Wayward guitar brand back for a rockin' encore

ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
St. Petersburg Times
Published Thursday, July 03, 2003

Heart. The Cars. ZZ Top.

The guitar gods of the 1980s may have left center stage, but their Dean guitar hasn't.

The angular instrument of choice for legends such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top has made a comeback after nearly petering out in the 1990s.

And now, Dean Guitars is hauling in $13-million of the almost $1-billion guitar market.

Those aren't bad figures for a company whose metal-tinged claim to fame faded with the advance of the grunge and alternative rock era. It's all the more significant, analysts say, because the market is dominated by luthier monoliths such as Fender and Gibson.

Dean has done it with a much broader range of products than it offered 20 years ago. The company now sells acoustic as well as electric instruments. They range from $50 to $4,000; most are in the $250-$800 range.

Wayward Son

Dean Zelinsky started Dean Guitars in 1976 while living in Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb. The first guitar he sold was an electric, with a headstock (the narrow piece of wood that holds the tuning pegs on the end of a guitar) shaped like the letter V - a shape so big it could be seen even from the nosebleed section of a concert hall.

"The biggest thing I wanted them to do was create a distinctive head design," Zelinsky said. "We were the first to really develop a unique head. It became our trade."

Zelinsky introduced other innovations. His guitars were made with ebony fingerboards instead of the traditional rosewood. Deans had binding around their bodies and were made of woods with exotic grains. A new kind of lacquer coated the product.

Zelinsky presented his new guitar at a trade show in Atlanta, where Kerry Livgren, a guitarist from the band Kansas, happened upon it.

Livgren used the Dean to record the hit "Wayward Son," and the rest is guitar history.

The trend caught on even though the company was not in California, then the mecca of all bands with big hair and tight pants.

NBC's Friday Night Videos and MTV had just gone on the air. Everyone gaped at the ZZ Top video "Legs," featuring half-naked women and a guitarist strumming on a fur-covered instrument that spun around on its strap.

That guitar was a Dean.

Sales exploded. Money was made. More bands - the Doobie Brothers, Jefferson Starship, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Pantera - picked up Deans.

Then, changing tastes and a price war among manufacturers sapped the profit from the business. It became "almost impossible to make a profit on American-made guitars," said Zelinsky.

Most companies shifted manufacturing to Japan, China or Korea for cheaper labor. Zelinsky chose Korea and produced 20,000 guitars a month there. But his efforts weren't enough. By the early 1990s, metal music faded, replaced by such grunge bands as Pearl Jam and the rise of rap and R&B.

Zelinsky sold Dean Guitars to Tropical Music in Miami. In 1995, that company sold the Dean logo and trademark to Elliott Rubinson.

Comeback

The upstart Rubinson founded the Tampa music store chain Thoroughbred Music. Dean was one of the first brands he sold. As an instrument retailer, Rubinson had firm ideas about what the guitar company needed.

"Instead of keeping it a radical, pointy guitar, we'd broaden it to make it available not only to top touring pros but to everybody," said Rubinson.

By 1997, Dean made $1 million, he said. Rubinson sold Thoroughbred to focus on Dean exclusively.

Dean also made a splash with the reintroduction of the Dean Girls, who used opaque shirts and ocean water in posters to boost sales. Kids started watching shows like We Love the '80s on VH-1 that exposed them to videos of old.

The company also began producing acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos, all staples of the resurgent bluegrass music scene.

Today, the company produces 50,000 instruments a year, with most manufacturing done in California and overseas. It sells them through 500 mom-and-pop shops nationwide and a handful of international distributors.

Counting color and wood combinations, the company offers 400 different guitars. Among the most expensive are the USA-made USA Time Capsule guitars, electric instruments mimicking the look of the "V"- and "Z"-shaped, 1980s Deans.

Although the nation spent $920-million on guitars last year, the market still has room for growth, said Scott Robertson, director of marketing and communications for NAMM, the international music products association.

One of the people watching the band's success was Dean Zelinsky, the company founder who had gone on to take up cabinetry. By the mid-'90s, Zelinsky's friends were telling him to check back with his old business.

Zelinsky, not expecting much, called Rubinson to ask if he could help out with advertising. He ended up in charge of U.S. production of Dean's highest-quality guitars. Zelinsky, now 46, also helps with marketing and design, and he autographs the first-run models of each guitar style.

"It felt very good," Zelinsky said. "Not too many people get a second chance at what they love. The company had grown and was in a lot of areas that I wasn't in when I was with the company - like acoustic guitars. I think Elliott did extremely well."