An Interview with Dean Zelinsky by Jenna Williams “The Scream Queen”

Sarah Gallenberger [Guitar Artist], Dean Zelinsky, Jenna Williams [G4V Artist Relations], Patrick Nettesheim [G4V Co-Founder]

What was it that initially got you interested to be involved with Guitars For Vets?

It was meeting Patrick [Nettesheim, co-founder of Guitars For Vets] and Eric [Weinstein, Executive Director of Guitars For Vets] at an event years ago. They just seemed real passionate and I wanted to get Guitars For Vets rolling. I was in a position to do something because I sell guitars direct, we could do more because there’s not a music store in the middle. Being able to deal directly with consumers, I was able to offer things that maybe another brand couldn’t with having a music store markup in the scenario.

You created a special Guitars For Vets guitar, how did that come about?

I just had this concept that we would give a guitar for everybody who bought a guitar. I thought it should be an identifiable guitar – if you’re playing this on stage, that means you donated one. The identifier was the was the big driving force of that.

And you’re going to be working on a new one?

Yes.

What all can you tell me about that?

We are busy setting up a new custom shop and factory outlet store here in Highland Park Illinois. Soon we will be able to cater to the market better. Will elaborate more once we’re all set up.

What do you feel is the importance of having a program like Guitars For Vets?

Well, apparently, it’s working really good as far as being in the VA level. I think everybody knows the– or if you’re a guitar player, you know the therapy guitar playing can do because it gets you, I think a lot of people, not only people with PTSD, but a lot of people might need direction or something to focus on.

I think it kept a lot of kids, back when I was growing up, more on the…I mean yeah, there is a drug culture in the music industry, but there’s a lot of people who can be on drugs and have no direction, and there’s a lot of guitar players that were just really fixated on being a great guitar player– there were no drugs, the drugs took a back seat.

I think it’s because, clearly, I’m no expert in the “therapy, recovery world”, but I know the value of [playing guitar], I know what it’s done. I’ve seen what it’s done for a lot of Vets, but I also know.

I run the Bismarck chapter in North Dakota, being there every week, seeing the Veterans light up, it’s so amazing.

Yeah. My wife is a model. Through her work with Playboy,  she would visit Vets at the VA Hospital in Chicago. She would just tell me how forgotten these people were and how they would light up when she would visit.  She was doing this 30 years ago, I’m sure things have improved over the years. In those days, there were probably a lot of younger vets from Vietnam era.

There’s still somewhat of a disregard, though.

Yeah, the “Support The Troops” only goes so far. It’s a lot of noise politicians and many people make until its time to get the wallet out! [laughs]

 
 
 

What does it mean to you to be able to support Guitars For Vets?

It’s just a good thing. Working in the VA hospitals, you’re supporting some of the most needy ones. So, it’s an incredible thing. When you get into the reality of wars, I think our country has been sending Americans to wars unnecessarily for most of my life. These people they go willingly, but they come back and have seen a lot.
Politicians say they support the troops. Yeah, they support the troops on the way in. History has shown, they don’t support them on the way out. They have no use for yesterdays soldiers.

I’m switching to a different subject now. I want to talk about your guitars. You are such an incredible, iconic person within Heavy Metal Music with Dimebag Darrell. I’ve been seeing a lot of your posts on Instagram lately and I know you have your Private Label guitars… There is really so much intricate detail that you put into your work. You can truly see the passion and the love that you have for creating guitars. What is it, that you feel while you’re creating these guitars?

I’ve always tried to push the envelope for guitars, which is difficult because guitar players, really resist change. They resist innovation. People basically just want a pretty piece of wood with a nice finish with some pickups and a couple [of] knobs. That’s just the way it’s been. 

Gibson and Fender are pretty much relying on guitars that were designed in the 50’s, for the eternity of the company. That’s how much the industry resists change and innovation. My challenge is always to innovate within those narrow boundaries which the industry will accept. 

In my early years I did it with innovative design. Then more with graphics and painting. As technology started getting better, I started doing more with 3D. When we got CNC technology, it became easier to do unique carves. I was the one to pioneer these ultra thin bodies. Then, I got more into lasers. Once you get a laser it’s like, “Ok, that gives us a lot more capability.” So we were one of the first companies to start laser engraving guitars and doing 3D artwork instead of just 2D art work. My core thing is innovating. [laughs] I’ve been innovating since I was a little kid in whatever I did.

