This is the fascinating story of the birth of a guitar industry icon in his own words
So it’s late 1976, I’m 19 years old, diligently working day and night tooling up a guitar factory. Zan Skolnick, my marketing director, is now in place and the game is starting to change; things are ramping up. We are going to the NAMM show in January and the already voluminous task I had taken on just got super-sized. Working to get this monster going was on my schedule, but suddenly I had a drop-dead date to launch this Guitar Company – January 21st, 1977.
I was thrust into dividing my time from solely building a guitar factory to some early marketing directives. There were catalogs to create and advertising to be done. This also created the need to finish up some guitars just to photograph in time to create the ads and marketing materials necessary for the trade show. These were the “old days,” there was no digital shot and output 20 minutes later on a digital printer. We’re talking shooting film, developing, color separations, real graphic artists (without Photoshop), and offset printing.
Additionally, I had to get a small bevy of guitars ready for the show (about 10) and build a display booth that breaks down into a1976 Chevy Van. Yes, I was driving from Chicago to the West Coast in the middle of winter with my entire NAMM show in the back of a van. We’ll see how that works out!
Factory on Hold…
So the whole “set up the guitar factory” pretty much got put on hold, and we shifted to NAMM-Show mode —Unknowingly, something I would eventually be doing for many years to come. West Coast NAMM was always in January, right after the Christmas selling season. We couldn’t catch a break, all of us music industry people were busy scrambling to get our entire product selection and an impressive display to the NAMM Show. For decades, I could never truly enjoy the holiday season.
Having regular meetings with Zan, mostly evenings and weekends (Zan was moonlighting, he had a full time gig), we set our agenda for my first NAMM show and the debut of the Dean Guitar. Zan said, “We need to put out a teaser ad.” “What’s that?” I asked. Zan convinced me to put a small display ad in the back of one of the music trade magazines, saying something along the lines of ‘World’s Newest and Greatest Guitars are going to be at NAMM.’ We ran the ad. I don’t think it could have been more than 2 inches big, in the back of a trade rag, only read by music dealers. I didn’t have a budget for much more.
Then there was our debut consumer ad to create. I finished up the first trio of guitars to debut — a Cherry Sunburst V, a Braziliaburst Z (Zan named that finish, I remember he made some Brazilian Cigar reference), and a Black ML, my first truly original design. I painted the guitars myself and sprayed my finest bursts for the debut guitars. Zan had a photographer that grouped them nicely, hired a graphic artist and our first ad was created with the headline Zan came up with in our very first meeting, “The Finest Guitars Since You-Know-Who Sold Out To The Big Boys.”
My spirits were high, we were starting to look like a company! The anxiety caused by all the pressure was greatly overshadowed by my enthusiasm to build this guitar company and to play in this arena I’d always loved.
NAMM show was growing near and the booth needed to be built. My good friend Keith Fisher was going to make the drive with me and helped me build the booth. Keith and I had been friends since the age of 13. Our common thread, we both played guitar and were into building things. Keith was dabbling in the home security business at the time and since has gone on to become a major player in the Chicago market. Keith and I made the booth panels with 2x2s and pegboard (Slat-Wall had not yet been invented). We covered the panels with cheesy hippy-van-pimp-fur-cloth, and it all went together easily with bolts and wing nuts. We made a crude “Dean Guitars” logo out of Styrofoam that adorned atop the booth and added some even cruder outdoor light fixtures. Most importantly, it all broke down compact for the trip to Anaheim, California.
Further NAMM prep, I was consulting with my friend and music storeowner Gary Gand. Gary had been going to NAMM since he was a kid and knew the ropes. I think the only trade-show I had ever attended was the Candy Show in Chicago as a kid. “All the candy you could grab and fit in your bag!” I agreed to fly Gary and his wife, Joan, out to NAMM and put them up in a hotel in exchange for the help. Zan would fly out also, and they along with Keith became my total NAMM Crew.
Gand convinced me it would be good to throw a party to showcase the new guitars. The plan was to have a band play in the suite, including Gand debuting the Dean Guitars (he was the right guy for the job, at 16 he could play like Clapton), Joan on keyboards, some guy I don’t even remember on drums, and Gand’s friend Emmett Chapman performing on The Stick – the instrument Chapman invented. Our hotel accommodations quickly ramped up to a three-room suite in the Disneyland Hotel. I now needed to throw a massive party with a full bar, and I wasn’t even old enough to buy alcohol. Our booth was in the Embassy Room at the Disneyland Convention Center (the Anaheim Convention Center was not built yet). So in addition to doing the NAMM Show, setting up a rather big party was on the task list. I truly don’t know how I got all this done.
The Teaser Ad Worked!
NAMM was approaching and one day my mother, who very often worked in the office, comes back in the shop and says a guy named Jerry Ash is on the phone. Jerry owned Sam Ash Music which was the biggest music store chain in the country with seven stores. Guitar Center was not all that big back then. Keep in mind, I’m 19 years old, starting a guitar company and now I’m on the phone with The Largest Music Retailer in the World… and he called me! We had a nice conversation and he said he was going to come by my booth at NAMM. He went on to say, “if your guitars are as good as you say they are, I’m going to buy them!” Jerry was a sharp businessman, and being cutting edge on new products was a big part of his success. Apparently reading the classifieds in the back of magazines was part of his M.O.
