Monday, March 16, 2015

Elliott Rubinson - CEO of Dean Guitars, Bassist To The Stars - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

The Elliott Rubinson story, when it is finally written will be one of talent, determination, hard work, and making the most of the cards you are dealt. He's currently the owner and CEO of Armadillo Enterprises, which owns and operates Dean Guitars, DDrums, and Luna Guitars, and he's also a touring bassist who's seen duty with such luminaries as Uli Jon Roth, Michael Schenker, Vinnie Moore, Michael Angelo Batio, and Black Star Riders in the last few years.

He's done all of this without a master plan, but he's always worked very hard, and made the most of every opportunity. From selling guitars out of his apartment in college to operating a seven location chain of music instrument stores (Thoroughbred Music, 1976-1999), and eventually purchasing and reviving the massively successful Dean Guitars to getting back in the game as a working musician, he's focused on preparation and fearless forward thinking to great success.

After having dinner together before the San José date on the Extreme Guitar Tour (Uli Jon Roth, Vinnie Moore, Black Knight Rising), we agreed to catch up once the grueling tour was completed for a more serious chat. For not only did Robinson play with all three acts, the bands also played twenty seven shows in twenty eight days. All this while continuing to run his companies from the back of a tour bus.

My first question deals with returning to the role of CEO after a month on the road as a full-time rock and roller:

Elliott Rubinson: "You know, for me, the main thing is that I have to do both to some degree on the road. 
"I find that there is a lot of down time in the mornings, especially up until soundcheck at 4:30 or so, so really, I have all that day open. I make sure to get up by 8:30/9:00, get on the computer, start my e-mails, and try to keep as close to the regimen as I would do at home on the road, as I would at my desk. I try to get as much accomplished as I can so that after I come home from a month, I'm not in a big hole. 
"I find that I don't slip back as much as I could if I ignored the business. There's a lot of free time on the road prior to soundcheck, and then from soundcheck on, that becomes the musical part of my life."

You don't get the job playing bass for three bands on a tour by mistake - I asked Elliott how the Extreme Guitar Tour came to be:

Elliott Rubinson: "I was kind of in on the early stages because the people who put on the tour came to me and asked, 'What musicians do you have that we could put together to create a nice guitar night that would attract guitar players, and music lovers? 
"We all agreed that we needed two or three bands to get the attendance that in the old days you'd only need one band for. It's just taking more these days - we're so deluged with YouTube videos, concerts, and so many shows that come through, especially in larger cities, so we decided, let's start with Uli Roth because he is a big draw, and I have this new band started with Black Knights Rising with Vinnie Appice and Craig Goldy, and at the time we had Mark Boals singing, who used to be with Yngwie. We decided that there would be another act to help round this out, and we selected Vinnie Moore, who is one of my artists and a great guitar player. 
"So, I said, 'I'm here, let me play with as many bands as I can. A) the bus was pretty packed - we couldn't afford to bring three bass players on the road, nor would I think it's necessary, because playing an hour a night for me is so little. I enjoy playing, so if I'm out on the road, I'm going to play as much as I can. 
"It started out to be a ten day tour with two bands, and at the end of the day it's a month long tour with three bands, and as you said earlier, there was only one day off in the course of a month. 
"There were two brutal rehearsal days that were twelve hours a piece, so all in all it was good to take a week off when I got back because my hands needed it!"
Photo by Led Zeppalan
Two days of rehearsal for a month long tour with three bands is not much - I asked Elliott what else he did to prepare for the grueling jaunt:

