “Winter” NAMM show in California which was brand new at the time. The past NAMM shows were in the summer and mostly in Chicago – my home town, although, I never had gone to one. Zan stated, “We gotta go to that show.” And I said, “Okay…” So we signed up and went to the show. Before the show we ran some small ads – may have even been classified ads – in the back of Music Trades Magazines. I get a call from a guy named Jerry Ash. He owned Sam Ash Music, the largest store in the country at that time, when Guitar Center was just in California. I think Ash had seven stores at the time. He said, “I like what you said in this ad. Are you going to the NAMM show?” I said, “Yes.” Jerry said, “If your guitars are as good as you say they are, I’m going to buy them.” At the NAMM show, early the first day, he stopped by my booth and placed an order. Other dealers came to the booth to check out my line would ask who you got selling them… I said, “Sam Ash” (laughing).
That must have felt good?
I think so…I can’t remember.
You can’t remember (laughing)? So then you just exploded it seems like.
I guess in hindsight it happened kind of quick. People starting liking my wares and I started getting rock stars pretty quick. Once you get artists playing your guitars, kind of makes you legit!
Who were the first real rock stars to pick up your guitars?
Well, the first one was Kerry Livgren of Kansas. It was now summer NAMM that same year, 1977, the show…was in Atlanta. Kerry wandered by my booth and said, “This is pretty cool.” My brother played rock violin and was really into Kansas, so the band was on my radar. He checked out the guitars and we talked for a little while. A few days later I was back in my office in Chicago and got a call. “This is Kerry Livgren of Kansas, I played every guitar at the NAMM show and I like yours the best.” I thought – Cool…. He said, “I want that Explorer I played at the NAMM show.” I said, “Ok, I got it…I’ve got to charge you for it.” He said, “My manager says that I am at a place in my career where I shouldn’t have to pay for my guitars.” (Carry On My Wayward Son had just broken big) and I replied, “I’m at a time in my career where I can’t give ‘em away.” (laughing). Kerry said, “Ok, I get it. But I’m leaving for tour in a couple of days. And really want that guitar.” I agreed to ship the guitar the same day and let the check cross in the mail. I had my first artist. I think his guitar was serial number 00012 or 13.
Do you remember what he paid for it?
Four hundred dollars.In those days the guitars were $899.00 retail, but more expensive than a Les Paul.
So he went on tour with that guitar?
Yes. I went to Alpine Valley, Wisconsin and saw them [Kansas]. That was the first time I saw my guitars being played on stage.
So that was the first Explorer ever made?
Well Gibson made Explorer models. My whole concept of Dean Guitars was taking the Flying V and Explorer and putting quality features and components on it that nobody had done before. Flame maple tops, binding on bodies and necks, ebony boards, my killer neck profile and my distinct headstock and good pickups, I was the first guy to use DiMarzio pickups in a production guitar. Nobody really built Explorers and put cool materials on them back in the 70s. At that time, a Gibson Explorer was a really sketchy piece of mahogany, painted with a big plastic pick guard with a couple of lame ass pickups put in. My thing was hot-rodding. Most guitar company startups that came up after Gibson and Fender were basically hot-rodding something. Hot-rodded Gibsons, hot-rodded Fenders, and my whole thing, I guess, was hot-rodding pointy guitars of the time.
So how did you find out about the hardware? I sort of understand about the wood, but say, how did you find out about DiMarzio pickups?
I used DiMarzios in my repair business. They were kind of new when I found out about them and probably from Guitar Player Magazine. Guitar Player Magazine was the bible. Anything that happened was in there. Everybody was gearing – it’s just like today – people find out about stuff, only the world was a lot smaller back then. No Internet, and no computers, and no fax machines, and no cell phones.
So what was the time frame between the first NAMM show and when you sold that first guitar?
Six months. I took orders at that first winter NAMM show. The summer show was the following June…I hadn’t delivered any guitars by then. We were having all sorts of problems getting ‘em thru production in the factory. So a lot of dealers were like, “We ordered guitars…haven’t received them.” I let them know the good news was all these guitars were production guitars and you’ll get them soon. All the dealers hung in there.
What was the progression from there?
