Setting up the Dean Guitar Factory
7/1/16 9:32 AM
- Setting up the Dean Guitar Factory -
FROM REPAIRMAN TO FACTORY OWNER
It was 1976. Most of my peers were either in college or working in the trades—many were busy improving their drug and alcohol skills. None of that felt right for me, and at the age of 19 I somehow thought I was ready to go into the guitar manufacturing business.
In the past, I’ve mentioned losing my father when I was just 12 years old. His passion was aviation and he flew his own twin engine Cessna. One day in the spring of 1969, I answered a phone call that would forever change the course of my life when I received the news that my father had gone down in his plane.
My father had been a pilot his whole life…he was in the Air Force. It just didn’t make any sense. We later learned that the accident came at the result of negligence on Cessna’s behalf. My father had taken his plane in for a recalled fuel line and the mechanics never got around to fixing it. The accident led to a lawsuit and six years later, at the age of 18, my family received a small settlement from Cessna, which my mother split amongst my brothers and me. Nothing could fill the void left by my father. I thought a lot about him during that time when I was growing up. I thought a lot about the man he wanted me to be. I always wanted to end up in the rock and roll business. He had hoped that I would find a career as a businessman. The settlement in no way made a dent in the loss I experienced but I knew using it to start a company would have made my father proud. I was extremely driven in those early days of building Dean Guitars. I always had this intense feeling my father was looking down on me and that gave me the strength and perseverance to push on no matter how difficult the tasks became.
While I had some natural talent, an incredible amount of drive and an extreme propensity in figuring out how to make things work, I had zero experience in guitar manufacturing. I was just a repair guy who had made a handful pieces to date. Sure I could create a single guitar neck, I could refinish a guitar, I could make an adjustment here and there—but how do you produce thousands and keep the consistency? Not to mention the million other little things I had yet to even think of? I had my work cut out for me.
From that point on, manufacturing was my focus. I didn’t have the patience to make one off guitars and never would have lasted as a pure “luthier.” Sitting at a workbench and slotting frets one by one just wasn’t for me. I was much more interested in designing the machinery that could do that work on a hundred necks. Really what it all came down to was that if I truly had a better guitar, it wouldn’t mean a thing unless everyone could own one. Manufacturing was always the natural path for me.
What was Dean thinking?
In 1976, rock was a relatively new genre—still in the process of transformation. Sure there were the 60s, but by the time I started Dean Guitars rock was entering a new age. The big concerts were progressing with laser light shows and early multimedia productions. Rock stars were creating fashion…they had “clothing designers” and the guitars they were playing, designed in the 50s, just didn’t seem to hold up with the era. I wanted to bring the guitar into the modern era, to craft an instrument that really looked a part of what was happening onstage, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of gimmick that were prone to the time. My guitars would be classy works-of-art with all the sought after components players were searching for in vintage instruments—flame maple tops on fully bound bodies, ebony fingerboards, components mounted in the wood and not in giant pickguards, design features used to increase sustain and an unforgettable V neck profile. I’d always loved the sound of DiMarzio pickups and installed plenty during my repair days. I knew putting Super Distortions in my guitars would give them the tone players were looking for “off the shelf” and that feature simply did not exist at the time. My early Dean’s became the first production guitars on the shelves outfitted with DiMarzios as stock pickups.
My factory found its home at 2125 Dewey Ave. in Evanston, IL. I was still living with my mother in Highland Park at that time and had a 25-minute commute in my Chevy van. I would leave early in the morning and often times work ‘til midnight, only to get up early the next morning and do it all again. I’d take the scenic route down Sheridan road, right through the heart of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs along the shores of Lake Michigan. In those tireless days and nights it was a good reminder of what I was working towards—I was picking out the house I was going to live in someday. That dream helped to keep my drive alive during the difficult days—and there were many difficult days trying to manufacture guitars on a shoestring budget at the age of 19. Instead of listening to rock music, I tuned in to WBBM radio “Chicago’s Business Station” along the way. They gave the stock market report, hogs futures, etc. I put my Rock Star dreams on hold, and just as my father had always hoped, I found myself wanting to be a businessman.
Working up my designs...