Elliott Rubinson: "I really believe in preparation - I start months in advance. 
"If I know three months in advance, I start practicing. The first thing I do is listen to the songs at work, over and over again, so they are kind of ingrained, I like being familiar with the material. 
"Then I go home, and I kind of set a gauge. I say, alright, I have to learn thirty new songs for this tour. There were forty-some odd songs that I had to prepare, but probably twenty-five to thirty that were new to me. So, I set up a schedule - I had to learn x number of songs every week, and leave myself the last three weeks to just clean them up to where I am comfortable. I keep a very tight routine for learning new material. 
"Uli's material I've played off and on since 2010, so I was familiar with a lot of it already, and Vinnie's, I had played with Vinnie in New Zealand once before, so I had performed these songs with him, so I didn't have to learn everything from the ground up. Black Knights Rising is kind of a labor of love with all the Deep Purple and the Dio material, so learning that was really fun for me, especially playing with Vinnie Appice, who is an incredible drummer to play with. 
"I guess creating a schedule, sticking to it, and leaving yourself enough time to get polished enough so that you could do it in your sleep is important. I don't want to just learn the songs, I want to be comfortable with them."

There's much talk being bandied about concerning the health of rock 'n' roll - some even say it's dead. It's always best to get the opinion of someone who's in the thick of things, and who better to speak on the topic than a man who runs a guitars company and plays in a bunch of bands:

Elliott Rubinson: "Well, certainly it's not like it was in the '80s and early '90s, where one band could fill an arena, you can see that it takes two or three bands on our level to get a club packed, but is it dead? 
"I don't think it's dead, but it's certainly more challenging and harder for bands to make a living. It's obvious that there's no record sales anymore to offset all the hard work, because when you go out to record a CD you put all of this effort into it, and it's just to tour off of. 
"You're not going to sell it and make any substantial money, you'll make some money up front if you have a record deal, but the money is made by touring, it's made by selling merch, and the problem is that there are so many shows that come through, and people can watch anybody they want on YouTube, so they are very particular about who they go out to see. 
"So, is it a more challenging time? Yes, but I don't think it's dead, because if it were dead we wouldn't be able to do a twenty-some odd city tour in twenty-some odd days. There just wouldn't be places to play, or people to come out to hear us."

Sticking with the vein, I asked about the state of Dean Guitars in a time when there is much concern about the future of brick and mortar retail store in a time of rapid growth of musical instruments over the internet:

Elliott Rubinson: "Listen - there's a lot of business being done in the MI (musical instrument) sector. 
"It's a ten billion dollar a year industry, and you just have to take a bigger piece of the pie by being more creative, being smarter, by having better artists, promoting better, having better dealers, and that's how you're going to get a bigger piece of the pie. Even if the industry is shrinking, you just have to work harder. 
"I think that with the artists we have, people like the late, great Dimebag Darrell, Dave Muscatine, Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, Vinnie Moore, Michael Angelo Batio, Rusty Cooley, not to mention a host of up and coming guys. I think that we have great artists, people take our instruments seriously because we know what we're doing - I mean, what other company has a CEO that tours, playing the instruments? 
"I think we're credible, we're believable, we take the quality of our instruments very seriously, and we work harder. 
"If you bring out the right instruments at the right price points, which goes back to my days in retail - I had a chain of music stores called Thoroughbred Music, and I spent twenty-some odd years doing that, and I learned what manufacturers did right and wrong. What prices points worked, and what feature sets. I think we have a leg up on a lot of the competition because we're more nimble - we're a small company of fifty people, so I can make decisions on the fly, as opposed to other companies that take a long time to make a decision to bring a product out, and we have that experience from the retail sector that helps us tremendously."

Back in August of 2014 Dean Guitars ran into a situation that doesn't occur every day - Michael Schenker has been a Dean Guitars artist since 2004, and was in the middle of recording his new album, Spirit On A Mission, when it was discovered that thieves had broken into the studio in which they were recording and they had made off with not just all of the guitars the German legend was using for the record, but also the computers containing the music that had been recorded to that point. Dean Guitars rose to the occasion and replaced all of the instruments in a very timely manner, and according to Michael, the new instruments were indistinguishable from what had been pilfered, and the business of recording resumed with barely a hiccup:

