Fascination leads to national success for steel guitar
By Jennifer Chick
The Flagler News
Del Mullen's pursuit of perfection has led him to become the premier
steel guitar maker in the United States. Mullen builds his guitars in an unassuming shed north of Seibert. Driving
past, one might think the shed houses tractors and combines, but stepping
inside, visitors realize this is no ordinary farm shed. This is the
headquarters for Mullen Steel Guitars Company, maker of what they
affectionately call "the Cadillac of steel guitars."
Over the years, the Mullen Steel Guitars Company has made quite a reputation
for itself. Its customer list now includes Dixie Chicks, Ricky Skaggs,
Martina McBride, Charley Pride, Porter Wagoner, and Andy
Griggs, as well as many performers in Branson, Nashville and Las Vegas. The
top steel guitar player in Europe, Sarah Jory, also plays a Mullen steel
On her official website, Jory writes about using her Mullen guitar in a
recent United States tour, "The Mullen Steel sounded absolutely amazing
through all my Peavey gear..."Sometimes, the Mullins don't know a star has one of their guitars until they
see it on television or in a picture of a performance.
"Some of the new, younger stars ... they may pick up a guitar from a dealer
before they take up with us," Del said.
Mullen and his wife, Dixie, first started the company about 20 years ago.
Dixie has always been an equal partner in the business and through 44 years
She jokes that she can't even play a radio, but she knows how to put
together a steel guitar. She has a fan in her grandson, Shaun Mantey, one of
their two employees. He said Dixie taught him 90 percent of what he learned
about the business. Their other employee is Shaun's brother, Mike Mantey.
Now Shaun and Mike do most of the assembling of the steel guitars, leaving
Del to the more arduous task of tuning and setting up the temperamental
instruments. The brothers plan to take over the company when Del retires.
But they admit that Del, being such a perfectionist, will never be able
to fully retire from the business he built from the ground up." He does everything right the first time," Mike said. "It takes him forever,
but he does it right the first time."
Del admits he takes his time making the instruments, a trait passed down
from his dad, but Dixie insists that instruments can't be rushed.
Although Del and Dixie grew up in the Seibert area, they moved to the
Denver area in 1962. They lived there for 28 years, moving back to Seibert
seven years ago.
Del built his first steel guitar in his kitchen in 1968. His older
brother, Willard, had a steel guitar, and Del was fascinated by the
He has been playing guitars since he was six years old in his family band,
and said he loved the sound of the steel guitar. He couldn't afford to buy
one, so he set about building one instead. He worked at a machine shop at
the time and had access to all of the machinery. He built that first guitar
from a design in his head, and it took him two years. He didn't have any
pattern or instrument to copy from.
Shaun said his granddad built his first steel guitar because of the
challenge. It was a complicated and intense process, something that Shaun
says Del thrives on.
"He does everything excellent, but he never goes the easy way," Shaun said.
Dixie chuckles as she remembers one of the first times Del publicly
played his newly built guitar. He was playing at a dance in Vona, CO when
something from his guitar went flying through the air and landed in the
middle of the dance floor. Dixie was mortified as she scrambled across the
floor to retrieve the part. She just knew the guitar was going to fall to
pieces right there in front of everyone. Much to her relief, she found it
was just his pick that had flown through the air.
That first guitar didn't last long since Del, ever the perfectionist, set
about dismantling it to make it better. Under the guise of a potential
customer, Del would persuade his wife, with a toddler in tow and pregnant
with their second child at the time, to visit guitar stores with him. While
she kept watch, he pulled out his tape measure and took measurements.
He also played the steel guitars and found that his steel guitar played as
well as those for sale in music stores. After that discovery, he began the
task of making his guitar easier to play.
His first shop was a 1952 Chevy pickup flatbed with dimensions of six feet
by eight feet. He used the flatbed as the floor and extended the sides up
with plywood, putting a roof over the tiny structure. After he outgrew the
pickup, he moved into a lawn shed. He now builds his steel guitars in a
quonset with plenty of room for all the parts and equipment it takes to put
together his signature guitars.
Del worked for the Colorado School of Mines for approximately 15 years.
During that time, he built steel guitars as a side business. It wasn¹t until
1984, when the School of Mines was laying off workers, that Del decided
to try his hand at building steel guitars as a full-time job.
"Only an idiot would do what I've done," he said.
Those first years were tough. Del had to make a name for himself in a
very competitive industry." He had to do a lot of legwork to get his guitars out there," Shaun said.
Del and Dixie attended national conventions in Dallas and St. Louis to
show musicians what they had to offer. Dixie said she was star-struck at the
first conventions, feeling they were in over their heads. But their
persistence paid off.
"The guitar now sells itself," Mike said. "We just have to get someone to
sit down and play it. "They still attend conventions, and have even increased the number of
conventions they attend. With one steel guitar builder for every 10 players,
Mike said they have to continually promote their product." It's the new people that are playing steel guitars that we have to worry
about sitting down to our guitars," Mike said. He added the older players
have already realized what a great product Mullen steel guitars are.
The company now builds approximately 80 guitars per year. Many of those
orders are for custom-built steel guitars. Prices range from $2,500 to
Over the years, Del has tinkered with his original design. He now has two
main models, which he customizes with Formica or lacquer finishes. One of
his most popular models is the Royal Precision. The model is named after
Del's younger brother, Royal, who died when he was only one week old.
Del's slanted, chrome endplates have become a Mullen trademark. He
created the design to distinguish his guitars from others in the market.
The Mullen's pride themselves on their well-built product.
"We're the only steel guitar company that makes our own parts," Dixie said.
That hands-on approach has contributed to their success. They also strive to
make even their most basic guitars with the same quality as their most
Every single guitar that goes out of here is 100 percent perfection," no
matter who it is for," Mike said.
Del made his first steel guitar with a hand-drill, hacksaw, and file. Now
he uses the latest technology, including a machine that makes parts using a
computer program written by Del.
Although the Mullen steel guitar is sold through dealers, 70 percent of the
Mullen's business comes through their website,
In addition to building the guitars, Del also plays steel guitar. He
plays strictly by ear and recorded a CD this summer in Nashville. He owns
two steel guitars. One is 15 to 16 years old with wood on it that is 50 to
60 years old. The other one was made for him by his grandsons this past May.
That was the one that he played when he recorded his CD.
Del was very honored when Buddy Emmons, whom the Mullen's call the Elvis
of steel guitars, offered to produce Del's CD.
Del feels that when he retires, he will be leaving his business in the
capable hands of his grandsons, but there are still a few things he wants
them to learn first.
If the Lord will give us this much time, I need to train them to make their
own designs and programs, he said.