Yeah. I read that you created your first guitar, in 1977?

’76 I started building the guitar factory. In ’77 the first Dean Guitars debuted. Before that, I had a repair shop and I was working on my own guitars. When I was a little kid…I was 12 years old, I built a guitar out of masonite panelling that my father had lying around while we were panelling the basement. My brother had an H.O. gauge train set. I took the track apart and used the rails for frets. It didn’t play, but it mocked the guitar and somehow I don’t remember how I forced my brother’s train track into the masonite but it had the illusion of frets. [laughs]

Dean Zelinsky and Jenna Williams “The Scream Queen”
What was it when you were 12-years-old that made you want to build guitars?

At ten years old I started playing guitars. I saw The Monkeys and that was it! I just wanted to be a Monkey. I was totally infatuated with guitars. Mother bought me an acoustic guitar out of a Marshall Field’s store window, they were taking down the display and she got the guitar for a dollar! [laughs] 

That was my first guitar. Then I started wanting to take guitar lessons. At 12, I was taking lessons and playing guitar. My father owned a screw machine factory, making machine parts. At home he was really a wood-worker. So we had saws and sanders and all sorts of woodwork equipment in the basement and…we built stuff.

My brother had train sets, I was into whatever and we were building stuff. The family thing was building stuff, you didn’t go buy it.  I was a curious kid. My parents bought me a record player,  I’d take it apart before I played a record on it. Needed to see how it worked. So then, when I started playing guitar, I was always intrigued on how they worked. I’d take them apart, turn the truss rod, figuring out how all of that stuff worked.

Then it evolved to buying guitars, especially broken guitars…I could pick them up cheap. I’d see a guitar with a broken headstock and I’m like, I can fix that.” I’d glue the head back on and do a refinish. This was my high school days, figuring out how I could buy and sell stuff. I was also into collecting guitars, selling and trading guitars. I could  buy a guitar that was busted up, or way substandard, add value and flip it. That’s how it all evolved. 

When I was in high school, I was 16 and was hanging around music local store, I knew the owner well, he was my old guitar teacher. I said, “Why don’t you let me do your repairs?” and he goes, “You can work on guitars?” I’m like, “Yeah.” 

So, he went down into the basement of the place and came up with a SG case. He opens it up and it’s this Gibson SG that someone had smashed on a concrete foundation wall. It was like the whole corner of the guitar body was gone. The neck was busted off and the head was off and in another two pieces. He said, “Can you fix this?” I said “Yeah.” [laughs]

And I took it home and made a whole new corner of the guitar glued it all back together, painted it up, and brought it back to him. He was impressed. Then I started doing all of his repair work, and that’s where I got a lot of my training. He’d call me and say “Can you do a sunburst?” I never did one before, but I’d say, “Yeah.” [laughs] And then I’d figure out how to do it!

So, pretty much my thing growing up was, “if somebody else can do it, I probably can do it too. “

In my high school days I simply couldn’t stand school. I actually have a blog entry on my website that says, “I can’t stand school.” [laughs] But, the whole story about how I started. The school had what I’d call a work-release program. It was when you could go to school half a day, get a job and get credit. It was senior year,  I told my counselor “I want to be in that program, but I want to be self-employed.” I wanted to go rent a place and start a repair shop.

The counselor said, “it’s against the rules.” … I threatened to drop out of school.” They don’t like kids to drop out so he had a meeting with all the counselors and they decided to make an exception for me. “Yeah. We can do this, but you have to bring a check book or some proof that you’re actually running a business.” I said, “Cool.”

And in my senior year, I would work half of the day and then go to my little shop I rented in Northbrook, Illinois. I set up my own repair shop and started doing repairs and custom work on guitars. That was my first venture into business. I was like 17 or 18 at the time.

That is so incredible even at that age to have that much passion. That just makes me respect you even more.

Thanks. Yeah my father was a businessman and that’s all I ever thought about was to be a businessman. I wanted to be a Rockstar…but becoming a businessman was a bit more realistic!