Elliott Rubinson: "Well. it was a problem in that somebody had found out where they were recording, and they stole four of his best guitars - some of them were brand new models, and they also stole the hard drives with the music they had done, so they had to start the recording process all over again from the ground up. 
"I just couldn't leave Michael without - he has other guitars, he has a warehouse full of guitars we've built him in the last ten years we've been working together, but it's important from the business side and from the creative side for him. He plays the latest guitars for one thing because they inspire him the most. 
"He's gone through a transition that you know of from your interview with him, where he's gone from the black and white to now all of a sudden he wants colors. He wants bright colors, he wants pastel colors, he wants red and black, he wants different things. 
"He called and wanted me to make him a chrome guitar, which is very difficult to do because the process to have chrome adhere to wood is tough. We had a killer chrome guitar for him that he loved, that got taken, one of his retro designs from the early UFO days was taken, so we just stepped in and I said, 'Listen, we're going to rebuild you some guitars, and build some different things that, A) inspire him, and B) it's frankly good for our business because it creates a market for these new guitars. 
"He has a new half red, half black guitar, and he loves it - he's playing it now on tour, and the phone starts ringing at Dean Guitars, 'Where can I get this?' So, it really worked for everybody to replace them. 
"When he came to me in 2004, and was interested, or we came to him as the case may be, and wanted him to play Dean, I thought to myself, 'Michael is a creature of habit. He plays the same amps he's played forever, and he gets locked into a product, and it becomes just a tool for him to make music. 
"I didn't think he's ever give up his Gibson Flying V, and we made him that first Flying V, and he never put it down, and he's never played the Gibson again, and that was over ten years ago. He feels that the guitars are very stable, very solid, you have sustain at every fret. He always said, 'Look, I can go to any note on the neck and it sustains!' 
"And now, we have signature pickups. We took his favorite pickup, and reverse engineered it. We have a line of pickups called 'Lights Out' that he uses, and he'll play a guitar or we'll build something and he'll just say, 'Tweak this x and y, and I'm ready to go', but typically, right out of the case, he loves them. We know how he wants them set up, down to the strings dangling off the headstock, he doesn't want them clipped. I know that guy from touring, and playing bass for him for many years, building his guitars, so I know what he wants, and we're very successful doing it."

As he does for others, he also does for himself - I couldn't help but notice that the three basses that Elliott used the night I saw the Extreme Guitar Tour were perfect in both look and sound. They looked right, and more than that, they sounded great:

Elliott Rubinson: "What I find is that a lot of basses, without mentioning any manufacturer's names, they've got to be designed by non-bass players. 
"The pickup selection - the one pickup is located right where you play with your right hand, and the other pickup is right next to the bridge, and so clanky and treble-y that it's pretty unusable, certainly for my style of music. 
"I need a lot of low end, but I also need a lot of punch, so my bass has two pickup circuits. It has a passive pickup in the neck position, a DiMarzio Model One, which has a lot of low end - that's just wired to a volume control, and out to the jack. And then I've got an active Jazz pickup with a three band EQ which gives me a lot of the percussiveness that I need, and it's active - wired to a separate jack, but I also can and I do play it mono, because I don't travel with two amplifiers. 
"I blend those two pickups together, and I get all the high end and mids I need, and I get tons of low end when I just need to round out the band. I get a lot of compliments on both the sound and looks of the basses. I personally love the way they play, and I'm tall, so the bass is a little bit larger, so it doesn't look kind of play-ish on me. 
"Listen - when you're traveling with a band, and you're typically pulling a trailer behind a bus, space is limited, and I'd love to have two amps onstage, that would be great, but the space onstage in some of these clubs is small, and the space in the trailer, so you have to be prepared for any scenario, and I always have people say, 'You get these gigs because of Dean Guitars', and that may be partially true, but at the end of the day, I'm always prepared, my equipment is ready, I'm very low maintenance, I'm easy to get along with, and people call me again because it was a great experience. 
"I tell people, you can practice until the cows come home, but you're going to hit diminishing returns. Work on your look, your ability to get along, and having your equipment be low maintenance.You're never stuck in the middle of a show with a broken bass, or broken pedal board. Make things streamlined whenever you can."

