Dean USA Hardtail Collectors and Time Capsule Series

Flaunting exotic cars and scantily-clad women, Dean guitar ads boosted the testosterone level of many a guitar mag between 1977 and 1986. Dean Zelinksy made his name in the music industry by taking some of Gibson’s wildest (and often wildly unsuccessful) body shapes, exaggerating their lines to an almost sinful degree
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Flaunting exotic cars and scantily-clad women, Dean guitar ads boosted the testosterone level of many a guitar mag between 1977 and 1986. Dean Zelinksy made his name in the music industry by taking some of Gibson’s wildest (and often wildly unsuccessful) body shapes, exaggerating their lines to an almost sinful degree, and gilding the lily with an outlandish forked headstock. The result? A line of hard-rockin’ axes that combined the sex appeal of a Lamborghini Countach with the fat, ballsy tones that made Deans the numero-uno choice of ZZ Top during the Eliminator era. Well made and sporting fast-playing “V”-shaped necks, Deans quickly became attractive alternatives to what was being offered by other American guitar companies at the time.

Dean reissued the U.S.-made ML, V, and Z models in 2001 (the Cadillac returned somewhat later), and then introduced an entirely new design called the Hardtail—a high-end model that featured some of the sexiest curves this side of PRS. We recently received a Hardtail Collectors, which differs cosmetically and physically from the standard Hardtail, along with the new Time Capsule Series Cadillac, ML, V, and Z models. I put all of these guitars through their paces using a Bad Cat Hot Cat 15, a Dr. Z Route 66, a Fender Twin Reverb, and a Marshall 50-watt.

Hardtail Collectors
Zelinsky says he designed the Hardtail series to compete with high-end Les Paul and PRS guitars, and if you’re in the market for a costly custom, the Hardtail Collectors ($3,799 retail) is a drop-dead gorgeous instrument that comes with a Hardtail-embossed leather jacket, a leather-covered hardshell case, and a nifty keychain. If you’re quick enough to get one of first 150 made, it’ll also sport Zelinsky’s signature on the back of the headstock and a certificate of authenticity.

Hands on. With its beefy, V-shaped neck (standard Hardtails feature a rounded neck), incredibly low action, and mirror-polished frets, the HC scores big in the playability department. A super-smooth ebony fretboard with rounded-over edges makes for an ultra-sleek hold, and the “molded” heel and deep cutaway provide unhindered access to the 22nd fret. You simply couldn’t ask for a more liquid playing feel, and the HC also intonates well and sounds in-tune as you play chords up and down the neck. Strum this guitar acoustically and it sounds strong, focused, and resonant—a sure sign of electric coolness to come.

Detail freaks will love the HC’s build quality. The finish is flawless (15 other colors are available), the sterling-silver fretboard inlays are precisely set, and the solid maple top is gracefully sculpted and features exposed-edge “binding.”

(Zelinsky adds that the “11” tops are cherry picked from the top-grade maple blanks used on standard Hardtails.) The black staining superbly highlights the ravishing grain in this incredible piece of wood, making it look like the coat of an exotic jungle cat. The model we tested featured a solid mahogany back, however, Zelinsky tells us the production line versions will feature a semi-chambered body design that will keep the weight down to 8.5 lbs maximum. Providing contrast to the high-gloss woods are the satin-nickel-plated pickup covers, bridge, and Dean-designed tailpiece. Even the steel knobs are electro-plated in dull nickel for a softer texture.

Pickup tricks. As with the ML, V, and Z models, the HC’s pickups are wired to provide a skinny, “effecty,” out-of-phase sound when both units are on and both Volume controls are all the way up. But when you back off either Volume knob, the bottom comes back, the funkiness disappears, and more useful two-pickup textures emerge. I especially dug the bright, detailed roar when running the neck pickup wide open and the bridge pickup nearly all the way off, while the opposite settings yield impressively thick, flutey distortion.

Tones. The HC sounds smooth and powerful when running its bridge pickup into a high-gain amp. The note attack is strong, but not piercing, and you get a cool upper-midrange snarl when you dig in with your pick. Again, the focus and coherency of this guitar is remarkable. You can hear every note ringing out in chords, even with loads of distortion slathered on. The HC’s Tone controls provide useable treble roll-off throughout most of their range—offering good “oooh” factor as you approach the zero mark. I hardly found it necessary to use them, however, as the HC maintains a rich, buttery sound even with very bright amps.

Despite its obvious stylistic nod to PRS, the Hardtail Collector is an instrument that stands a good chance of winning you over with its unyielding quality and unique tones and feel. There’s a lot of mojo going on here, and Collectors is an apt title for this bold guitar—Dean Zelinsky has never made anything quite like it.

Time Capsule Series
The Time Capsule series guitars are near-exact reissues of the models that Dean produced until it ceased guitar production in 1986.