You know though, you’re the real Rockstar. You create guitars that make the Rockstars sound good. Your guitars all have that distinct quality and sound to them and like I said, you are the real Rockstar.

I appreciate that. It’s funny you should mention that because in the early years, I spent most of my– I mean, a ton of time going backstage at Rock concerts and hustling guitars. And they always said that the guitar builder got in before the groupies. [laughs]

After the rock shows, the band’s in their dressing room and everyone’s waiting for the meet and greet. The groupies would be there, I’d be there and I’d usually get the call before the groupies. [laughs] 

Dimebag [Darrell], he had this tremendous respect for me because I made the guitar that he got famous playing on.

I have a couple of questions about Dimebag anyway. Pantera, they’re my most favorite band ever and that’s why I feel so honored to be able to interview the man that created guitars for Dime. I remember reading in an interview where he said that when he was 15 or 16 years old, all he wanted was a Dean Guitar. And he ended up winning one at a guitar competition. Looking back on that now, how does it make you feel to know that when Dime was only 16, he wanted a Dean Guitar?

It makes me feel great. Actually, it’s a pretty cool story. I knew about Dimebag… He probably didn’t know I knew about him. We would host these contests down in Texas through a guitar store and the store manager would run the whole event.  Monday morning I’d get a call, “Oh man, you should see this kid who won the guitar! He came in with his Mom because he wasn’t old enough to get in the bar [laughs] and just blew everybody away!” And this guy (store manager) was a killer guitar player himself.

His name was Diamond Darrell or whatever, you know. [laughs]

So I heard about Dimebag early…when he was winning my guitars.  He was totally on my radar when he was young. But you know, you hear about a lot of prodigies…only a fraction of a fraction ever making it to stardom.

Dimebag is a– I don’t ever want to say “was” as he’s alive through his music — he is a legend, he’s legendary.

He was a legendary human being. Forget about the guitar playing, he was just a legendary guy.

That’s what I’ve always heard from everybody. What were your most favorite experiences that you had with Dimebag Darrell?

If you went to the doctor and he said, “You’re not going to wake up tomorrow.”

You’d want to spend that day with Dimebag! [laughs]

He was the most uplifting guy you’d ever want to meet. There was just something magical about him. Just the way he would pump up everybody in the room. Everybody was his friend and he made everybody feel special.

That’s why his fans loved him so much. A lot of them would end up backstage and if you were hanging at the back–I’d see some guys hanging at the backstage, trying to get in or something, if they got in, Dime would just blow ’em up, make them feel like a million bucks! [laughs]

I’ve always heard that he was the nicest human being alive. Him and Vinnie both.

Two different animals, though! They were brothers, but they were way different from my vantage point.

Darrell changed my son’s life. I brought my Son Tyler to meet him just weeks before he died. Tyler is a filmmaker, was a 16 year old aspiring filmmaker at the time and actually has some of the last footage of Darrell just before his tragic death.

It was really like a magical experience for my Son to meet him, I had been going to concerts all my life and my Tyler never really cared about going to meet any Rockstar. [laughs] And he wasn’t a Metal guy, he didn’t know Pantera/Damage Plan from anybody, but he knew of Dimebag Darrell. He was like, “Dad, I want to go to the show.”  I brought him and two of his friends.

My Son was filming this whole, pretty much, documentary on Darrell at 16 years old. He actually ended up on stage singing! [laughs] Darrell called Tyler and his two friends up on stage to sing WALK with the band. It’s all on video tape because Tyler was in the pit filming and when Dime called him up, he just took the camera with him. Mayhem, Dime’s security guy, took the camera out of my Son’s hands and kept filming the whole show with the audience’s reaction anyway. It’s pretty cool footage.

Darrell did an interview and Tyler filmed it. He told my Son pretty much where he was when he was his age and how hard he worked and the drive and the passion.

He talked about getting his tattoo with the Dean Guitar when they made the first record because felt like he had made it so far and he just wanted to get a tattoo to document his accomplishment. “If I don’t get any further in life, at least I’ve done this. And this is documenting it.” He explained to my Son who filmed the whole thing. During the filming Tyler was taking it all in and became enamored of what this guy [Dimebag] Darrell represented. [laughs]

It was an amazing couple days of hanging… Unfortunately, it was just weeks before he died, so it was all over. But it was a magical time to the point..we were at home a couple of days later and I asked my wife “Do you feel different?” And she goes, “Yeah.” It was all about this spiritual two days we spent with Darrell entertaining my Son. [laughs] 

Yeah. Hard to describe. I’ve always said “people see Dimebag on stage and think he’s amazing, but he really started entertaining when he got off stage.” [laughs]

It’s so incredible to hear stories about him. Thank you for sharing these.

