The new guy in town talks about how his upstart brand is winning over converts everywhere
By Marty Paule
Reverend founder Joe Naylor approaches the process of building his guitars with a mind steeped in the principles of industrial design combined with the enthusiasm of an avid guitarist who’s been playing since 1980. Blend in his seasoning as a professional guitar repair guy and trained luthier, and the net result is a collection of guitars and basses that possess a unique visual stamp, generate a far-flung range of tones and are built for the long haul.
Naylor is picky. He specifies every detail down to the tiniest screw in each Reverend axe. He builds them with the realities of wear and tear in mind, ensuring that they can be easily repaired and maintained.
Launched in 1997, Reverend was first housed in a small garage behind a bicycle shop in East Detroit. The business has thrived and today distributes its remarkably extensive product line from headquarters in Livonia, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.
A measure of Reverend’s success is reflected in the range of artists who play and endorse the company’s instruments. Early adopters included Kid Rock, Carl Verheyen, Rick Vito, Brad Houser, and Billy Corgan. Today that roster includes Reeves Gabrels, Ron Asheton, Pete Anderson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bob Balch, FIDLAR and many more.
Check out the selection of Reverend Guitars at Musician’s Friend.
The HUB: Quite a few years ago, I spoke to Dean Zelinsky of Dean Guitars, and he made the observation that every electric guitar is essentially a slab of wood with a couple of pickups embedded in it. I think he’d agree that guitars are more than that—each guitar has its own vibe and character. Is there one unifying principle behind Reverend guitars that give them a particular kind of mojo?
Joe Naylor: Dean is correct; on a basic level that’s all an electric guitar is. But then a cake is just flour, eggs and milk, right? But they’re all different. We’re very conscious of bringing the Reverend flavor, if you will, to each of the designs we do. We have in the neighborhood of 40 designs at this point, but they all have a certain signature Reverend look to them. What sets us apart from some other guitar makers is that we’re a design-based company. It really starts and ends with design.
For a relatively small company, Reverend produces a vast range of instruments, each with a distinct visual vibe and sonic mission.
With that in mind, we establish a certain aesthetic for starters that you’ll see carried across the entire line, whether it’s a bolt-on or set-neck guitar, or even a bass. You’ll see certain signature aesthetic cues, maybe in the headstock, the pickguard. You can immediately tell it’s a Reverend guitar. We consciously pursue that and take a certain amount of pride in that as well. That goes back to my background in industrial design. That’s how we establish the mojo you’re talking about.
After that, you get into the details—the construction, the pickups, the wood choices, the sound. But before you can get to that, you can tell from a design perspective that it’s definitely a Reverend.
The HUB: The electric guitar and bass markets are pretty crowded spaces; what led you to believe there was room for Reverend Guitars?
Joe Naylor: Our entry into the market was in 1997, and it was quite different back then. Our original marketing motive was to offer an American-built guitar that was in the neighborhood of $600. We did that, but that was back then and things have changed a lot since. You can’t build a quality U.S.-made guitar for $500 or $600 anymore. But that was our initial angle into the market.
In addition to being an industrial designer, I had a background as a professional guitar repairman for a very long time, and I felt I could apply some of that experience to a production guitar. When you do repairs for so long, you realize where the flaws are and see what could be improved. I always felt that gave us a little bit of an advantage when it came to picking the hardware and design features.
The HUB: As you know, many of your competitors’ guitars are based on designs that are three, four or five decades old. What kinds of things do you bring to the table in terms of doing things differently as a result of your guitar tech background?
Joe Naylor: Take the neck plate on our Bolt-On Series for example. We use six bolts instead of the usual four. That gives you more mechanical fastening pressure so the neck is very tightly mounted to the neck pocket. That’s for a couple of reasons: It helps improve sustain. But it really helps tuning stability. Bolt-on necks have a tendency to shift from left to right, so when there’s six bolts, there’s less chance of that happening. Then there’s the two little screws in the middle of the plate. We get asked what those are for all the time. They simply hold the plate to the body, so if you remove the neck for maintenance reasons, the plate stays on the body and you don’t have to worry about reinstalling or losing it. It’s a nice convenience feature for the repair guy.
A few other things: The volume control on every Revered guitar has a treble bleed circuit. It’s a common repair mod with repair techs. It’s a capacitor on the volume control, so that when you roll back the volume, you don’t lose the high end. Typically, when you roll back the sound gets a little dull, but with the treble bypass you still have a nice, sparkly and chimey sound.
There are also locking tuners on every Reverend guitar. Again, that goes back to the repair days. One of the most common modifications was installing locking tuners. The majority of the pros, especially those who use tremolo always had me putting locking tuners on to improve tuning stability. The graphite nut was another common mod that we put on every guitar.
