Dean Guitars CEO Elliott Dean Rubinson Talks Gigging with Uli Jon Roth, Balancing Life As a Musician
Elliott Dean Rubinson is known in the music industry as "the boss who rocks." He's the CEO and owner of Dean Guitars, ddrum and Luna Guitars. He's also a world-class bassist who has toured with Michael Schenker, Michael Angelo Batio and Uli Jon Roth.
We recently sat down with Elliott to talk about his career and current projects.
GUITAR WORLD: What was it like the first time you picked up a bass?
In junior high we had a band, and everyone played guitar. Since I was the worst, I was threatened to be ousted unless I'd switch to bass. Since I had zero money, I took the high strings off the guitar and played bass on my Kimberly electric guitar that barely worked.
The day finally came when I went into New York City and picked up a Beatle bass copy and plugged it in, and the sound was immediately addicting. Then it was time to save up for the bass amp. With the singer's mic plugged into the bass amp, we were off!
What would your younger self think if he could see how much you've accomplished?
Never in a million years did I have aspirations to go this far. If you told me in my teens I would own a world-renowned guitar company and be playing with some of the greatest guitarists on the planet, I never would've believed it. I tell everyone I come in contact with that being successful is all about hard work, focus and drive. Setting that goal, believing in yourself and not letting an opportunity get by you is a recipe for success. When Michael Schenker asked me if I knew a bass player to fill in on a few gigs, I hadn't touched a bass in two decades. If you let an opportunity like that get by you, it might never happen again.
How do you balance being a touring musician with the responsibilities of being the owner and CEO of Dean Guitars, ddrum and Luna?
Balancing touring and running Dean Guitars? Actually, I'm looking for something to do in my spare time. A typical day on the road would be to wake up about 8 a.m., while the other guys are sleeping, and come out to the front lounge and fire up the computer and do five hours of phone calls and emails. The great thing is I can work right up to sound check at 4 p.m. That's the time when I switch hats. It's all about fine tuning the equipment and getting out of business mode and into rock mode. I then have until 10 p.m. to get my game face on. A few of the guys I play with call me Superman. Honestly, I would go crazy with too much free time.
Dean was responsible for making two of the most iconic guitars ever, both for Michael Angelo Batio — the Double (which is on permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum) and the Quad. What was that design process like?
Dean Guitars made the very first double guitar in the Eighties, and we mastered the technique. People always ask us how we make a case large enough, not realizing the guitar is actually two single guitars that lock together with two pins and a road case twist lock. It's really a clever design, and there is no need to try and improve it in our estimation. The Nitro "Freight Train" video always blew me away, between Michael's playing and the quad dropped from the sky, so I asked Michael if he thought it was a good idea to build a 2013 version. The thing is so slick, but it weighs a ton. Michael always relates it to wearing two bowling balls around your neck, but if there is anyone who has the stamina and work ethic to make it happen, it's him. He's an incredible human being.
On Batio's new release, Intermezzo, you made an amazing bass contribution to the song "8 Pillars of Steel." How were you involved in that album, and how did you track that part?
Mike called me one day and said he had a song on his new record he felt I'd be perfect for. It would feature a bunch of great guitarists including George Lynch, Dave Reffett, Rusty Cooley, Jeff Loomis, Craig Goldy and more. What an honor to be part of the rhythm section for this — and to have an eight-bar solo. Believe it or not, I had a friend named Marie Sorenson who brought her portable studio over to Dean Guitars; I took a two-hour break and ran down to our artist lounge and recorded it right there, playing through her Avalon preamp. I really like the tone she got using my Dean "John Entwistle Hybrid" bass. The bass is wired in stereo with the neck pickup being passive and the single coil being active.
ddrum is an impressive company as well, with a great artist roster (Vinnie Paul, Carmine Appice, etc.). What does the company hope to bring to drum fans that's unique?
I've long been a fan of drummers and drums and as a bassist always found I that I had keen eye for certain players. It is a huge honor to have people like the Appice brothers, Vinnie Paul (Pantera, HellYeah), Barry Kerch (Shinedown), Derrick Wright (Adele) in our family. There are a lot of great drum companies out there, but first off ddrums have acoustic and electronic kits plus world-class hardware. We feel we specialize in things other people don't do, like hybrid kits with triggers built in, unique configurations and finishes and, of course, we arguably have the world's best trigger seen on so many pro stages. Last week I did some gigs with Vinnie Appice and it was great to hear how great he made the kit sound!
When you're playing with Michael Angelo Batio, Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth, what is your practice routine, work ethic and schedule like?
As you can imagine, my schedule is hectic. I get home at 8 p.m., have dinner and run down to my rehearsal room for an hour's worth of practice. That's about all I can fit in. But honestly there is so much more to preparing for gigs with these guys. Starting at 7 a.m. I try to get a physical workout at least five days a week, either stretching, bike rides, tennis, weights, etc., because when I do double duty with two bands a night, I'm up on stage for close to three hours and if you're not in shape, you're gonna die up there.