I mean, I’m just honored to have known him, to have [him] play my guitars. He really was the glue that kept my brand alive while I was– I was out of the guitar business for a nine years hiatus. He singlehandedly carried my torch.

Your guitars are so iconic. They embodied Dimebag. You think of a Dean Guitar, you think of Dimebag Darrell. The guitar, the shape, the sound, your guitars just fitted him perfectly.

Yeah, he told me “I can’t deal with a little guitar because it would get away from me. With the ML guitar, I can be running around the stage,” and controlling the big extended body on the one arm and the big neck and headstock with the other. “I can control it while I’m flying around stage.”

He said, “A little Les Paul thing would just be in front of me and just get away,” But the fact that the ML was such a big plank…[laughs] he explained it to me how well it worked for him. [laughs]

The biggest thing my guitars had was an iconic headstock. I created it when I was 18-years-old and that helped my guitars make a statement. That headstock, it became synonymous with Dimebag Darrell who was making a statement in Heavy Metal. I think that iconic headstock with that iconic dude just became…sometimes one plus one equals three. [laughs]

And so Dimebag and the Dean Guitar really was together was way bigger than either one by itself.

Dean Zelinsky and Dimebag Darrell

When you and Dime would collaborate together, how did creating the new designs, how did they all transpire? And what was your most favorite one that you created for him?

I don’t know…Darrell was just full of ideas. In the early years before Darrell got famous, he did not have a deal with Dean Guitars. He played my guitars, but we never had an endorsement deal or anything, he wasn’t big enough.

By the time Pantera became big enough, a national act I was out of the Guitar business. He got famous with that guitar and then he couldn’t find me. He ended up going to Washburn [Guitars]. I lured him away from Washburn when I got back in the business but that was 10 years later. That’s when Darrell and I spent the most time together. Prior to that, I had gotten invited to some Pantera shows and I hung with him at a NAMM show, but I didn’t understand him. Metal and his world was new! [laughs]

When I returned to the music business Darrell and I reconnected. “Hey Darrell, I’d like you to come back.” Which is a whole other story in itself, but anyway, I brought him back. And at that point he was drinking very heavily. Actually, he had always been heavily drinking, but I think it was affecting him more or something.

I would be like, we got work to do, we got to design [your] guitars, blah blah blah. So, he kind of sobered up to do business cause it was important to him and I had an affect on him.

He got respectable about our deal. And he started drawing and designing guitars and doing all of this stuff while he was on the road.  I’d say, “we got to discuss these guitars.” And he’d say, “It’ll be available right after the show, I’ll be in the coffin, and I’ll call you!” And that was hard for him because he felt he had to entertain his fans in every town.

But sure enough, I’d get a phone call. He’d say, “Dean, I’m in the coffin!” So, he made time for this deal. Which was really eerie because it’s almost like he knew he didn’t have much time left.

See, the thing is, Dimebag’s problem, was he’d play a show in Chicago and felt obligated to hang with his fans and drink with them. He would drink until 4 in the morning! And then the friends would go home, puke, miss work the next day, and recover. But Darrell goes to the next city and does it again! [laughs]

So, that’s how Darrell’s life was different from the people who partied with him.  

He was drinking Pedialyte and doing all sorts of things… [Like], having a doctor monitor his liver, but that was his lifestyle. He drank more sophisticated toward his latter years. Watched his electrolytes [laughs] to keep him healthy.  I got him taking probiotics. I was trying to clean him up a bit, you know [laughs] get him more on the healthy side.

Getting back to the original question, I guess I got on a tangent. [laughs] Darrell had a lot of ideas. He’d call me up, “Hey, can you do this, this, and this? … What if we do this?” and I’d be “Yeah, we can do that.”

He was just a mile a minute coming up with cool things we could do. So, he had a very fertile mind for what he wanted to see in a guitar. 