All the hardware we use is common hardware, so if you’re on tour somewhere and break something, just about every hardware part on a Reverend guitar can be readily found. So I approach design from a service point of view. I think, ‘How would I want this guitar designed if I’m a repairman?’
The Reverend story in just over six minutes
The HUB: That makes a lot of sense. I noticed that you seem to make feedback control a big priority in your hollowbody and semi-hollowbody models. How did you go about tackling that problem?
Joe Naylor: Feedback is something we’ve paid attention to for a long time. I like to use feedback personally, but it’s always better when it’s under control. There’s a big difference between a note that feeds back then jumps an octave—a nice thing, as opposed to an uncontrollable squeal that makes the rest of your band want to kill you.
So with that in mind, I studied how a guitar body resonates and how that relates to feedback. When I’m designing a guitar, I pay attention to which side of the body resonates more than the other. A lot of my designs have what I call asymmetrical resonance. In other words, one side of the body will be stiffer than the other. And when I say “side,” I mean the treble or bass side.
I’ve found that feedback generally starts on the bass side of the body. What I’ll typically do in a hollowbody design is make that side a little stiffer, There are two advantages to that. It helps control the feedback, but it also tends to tighten up the low strings a little bit. So when you’re riffing on those wound strings, you get a little more clarity as well. That’s something I pay attention to whether it’s a chambered solidbody, semi-hollow, or even our Pete Anderson model that’s considered a full hollow.
The semi-hollow Reverend Reeves Gabrels Spacehawk is equipped with Railhammer Chisel bridge / Hyper Vintage neck pickups and delivers tightly controlled feedback that’s a blast to play with.
The HUB: I find it interesting that apart from your artist signature models, you divide up your guitar line based on whether they have set or bolt-on necks. What was your thinking behind that?
Joe Naylor: There seems to be two camps, sort of like a Ford-Chevy thing. There are your bolt-on guys and your set-neck guys, and that of course goes back to your Fender versus Gibson guys. So we thought it would be easier from a selection standpoint. All the set necks have a 24-¾” scale neck and all the bolt-ons have the 25-½” scale neck. So each series has those distinct characteristics.
Now a lot of our customers will buy both, but a certain percentage of customers will only stick with set-necks or bolt-ons. We like both camps here at Reverend; we just like to keep them separated.
The HUB: You touched on the economic realities that hit Reverend early on, and I wondered if you could talk some more about that and taking your production offshore to South Korea.
Joe Naylor: We started building guitars in ‘97 in the Detroit area. We did that for like nine years. It became clear economically that it was no longer feasible. The cost of building a guitar in the U.S. continued to skyrocket and the competition started moving overseas. We held on as long as we could and then we finally decided that it was time to pursue another path.
At the time, I was actively looking at factories overseas and South Korea seemed to offer the best balance of quality and price. So I went to the NAMM shows and took a look at what the various factories were doing. We ended up choosing a company called Mirr Musical Instruments. They’re a medium-small factory that specializes in high-quality custom designs. We decided they would be a good fit for Reverend because we’re not making knockoff stuff. Everything we do is very detailed and has very specific requirements. So we partnered with them and are still with them today. They continue to put out great stuff, great quality and they build them just the way we like them.
The HUB: Do you build prototypes in Detroit before turning it over to them to tackle the production questions?
Joe Naylor: Actually the prototypes for the most part are built in Korea. Of course I do all the design work here; I have a design studio in my house. I used to be a draftsman so I still draw them up full size using pencil and paper, old school.
The HUB: No CAD huh?
Joe Naylor: No CAD. I’d like to get a system, but right now I’m still pretty fast. I take those drawings, scan them and send a PDF file to Korea. They take the drawings and digitize them into their CNC machine system. We usually get a prototype back within four weeks, and these prototypes are usually 95 percent good to go on the first attempt. They’re very good at doing that and we’re very detailed about specing things out the details. So they have very specific instructions on how we want things done.
They send the prototypes over, we check them out, we play them, we’ll have people gig with them and get some feedback on it. If there are changes, we’ll send them over and do another run of prototypes. We continue that process until it’s perfect.
The HUB: It sounds like given the level of attention you give to the initial design means that typically there are just tweaks to be made—no significant revamping of the essential design.
Joe Naylor: At that point, usually not. I’ve been doing this so long now that I have a pretty good idea what Mirr can do comfortably. And again, all the details are laid out on paper so there’s not a whole lot of guessing. So usually there are no radical changes—just tweaks. But sometimes we need to go through that tweaking process three, four, five or six different times. Especially with a signature model. Maybe the artist doesn’t like some detail and wants it changed. Maybe it’s not quite there. For example, with the original Pete Anderson model, I think we had two years into it.
