|Armadillo CEO Evan Rubinson (pictured with Dean’s new Kerry King artist model guitar) has put his own stamp on the company.|
The Many Faces Of
In its first Armadillo All Access event, the maker of Dean, Luna, and ddrum demonstrated its appeal to disparate corners of the market.
IT WOULD BE STRANGE, ordinarily, to find Kerry King and Matt Walden in the same place at the same time. One is best known for his work with Slayer, cherished for their hard shredding and fiery imagery; the other is a 24-year-old singer/songwriter who can be found on his YouTube channel strumming soulfully by a seaside or green meadow. What they have in common is Armadillo Enterprises, which brought in both of them for its first annual Armadillo All Access (AAA) event this past December. As parent company of Dean Guitars (King’s brand of choice) and Luna Guitars (Walden’s), plus the ddrum drums line, Armadillo drew up AAA as an “in-house trade-show” meets “all-access open house” at its Tampa, Florida headquarters. Leading dealers and distributors who came for the invitation-only event took in tours, artist visits, and the latest gear from all three brands.
"Dean means something to people,
and Luna means something to people.
You want to maintain the identity
and mission statement of each brand."
“We wanted to do something that was a little bit outside the norm,” said Armadillo President and CEO Evan Rubinson. “It’s an opportunity to let some of our top dealers and distributors know that they’re appreciated and give them first crack at our new products. And it was important to us to get them inside our facility, because not all of our competitors have a facility that’s this impressive.”
Spread over 118,000 square feet not far from Tampa International Airport, Armadillo’s home base houses expansive warehouse space for all three of its brands, stacked high and deep in rows along a center aisle. As imported products arrive from overseas factories, they’re inspected at a row of half-a-dozen quality control stations for intonation, neck adjustments, finish checks, electronics checks, and more. “We take quality control very seriously because the guitar segment is a crowded space, and either you support your dealers or you don’t,” said Artist Relations Director Josh Maloney, leading a tour of the facility. “These guys are our last line of defense.” Under the same roof, Dean operates the USA Custom Shop that doubles as its production facility for artist models—as Maloney told dealers, “The same quality that goes into Dave Mustaine’s guitars goes into your customers’ guitars.” Turning out only around 35 to 50 instruments each month, the line is known for its precision handwork and almost boundless options in woods, inlays, finishes, pickups, and beyond.
|Armadillo maintains a 118,000-square-foot facility in Tampa, FL.|
As a product showcase, AAA shed light on how Armadillo views Dean—the quintessential hard-rocking metal brand—in relation to Luna, the fast-growing acoustic guitar and ukulele brand marking its 15th anniversary in 2020. Best known for its fearsome “pointy guitars,” Dean can certainly make other kinds of instruments, offering a popular line of acoustic guitars as well as electrics. Overall, though, Luna’s emergence as a primetime brand has given Dean all the more reason to embrace its metal mentality. With its artistic lineups of guitars and ukuleles, Luna can offer broad appeal for the acoustic music world while Dean maintains the hardcore edge it’s famous for. Separate marketing and product management teams have been assigned to each brand, marking them out as complementary but discrete pieces of the Armadillo puzzle. Their balance, in short, means neither brand needs to be all things to all people.
“Dean means something to people, and Luna means something to people,” said Evan. “You want to maintain the identity and mission statement of each brand.”
During AAA, a selection from both fretted instrument brands was arranged in a tradeshow-style booth alongside a selection from ddrum. For display purposes and otherwise, the Dean brand breaks down neatly into tiers, starting with its top-of-the line USA instruments. Once a narrow division for custom orders and artist models, Dean’s USA side has expanded during Evan’s three years as CEO, bringing premium craftsmanship into a range of production instruments. Among its newest creations, displayed front-and center at AAA, was the limited artist model developed for Kerry King, sporting a black satin finish, crimson inverted cross inlays, and fiber-optic white LED side dots to light up on stage. All told, Dean USA production now accounts for 19% of total revenue—compared to just 8% when Evan took the helm.
|Kerry King (Slayer) with his new Dean USA artist model during AAA.|
Probably, though, the range currently generating the most buzz falls one rung down the ladder in the Select Series—the “crème de la crème” of Dean’s imported guitars and basses, as Evan puts it. Priced in the $1,000 range, Select Series models incorporate features from their USA-made cousins, but with affordable price tags geared to players who want to take them on tour and not worry about dings and scratches. “They’re magnificent guitars, but you’re not stressing about them,” said Chris Cannella, who’s product manager for Dean and Luna as well as guitarist for the metal band Deicide. “My vision with these was to get Dean back into the professional limelight. You need something that’s built for players that’s affordable.”
With comfortable satin necks and backs and a variety of finishes—from classic black, white, and cherry to explosive “burst” looks—Select Series models feature top-grade parts including custom Seymour Duncan pickups and Floyd Rose 1000 Series professional tremolos. A range of edgy and mainstream shapes run the gamut from pointy “V” and “Z” styles, to classic Dean Cadillacs and more. In a new addition for 2020, Dean was highlighting a striking collection of “Exile Series” models—built, as Cannella said, “for a different style of shredder.” With their fast, flat-radius fingerboards, thin necks, and splittable pickups, they’re made for progressive players who like lots of options and multiple tunings. “Dean has never really been there before,” Cannella said. “We wanted to venture in and open up the doors for that other player.”
"Metal is its own lifestyle.
Luna is our other side.
Your whole mood changes
in the Luna booth."