After all this common sense and practical advice on how to make the road work for you, I was curious as to how Elliott approaches the endorsement process at Dean Guitars and DDrum. It's always a mysterious realm in which there is an endless of willing applicants wanting free gear, as well as those who seek endorsements out for the right win/win reasons:

Elliott Rubinson: "I do a lot of interviews, and that seems to be a question that comes up a lot, and it's a great question because what you have to realize is that when a player comes up to us, and says, 'I want a Dean endorsement', the first thing I want to know is, 'Why do you want a Dean endorsement.' 
"Do you want an endorsement because you're trying to get guitars for free, or discounted, or, are you already playing the guitars because you love them? It's kind of a lifestyle brand, Dean. All the people like Dimebag, who played it since he was thirteen or fourteen. Do you love them for the design, or are you just looking for a company? And B) What do you have to offer us back? What can you do for us? Tell me - your Facebook page, how many likes, how many YouTube videos do you have up? How many views do you have? How many shows do you do a year, how many eyeballs are going to see this guitar? 
"So - the long story short, if you want to get guitars from Dean Guitars, or any company, you've got to be able to give something back. You've got to be in a way, low maintenance, too, because we deal with so many people, we can't get daily phone calls. We don't have the manpower to handle that, and again,we want to see the guitars on Facebook, we want to see them in pictures, on tours. 
"There's a lot of YouTube heroes now who go out, they never play live, but they're on YouTube with an incredible following. Michael Angelo Batio, although he does play live, he has videos with thirteen million views. It's incredible - that's the kind of guys. Now obviously not everyone can garner thirteen million views, but those are the kind of people we want representing us, and who we want to grow with - who are passionate about the music, passionate about Dean, and can get eyeballs on the guitars."

Then there are guys whom Dean seeks out to build guitars for - guys like Leslie West, a guy whose sound is just incredibly iconic, but has never had a guitar with his name on it:

Elliott Rubinson: "I've been a fan of Leslie's playing going back to the seventies when he was playing with Mountain in New York City. 
"He's one of the reasons I'm still in music because his music just blew me away - his tone, his vibrato, I had never heard anything like it back in '70 or '71, whenever Mountain were touring. I was lucky to meet him along the way - someone introduced us, and I've always wanted to make a guitar for him because he played a Les Paul Jr, which he calls, 'A tree with a microphone taped to it.' Nothing special, a mahogany guitar with a single coil pickup, and I knew if I got him the right guitar, he could make it sing. 
"So, we built him an archtop guitar with a maple top, so it has a little more high end, a little more sweet sounding with his signature pickup, and he just loved the guitar. We hit it off personally, which is a very important part - at Dean, we want to have a personal relationship as well as business. 
"He started playing the guitars in 2009 - he's playing at the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. He invited me to come out, 'You can play Mississippi Queen with me, and I'm getting married onstage!'
"So, I walked his bride out, who I knew, and there were a lot of stars onstage, there was an arch of Dean Guitars, they got married onstage, we played Mississippi Queen, and the rest is history. To be playing with him at Woodstock, playing Mississippi Queen - it doesn't get any better than that!"

As the tale of Elliott Rubinson unfolds, one gets the impression that it could somehow be no other way. I wondered if he had always had a vision, or if the trip had been more organic:

Elliott Rubinson: "You know, I didn't have a plan. 
"I didn't even have a plan when I started in music retail back in '76. I had a few guitars, I had to make my college dorm payment, and I said, 'Look, I love guitars, I'm good at buying and selling them, I'll just do this out of my apartment. 
"Then it grew and got out of hand, and I had to rent a store, and then the next thing you know, fast forward twenty years, and we're doing $15 million a year in sales, seven stores, and 300 employees. It just got to be too big, and too many headaches. I said, 'I'm going to scale back, play a little more music, and maybe... Dean Guitars is for sale, maybe I'll buy this company and have six or seven employees, and sell a few guitars a year and have a good time. 
"And again, things don't stay the same, things blew up, and it just started doing really well - and when Dime came back to us in 2004, and said, 'I'm coming back to Dean Guitars', that's when the roof just blew off. Now, we're a very successful company, we're known all over the world, we have some of the greatest artists, and we're very proud of what we do, but it wasn't thought out. 
"In just fell in my lap, and someone came to me and said, 'I own the name Dean Guitars, you can buy it. We're not in production, you can buy the name and the logo', and I said, 'Sure. There's a lot of history with this company that I think I could build upon."

