Dean Guitars: More Than Just Metal
Dean Guitars has come along way since the late ‘70s. Throughout the course of developing of some of the most iconic guitars of the classic heavy metal era – including the Z, V, Cadillac, and ML – the brand has changed hands a few times, with present-day owner Armadillo Enterprises purchasing the Dean name in 1997.
We recently sat down with Armadillo owner and president, Elliott Rubinson, for a brief chat about the current state of Dean. Rubinson, who in addition to his corporate duties is an accomplished musician (currently playing bass with the Michael Shenker Group), shared his take on: heavy metal musicians and fans; the enduring appeal of Dean’s classic instruments, as well as its newer product innovations; and how he’s striving to help make players and dealers realize that there’s more to the Dean brand than “pointy guitars.”
MMR: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Elliott.
Elliott Rubinson: My pleasure!
MMR: I’m going to start off with the obvious topic, pertaining to Dean: metal. What’s your take on the enduring popularity of heavy metal? Fads and “hip genres” come and go, but metal’s kind of… always there.
ER: You couldn’t be more right. Go to any metal concert and the level of energy and dedication and excitement… how many genres of music consistently bring out that many people, that much enthusiasm? These people love metal and, for them, it’s a way of life and it’s not going away – and a lot of them play music! If you don’t have a dedicated [heavy metal] sales guy in your store, if you don’t have a dedicated display, then you’re not servicing those customers. And you could lose them.
MMR: Dean is a premier metal guitar brand, with some legendary shapes and features. One other factor which helped break Dean Guitars in the first place, and which continues to build the brand’s high profile, is the association with some key players.
ER: Oh, we have a lot of great metal guys [as endorsed artists]. There’s Dimebag [Darrell], of course. His legend, his dream, lives on with us. He signed with us six weeks before he was shot [Dimebag– Darrell Lance Abbott – was shot and killed onstage on December 8, 2004 –Ed.]. We had five weeks to put together the Dimebag line and it’s become a tribute. He’s probably the biggest artist of ours, still.
ER: No question. And [Dimebag Darrell] was such a personality, he’s so well remembered, so many people have happy memories of him. The metal community is such great people – A very caring group, they stick together. If people understood the metal community better…
MMR: There are a lot of other big-name artists associated with Dean Guitars, though.
ER: After Dimebag, there’s Dave Mustaine. Megadeth is as hot as they’ve ever been, especially with the recent ‘Big 4 Tour’ [Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica]. Aside from that, there are a whole slew of people: Eric Peterson of Testament, Michael Amott of Arch Enemy… David Vincent of Morbid Angel is huge – and also a good friend. And you see these guys up on stage or in videos playing these distinctively shaped guitars and it looks like a Dean commercial.
MMR: It really seems like heavy metal fans and musicians are way more attuned to artist-brand connections. Any thoughts on why that might be?
ER: There are only a few brands that really appeal to them. In the metal side of things, it’s very artist driven. People ask us why we do so many artist models – well, that’s why. I would say metal fans very loyal, very observant of what their favorite bands are playing. These players are very knowledgeable about the instruments and very tuned into the sound – more so than they get credit for.
MMR: But Dean isn’t just about metal. Do you find it difficult to get people to realize that?
ER: When I talk to people outside the industry, the first thing they think of regarding Dean Guitars is “metal” and we’re not entirely happy with that, because we do so much more… It’s true that, for many – if not most – when you say, “Dean guitars,” the first thing you think of is the V headstock. That’s been our branding, but truth be told a big part of our business is acoustic guitars, bluegrass, basses, DMT pickups, amplifiers. Obviously metal is great and all, but we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves. There’s so much more to Dean than just metal. We want to be a lot of things to a lot of people.
MMR: Talk a little bit about getting into the acoustic market?
ER: We looked at the market and asked, “What can we do that would be different?” We’re not trying to compete with Martin or Taylor – they own [their part of] the market and they do a great job at it, but a lot of guitars are sold at our lower price point, too.
People buy with their eyes a lot and our guitars jump out. We do a lot of reds, blues, tobacco sunbursts, and so on. We were amongst the first to of to offer high quality acoustics with quilt ash tops and flame maple tops at these price points. It’s pretty tough for a dealer to argue with a guitar of that quality.
MMR: What trends have you been noticing in the guitar market, overall?
ER: Recently, what dealers are reporting to me is that the really lower-priced guitars are selling a little weak, but $499 and up are enjoying resurgence. So, for whatever reasons, we find that people are seeking out better instruments. We’re seeing resurgence in $1,000 guitars, U.S.A.-built guitars.
MMR: Can you talk about that – how much of Dean’s output is American built, or set up?
ER: About five percent are entirely made in the U.S.A. guitars, which are built in my high-end facility down here in Florida. We have a handful of extremely talented guys building maybe 40 guitars a month. When someone gets a Dean USA Guitar they’re getting something very special. It’s a Ferrari.
MMR: And what about the non-custom shop, USA Guitars?
ER: Most are built in China, Korea, and Indonesia. Nothing just “comes in and goes out the door,” though. Everything goes through a ten-point check that gets more and more detailed all the time.
MMR: Any exciting developments on the horizon you can share with us?
ER: Well, we’ll be having the Thoroughbred coming out at NAMM. It’s a single-cut electric that might connect more with traditional players, non-metal guys. But it’s definitely sexier than other single-cuts on the market.
MMR: Final thoughts?
ER: I honestly think that I can’t think of a line that has more versatility, more price points, more features, more lineup of artists than what we offer. Dean’s arguably the most complete guitar line in the music industry. Nobody else has the diversity of electric, acoustic, basses – nobody. No hard feelings, but… I just don’t think there is!