I started working on my own to buy the machinery and set up shop, but most of my time was spent working out my designs. 24/7 it was designs and process, designs and process—perfecting my designs and figuring out how to most effectively manufacture them.
I knew I was going to build Vs and Explorers, but exactly what kind of Vs and Explorers? My main goal was to one up Gibson’s original designs. I needed to get my hands on an original 50s Gibson V and Explorer to get the body profiles right but those guitars were difficult to come by, and the Gibsons being built at the time were such a far cry from the originals they were useless to me. However, I knew Ibanez was really good at copying Gibsons. They had the 1950s models down. My friend Gary Gand hooked me up with Seymour Schwartz, the local Ibanez rep. Seymour sold me an Ibanez Korina V and Explorer right out of his house at dealer cost. Those became the models off of which I based my patterns. Both guitars got cut up during the process but were undeniably properly sacrificed for the greater good.
That Famous Headstock
Through much fine-tuning, I finally got my body styles designed to my liking. The last step was finalizing my headstock before I could get on with the initial prototypes. While I had worked up some rough concepts for other shapes, I always had that V headstock on my mind. Gibson had made a bastardized asymmetrical V head on some of their earlier models. I thought it was a cool idea, they just missed the mark. I knew that if my guitars were going to have a truly memorable look and feel, that headstock was going to play a big part. Beyond that, I knew a fair bit about branding and just how valuable it would be if people could identify my guitars even from the last seat in the house. My first prototype was a V body with that seemingly giant V headstock on it. I literally modeled the headstock by flipping the V body and scaling it down. I showed it around to a few players I respected for feedback, but deep down I fell in love with the look myself. It was always going to be that headstock.
What are you going to call these things?
One of the players I had shown the early prototype to was a man named Gary Gand. Gand was the most progressive guitar guy I knew. He was about 4 years older than me and had his own store by the time he was 16. He absolutely knew what was cool. Gand was generally a positive guy and liked what he saw, headstock and all. He instantly asked “what are you going to call them?” I told him I didn’t exactly know yet. Gand suggested, “why don’t you call them Dean Guitars?” I said no way (I always disliked my name). Gand kept pressing, “it’s a cool name and would be a great name for a guitar.” I left there saying “no way” but the idea must have grown on me. I ran it by a few more people who must have given it a “thumbs up” because not long after I was looking for a logo design with the word Dean in the middle of it.
That Iconic Winged Logo
During my repair days, a local aspiring artist by the name of Gary Mann used to hang around my shop. He even painted a big guitar mural on the wall outside. I showed Gary the prototype V with that big V headstock. He immediately asked if he could design the logo. I welcomed the offer and he soon returned with a crude winged logo with the letters D.E.A.N. in the middle. I liked the concept and seeing it like that even helped me to warm up to my name on the head but the wings reminded me more of those boney pterodactyl wings. I felt I needed a more polished look for my logo. I had a distant cousin who worked for a local decal company (the same company that would go on to make all the Dean logo decals). The cousin turned me onto a professional graphic artist named Wayne Kibar. I brought him a guitar with the V headstock along with Gary Mann’s drawing and asked him to design a more polished logo using the winged concept. Soon Wayne delivered the finished artwork along with a bill for $30. That’s right—the original Dean Logo was designed for $30. It was such a departure from Gary’s version it took me a little while to get used to it, but sure enough I fell in love with that logo and my name as soon as I put it on the V headstock.
The designs were getting more polished and it was time to start the production tooling. I don’t exactly remember if this was during my high school days or shortly thereafter, but I remember lying awake in bed night after night designing guitar fixturing in my head, literally not being able to fall asleep until I was sure I had the entire fixture worked out. I could swear I had all the tooling done “in my head” before I even signed the lease on Dewey Ave.
If I was going to continue moving forward, I need to hire the right people. I first ran an ad in the Chicago Tribune to find a lead woodworker. Not necessarily to start building guitars yet but to make all the tooling to produce my guitars on production machinery. One of the guys who came for an interview was a gentleman by the name of Mirza Yousef or Yousef as I soon came to call him. He was fresh into the country from Pakistan and showed up with a paper in hand, a “degree in woodworking” from a University in Pakistan. He seemed like he could do the job, was a nice enough guy and just odd enough that I’d probably have a story or two to tell 40 years later.