So, there you have it the world according to Elliott Rubinson - bass player, CEO. What's next for Elliott and Dean:

Elliott Rubinson: "I'm trying to tour and play as much as I can. 
"I've played in a lot of countries with various people, I've played in New Zealand with Uli, Jaan with Michael Schenker, the US many times, and I want to play and record as much as I possibly can. I stopped playing for over twenty-five years, and I didn't really start playing again until 2009, so I've got a lot of lost time to catch up on, and I want to do it while I can. 
"I'm always looking for new bands and opportunities to play with people and tour, who are talented, play my style of music, and also that are easy to get along with. I'm not interested in touring with someone who is a pain in the ass, and at the same time continue growing Dean Guitars, and as you know we have two other companies besides Dean, we have DDrum which is a very successful acoustic and electric drum company, and Luna Acoustic Guitars, which is doing very well, especially in the ukulele market. 
"I think the business will continue to grow, even given the fact that there is a lot less brick and mortar, and more online business, and again, as I said, I want to continue to play, because each time I tour I learn more, I get better, and I get to keep honing my skills. 
"One other thing I like to talk about is that in life you don't get that many opportunities to do something you want to do, and I always tell the story of when Michael Schenker came to me in 2009, and said, 'Hey, I'm looking for a bass player to finish this tour because my bassist can't finish it', he said, 'Do you know anybody?' I said, 'Yeah, me!' 
"He said, 'I didn't know you played bass', and at the time, I really didn't, but the door opened and I went through it - I went home, and just practiced, and sweated my ass off to get it down in time, and that spawned this whole playing career. 
"Playing out with him gave me... I had a great time, he's an incredible player, and that gave me the prestige and pedigree to go out and do things with people like Vinnie Moore, Michael Angelo, Leslie, and once you're in that inner circle, you're in - if you do everything right."

There you have it ladies and germs - a little luck, a lot of hard work, and a common sense approach to the challenge. Thanks to Elliott Rubinson for his time, energy, and friendship.


Richard Thompson said...

Great interview! I saw the Extreme Guitar tour stop in Kansas City and was blown away by the show. Fascinating sort of double life Elliott has going and had always wondered how he pulled it off, thanks for the article!

Tony Conley said...

Thanks, Richard - he's quite a guy! :)

Holly Fields said...

Good read! Thanks to Mr. Rubinson for all his hard work, and it sounds like he's living his bliss...a man after my own heart. I just have to say that I loved my Dean V right out of the case, it was perfectly set up and melted in my hands like butter, a pure joy!

Led Zeppalan Photography said...

Nice write up but pls. give appropriate photo credit to photographers for using their work. Thanks!

Tony Conley said...

Led Zeppalan Photography - I just sent you a message on Facebook to fix the photo credit problem, thanks, Tony Conley

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I met Elliott at a Michael Angelo Batio performance my teenage son dragged me to at Sam Ashe. I see this guy with long hair, rose colored glasses and a hat standing off to the side. i told my son that I thought I knew him. My son looked at me. "Mom, don't" was the plea but I was off to talk to Elliott only to find out we were Far Rockaway, NY alums and went to the same schools. He was four years ahead of me but it must have
been the underlying NY accent. Elliott opened his company, his wisdom and his heart to my son for several summers and whenever my son could breathe the air at Dean Guitars. Today, my son uses the skills he learned from Elliott everyday in his audio career. Elliott was one of the finest human beings I have ever known. The Dean Family are some of the finest people who taught my son some very valuable lessons about life. He had so many big brothers and sisters, there are too many to recognize. Yes, like others have said, there is void in us that can never be filled. Elliott continued to stay in touch with my son as he toured. He was one of the most special humans I have ever met. The world will miss him.