All share the same classic Dean “V” neck, though the Cadillac model—with its Les Paul-meets Explorer shape and triple humbuckers—has little else in common with the angular ML, V, and Z guitars, which sport dual DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers, in-line Volume and Tone controls, chrome hardware, and a “V”-style string-through-body tailpieces. Overall, the TCs reveal excellent attention to detail in their construction and finish, offering beautifully flamed maple tops, crisp binding, clean fretwork, and tight-fitting hardware. These guitars also share three definitive sonic traits—they’re loud, aggressive, and very rock-and-roll.

Time Capsule Cadillac. With its round butt and pointy lower horn, the Cadillac ($2,899) strikes a compromise between classic and “modern” styling. As with its cushy, four-wheeled namesake, the Cadillac is a classy looker with a stunning, quilted maple top, multi-ply binding, gold-plated hardware, precisely set abalone inlays, and a trio of DiMarzio pickups with gold-plated covers. The only thing missing on the new Caddy is the active preamp, but that’s hardly an issue considering today’s high-gain amps.

At 9.5 lbs, the Cadillac is a chunky guitar that feels as heavy as a Les Paul when strapped on. Thanks to its low action, big frets (which are precisely crowned and trimmed, though not as highly polished as the Hardtail’s), and light-gauge strings, the Cadillac plays like the riff demon it’s meant to be. The 3-way selector activates the middle and bridge pickups when set to its middle position, however, you don’t get the out-of-phase function when both Volume knobs are maxed. Instead, the middle/bridge blend provides smooth, warm distortion tones that can be made subtly browner or brighter with a quick twist of the Volume knobs.

The Cadillac is totally in its element with the bridge pickup doing the driving. Its tones are tight and focused, and there’s no arguing with that raw, ballsy sound. I wouldn’t accuse the Cadillac of sounding overly complex, but its sheer muscle will carry a lot of weight in a loud band.

Time Capsule ML. The ML ($2,599 retail) borrows from Explorer and Flying V designs to create a look so unapologetically metal that it’s kind of hard to imagine using this guitar for anything else. Compared to the Cadillac, the ML is a fairly Spartan guitar that features dot inlays and a simple black binding around its lovely, transparent-blue top. At 8.5 lbs, the ML is more shoulder friendly too, which is a welcome thing for an instrument that feels this large and imposing. The ML’s DiMarzios feature exposed coils, and they’re wired for an out-of–phase sound when using the dual-pickup setting. Surprisingly, however, the tones this guitar produces aren’t appreciably different than the Caddy’s. The ML exhibits a similarly tight, pinging attack, and the Super Distortion pickups are able to drive even lower-gain vintage Marshalls into, well, super distortion. In a nutshell, the ML plays superbly and sounds as big and bad as it looks.

Time Capsule V.

Weighing in at 7.3 lbs, the V ($2,599) is truly a lightweight wonder for an axe of its proportions. In this case, I think the magic is in the mahogany—a particularly resonant slab of wood that gives the V a substantial tone advantage. You can even hear it in the vibrant noises this guitar makes when you first plug it in—it just sounds noticeably more alive than the other TCs. The V is an amazing thing to look at too, with its striking abalone inlays and multiple bindings. Throw in the eye-catching maple top and you’ve got a guitar that truly commands attention.

With its excellent playability, the V is a kick-ass rock-and-roll machine. It’s loud and responsive, and it gushes with fat, blossoming tones. Pick a note and let it sustain, and you can feel the dynamic expansion occurring under your fingers as the feedback harmonics kick in.

The ML can shout just as loudly as the other TCs, but there’s a natural openness in its voicing that makes it the better singer. Even the out-of–phase textures sound funkier and more vibey. Having no other Dean Vs to compare this one to, I can’t say if it’s just a particularly happening example. But this thing sounds so good, it just has to get an Editors’ Pick Award.

Time Capsule Z. What a difference a few pounds can make.

That could describe how someone might feel about themselves when facing a full-length mirror, however, in this case, we’re talking about the Z and its 10.5 lbs weight. Keeping this battleship strapped to your bod for any length of time can be a painful experience, but the Z looks so badass, you might not even care. Built every bit as well as the other TCs, the Z is also every bit as hot-blooded a predator as the Cadillac and ML. And with its tight-fisted grind and amp-clobbering output, the Z actually sounds very similar.

The powerful DiMarzio pickups shave off just enough treble to keeps the Z (and its kin) from sounding too piercing, while their gutsy presence ensures that your riffs punch through a loud band like a depleted-uranium tank round. The dual Volume controls allow you to conjure a lot of subtle shades in the middle setting (including that skinny phasoidal tone), and the Tone control is very effective for browning the sound when seeking mellow neck pickup tones or dealing with a harsh-sounding rig. Despite its weight and curvy tail section (which prevents you from using the convenient guitar stand that’s built into the front of your amp), the Z is a rock machine of the highest order. You probably wouldn’t do a blues gig with it, but then you wouldn’t use an F-16 to dust crops either. Bottom line: You’d be hard pressed to find a more mission-minded metal monster.