Everybody knew a kid like Joe Naylor.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, he was the tinkerer, the one who took things apart and put them back together, who had the best model airplanes and the coolest bikes.
He had the touch.
'I was the kid who was always [modifying] my toys to outperform the other kids' toys,' he said from his Warren, Mich., offices by way of explaining how he started on the path to developing his singular creation, Reverend Guitars.
'The technical preparation started when I was young: building flying airplanes, I was a bicycle mechanic. All of that is still knowledge that I use today.'
He started Reverend in 1996 and the small company near Detroit has grown ever since. It boasts 24 models of electric guitars with names like Warhawk, Charger, Volcano, and Roundhouse, all of which have a distinct 'vintage modern' look and consistent, reliable sound that is especially appealing to road musicians. The company's long artist list includes people like renowned country sideman Pete Anderson (a Grammy Award winner most well-known for his work with Dwight Yoakam), bluesman and Greg Brown sidekick Bo Ramsey, the Drive-By Truckers, Unknown Hinson, Kid Rock, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
While each plays dramatically different styles of music, they have two things in common: they're all relentless road dogs who play hundreds of shows a year, and their key weapons of choice include Reverend guitars.
Part of the appeal is that the Reverends are relatively inexpensive, generally selling for between about $500 and $900 compared to the thousands of dollars that some of the top line Fender, Gibson, or Paul Reed Smith's fetch.
'The people that end up with Reverends are frequently really good players, and that's because I think they appreciate the value for the quality of the instrument,' said Fred Schuman of Durdel's Music, 2628 West Central Ave., who sells Reverends.
'They can be a real workhorse guitar to guys who go out and play music for a living.'
Designing a vibe
Naylor, 47, attended Western Michigan University, and said he knew early on that he wanted to be pursue a career in industrial design. He started playing guitar in his 20s and the two passions came together. He was a luthier for several years before opening his own music repair and equipment shop that ultimately launched Reverend.
Over the years, he custom-built instruments and began working on the early prototypes of early Reverend guitar styles like the Avenger and Slingshot, neither of which is produced anymore.
'It took 10 years to get up to that first production guitar: a lot of prototypes and a lot of late nights,' he said.
The process involved finding the perfect balance of function and form.
'Designing a guitar is like writing a song,' Naylor said. 'You want it to convey a vibe or emotion, you know? The look of a guitar can be sexy or dangerous or weapon-like, or any of those things, combined or otherwise.'
One of the first Reverend acolytes locally was Tim Oehlers, who found a Slingshot in the Crossroads Guitar Shop, 2439 Tremainsville Rd., in the late '90s. As soon as he played it, he was hooked.
'It was like the guitar just came to me,' said Oehlers, a music teacher and veteran musician who has played everything from down-and-dirty blues in bars to delicate instrumental work in quiet settings.
'I played it and I went home and got the money. There was one main quality to the guitar, among many qualities, that stuck out and it was sustain I would play a note and it would just ring out.'
Ramsey had a similar experience.
'I think I played one in a music store somewhere,' he said in a phone interview from Iowa City, where he lives. 'I just pulled it off the rack and played it and that was a while ago and it just kind of stuck with me. Then I stumbled across them online.'
His Flatroc, which has a clean, country sound, has become his go-to instrument when he plays slide guitar. The last time he was with Brown at the Ark in Ann Arbor, he played the Flatroc. A lot.
Reverend went through a major change in 2005 when the company stopped manufacturing its instruments in the United States and started having them made in Korea. Naylor said the decision was based on wanting to produce affordable instruments, something that wasn't possible in the United States.
He said that because of labor, materials, and other fixed costs, he couldn't build a guitar and sell it for less than $1,200, which made it impossible to keep them in the $600 to $1,200 range that Reverend shoots for.
So the guitars are made in Korea and shipped to the Warren offices where each one is tested for quality control, strung, and set up.
'Even though we're importing these guitars, they're designed right down to the last screw by me,' Naylor said. 'They're all proprietary designs and they're all Reverend through and through.'
Reverend only employs about half a dozen people and is not publicly traded on the stock market. Naylor wouldn't reveal the company's sales figures, but said it has a worldwide dealer network and ships between 300 and 400 guitars a month.
One of the company's key selling points, along with cost and playability, is the look of its various designs. They bear a faint resemblance to the more well-known, iconic Fenders and Gibsons, but also have an intriguing mix of old and new.
John Neff of Drive-By Truckers uses a Warhawk that he raves about for all sorts of technical strengths like its vibrato, ease of playing, and the 'sparkliness' of its sound. He likes how it looks, too.
'I kind of have conservative tastes when it comes to guitars,' he said in a phone interview. 'I'm not crazy about super-modern looks and aesthetics, and the Reverend looks kind of retro without copying another style.'
Naylor said the company is preparing to release a special Pete Anderson signature guitar that will be its first full hollow-body, although it will be outfitted with pickups so it can be played through an amp. But don't look for Reverend to change its focus dramatically from electrics. After releasing a series of amplifiers, effects pedals, and bass guitars for several years, the company discontinued those lines and refocused on electric guitars, he said.
That's fine for players like Oehlers, who said he'll hold onto his Slingshot for as long as he's still playing.
'I told someone recently that if something happened to my light blue Slingshot, I would shed a tear,' he said. 'I'm serious. That guitar will be on the guitar stand at my funeral.'
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159