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The Guitar Magazine

Review by Marcus Leadley in the The Guitar Magazine
Issue December 2000



Let's face it, not everyone takes Dean Guitars seriously - especially in the UK. Even in the curvaceous and colourful mid- 70s when Dean Zelinsky's Gibson-inspired designs first appeared, the extra large 'wishbone' headstock and exaggeration of line was a bit too much for many musicians. Nevertheless, it was the Dean ML - a Flying V/Explorer hybrid - which helped set the trend among metal players for high output pickups and instrument shapes of the pointy persuasion. And there has always been more to Dean designs than meets the eye; even that headstock was the result of an experiment in tuning to make the neck resonate better and improve guitar tone and sustain.
In the last 25 years Dean production has shifted around between America, Korea and Europe but, heritage being what it it's the guitars developed during the company's initial phase at the Chicago plant which attract the most interest. The story goes that most of these plans were lost when the factory closed in 1985, only to be located and restored to the company by a Dean collector in 1998. The upshot of all this is the completion and release of the Mach 5 which, we're informed, is based on the Dean Mach 7, the last design on the drawing board before the closure (no idea why the 7 has become a 5).
Never a company to knowingly undersell itself, Dean launch the Mach 5 with the suggestion that it's the most radical guitar on the planet'. Well, they've certainly succeeded in creating a visual impact. Here's a shape which at first glance appears to have no previous reference. The exaggerated, hornless and raked form of the upper body brings to mind a shark's fin and the fluid black finish reinforces the predator style. The long spike of a lower horn yells 'beast!', and if there's not enough sharp mahogany here to impale all your enemies, you can finish off the rest with a prod of the cheeky upturned headstock with its fiendishly displayed Grover machineheads. Ouch. And all that shiny chrome - suddenly I can hear the squeak, squeak, squeak of rubber lingerie...
So has there has really never been a Guitar that looked like the Mach 5 before? Actually, a bit of digging in the archives does bring up a possible predecessor: the Gibson Moderne. Designed in the late-'5Os at the same time as the Explorer and the Flying V, the Moderne was supposed to complete the company's Modernistic series but, despite rumours to the contrary, it seems that none were ever built - well, not until Gibson made some up in the 80s, anyway. The Mach 5 may not be a dead ringer for the lost Gibson but all the curves are in the right places, even if the Zelinsky design stretches the form to breaking point. Plus, the source of inspiration fits perfectly with Dean's track record for expanding on the basic Gibson formula. And what about those 70s Ovations the Breadwinner and the Deacon? A related species, perhaps, but no family ties.
Further traces of the Gibson influence can be found in the Mach 5's neck; any SG player will feel at home with this comfortable C profile and wide rosewood Fretboard. The 22 medium jumbo frets are filed quite flat for lots of grab and the set neck's heel joint keeps well out of the way, combining with the deep lower cutaway to provide exceptional access up the neck. Players who spend a lot of time between the 12th and 18th frets will be very happy with this guitar. Why no position markers on the neck? Sure, we have the classic little white dots on the side of the fingerboard, but no dot or block inlays. While one might not think about them when they're there, their absence feels a little unnerving: no familiar reference point - and most of us still can't claim eyes closed classical guitarist-style virtuosity.
Despite the unusual headstock, the string pull from the tuners and through the black plastic nut is straight and unlikely to cause any problems. Radical looks aside, the 10-46 gauge strings combine here with a well-set medium action to provide a very traditional and again rather Gibsonesque, feel. Once past the conventional tunomatic bridge the strings dive with remarkable suddenness at an around 45 degrees to anchor via a strings-through-body arrangement with chromed ferrules that's more reminiscent of a Telecaster than anything else. It's a curious option to go for that speaks of bad design; most makers would consider such a severe break angle unsuitable. Dean seems to have such an observation into consideration already, however and counter any argument with the suggestion that radical angles increase resonance in a way which helps a guitar become more alive. A hard one to test, this - but the instrument is certainly very lively and responsive, even when played unamplified. All the same, don't be surprised if you snap a few strings clean off at the bridge.

For a 'radical instrument the Mach 5 has remarkably conservative electronics: two chrome-covered humbuckers, single tone and volume control mounted below the bridge pickup with a three position selector midway between the two. The jack socket is located on the instrument's rear curve not far from the position where you'd normally expect to find the strap button. This, incidentally, is located a little further up the inner edge of the shark's fin.

One: select large amplifier and sound-proof room.
Two: tell the rest of the magazine team you may not be back for a while.
Three: close door. Four: vrr-vrr-voommm...!
This really is a lot of fun, and with the bridge pickup selected and a whole heap of gain at your disposal the Mach 5 becomes a total rock monster. While the pickup is extremely powerful, its voicing is excellent: superb clarity at the high end of the spectrum, transparent, rounded mids and rich, defined bass response which persists even when strings begin to age. There are no unexpected highs or lows in string response and a well positioned musical tone control gives you lots of subtle and usable variation for classic metal, hard rock and glam (the volume pot could be smoother, but this is most likely a problem confined to this particular instrument). The basic tone an sustain character created by the set mahogany neck and body is certainly Gibson and SG in nature but this Guitar is spankier and more percussive in sound and feel. Louder too - even when unamplified. Maybe there is something to Dean's string anchoring ideas and preference for the sonics of large, thin bodies after all...
From the neck pickup the Mach 5 delivers a really rich basic drive tone with more of the characteristic liveliness this instrument claims as part of its essential character. The result is a sweetness more like that of an instrument with a maple-topped mahogany body than one purely made of mahogany: a pretty good achievement and a definite pleaser in , say the Les Paul camp. The sweetness is retained with the selection of both pickups. Here we have a dark, bluesey, broad sound with a natural swirly, slightly phasey character that adapts well to chorus for real Gothic intensity.
While the Mach 5's look definitely implies styling for the hard and heavy genres there is really nothing about this instrument's layout or playability that limits its use to this one corner of the music arena. Hard to imagine a modern jazz buff twiddling away on this baby but the Mach 5's clean tones are fully up to the task.