As the show was nearing, of course the guitars simply were not ready. As one would expect, I had all sorts of manufacturing hurdles. I was putting out fires daily, as failure was not an option for me.
I got the guitars through paint with only days to spare, but now my skeleton crew had to finish them up. It was wintertime in Chicago, sub-zero temperatures, and the young Dean Guitar crew was working day and night. We were all doing double duty with Yousef, the woodworker, even doing the soldering and wiring up guitars. Zan was a very positive guy and kept my spirits high through the difficult days. He would stop by to check on progress and add moral support, but his talents didn’t offer any assistance in the shop. My older brother Roger was in from college and became a great asset in this final push for the NAMM show as well.
We had purchased a massive buffing machine like the ones I had seen at Gibson with about 5 feet of spindle, but nobody knew how to buff a guitar on it yet, including me. I surely didn’t want one of these almost-completed-and-critically-needed guitars getting ripped out of someone’s hands and hitting the floor (the way buffers can do) days before I leave for the show.
We were now in NAMM crisis mode and buffing this batch of guitars became a huge task. I resorted to my guitar repair days and got out my Black and Decker hand drill. This was no ordinary hand drill, this one had a story!
When I was about nine or ten, I wanted an electric guitar so bad. There was this 4-pickup Teisco Del Rey in the S&H Green Stamp catalog. These were redemption stamps you received at the gas station and grocery store, and the more items you bought, the more stamps they gave you. Then you would have to go home, lick the stamps and paste them in books that you could redeem for prizes. I was saving up all of my parent’s Green Stamps for that guitar. It was thousands of stamps! I can’t remember if it was for Father’s Day or my Father’s birthday, but I forwent my dream of that 4-pickup guitar in order to get my father a present, that Black and Decker Electric Drill.
About ten years later, that drill was clamped to a bench with a 5” lambs-wool bonnet on it, the trigger locked in “ON” position and buffing all the guitars for my first NAMM show. Feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, I quickly taught my brother how to buff guitars.
Things were looking hopeful up until the day before we had to leave. Guitars were still waiting to be buffed and assembled. My brother Roger was buffing, and Yousef was installing hardware and doing last minute tasks like making backplates and truss-rod covers. Got to remember, we were making almost everyone in-house, including truss rods and brass V Plates. Roger got into a mood. Why? I don’t know, but I was always a resourceful guy and this was just another issue I had to diffuse. I had a Valium prescription but almost never used it. That day, I happened to have some in my pocket and things were getting desperate! I told my brother to take one, and in about 30 minutes he was back buffing guitars and actually singing while he buffed.
Yousef witnessed all this, was enticed, and asked me for one of those pills. I wouldn’t give him one, but he wouldn’t back off, saying “boss, give me one of those!” So I broke a Valium in half, gave it to him and went about my business. Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t find Yousef. Looking all around the 3,500 square foot factory, I finally found him passed out on the coatroom floor in a makeshift bed he made out of all the employee’s coats! I’m shaking him trying to get him back in the game saying, “Yousef, get up…we got to get these guitars finished!” It simply wasn’t going to happen. I could not be prepared for the situation I found myself in…guitars needing to get finished, the van needing to be packed to make it to the biggest event in my life and my main guy is passed out on the floor – from half a Valium! I pressed on into the night and started assembling, wiring and setting up all the guitars myself. Somehow I made it, something like eight or nine guitars were ready to go and that had to do!
Hitting the NAMM Road
The next day, it was time to leave. While many of my peers were kissing their moms goodbye and heading off to college, I kissed my mother goodbye and headed off for NAMM. Keith and I packed up the van and started west. I remember this huge sense of relief as we rolled out of Chicago. The hugest task of my lifetime was behind me, literally. The Chevy van was chocked full — guitars in cases, the booth, tools, luggage, etc. I was really going to make the NAMM show. My dream was about to become a reality.
It was a grueling drive, about 30 hours, and because of all the prior challenges, the calendar didn’t allow any time for stopping. Keith and I needed to drive straight through taking turns driving and sleeping. I remember there was a time we simply couldn’t go any longer. We pulled over and both fell asleep for about two hours and then got back on the road.
The van had two seats up front and that was it. It was freezing cold driving west from Chicago at that time, these vans had no insulation and never heated well. The heat blowing from the dashboard barely reached the two front seats. There were two circular vents on top of the dashboard for defrosting the windshield. I cut out the louvers in the passenger side vent, which perfectly fit a Shopvac hose that I stuck into the hole. Keith and I took turns putting the hose under our jackets to keep warm until we hit warmer weather. Not sure how I thought the guitars finished with nitrocellulose lacquer would survive the cold, but it obviously was not on my radar.
We were headed to my aunt’s house near Anaheim. She was a college professor who invested in Orange County homes and had a house for us to stay in until we checked into the hotel suite.
We pulled up to my Aunt’s house the Wednesday afternoon before the show, totally exhausted from our long journey. We unpacked the van only to find that all the guitars – AFTER ALL THAT WORK AND ALL THAT PREP – had finished cracked and checked!! My first NAMM show had suddenly became a NIGHTMARE!