I spent all my time working out the manufacturing problems, selling and marketing, and hangin’ backstage at rock concerts…hustling my guitars.
So were you also producing acoustics then?
No, just electrics. We only had three models at first, we had the V, the Z, and the ML. The ML is the one that Dimebag Darrell made famous. However, I had John McFee of the Doobie Brothers and Kerry Livgren of Kansas, playing MLs. They weren’t for metal guys…well, then again, metal didn’t exist back then. I then got Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top playing my guitars. We had a mutual friend that hooked us up and Billy Gibbons used to call me on a regular basis. That’s just what Billy does. Finally I made him a custom guitar and sent it to him. He sent me a letter and said, “Sure is a pretty thing.” And that was that. Many months later, I was out in L.A. doing some business and Gibbons called me at my hotel. He said, “I’m recording this new record and I’m using your guitar exclusively on it, it sounds killer.” He said, “You gotta come hear it. Stop by Houston on your way home and I’ll pick you up.” So I stopped in Houston and listened to the whole Eliminator album in it’s rough mix in his Mercedes (laughing). That was 1980. I made guitars for him to tour with. There were guitar players, and guitar gods, and gods of gods. Billy is in the later category. If Billy Gibbons was playing your guitars, everybody respected the hell out of you. If Billy was playing your guitar, it was huge.
So at that point did you think, “Holly shit, I made it!”?
I never really thought that way. If making guitars is what you do, you kind of lose sight of the glamour. Guitar business is a difficult task. It’s a fad-oriented business. There are not too many things more difficult to manufacture than a guitar. You are working with wood but must achieve metal working tolerances. The finish is on wood and has to resemble a mirrored piece of glass. The threshold is so high. And then, you can’t sell a guitar unless you can procure rock stars. Most musicians are not high earners, and they are your customers. We are always competing on two levels…competing for shelf space and competing for artists. So between manufacturing, and the sales effort, and the marketing effort, you never get that “Ah” moment. Also, I had high expectations of myself so these achievements were more like getting over hurdles than finishing the race.
That probably has a lot to do with where you are now.
I’m a bit more humble in my old age.
Why, were you a cocky little kid?
Confident. Yeah – I just had all the confidence in the world in my ability. And even when I doubted myself, I was confident (laughing).
Who were the people you wanted to get on board? We had talked a little about Johnny Winter…
Johnny Winter was my God. He was the only person I ever looked up to. He was a guitar playing wizard. If there was no Johnny Winter, I guarantee you there would be no Dean Guitars or Dean Zelinsky Private Label Guitars. I discovered him when I was twelve years old. When I heard him play, it was a game changer. Trying to play those endless Johnny Winter riffs was my thing. I’m not easily impressed and my tastes are narrow focused. Johnny was my guy and still is. I appreciate other players but nobody moved me like seeing Johnny live in his heyday.
It’s all about the feeling, right? Music is all about a feeling.
Right. So there’s a lot of guys who play very good but Johnny Winter just went places nobody ever went on a guitar.
The only other guitar player that came to mind as you were describing that was Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Right. Stevie Ray Vaughan was a great guitar player. His endless solos were not like Johnny’s endless solos. Johnny could play endlessly without repeating a lick. The odd thing is, I never really approached Johnny. I don’t know what it was. He was also in the scene and then out of the scene a lot because of his drug habits….not so easily accessible. So I didn’t really have a serious conversation with Johnny ‘til four or five years ago. I just never pursued it. I can’t even tell you why. Maybe it’s just “leave your idols as your idols”.
Building Dean Guitars, I was going after everybody who played guitar. Back in those days, there were three or four venues in any big city all the big bands played. If Heart was headlining, the opening act, more than likely, would be on a headlining tour in a couple of years. So when Heart was playing my guitars onstage, I’d be backstage hanging with the opening acts. Then I’d have to say, “Hey, you guys put on a great show.” I wanted everybody playing my guitars. I didn’t target them because I loved them; I targeted them because I was in business.