Yousef didn’t know jack shit about guitars. I’d be surprised if he had ever picked up a guitar before setting foot in my factory, but one thing he did know was woodworking. Most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to use the dangerous routers and shapers that could take your hand off just as easily as cutting out a guitar body. As a guitar player myself, I was a bit more concerned about keeping my appendages intact. With my knowledge of guitars and my fixtures designs firmly in my head, Yousef and I worked day and night building and testing all the tooling to manufacture guitars. We worked out numerous patterns to make bodies with all routing for electronics, binding, and to accept the neck—necks featuring my V shape profile with all the machining for truss rods, neck joint, fingerboards, routing the inlays, the taper, and tooling to get the boards thru the fret-slotter properly and the V headstock. We designed the machines for radius-ing fingerboards. There’s a long long list of custom tooling you need to have in place before you can even think about manufacturing a guitar. With Yousef on board, we were on our way.
That Now Famous ML Design
Beyond all the tooling that needed to be done, I hand my hands full with the many other tasks needed to get a guitar company off the ground. Big on that list was designing the final guitar in the lineup. Going off the body shape alone, the V and Z were nothing new to most players in the guitar world. I knew I needed something original, something different. There was also that idea of three. Three models seemed like a better roll out than two. I couldn’t tell you exactly how I crafted my 3rd model but I suppose it was obvious at the time. If you liked a V and an Explorer, simply combine the features of each guitar. I remember laying a V and Explorer on top of each other on the floor and working out the math, tinkering with it to get it just right. When I had my shape, it looked anything but symmetrical…which runs totally counter to a “V” but something about the asymmetry worked nicely on that design. A few more adjustments and I had it. My 3rd guitar in the line—The Dean ML.
Dean Infiltrates Gibson
Yousef was hard at work on the tooling but had his limitations on what he could bring to the table. I still had to develop the entire production process myself. Building guitars is a process…you bring wood in the back door and guitars go out the front. Everything in-between takes a lot of thought, know-how, and talent. Sourcing became one of the most difficult tasks. I had worked on guitars with “off-the-shelf” products but never set up a production process. Where do you purchase lacquer, buffing compound, that dark wood-fill that made the mahogany grain look so prominent on Gibson’s cherry SGs? I needed sources for things like; lacquer, ebony blanks, buffing compound, binding plastic, as well as processes, where do you go for this expertise? I keep reminding in my writing…there was no Internet at this time.
The obvious solution was to infiltrate Gibson. All the answers lied within those walls. I ran an ad in the Kalamazoo newspaper looking for guitar builders. It was a long shot as Kalamazoo was 3 hours away from Chicago, however one guy did respond and actually made the drive down for an interview. I don’t remember his name but during the interview it quickly became obvious a job in Chicago was not going to work out for him. However, he was an extremely nice guy and seemed like he wanted to help out. He initially gave me a decent amount of info but his scope was limited as to what he personally knew. So in the coming days, he had me calling the back rooms of Gibson and would put his friends on the phone to help me with sourcing. I remember speaking with a guitar buffer. I asked him who made the buffing compound…and the guy couldn’t remember. He then mentioned there was a name on the bars of compound he used everyday but he never paid attention. So I asked if he could look and I could call back tomorrow...and he did. Through this backroom phone connection, I was able to source just about everything I needed including; lacquer coming from Mobile Chemical in Kankakee IL, buffing compound from the Stutz Company, lacquer colors coming from V. J. Dolan in Chicago, binding and backplate plastic coming from General Tire and Rubber in Ohio and Ebony from Vikwood in Sheboygan Wisconsin. The one stop shopping I put together to acquire all these sources was priceless. And once I had my vendors, they were happy to tell me exactly what Gibson was using in order to make the sale with me. Lumber (mostly mahogany) I sourced in Chicago coincidentally from a place my Grandmother worked when she was 18. The owner, in his 80s then, still remembered her.
Lacquer was a biggie. All off-the-shelf lacquers would crack and check during shipping in the winter and Chicago isn’t exactly known to stay warm around that season. Lacquer needed to be formulated especially for guitars. A plasticizer is added to make it softer and more pliable which helps to limit cracking but too much plasticizer and the guitars won’t buff…the lacquer just smears. Mobile Chemical was Gibson’s supplier and together they had been through the learning curve. I called Mobile and got the head salesman on the phone. He firmly stated their minimums were many 55-gallon drums and of course, they could not give me Gibson’s formula - which I absolutely respected. So I simply asked, “do you think you can make me something similar to Gibson’s, around the same time you make Gibson’s batch and sell me one drum?” The guy knew exactly where I was coming from. I was secretly buying Gibson’s lacquer and used to drive 3 hours to Kankakee to pick it up in a trailer towed behind my van.
I also had an account to buy parts at Gibson left over from my repair days. I was secretly buying all my tune-o-matic bridges from Gibson until Dean Guitars landed on their radar and someone figured it out. This explains the period that led to some vintage Dean Guitars being outfitted with Ibanez bridges. This lasted only until I convinced Helmut Schaller to sell me some Nashville Tune-o-matics. He agreed as long as he could ship to my house.
Additionally, there was a metalworking part of the equation. I could not find a place to source truss rods and our brass “V” and jack plates. The only solution was to set up metalworking in-house. I bought raw steel and brass from Central Steel and Wire in Chicago. We made our own truss rods and brass plates, polished them on the same machines we buffed guitars on…clear lacquered them in the paint room.
I continued to hire people as we worked out each process. I hired a lead guy to run the finishing operation. Once again, not a guitar guy but an experienced furniture finisher. I taught him about guitars, as it would be pretty rare to find a furniture finisher who knows how to achieve a mirror-like guitar finish. Buffing I just worked the process out on my own and trained a guy from Jamaica who never saw a buffing machine before in his life. I only hired factory workers and trained them…nobody knew how to build a guitar. My criteria was more “how badly do you need a job?” I soon learned guitar players never worked out in the factory, but they were essential in the final assembly and the set-up area.
In addition to the voluminous task of setting up production, designing the production process, hiring and training a crew, sourcing all the parts and materials, I also had the daunting task of setting up a sales and marketing arm and developing the marketing plan.
A Man with a Plan Named Zan...
I was sitting in my office one day and one of my uncles showed up at my door. I showed him around the factory and he seemed to be rather impressed. He asked me how I was going to sell these things. I remember saying, “I don’t know, I think I am just going to take an ad in Guitar Player Magazine.” Guitar Player was “the only” Magazine at that time. The uncle said he had a friend who dabbled in marketing, “maybe he can help, should I send him over?” I said sure. A few days later a guy named Zan Skolnick shows up. Zan was an amateur play-write who did marketing and PR for the Jewish United Fund and previously worked for the Illinois Bell Telephone company. I gave Zan a crash course on what was going on in the guitar business…Gibson sold out to Norlin and Fender to CBS. I told him my plan was to make these killer guitars and capitalize on how “out of touch” both of these companies were. Zan instantly loved what I was doing. Before he left he said, “I already have our first ad; “A New Standard of Excellence…The Finest Guitars Since You-Know-Who Sold Out To The Big Boys!”
Zan and I soon reached a financial arrangement and Zan became the first Marketing Director of Dean Guitars. Zan dug in quickly, calling all the trade magazines and even meeting with them to get the lay of the land. Zan was sharp and soon had a grasp of the music industry. In our second meeting he told me “NAMM has a new West Coast Show in January…we need to be there!”
Zan was right. And we started to make the preparations for Dean Guitars debut. But that’s a story for another day…
The Launch of Dean at NAMM - January 1977
Cram for NAMM
There were many trials and tribulations in getting the first Dean Guitars out the door. It took the better part of a year and almost 18 months for the first production guitars to roll out the door. There were batches of bodies warping, first shipment of ebony stolen at the dock, batches with necks too thin, just getting fingerboards glued on necks and straight with the truss rods working properly with proper relief (two way truss rods were not invented yet) was quite a learning curve. Many guitars went from the production line to the dumpster before we shipped a single guitar…training workers was the biggest hurdle. I will talk about this in more detail in future writings