Working down the price scale from the Select Series, Dean’s mid-priced “Classic” Series and entry-level X Series have been built to echo the vibe of the higher-end models while swapping in more affordable construction and components: Dean-made DMT pickups instead of custom Seymour Duncans, Floyd Rose Special instead of Floyd Rose 1000 tremolos. Within this mid-priced ($600 range) series—“the bread-and-butter of this company forever,” Cannella said—Dean was featuring a range of Z-shaped “79” models. Based on a classic design from Dean’s early years, they’ve been built for versatility, carrying the player beyond hard rock styles into jazz and fingerstyle. And in the entry-level X Series, with price points under $300, Dean was showing an updated range designed to “play better, feel better, perform better,” Cannella said. “We want to show you that at any price point, we give you just a little more than anybody else.”
Between Armadillo’s Dean side and its Luna selection, arranged on the opposite booth wall during AAA, there’s a deliberate hint of culture shock. “Metal is its own lifestyle,” said Cannella. “It’s a bond; it’s a brotherhood; it’s a rebellion. Luna is our other side. Your whole mood changes when you hang out in the Luna booth.” Created from scratch within Armadillo, the Luna brand was initially geared to female players, building a bridge to the market segment most every guitar maker has wanted more of for years. Back in 2005, around 90% of Luna sales were to women. Fifteen years in, however, company figures show its breakdown by gender has arrived at almost an even split. “We found that Luna crossed over into so many different types of players,” said Cannella, “and now it really represents its own lifestyle. It’s very universal.”
On the Luna side, the headline out of AAA was the brand’s 15th anniversary and a commemorative ukulele model to go with it. Available for order through 2020, the concert size anniversary model combines a quilted mahogany body and rosewood fingerboard—“exotic natural woods all the way through,” Cannella said—with delicate moon phase inlays running up the headstock, plus high-end Fishman Kula preamps with built-in tuners and a tooled-leather hardshell paisley case. “That ukulele is really special to us,” said Evan, “because of Luna’s 15th anniversary, but also because it’s a beautiful ukulele—and ukuleles are selling like wildfire.”
|A limited-edition ukulele commemorates Luna's 15th anniversary in 2020.|
In a range of other Luna introductions, designs introduced previously to “test the waters” have been carried over into a whole family of ukes—soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, as well as acoustic guitars. Among the current highlights is the Vista Series, a range depicting dramatic scenes from nature—wolves, eagles, bears, and deer—in contrasting strips of wood including bird’s-eye maple, flame maple, padauk, and koa. Intricate abalone inlay work defines Luna’s Fauna and High Tide series, the first portraying subjects from dragons to dragonflies while the second features a series of “ocean wave” inlays running up the fretboard, appearing to rise ever higher under the pull of the moon. In another artistic option, Luna’s Henna series takes its inspiration from detailed tattoo designs, laser-etched into the body and headstock. “In typical Luna fashion, we not only offer intricate design elements but there is a story behind our instruments,” said Adam Gomes, Luna’s director of marketing and artist relations. “And that same vision has been shared since the beginning.”
There was also news at ddrum, where the manufacturer was spotlighting a resurrected Dominion kit, a new take on a discontinued model that never really lost its following after being taken out of the lineup eight years ago. A birch kit engineered for maximum resonance and clarity at a midlevel price point, it already has serious buy-in from major retailers, the manufacturer reports. “Right out of the box, they’re sounding killer,” said ddrum Product Specialist Mike Petrak. “In a lot of kits at this price point, you’d be about $200 away from sounding killer.” There were also some targeted upgrades for the flagship Dios series, “the kits that put us on the map back in 2005-2006,” Petrak said. On the practical side, Dios kits are now sporting the proprietary Fixpitch mounting system, engineered for both greater resonance and increased stability. From an eye-candy standpoint, ddrum has added a new option for zebra wood veneer laid over maple shells, a striking look that catches the eye from across the room. As Petrak said, “It’s kind of a show-stopper.”
When it comes to Armadillo artists...
"I look for talent, but I also look
for good brand ambassadors."
Across three days and three brands, AAA made an ambitious product presentation. For Evan, though, it was also a showcase of his efforts since coming on as CEO, taking over from his late father Elliott Rubinson in 2016. Besides expanding USA production, he’s brought new focus to the company’s international sales side, growing that slice of the business from 15% to around 22% with significant gains in Europe and South America. Partners from the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere made the trip to company headquarters for AAA. So did artists including Vinnie Moore and Kerry King—manifesting another of Evan’s goals as CEO. With marquee signings including King and Christian Martucci (Stone Sour) he’s been assembling a roster of artists selected for their music cred as well as the public face they can put on Armadillo. A mix of veteran musicians and emerging players, such as Matt Walden, have given Armadillo instruments a prominent place on live performance stages as well as popular YouTube and social media accounts. “I look for talent,” said Evan, “but I also look for good brand ambassadors.”
Within six weeks of AAA, many of the guests on hand would be off to the Winter NAMM Show—and so would the Armadillo team, setting up in a conference room to meet with partner companies as usual. As a product exhibition, however, they’re looking at AAA as their big annual splash, a chance to capture their partners’ undivided attention, and a prime opportunity to tell the industry who they are. “NAMM is a very saturated market, and you have hundreds of competitors out there,” Evan said. “But we think that if we can get people focused on our new products, get them here and give them a good experience, a lot of them will be sold before they even need to look elsewhere.”