The Cars were early endorsers. I remember The Cars, they had that sound that was so distinct and I heard them on the radio and they were brand spanking new. I remember driving to a pizza place with a friend one evening and The Cars came on the radio, I said, “I’m gonna get these guys playing my guitars.” …that confident thing I had mentioned earlier… It was only a few days later I received a call from Elliot Easton… “This is Elliott Easton from The Cars.” And I said, “I’ve heard of you guys.” “Ric Ocasek, just bought one of your guitars in a music store, but I’m left-handed, can you make me a custom one?” and I said, “Sure.” and soon I was building guitars for Elliott Easton.
Had you made left-handed guitars before then?
It was pretty early on, I guess, maybe. You just flip stuff around (laughing). He said they were going into the studio. They were making their second record, Candy-O. I flew it out to the studio and hung out while they were recording the album. He used that guitar on the record and on tour, along with others, he became a walking talking billboard for me in the early days – he played a lot of Dean guitars
What was going on in your personal life during that time?
Chicks (laughing). I wasn’t just backstage for the rock stars. The groupies were pretty hot back in the 80s. Occupational fringe benefits.
Was there a point in time where you got super big or was it just a slow progression through the eighties and nineties?
There’s nothing fast because behind every marketing success, you got to build the guitars. I always say, nothing happens fast in guitar production. You can’t ramp up fast enough. Makes it difficult to catch a wave in this business. And, it is a somewhat fad oriented business. Van Halen single handedly made Kramer Guitars. Slash saved Gibson. A lot has changed since I started Dean in 1976. Ya gotta know, when I started Dean Guitars, Gibson was a 35 million dollar company, and they were the biggest. It wasn’t like anyone was doing 250 million dollars, or anything close, in the guitar business. You also gotta know that the oldest rocker wasn’t 30 years old yet. Only six countries played rock music. It was Germany, U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and England. No Eastern Block Countries, no Asian countries outside Japan, nobody rocked in South America, no Middle East and certainly not Africa. The market, if you made rock guitars, was demographically and geographically very small.
Were you and are you the final step in quality control? Were you checking every guitar before it went out the door?
I inspected every neck before it went on a guitar. My builders couldn’t put a neck on a guitar unless it had a ‘Z’ where the truss rod adjusts. My office was always twenty feet from the factory. Any given day there could be issues in the factory and I had to be out there. I sprayed a lot of sunburst finishes. For many of the NAMM shows I’d spray the guitars myself. I never really did tedious work. I never replaced a sander or a buffer. I never had the patience to sit at a bench and put hardware on guitars. I did all my own tooling. I built all my machinery. You had to be hands on. There was no other way around it. You couldn’t farm out a guitar. Remember, when I started Dean Guitars in 1976 there was no Internet, you didn’t know where to get lacquer, buffing compound. It was the only industry that buffs lacquer on a big buffing wheel. Nobody else does that. Where do you get buffing compound? Where do you get fret wire? I made my own truss rods. Where do you get Schaller bridges (laughing)? I used to buy my bridges from Gibson. They didn’t know I was buying from them. When they found out they cut me off. I met Helmut Schaller…then all was good.
So, where are we in time, the late 80’s?
We had a lot of success early, then we started fighting the import thing. We could hold our own at the import game when we were competing against companies like Ibanez and lesser companies. But the real game changer was when Fender decided to go off shore to Japan. All of a sudden a Stratocaster went from $800 down to about $399 and shortly thereafter $299. It just kept going down and down. At my core, I’m an anti-globalization guy. I prefer to build in America. It’s when your competitor goes offshore that you are out of options. If you don’t, it’s game over. So Fender was the game changer.
About when was that?
I went off-shore in 1983-1984. That’s when Fender went off-shore. I was in Japan for a while and then I jumped to Korea. I was the first name brand to go to Korea. Then everybody followed us.
So that was working well for you there?
Initially yes. Profitable and big volume because the street price of my guitars dropped by almost two thirds. Then it got to be a very bizarre time. Eddie VanHalen got hot and the Floyd Rose got hot. And those were also game changers. Like I said earlier – it’s a very fad type business. Eddie VanHalen was the hottest player to come around in decades and everything was opposing my brand. My brand was very “Gibson” type guitars; he was playing a very ‘Fender” type guitar. My guitars were at the upper end of the financial spectrum, and his was made in a garage and painted with testers paint. He was a phenomenon, and this is at a time when things are moving off-shore. Had Eddie VanHalen come out playing a three pick-up Les Paul custom that was a $1,200 guitar at the time, the Asian factories couldn’t have stepped on the gas pedal so quick. But a bolt neck guitar and testers paint, quality a non-issue – game on!
