Dean’s 2000 Gibson Les Paul Standard sports Lindy Fralin pickups. Fralin also modded the electronics so that both pickups are controlled by just one volume knob. Photo by Jenny Baniszewski
Mickey Melchiondo is like a lot of Premier Guitar readers. He’s obsessed with all things guitar, loves vintage gear, and believes in the power of great rock ’n’ roll. The difference is that Mickey also goes by the name Dean Ween, is coleader of the successful band Ween, has legions of loyal fans throughout the world, and for three decades has made a career out of writing off-kilter, sometimes humorous, and undeniably catchy songs.
Maybe known best for the hit “Push th’ Little Daisies,” Ween began its journey when Melchiondo met Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) in junior high school and they adopted their stage names. The two quickly combined their love for a wide variety of musical styles to create a sound that’s equal parts rock, sonic experimentation, and playful art-project weirdness. After nine studio albums, the band threw in the towel in 2012, leaving Dean Ween with some time on his hands.
At first, Dean fell into a depression, putting his guitar down completely for several years. But inspiration struck again and he found himself as busy as ever, working on material with his band the Moistboyz, building a recording studio, and recording his first solo record as the Dean Ween Group (DWG), titled The Deaner Album.
While The Deaner Album will definitely appeal to Ween fans, it’s Dean’s passion for tones and vintage gear, and his diverse playing influences, that inform the sound of the recording. “I wanted to make a record heavy on the guitar, and go out and play behind it. And I’m doing it, and it’s been awesome,” he says.
Heavy on the guitar it is. There are multiple instrumentals that showcase Dean’s love of iconic players, such as “Dickie Betts,” and a tribute to the anti-Santa, “Schwartze Pete.” There is also a tip of the hat to electric-guitar pioneer Les Paul. And when Dean does step up to the microphone on rockers like “Bundle of Joy” and “I’ll Take It (and Break It),” it’s still his raunchy and slippery guitar style that powers the tunes.
But no matter how guitar-rich The Deaner Album is, for Dean Ween, the song is still always the priority. “I think the record’s, like, half-instrumental,” he explains, “but the focus has all been on the songs, with me singing, which is a real confidence-booster.”
The sound of The Deaner Album is undeniably linked to the band Ween, which recently announced a string of reunion performances. But judging by Dean’s own musical output and history of writing great music in whatever style that’s inspiring him at the time, he has a lot more adventurous material coming, and he’s sure to keep branching out.
Your passion for writing great songs has been evident throughout your career. What led you to become a songwriter?
At first we just liked to hear ourselves on tape. We were fascinated that we could put something down and listen back to it. Anything we got down that had drums, guitar, and vocals we thought was music. Like, “It’s official, we’re a band!” [Laughs.]
We gave it a name, Ween, immediately. We were, like, 13, you know? And then I learned how to tune the guitar. Originally I would tune it all up to one chord, like a lap steel. I would play barre chords on it with my thumb. And even with those limitations, we were starting to write passable stuff. But we wanted more. When you write something that’s good, that you’re going to play for somebody, that you’re confident in as a songwriter, you can never backpedal from that. You’ve got to keep going forward. And that was what did it.
Then my dad bought me my first real guitar, which was a Squier Strat—one of the early ones. It’s a great guitar, made in Japan. He hid it, but I knew the day it entered the house. When nobody was home I would just play it all day. The body and the pickguard were all scratched when I got it on Christmas Day. They knew and they didn’t care. I never got a better gift in my entire life, before or since. And I started taking guitar lessons. And then I just had a love affair with my guitar, which lasts to this day.
What was it that initially inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” and then Van Halen’s “Atomic Punk.” I heard those two songs, which have one thing in common: the scratch on the strings at the start of both. It scared the crap out of me. I remember both incidents. I heard “Are You Experienced?” in a locker room when boom boxes were first coming around, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. It actually put me on the path with music. I was just terrified by the mystery of it. I went out and I got it, and that was all she wrote.
What inspired you to create such a guitar-focused new album after all these years?
That was the primary goal for this record. I had a million ideas over the years with Ween—concepts I wanted to do. Like, I always wanted to do a straight-up Les Paul-sounding record … the guitar player Les Paul. And there’s a song on the new album, “Schwartze Pete,” that does that. And I wanted to do a Miles Davis strung-out thing. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the thing that people have focused on most are the songs which have a lot of guitar in them.
Your instrumental tracks have a vocal sense of melody. How do you determine which songs will be instrumental and which will have singing?
This record is about half and half. I didn’t know who my audience was going to be. I wanted to focus on the guitar, but I also knew I had to sing and write songs, because without a song, you’ve got nothing. Unless you’re a master … like Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow or something. Which is so fucking badass.
I write tons of instrumentals. I do a lot of both. But I don’t think I’m going to change much. I’m going to write songs and choose the best ones. If they got vocals on them, they got vocals on them. If they don’t—if the playing is so good or the melody is so good that it doesn’t need them—then that’s what goes on there.
What guitars did you use on the album?
I used everything. I always come back to my Strat, seems like. The studio is a lot different than live. In the studio, all bets are off. Everything is in play. Everything is possible if it serves the song well. If I want a Tele sound, I have an old ’65 Twin and a bunch of Teles. I know exactly how to make it get “that thing.” I have a huge, huge vintage pedal collection. If I hear a Fuzz Face, I grab my Fuzz Face, you know?
What are some of your favorite vintage pedals?
The Mu-Tron stuff, for sure. Mu-Tron phasers and the envelope filter. And I have an original spaghetti-logo Cry Baby. It’s Italian, from the late ’60s. And for some reason I’ve never been able to get another wah-wah to sound that good.
Did that wah make it on the album?
Oh yeah. If there’s a wah-wah, that would be it. I love tape echoes. I have an old Echoplex and a Roland Space Echo. But onstage I use the Boss RE-20 Space Echo pedal, which has a tap function. I don’t use a distortion pedal. I never have in my life. I use the amp’s natural gain. And I use my guitar’s volume knob as my gain channel. When it’s on 10, that means I’m ripping!
Through this process, and playing with a lot of different guys to make this record, I found the guys where we have the Keith and Ronnie thing going. We all have like-minded taste in gear. We use Fender amps and Fender and Gibson guitars, wah-wahs, phasers, and echoes, basically.