Don Dean and his guitars

Scotty and Don Dean - July 2003

Don Dean is a friend of Scotty Moore's and I had the opportunity to meet him for the first time about 5 years ago while we were all in Nashville for the NAMM show.  Gail had invited a few of us over to Scotty's house for one of her famous home cooked southern fried chicken dinners.  After the dinner a few of the people went in to Scotty's studio, picked up guitars and jammed for the rest of the night. None of us there besides Scotty and Gail had heard him play before but we (myself, Mike Eldred and friends from Fender, and one of the editors of Guitar Player Magazine) sat there in awe at the way he played.  It was like those stories you always hear about those southern guys and their guitars.

Jamming at Scotty's after dinner - July 2003

His father played guitar as an accompaniment to his mother who performed occasionally as one of ďThe Coon Creek GirlsĒ at WLWís Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Renfro Valley, KY. The barn dance was at the time a contemporary of Nashvilleís Grand Ole Opry. His father used to play guitar they way others picked a banjo and his motherís younger brother also played with a unique picking style. Donís unique style is derived from them and is virtually like no one elseís.

Don playing a limited edition Heritage at home - April 2005

In addition to playing he's also a dealer and guitar builder.  I got to be pretty good friends with Don over the last few years, had been to his house and talked with him countless times on the phone.  I had always thought about doing a page about him for the site since I think it would be of interest to a lot of the musicians that visit.  Having been in the music business for years he amassed a collection of more than 200 guitars including over 20 Super 400ís.  He owns a 1959 Gibson Super 400 that was made especially for Merle Travis to play at the NAMM show that year.  He even built this large house to entertain his friends to hang out and play.  I started an initial interview a couple of years ago and had planned to develop it into an article but things got away from me and now I thought it was just time to put it up, show you some of his guitars and let him tell it as he told me.


Do you have a store?
I had a store but I sold it. It had me tied down and I couldnít get a day way. To make a long story short Iím just working out of my house now. Iím still a bonafide, certified dealer for Gibson, Heritage and Martin. I lost my Guild dealership. I didnít have a Fender dealership, I let that go with the store so when Fender bought Guild I lost that. A similar situation existed with Gretsch. Other than that I still have enough dealer friends that I can get anything anybody wants. I generally operate about 10% over my costs.

Was your store always in Louisville?

Just a few of Don's guitars

Were you a dealer pretty much all your career?
Since 66.

What were you doing before that?
I worked for General Electric. I was a tool and die maker when I opened the store and I moved up doing several jobs. I retired in 97. My wife got sick, had Cancer and I had to quit to take care of her. Thatís when I sold the store.

A Chet Atkins' model given to Don by Chet

So you retired from the store in 97, not from GE?
Both. I worked for GE for 46 years.

Are you originally from Louisville?
No, Iím from the eastern part of Kentucky originally. I come here when I was 14 years old, went in the service twice. Other than the 2 hitches in the service Iíve been right here close to Louisville. I never did actually live in Louisville but now it is Louisville because we had a merger between the two governments. So my address is Louisville even though Iím about 15 miles from the city limits. Jefferson county is now part of Louisville.

and a few more

What was the name of your store?
R.G. Andon, Inc. and its still a live corporation.

Super 400

Who was R.G Andon?
That was me and my wife and a couple of other business people that formed the corporation back in the Ď60s. My name was Don, her name was Ann, thatís where the ďAndonĒ comes in.

D' Angelico New Yorker

And the R.G. was the other partners?
No. That was our first names. Her first name was Georgia which she never did go by and my first name was Raymond which I never went by. Thatís how it was formed.

Now you have about 200 guitars in your collection?
More or less. Right now Iíd say about a couple more than that.

1959 Gibson Super 400 made for Merle Travis

I know you have a few famous guitars, like the 59 super 400 they made for Merle Travis for the NAMM show.
Yeah, Iíve been playing on that guitar this week. Itís not my favorite guitar, its got a fat neck on it. The neck is not that wide but its fat. I like a little bit thinner, wide neck to do my playin on. I have built some guitars and I know how to build a guitar that I like to play. I like a little wider neck than most people.