Is there a specific one that was very meaningful to you that you two created?

Nah, I don’t think so. I think there were just a lot of nice graphics. Probably the Razorback one with the Metal Rust Finish …I don’t know, it’s been so long, it’s been 14 years since he died.

Yeah. I can’t believe it’s been that long.

Yes, unbelievable it’s been that long.

What was one of the craziest things remember about, or saw him do? Or rather, that you two did together? [laughs]

I don’t know, I’m trying to think. It was just a party. He just entertained everybody in the room. It’s hard to describe. He gave my son his first shot of whiskey…he gave my 16 year old a shot. [laughs]
That was the first time my kid did a shot. His second shot of whiskey unfortunately, was at Dimes funeral.

 

Aww. That’s so amazing to hear though and I’m sure that made it even more meaningful to you.

A lot of our conversations were just– most of the time he’d call in the middle of the night, leaving voice messages. [laughs] And then I’d just respond the next day. But we finally had a long, heart-to-heart talk about life [the day before he died]. That was kind of cool. So, I don’t if there was more meaning behind that.

You know how when Dime would play all of his incredible solos – like one of my most favorite solos ever is the solo in Floods. When he would be playing things like that, he would play them with such passion and you could see it — you know what I mean. I was never able to see Pantera or Damageplan, but it just gives me chills thinking about it. How did that make you feel seeing him play your guitars with the amount of passion, love, blood, sweat, tears, pure emotion he would put into it?

 

It was cool. The thing about Dime, he was rooted, his guitar playing…He was one of the inventors of Metal music, his core playing was Blues oriented, that’s what made him more special. Whereas, everybody else is playing scales, all the different scales. His was all rooted in Blues. So, that’s why he was probably the most melodic Metal guy ever, in history. That’s why his guitar playing, you could feel.

He was so innovative too.

Well, he was…He created Metal with Blues roots. That’s why when you hear things, his soloing was so cutting edge and also so melodic, it was because he was using more of the Blues scale.

Like, when I was a kid, the first artist I ever saw playing my guitar was Kerry Livgren of KANSAS. That was a big moment for a guitar maker because a ton of guys make guitars, but they never really see them get played on the big stage. And I was lucky because very early on Rockstars were picking up my guitars and I started seeing my guitars played on the big stage. [laughs]

It was always, it was a humbling moment to be sitting there, oddly, you felt like you were part of the show, you were more than part of the audience.

You really are. Like I said, you are the real Rockstar!

I’d be sitting there in the audience around a bunch of them and not one of them would have a clue that the dude’s playing my guitar, you know? [laughs]

That’s been my story for most of my life.
But with Darrell, I had a bigger connection with. That made it even better, you know? I always coined him as the guy who kind of made me. He was my Michael Jordan. Of course guitars are not as big as gym shoes! [laughs] I had to torch the Nike’s after last week. [laughs] But I think Michael Jordan sells $3 Billion worth of shoes per year.

The thing though, about guitars– shoes, you can throw them away, they don’t last forever. The thing though about guitars, about music — and you know this as well as I do, music lasts forever.


And guitars last forever!

Exactly!

And that’s why all of the guitar companies are fighting. Our biggest competition is the guitars that are already out there. That’s Gibson’s problem right now, that’s Fender’s problem — people don’t want to spend money, they’ll go out and buy a used one. You can buy a 30-year-old guitar and it’s as good or better than anything they’re making today. Gym shoes, you got to throw out in 3 years, you’re right.

That’s why music and guitars are so incredible. Kind of going back to Guitars For Vets, our message is all about the Healing Power of Music… Music just has this power that just puts you in a mood, a good mood. You can be having the worst day and music, like for me, I hear Pantera and then, I go “My day is better!” [laughs]

Right. You want to know the power of music from a business point of view? It made Apple the biggest company on earth.

Ohhh, you’re right! iTunes.

Yeah. Apple was struggling with its computers and then they came out with the iPod and that put them big time on the map. Then their computers started selling, then iTunes. They built that company totally off of music. Music is what gave it– I mean it was a very decent computer company that was struggling, when they went with the music, that is when their company took off.

That truly shows the power that music has.

The terrible thing about the music business is that “the artist gets the smallest amount of the money.”

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