The HUB: How many prototypes would that have entailed to get to the final production version?
Joe Naylor: I’m going to guess probably close to ten. That’s ten actual guitars. But we probably did two or three modifications to each guitar, so if you do the math, we might have seen 20 or 30 variations before we settled on a final production version.
In creating the Reverend Pete Anderson Signature PA-1, Joe was going for an old-school, woody hollowbody sound in a guitar that can be played loud without uncontrollable feedback.
The HUB: I was interested to see that Zack Green is your one and only setup guy at Reverend, and I was impressed that he personally checks out and plays every guitar before it ships. I also like that he puts his signature on the back of the headstock—a very personal touch. Do you foresee a day when you’re going to need to get him some help?
Joe Naylor: That may well happen. He does actually have some help. He does all the setups, but he has a shipping assistant who unboxes all the guitars, restrings them, puts them on the rack. And when Zack’s done with the setup, his assistant will re-pack and ship the guitar. Zack is very fast. All he does is setups, so he can really crank them out. But if we get busy enough, we may have to get another guy. Or maybe human cloning technology will be advanced enough in the next couple of years that we can just clone him!
The HUB: For a relatively small guitar maker, I’m impressed that you have such a large roster of artists and that they’re musically all over the map in terms of genres. I wonder what you attribute that to.
Joe Naylor: I guess it’s because we do so many different styles of guitars. Our line is suitable for so many different genres of music. However, Reverend guitars are not for everybody; they have a certain style, and as you said earlier, a certain mojo that’s going to appeal to a certain type of person. Someone who’s looking for a something outside the box, not the same old-same old mainstream designs. But having said that, our designs can cover everything from jazz to country to pop to metal, and that’s reflected in our artist roster. Each model does a different thing and some of these guys own a half dozen Reverends.
Equipped with a Reverend custom humbucker and P90, the Double Agent III plays both sides of the street tonally delivering a lot of guitar at a moderate price.
The HUB: There’s a lot of press these days about Detroit that depicts it as a completely broken city, then there are other stories that suggest that there’s a resurgence taking place with the revitalized auto industry. I was wondering what your take on it is.
Joe Naylor: The true answer is that we’re somewhere in the middle of that. Everybody of course knows about the bankruptcy—the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. But there are also positive signs. There’s a lot of growth going on downtown. So there are the beginnings of a resurgence. Despite the negative press, it’s still a pretty cool town. And there is a thriving music scene. You can go out in this town any night and see original rock bands playing. We’re doing fine, and we’re going to be doing better in the next five to ten years.
The HUB: Can you talk about your Railhammer pickups? What were the tones you were going for and how did you go about getting them?
Joe Naylor: It started with a personal quest actually. I was trying to design a pickup for personal use that I could use to move quickly between heavily distorted sounds and open, clean sounds. I tended to favor the neck humbucker for clean sounds, but of course, when you apply heavy distortion to a neck pickup what happens is it turns to mush. You lose clarity, especially on the wound strings. So I came up with the idea of putting rails under the wound strings for clarity. Then for the plain strings, we used oversized pole pieces, and that contributes to a fat sound. All said and done, you have a tighter, more focused tone under the wound strings, and a fatter, thicker tone under the plain strings. That makes for a very nice balance, especially if you’re playing with overdrive or distortion. You can dial in your amp for a very percussive, tight tone for riffing on the low strings, then when you go to play lead on the plain strings, it doesn’t become thin and brittle or strident-sounding.
So that’s how the Railhammer was developed. Then of course we developed the bridge and neck models. We’re also doing the H90 versions, which are essentially a P90 design inside a humbucker-sized box so they’ll drop right into a humbucker pickup ring. You’ll see Railhammers now on select Reverend guitars. We’ve got them in about six models now, including the Reeves Gabrels signature guitars. He’s using Railhammers in everything and is one of the biggest fans of the design. He’s well known for going from very clean to extremely distorted and all points in between, and he loves the way the Railhammers respond.
The HUB: What was behind your decision to market the Railhammers as a distinct business apart from Reverend?
Joe Naylor: It is a separate company that I run myself. I figured there would be a lot of people out there who would be interested in using them as an upgrade for their current pickups. As you know, the aftermarket pickup market is pretty strong and there are two or three major players. I figured Railhammer could give them a run for the money and so far so good. We’re making pretty strong inroads in the rock and metal market.
Check out the selection of Railhammer pickups at Musician’s Friend.
The HUB: I noticed that you’re a very active participant in customer discussion forums on the Reverend website. You’re obviously a pretty busy guy, and wondered why you make that a priority.