1959 Gibson Super 400 made for Merle Travis

What guitar is your preference?
I love Super 400s. I love a big bodied guitar. Theyíre not as fast as some of the thinner stuff but I just like a big bodied guitar. The Heritages I have I had custom built for me and they built them thick which they donít normally do. I just like a Super 400 style guitar. If get tired I just lay down and go to sleep on em. (laughing) Iíve done that lots of nights, play all night long and finally just lay down. My wife would catch me asleep on my guitar while it was in my lap.

Did you play professionally?
Yes I have, not so much as the performer but more of a backup stage musician but I donít do that anymore.

Did you play with any bands regularly?
No, strictly on my own. A lot of my playing has been up around the Northeast area. Do you remember when Brian Mulroney was running for Prime Minister of Canada and Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were runnin and the conservative movement was going pretty strong?

I remember the time.
Well Brian Mulroney caught me playin one time and he just loved my playin so he invited me up to Canada, up in the provinces like Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. 


Heritage Johnny Smith

I remember you playing at Scotty Mooreís last summer, and the style. How would you describe that style?
Well, itís not a Merle Travis style and itís even farther distant from a Chet Atkinsí style. I never played a Chet style, but I do do three parts on a guitar. I do my rhythm, my melody and bass accompaniment. It takes a pretty good system to pick all that up but I do a back lick with my thumb that Thom Bresh and a lot of people have tried to copy. They canít do it. Thom has done it on a computer but Thom has been up here, spent many many days here at my place trying to learn my licks, and I tried to show him but he just canít do it. Itís just something I learned as a kid growin up. Itís totally different

Do you use a thumb pick?
Yes, I never use anything except a thumb pickÖ and I do play Bluegrass, Gospel, rockÖ everything I play youíld never know I was a thumb picker playing with a thumb pick when I do some of the rock stuff.

Now when youíre playing rock you just use the thumb pick and donít pick with your fingers?
Ah, yes I do. I get all kinds of riffs and runs that Scotty loves. I donít really know what you call it but I do use nothing but a thumb pick because it provides so much dexterity and the range is increased ten-fold.

When did you start playing?
I was about 12 years old when I really got going good and then I kinda just laid it around. And when I went to Korea in 1950 I had a guitar. I lived with my guitar, thatís all I did, there really wasnít anything else to do. And when I was in Korea Iíd run into people from other countries, Turkey and Germany, and they were using thumb picks and they were trying to copy Merle Travis that was real popular back then. I had never heard of Merle Travis until I run into a lot of the people that were trying to play like Merle. I just started using my fingers at an early age when it just wasnít done. Its just the way I played and people never really seen anyone play the way I played. I toured with Billy Grammer and Billy never heard anyone use a thumb pick the way I did.

You toured with him?
It was on a limited basis back in the middle Ď60s kind of on the guitar tours. We had a show here at the Sheraton Hotel in Louisville. We had one up in Chicago at the McCormack center when it was the Sheraton, you know, places like that. It was manufacturers exhibit shows, NAMM showsÖ and when I was touring with Billy he was trying to get into banjo building. He had a factory in Nashville and it didnít pan out. I played quite a bit with Billy, of course Billyís an accomplished guitarist. He played the Grand Olí Opry for many years.

Guild Johnny Smith Artist Award Model

Any Jazz players?
Iíve done quite a bit of that. I played with Cal Collins out of Cincinnati. Iíve done a little bit of work with Buck Pizzarelli and Bucky Jr. Theyíre more 7-string guitarists. And George Van Epps, Iíve played with George a few times, just exposure really.   I did play for Fabian.

You played in his band?
No, I did lead guitar work for him. What had happened was he had been in Denver, CO doing the Colorado state fair and his guitar player had a heart attack and died on him. And he was doing the Kentucky State Fair in 1960. so the booking agency at the Union Hall that called me and said Ďyouíre the only one we know that can do Fabian.. blah blah blahí. I hadnít done a whole lot of that particular work at that time and I bought everything I could get on him and I worked 24 hours a day on it for 3 straight days and when I went onstage with Fabian he thought I was the greatest guitar player that ever lived. So he wanted to hire me. I didnít know anything about him at that time except that he was a radical rocker for that period. I did some shows with him and he hired me and finally I just turned in my resignation and said, ďI canít play with yaĒ. He had some movie contracts and he had a personality problem that I couldnít live with so I went from there and I went back to Nashville and I was playing with some of the Grand Ol Opry people at that point.

