Since he first launched Dean Guitars in 1976, Dean Zelinsky has been a go-to guitar guru for some of the biggest names in rock—Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Nancy Wilson (Heart) and Def Leppard to name but a few. Known as the rock star of guitar manufacturers for his innovative use of Playboy models in ad campaigns, Zelinsky left Dean in 2008 to launch DBZ Guitars. This year he introduces his latest company, Dean Zelinsky Private Label Guitars.
Q: How did you get into building guitars?
Zelinsky: As a teenager I wanted to do much more with the instrument than my band mates and peers. I wanted to improve it—not just aesthetically, but functionally. I realized that development is an ongoing process, and no matter how perfect a guitar was, I always saw room for improvement. That led to repair work, which led to refinishing work, which led to designing. My first and only formal education on guitar building came at the age of 17. I ditched school one day and drove to Kalamazoo, Michigan for a Wednesday tour of the Gibson guitar factory. In a few short hours I saw everything I needed to know about guitar building. I’ve always felt that function dictates design. After 35 years I feel I’ve nailed it.
Q: Who was your earliest endorser?
Zelinsky: Kerry Livgren (Kansas) was the first to play my guitars onstage. He and I had met at the ’77 Summer NAMM show, which was my second NAMM show, but my first with production-model guitars. Kerry came by my booth and checked out the guitars. Days later he called me and said “I played about every guitar at the NAMM show and I like yours the best. I am leaving for tour in a few days, and I want to play your guitars.” From there a juggernaut-like effect happened; I was contacted by some of Rock and Roll’s heaviest hitters who were all inquiring about my guitars.
Q: You had a tight relationship with the late Dimebag Darrell (Pantera). When did you first meet?
Zelinsky: I first met Darrell before anyone knew who or what he would become, including me. I used to sponsor a “Guitar Hero” contest – and no, not the video game – at one of my largest dealers at the time, Arnold & Morgan Music in Dallas. Darrell’s mom used to bring him to these contests and he would just absolutely blow away the competition! I knew he was special. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many rock stars over the years, but Darrell was someone extra special.
Q: How did you become known as the ‘rock star’ of guitar makers?
Zelinsky: I think it was Kerry (Livgren, Kansas) who coined that phrase! It’s flattering for sure. I guess because I started my career as a longhaired, rock and roll teenager I fit the description. When you create the instruments that the artists depend on to get their sound, you receive a lot of respect. I always tell people, that in the ‘80s, when rock was in its heyday, hierarchy backstage was that the guitar makers where slightly ahead of the groupies. I’m just happy that guitar players like what I’m building.
Q: What guitar are you most proud of?
Zelinsky: Currently the design I’m most proud of, and mind you this after 35 plus years of building guitars, is the Zenyatta. It’s a very thin single cutaway guitar, but full bodied in an aesthetic sense. The result is literally a soundboard with endless sustain and unparalleled playability. I also designed and developed the “Z-Glide” neck. These are the world’s first necks with a texture. This strategically designed texture puts a bit of air between you and the guitar thereby reducing friction. Your hand only comes in contact with 30 percent of the neck, the other 70 is all air.
Q: Is there something different you hope to achieve/articulate with Dean Zelinsky Private Label?
Zelinsky: Dean Zelinsky Private Label Guitars represents all of the knowledge I have gained as a guitar designer and builder over the past 35 years. I want guitarists to recognize what makes a guitar great. In other words, I want them to fall in love with the instrument just as I did as a young kid.