Joe Naylor: First of all, I just love guitars; I can talk about them all day long. So I have no problem just shooting the breeze about them. The other thing is that if you’re going to run a guitar company, you’ve got to know what players think. You have to get in there and discuss things in order to know what’s up. As soon as you isolate yourself from what’s happening on the street, you lose touch with the guitar market. I want the real answers, in real time.
I also want to be able to provide personalized service. When somebody picks a company to be loyal to, it’s not just the product, it’s the people behind the product. And a lot of that is how you’re treated after you buy it. I’m sure we are one of the few companies of our size where you actually talk to the designer either on a forum or by email. Also, our CEO, Ken Haas, is easily accessible. He’s on the forums and he’s out there gigging as well. We simply make a point of keeping in touch with our people.
The HUB: That makes a lot of sense. To use a Detroit-flavored analogy, you guys are where the rubber hits the road.
Joe Naylor: That’s right. We want to see what they’re saying on the street. As the kids say, we try to keep it real.
The HUB: As a guitar repairman, are there any particular mods or other jobs you undertook that stand out in your memory?
Joe Naylor: One of the most challenging jobs was when a guy brought me a ‘70s Les Paul that he’d had since he was a kid. Somebody had run over it with a truck while it was in its case; they ran over the headstock. So he brought me this guitar and the headstock was in a dozen pieces. It was basically like a puzzle, and I told him we could graft a new piece on there. But he said, ‘No, you have to use the original wood. I’ve had this since I was a kid, and I don’t want any wood in there that wasn’t original.’ So imagine putting a wood jigsaw puzzle together using epoxy. I did manage to get it together and it was a big job. When the guy came to pick it up, he was so happy he looked like he was going to cry.
The HUB: I love that you named your business in tribute to Reverend Gary Davis being a big blues fan myself. I take it that rootsy music is an important part of your taste. Who’s on your personal playlist?
Joe Naylor: Oh man, I’m all over the board. I do like a lot of blues, but I’m not a blues fanatic. The Reverend name was something that struck me when I was reading Blues Review magazine, and I happened to see the article on Gary Davis. The word “Reverend” really jumped out at me.
I grew up with two older brothers back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the usual blues-rock stuff was on constant rotation: Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Black Sabbath—all that great ‘70s guitar-based music. I’d say my all-time favorite band would be The Who. I just love the whole Pete Townshend thing. Then there was all the stuff in the ‘80s—that was my college era—all the new wave, punk, metal, etc. I loved The Police, Black Flag, Judas Priest, Metallica, so much happened in that decade. These days, again it’s across the board, everything from Drive By Truckers to White Stripes to some of the Japanese bands like Boris. It’s funny, as I get older, I still listen to a lot of heavy stuff. But all-time guitar tone favorites would include early Santana, early ZZ Top, early Van Halen, Big Sugar, The Mermen, and The Who.
Reverend’s also got the bottom end covered with its bass lineup that includes the punchy Mercalli FM 5-String that features custom designed pickups and a massive bridge.
The HUB: You started out building amps and then got into guitars. What was behind making that switch?
Joe Naylor: The Naylor amps evolved from a retail store we had. I had a small repair and used guitar store. We took in amp repairs too, and our repair guy, Dan Russell, was also an extremely talented circuit modifier. The boutique amp thing was just in its infancy; we saw some at a guitar show and thought, ‘Hey, if they can do this, then we can do this.’ It was really that simple. We began building amps and my name was on the front because I was overseeing the whole thing. Dan Russell did the circuit design and we started getting busy with that and we shut down the retail store. Eventually I sold it to my business partner who then ended up selling it to a guy in Dallas, so the name is still there though I have nothing to do with it anymore.
The HUB: A lot Musician’s Friend customers are relatively new guitarists who don’t have a big budget. What’s your advice to them in terms of allocating their cash between their guitar and amp?
Joe Naylor: There are a lot of good guitars and amps at midrange prices. Of course, Reverend Guitars falls in the mid to upper-mid range. With amps I tend to lean towards the mid and upper price ranges, simply because you’re buying durability. There are a lot of good-sounding amps even in the cheap price range, but if you’re talking about a tube amp, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. My advice would be to buy something simple; maybe something with not so many options or a million channels and knobs on it, because simple is more dependable. If you need a lot of tones, you can always go with pedals—there’s so many great ones now.
The HUB: I wanted to congratulate you on winning the Best in Show—Company to Watch Award at the summer NAMM show. Where does Reverend go from here?
Joe Naylor: We’re in growth mode. Best in Show of course is a great honor, especially at something like the NAMM show where you’re in there with all the other manufacturers. We’re very excited about having our line offered through Musician’s Friend; it’s always been one of our goals. We’ve been sort of an underground company for a long time and I think we’re now poised to grow and be appreciated by a wider market. We’re focused on growing without compromising our mission of great quality, service and design.