Did you play on the Opry at all?
No, Iíve played on the Friday night Opry but Iíve never played on the Grand Olí Opry.

How did you meet up with Scotty Moore?
I met Scotty, oh Iíd say somewhere back in the Ď70s. I got to really know Scotty well though, I was with Scotty and Gail and I took them out to dinner. They were going to do a special, Iím going to say this was about í92, I could be off a year and Scotty was going to play.. Ronnie McDowell was there with the Jordanaires. Scotty was going to come back on and he was so nervous. He had been retired 20Ö probably 20 years, maybe longer and he was going to go onstage and was so nervous he was shaking. I took him out to dinner and kept telling him heíd be fine and he was, thatís when I got to know Scotty real well. I had been around and met Scotty many times before though. I knew James Burton and he had played with Elvis after Scotty semi-retired.. and thatís about it, thatís how I met Scotty.

So you met Scotty through James Burton?
Not really, I met him really through Thom Bresh, as far as the close relationship we have. But I met Scotty many years before that. Iíve known him for about 30 years.

How about Merle Travis? How did you come to meet him?
Thatís a little different story. When I was starting out as a teenager and late 20ís, after I got out of Korea I was really involved in what Chet Atkins was doing at the time and I canít remember the particular tune I did that Chet was doing. My mother played at Renfro Valley and my Dad was an accompanying musician for my mother. We knew Jerry Byrd and Red FoleyÖ but anyway Merle Travis would come in on occasion. Anyway when I really got going trying to play, I had worked out some stuff that Chet had done. I thought I really had it worked out real good so I went up and talked to my dad and I said ĎIíve got some stuff here I want to play for yaí. He said, ďWell lets hear what you gotĒ. So I played it and he said ďWho played thatĒ and said ďChet AtkinsĒ. ÖĒWell you know,Ē he said, ďMerle Travis is a good guitar player.Ē Ö(laughing) Well what the heck, I didnít mention Merle Travis. I said ďWell Chet done thisĒ. ďwell it donít sound bad but Merle Travis is a good guitar playerĒ, thatís all he would say you know. So I kinda got into Merle then and I thought, ďwhy in the world would my Dad say Chet canít play and Merle canĒ? So I got to listening to him after where I got to afford to buy an album I got to listen to Merle and Merle was so full and developed, far superior to what I thought was Chet, so I got into it. I didnít try to do much of Merles stuff. Iíve always been, even at a young age where I thought if somebody wants to hear Chet Atkins play something all they got to do is go out and buy his records, or album, and they can hear it. So thatís what I did and I kind of developed a cross between the two and neither one had much influence on me. But my Dad played finger style on on a guitar like you would on a banjo and my Motherís brother, who was much younger.. We were about the same age, he just died this yearÖdeveloped finger rolls and a finger pickin style he got from my Dad and I thought thatís what I got to have. Thatís exactly where my style come from, from my Dad and my Motherís brother and its totally different from anything Merle does. Scotty and Carl Perkins did a song called Black Eyed Susan on their 706 ReUnion album and I worked up a version of that and I think, it pleases me and Iím my own worst critic. Its not like Merle, its not like Chet, its like what I do and Scotty says heís never heard anything like it.

Have you done any recording?
Iíve done some recordings as a backup musician or stage musician and Iíve done some stuff where they go intoÖ you know the recordings and Iím not real fond of that. I like to do my own thing but as for recording myself Iíve only made one CD.

Youíve only released one CD?
Yeah, and Gail and Scotty did that for me.

1955 Cherry burst Gibson L5

You also have a 55 L5?
Iíve got a 55 L5 that Billy Byrd had that played with Ernest Tubb, before they came out with the Byrdland guitar. The cherry one, its in mint condition. Itís got the Alnico V pickups in it with the little triangular magnets in it. They came out with those after the P90ís, it was supposed to help eradicate some of the hum. I like the Alnicosí, theyíre a little brighter, a little clearer. People gripe about a tone overfeed, Iíve never had that. I have never got hum out of one of those guitars. 

Did you buy it from him?
I bought it off of Cotton Music in Nashville when Billy Byrd turned it in. It was when Billy Byrd and Hank Garland designed the Byrdland guitar. Iíve got a bunch of those and there not worth a crap.

I was going to ask how you liked the Byrdland?
Uh Uh. No, I canít handle that short scale. I got big hands

They have a narrow neck.
Yeah, they were 1 5/8ís and that was a cramper. I canít play em. Theyíre fast for playing Sugar foot rag or Bill Cheatham or some of that flat pickin stuff that goes 900 miles an hour, theyíre great. But I donít play that style, I can some of it.. but its just not what I like. Iím not comfortable with it. I like a long scale, donít care if it gets up to 27Ē I love a 25 ĹĒ but when I do my workouts I do it on a 26Ē Gretsch, an old one, and it gives me a good workout.

A Gretsch what?
A synchromatic, a 49, and it plays horrible. One of the position markers is completely out of the neck, I put new strings on that sucker and I just sit back and play and play and play. Then when I pull out my Super 400 which is 25 Ĺ itís so easy.

1974 Gibson Super V

I also have a 74 Super V that Henry Manciniís guitarist bought new in Cleveland. It says itís a 2nd but itís a gorgeous Merle Travis sounding guitar. Thom Bresh (Merle's son) is just crazy about it. The touch is so light. I set them up just like I play. I do a good job on it, Iíve done Scottyís work for many years.

Is the 55 L5 all stock?
The only thing different is it has Grover keys on it. He (Billy) got rid of the Gibson Klusons cause they wonít tune. Everybody in Nashville that ever had a Gibson guitar gets rid of them Klusons and puts Grovers on them. Iíve got all kinds of Kluson keys, I hate em. Iíve got Chetís stair step Imperials off his original Díangelico. I have those here and they want $1000.00 for a set of those.

a couple of  Chet's Gretsch Super Chets

His Ď50s DíAngelico?
I do, I have everything off of Chetís original DíAngelico. Paul Yandel and I set the guitar up before he died.

Whereís the guitar now?
I donít know, it was in his possession when he died. Thereís a story on that guitar. When he had the guitar brought in he had a Gibson P90 put in the neck position. He had Paul Bigsby pickup put on in the bridge position. He was going to play on the Grand Ol Opry and Chet had a bad habit of just leaning his guitar up against something, horrible habit. And June Carter came in, stumbled and broke the neck off it, just before they were about to go on. This was about 1950 or 51, I can look it up. Well, he didnít get to come on with his new DíAngelico. To make along story short, many years later he had the guitar sent back to Jimmy DíAquisto who had taken over from John DíAngelico after he died in í63. They put the guitar back to original with floating pickup and new top and then Chet decided then... around í97 I believe, that he wanted the guitar set back up like it was when he made his original recordings like ďSan Antonio RoseĒ and a lot of those early tunes that sounded so good. He had it set back up again and Paul did all the work and I furnished all the parts, made the risers for the pickups, he put P90ís back on it and the Paul Bigsby at the bridge. From that point on I donít know what happened to it. I have a couple of Chetís guitars here, a couple of his amps. I donít know if you seen the book Les Cochran published a couple of years ago with all the pictures of Chetís stuff in it. Itís a gorgeous book, has some beautiful color photos, and most of the stuff thatís pictured in it was mine at one time or another.

Don with Chet's jacket

I was never a Chet fan. I knew Chet real well, he used to give me stuff. Iíve got his original chair he used in his recording studio. He gave me his sport coat, itís a gorgeous sport coat, has guitars on it, but I was never a Chet fan to where I wanted to emulate anything Chet done. I just didnít.

Don at work on Scotty's Tal Farlow

Do you still work on Scottyís?
Yes, Iím going down, Iím going to help Scotty with his rehabilitation just as soon as he gets home. Iím probably going to take that new guitar that Gibson gave him that plays like crap and I will completely redo it, just to Scottyís style. 

This conversation took place early in 2004 and I never got to finish it properly.  I had been down to Don's house and we talked at some point of photographing and cataloging his collection.  Unfortunately last week he was admitted to the hospital, currently undergoing testing and we are hoping for a quick recovery.*

James V. Roy
February 18, 2008

*Sorry to report that Don Dean succumbed to cancer on April 30, 2014


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