The conventional thinking…you need a quality guitar was “out the window.” The cheaper the guitar, the more faddish it was to own it. Soon everybody was cranking out these cheap Fender style guitars. A big game-changer.
So what did that actually change for you?
You say it was a game changer, but in what ways? It was very difficult to sell a high-end, fixed neck, USA made guitar.
So you are saying sales dropped?
Yes. I had to try to conform to the recent fad. It wasn’t just me. Everyone fought globalization. Everybody got shaken out. Gibson was in the toilet and got sold for a song. Fender needed to be re-capitalized by investment bankers. I was aligned with five basic start-ups: Dean, Hamer, BC Rich, Jackson/Charvelle, and Kramer. We all kind of started at the same time. Duncan pickups, DiMarzio pickups, we were all like the new generation. All the guitar makers got our world rocked in the mid- to late-eighties when everything was going off-shore. It was whole new game and everybody had to figure out how it was going to be played.
So what did you do?
Went off-shore. We ran it to ’91 and in ’91 there seemed to be no bottom on the guitar market and I just had enough and sold the company.
Did you stay on in any capacity?
No. I was done.
So you sold the company and left.
Yup. I was out of music for nine years.
Really? What were you doing during that time?
I was designing and making custom furniture. Even built for Michael Jordan.
Ok, so prior to selling the company, you had a slew of well-known rockers playing your guitars, right? Like, you built ZZ Top’s fuzzy guitars.
Billy woke me with a phone call in the middle of the night from England, he was on tour. He puts me on the phone with the guys from Def Leppard, Billy always carried my catalog around with him, I got Sammy Hagar through him. Anyway, he was with Def Leppard, Billy worked out the models and called me to get me to build them. At the end of the conversation he said, “I’m sending you some sheep skins from Scotland, I want you to put ‘em on some guitars.”
What did you think about that?
Another day in the life of Dean Zelinsky.
And they still have those, right?
We first made a set for the video, then we made a set that played live. Then over the years I think Gibson made some for him.
One of the other big names is Michael Schenker.
Yeah. One of the truly greatest guitar players ever.
And did he adopt your guitars early on?
No! Late. I got a call from a fan who said, “Why don’t you go after Michael Schenker?” I said, “What do you mean, he has a deal with Gibson.” He said, “No he doesn’t.” It was a sleeper. Everybody thought that Schenker was with Gibson. He never had a deal with Gibson. So I e-mailed him and said, “Hey, I want to do a deal with you.” and he said, “Okay.” And I made him a guitar. A very particular guy, very sharp. A little nuts, but Savant sharp and savant nuts. I did up a contract with him. He didn’t go to a lawyer. He just questioned three paragraphs, and asked, “What do these mean?” I told him, “Basically it means we won’t screw you.” I’m always a very fair guy, gave him a fair contract. And he signed the contract. The first year we did a million dollars worth of Schenker guitars.
[PART TWO OF THE INTERVIEW WILL APPEAR IN A SUBSEQUENT EDITION OF ROCK, ROOTS, & BLUES - LIVE]
On April 5, 2014 I interviewed Dean Zelinsky, founder of Dean Guitars and CEO of Dean Zelinsky Private Label Guitars via Skype. We discussed, at length, how he came to build guitars, his early days with Dean Guitars, as well as his recent innovations with Dean Zelinsky Private Label guitars. This includes his recently patented Z-glide guitars necks. A true revolutionary innovation in guitar making. The guitars he currently builds are truly beautiful. Visit Dean Zelinsky Private Label Guitars on the web, since that is the only way to purchase one, other than his recently opened outlet store in Chicago.
Dean Zelinsky and Johnny Winter backstage at BB Kings on 2/23/14 for Johnny Winter's 70th birthday party show with the one-of-a-kind, custom guitar Dean built and gave to Johnny.