The practicing is a little tricky and I'll tell you why. Uli has no set list! There are 25 to 35 songs he might call out, depending on how he's feeling and how the crowd is reacting, and I need to be ready for any or all. The Schenker set is much more structured with approximately 18 predetermined songs. Batio's set is also predetermined, but you need to be on your game for that one. If I am playing with two different bands in the same month, there is a fair amount of material to be on top of. Michael Schenker's set is very rehearsed as is Batio's, but Uli prefers to jam and take you to your limits. It's not unusual for him to put his guitar down and walk off stage, leaving us to jam. I feel extremely fortunate to have played around the world with these three amazing guitarists.
How do you get gigs with guys of this level?
Obviously, you have to have the chops or they wouldn't be asking. But there's so much more people don't see. The Number 1 thing I try to be is low maintenance. We usually have only one rehearsal before a tour, and I come totally prepared in terms of the material. The last thing these guys want to do is stop to show you a part. Not good. I make sure I have backup basses, strings, etc., and I make sure I'm ready for any potential equipment issues.
I have a pedal board that fits in my suitcase, complete with my wireless receiver, and all I have to do is run one cable and plug it in. I am ready in two minutes and never want to hold up anyone. Obviously being entertaining on stage, having the proper stage clothes, etc., is part of it. There is really an inner-circle of musicians a lot of these guys know about and use, and I do everything I can to remain in it!
I'm all about rock-solid bass. I am going to lay down a foundation with the drummer that is going to make the guitarist feel comfortable soloing over it, as opposed to trying to be a lead bassist. I am really enjoy playing with Batio because he encourages you to improvise and expand your abilities. Every bass player would love this.
Dean is interesting in that it has legacy artists like Leslie West in addition to newer artists like Jacky Vincent. How has Dean been able to accomplish this, and what's next for the company?
Growing up as a bassist, I loved some of the guys like Leslie West, Schenker, Roth, Vinnie Moore, etc., and I wanted to make sure these guys became the cornerstone of what we were doing because, let's face it, these are the guitarists who influenced everyone of our generation.
More than once I've looked on the side of the stage or in the audience, and Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield came out to see Schenker or Roth. These guys know what an inspiration some of the Dean artists are. That said, there are some great new guitarists who we are proud to have in the family, like Jacky Vincent or Zoltan of Five Finger Death Punch. We want to stay relevant to all ages, and I think when guys like this see how we treat our artists and how easy it is to work with Dean Guitars, they tell their peers and in turn they come to talk with us. I'm very proud of what we have built here in Florida.
What advantage do you think Dean has over its competitors?
The Number 1 thing is the fact that our company is a band of great musicians who love to be surrounded by music and instruments. There are so many gigging musicians here who road test the instruments on stage and report back. This is invaluable.
Just being able to make instruments that are balanced correctly, play properly and sound great cannot be done strictly in the corporate world. In addition, some of our competitors simply cannot make decisions and changes as nimbly as we do. We can sit down with an artist and make the decision to do a signature guitar for him on the spot. No board meetings, no voting, no two-month lag. Just a, "Yes, we can do this." I see this as being a huge advantage.
Dean is well represented around the world. Is this something the company is always working on? New countries and new territories?
Dean Guitars has distributors around the world covering Europe, Australia, South America, the Pacific Rim, etc. That said, we do have countries where we don't have the representation we'd like. For instance, we get a lot of calls from people looking for our high-end U.S. guitars from our artists like Dave Mustaine or Dimebag Darrell. They get frustrated because these guitars are just not everywhere as we only build 500 pieces a year, and typically the limited-run pieces are pre-sold. With the world becoming a smaller place, it is getting a bit easier to find what customers are looking for from Dean.
I've seen you refer to Dean's more high-end guitars, like the Sky, in interviews. What is Dean's strategy for pleasing all of its customers — from the kid who wants an inexpensive introductory model, all the way up to the guy who wants a $7,000 custom shop "Ferrari"?
I think Dean Guitars has the widest range of product offerings of any guitar company. Uli Jon Roth's Sky, which is the most sophisticated guitar on the planet, is a $13,000 machine, while we offer entry level guitars for $99. Something else a lot of people don't know is that acoustic guitars, bluegrass instruments and basses are a large part of our business, offering things like 12-string basses, Aphex-equipped acoustic guitars and specialty instruments like six-string banjos.
Of course, we are super proud of our iconic Dean "V" headstock that you can spot from 100 yards away, which is arguably one of the most famous headstocks of all time. But we are very pleased we can accommodate the entry level player as well.
Photo: Jerry Averill
Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.