REVIEW: Dean ML79

The ML is probably Dean’s most famous design, not least due to the contribution of one Dimebag Darrell. Dime received his first ML as a prize in a guitar playing contest as a teenager, and when Pantera were on tour in the early days he would scour the pawn shops of the USA in the hope of finding more MLs to add to his collection. Over the years Dime tricked out his MLs with Floyd Rose tremolos and a combination of Bill Lawrence and Dimarzio humbuckers, and these innovations eventually found their way into his signature range. But the heart and soul of the ML was always the classic 1979 design cooked up by company founder Dean Zelinsky. Dean Z has moved on now but Dean are still cranking out some very cool guitars (including the Rusty Cooley and Dave Mustaine models).

Zelinsky’s basic premise for the ML was to take the front half of a Gibson Explorer, the back half of a Gibson Flying V, and join them together in the middle, thus creating an unholy super-being of awesome rock power. The unique V shaped headstock and string-through design are intended to increase the overall sustain and tone by spreading string vibration energy across a larger area, and combined with the massive body the overall impression of the ML is that it’s an absolutely huge guitar. As I type this review the ML is lined up with a bunch of my personal guitars and it makes them look like ukuleles by comparison.

The ML79 is built to the exact specifications of the original round of MLs, down to the finest detail. The mahogany body may look impressively imposing, but it’s actually very well balanced, either sitting down or standing up. It’s also one of those rare designs that you can not only wear on a low strap around your ankles to look like a metal god, but also way up high for increased fretting and picking accuracy without looking like a doofus. The body feels very sturdy, and the perfect balance allows the guitar to be leaned against a wall or amp quite safely without a stand (but don’t risk it, kids!)

As you travel further up the Dean price list the pickups and hardware become more ‘boutique.’ On the Korean-made ML79, the pickups are Dean brand uncovered black humbuckers. Switches and knobs feel sturdy enough, and the large kidney button Grover tuners hold tuning particularly well, even if, like me, you’ve just been to a Zakk Wylde gig and now every second note you play is a pinch harmonic on the low E string, bent up a fourth and vibratoed within an inch of its life.

The neck is suitably chunky for a design hatched in the late 70s – it wasn’t until the mid 80s that super thin necks really started to appear with any regularity on this type of guitar – and the pearloid block position markers only add to the chunky vibe. An aggressively shaped V string anchor splays the strings out as it sends them through the body, and despite the 24-3/4” scale length the string tension is quite high, most likely due to the increased string length between the nut and tuning pegs. Action on the review model was way higher than I would like for a guitar that would mainly be used for blisteringly fast riffage and hyperspeed solos, but this is easily fixed. The review model was finished in a well executed silver burst similar to the Les Pauls favoured by Tool guitarist Adam Jones, and while other guitars in this series of MLs are topped off with binding, I kind of wish this one did too just to complete the look.

The ML79’s sustain was on the lower side of ‘long,’ but certainly longer than you would find on a bolt-on guitar, and what it lacked in infinite sustain it made up for with solid, thick tone. It’s like the string energy that would have gone into keeping the note going forever has instead been distributed into the overall thickness of the note.

The unassuming pickups pack quite a punch, with a thick, almost Van Halenesque tone that stands out from the mix with a vowel-like upper midrange. They sound a bit like Dimarzio PAF Pros to my ears, though not as dynamic. The bridge unit easily handles the transition from heavy rhythm to wild lead, and cleans up nicely with a solid, harmonically rich aura. The neck pickup sounds full and articulate, and aside from the PAF Pro comparison, it also reminds me of the neck pickup of my first guitar teacher’s 67 Gibson SG, a tone he described at the time as “juicy.” It’s not as rounded as that particular guitar’s sound, but it’s certainly in the ballpark. Believe it or not, the neck pickup of this monster also offers a quite passable clean jazz tone. You’ll certainly turn some heads if you rock up to a jazz gig with this behemoth.

The Dean ML79 represents an affordable version of a now classic design, and its faithfulness to the original blueprints means you can own one without having to spend megabucks on eBay or sifting through the racks of backwater pawnshops to own a piece of rock history. If I had my way I would update the design slightly with a thinner neck and a coil tap for the middle ‘neck-plus-bridge’ pickup selection just to get a little more tonal flexibility and add another dimension to the available clean sounds, and I would drop the strings way down to pull of sweep picking licks and Dimebag style lateral scalar licks, but otherwise it’s a fine axe worthy of the Dean name.

Body: Mahogany (Flamed maple top on transparent finishes)
Scale: 24-3/4″
Nut: 1-11/16″
Neck: Mahogany neck; Rosewood fretboard
Tuners: Grover
Bridge: Tune-O-Matic
Pickups: 2 Dean uncovered humbuckers
Electronics: 2 volume; master tone

Buy the Dean ML79 from Guitar Center: