The small eclectic guitar maker is growing and seeing years of hard work pay off!

By Jean-Pierre Durand

Photos: Jean-Pierre Durand

Anaheim, California (The Hollywood Times) 1/24/2020

When one thinks of Toledo Ohio, one might consider their glass industry, or Champion Spark Plug, or maybe Tony Packo’s.  But there’s another bright light on the Toledo horizon. Actually it’s more of a big sound. A kind of huge sound.

Joe Naylor started Reverend with a dream to put his own stamp on the world of electric guitars.  In 1997, Naylor used the foundation of his bachelor’s degree in industrial design and his study at the Roberto-Venn School of Lutherie to launch Reverend.  He has additionally started Armor Gold Cables, StringDog Products, Naylor Amps and Railhammer pickups among other companies, melding an entrepreneurial streak with a strong desire to rock hard.  CEO Ken Haas and his wife Penny run the day to day operations, guiding the company to new levels of recognition in the last few years. Over 20 years ago, Ken bought an early Reverend guitar and noticed it was made in Detroit – impressed, a young Haas reached out to Naylor, who eventually offered to bring Haas to NAMM.  It was there that Haas’ abilities as a knowledgeable rep and potential salesperson revealed themselves – subsequent trips to NAMM and other conventions developed Haas’ delivery and further tied their fortunes to each other.

Reverend founder Joe Naylor and drummer Joe Mooradian lie at Reverend’s NAMM Concert, Slidebar Fullerton on Friday 01/24/20

In 2010, Ken and his wife Penny bought Reverend, allowing Naylor to focus on his first love, design.  It is their focus on the long game that has so helped their efforts: the use of sustainable woods like Korina, the procurement of a reliable Korean partner, the use of direct distribution. That, combined with a conscious nod towards creating a familial atmosphere with their employees, signature artists and the public, is what has been essential to putting Reverend on the map – an association with music and with people who are real, earthy, who understand the ROCK.

Ah, ROCK. The Detroit and Toledo areas have not been known for producing a dreamy or dreary brand of the genre.  Apart from deep roots in blues, jazz, and gospel, as well being the home of the formidable Motown Records, Detroit was a breeding ground for uncompromising and singularly visionary rock: the Stooges (with Iggy Pop), the MC5, Alice Cooper and the Amboy Dukes (with Ted Nugent) and, much later, the White Stripes and so many more, helping provide a template for the rock sound of the times.  It is the DNA of this raw, garage-rock-based sound that is importantly at the core of Reverend’s offerings.

Eschewing the more obvious hard rock heroes (Hendrix, Zeppelin, Clapton) when considering their designs, Reverend has gone for something more personal and iconoclastic in guitar design, pickups, and even the “name” rockers who comprise their signature series, a list that includes Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Reeves Gabrels (the Cure, David Bowie), guitarist/producer extraordinaire Pete Anderson (who first came to prominence producing and playing for Dwight Yoakam), and new for 2020, Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, amongst others. 

Bassist Mike Watt with Jean-Pierre Durand

At NAMM 2020, we had the chance to talk to two more iconic musicians who have a Reverend signature axe: legendary Minutemen/Firehouse bassist Mike Watt and renowned six-string wrangler extraordinaire Greg Koch. Mike plays punk jazz, and Greg plays virtuoso rock guitar. Both found their way to a custom instrument with Reverend.

Reverend CEO Ken Haas basks in the sonic bliss: Mike Watt and the Secondmen live at Reverend’s NAMM Concert, Slidebar Fullerton on Friday 01/24/20

Mike Watt was one-third of the seminal San Pedro-based punk band, the Minutemen. Then after the tragic loss of D. Boon in a 1985 road accident, Watt again got in the van touring with Firehose and a legendary work ethic.  Fact: when the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their seminal 1991 album, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” (with massive worldwide hits like “Under the Bridge”, “Suck My Kiss”, and “Breaking the Girl”), they dedicated the album to . . . Mike Watt.  As a young man, Ken Haas was seduced by the raw power of Watt’s groove and approach long before Watt came into the Reverend fold. This year at NAMM, they debuted the Wattplower 2, a bass that builds on Reverend’s first offering by adding special pickups to enhance the sonic options.  The bassist’s dedication to his muse and his sound came across ferociously in the Reverend’s NAMM party. His current group, the Secondmen, featuring keyboardist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic, raged through some classic Minutemen, Firehose and even a Blue Oyster Cult tune, with Watt giving proper due to one of his and D. Boon’s most profound influences.  

Earlier in the day, Watt had told me a little about the Wattplower Mark 2.  He and the Reverend Team expanded the pickups on this instrument, adding a second Naylor P-blade in a slightly unconventional position, as well as adding a Rio Grande pickup closer to the neck.  The unusual configuration allows for an array of bold new bass tones, appropriate for a player who might need to run from jazz to rock to punk to fusion in a heartbeat. Says Watt: “I always modify my basses – that’s why Reverend went to town for me here.”   I took a moment to reflect with Watt on his tireless work ethic, one that had influenced me and countless other bands to quit complaining and just get in the van and do it. He responded, “Thanks to Vaudeville! That’s the tradition – work the town, work the room!  That will never go out of fashion.” Referring to crisscrossing the Midwest on tour for years, he added: “With those farmers, there’s no movies, there’s no radio, there’s no TV, you actually had to go to their towns. I think it’s a good tradition to come from.” That idea gets at the heart of Reverend’s relationship to Watt and their other signature artists: commitment, work ethic, and tradition loom large in Haas’s vision of the company.

Koch Marshall Trio (left to right): Greg Koch, Dylan Koch, and Toby Lee Marshall live at Reverend’s NAMM Concert, Slidebar Fullerton on Friday 01/24/20

I also had the opportunity to talk with genius guitarist and weirdly hilarious Greg Koch.  Koch hails from Wisconsin and made his bones touring through the Midwest, regularly blowing minds and building an awesome reputation in the process. This 6-foot-7 friendly giant can play with the best of them – he is highly regarded and has jammed with the likes of Eric Johnson, Joe Bonamassa, Little Feat and many more guitar greats.  His current guitar of choice? It’s his Reverend Signature Gristlemaster, featuring his Fishman Fluence pickups, a slightly larger body style, great Naylor design, and the kind of unique appointments (like a 3-string tree and a mid-boost on the pickups) that folks have come to expect from Reverend. Koch developed a friendship with Ken over years of them both demoing axes for Wildwood Guitars.  At one point, when Haas and Koch talked about the possibility of Koch performing at a Reverend NAMM shindig, Koch put Fishman Fluence pickups (a popular new product that Koch helped design) into a Reverend Pete Anderson Eastsider T and rocked the house, thus beginning the march towards Koch’s current signature model. “It took one time through Joe’s design – I got the prototype – this first stab at the guitar was it for me.  Everything was done.” This improbably quick turn of events has created a monstrous, clean-sounding shred machine that works for a variety of genres. The guitar was put through its paces at the 2020 Reverend concert at the SlideBar in Fullerton.

The Greg Koch Trio, consisting of Greg, his son Dylan on drums and Toby Lee Marshall on Hammond B3, blasted a healthy contingent of guitar lovers into bliss. So many notes, all put into unexpected and magical formations.  It was an amazing way to end a lovely evening of committed sonic mayhem. The evening had been opened by none other than company founder Joe Naylor, rocking his baritone guitar and playing with just his great longtime drummer, Joe Mooradian, to create a poignant and pounding musical storm.

On the theme of the family atmosphere and the bond he shares with Ken, Greg says “we’re about the same age, he’s from Toledo, I’m from Milwaukee, we both have four kids.  What’s great about Ken is that he’s from a totally different background than I am – he’s more a punk rocker with shades of metal in there, and I’m like a blues-funky-jazz country guy, an old school rock dude.  It’s a symbiosis – he turns me on to some stuff that I’ve never heard, and vice versa”. Their guitar collaboration comes off less as a corporate gambit and more like a fireside chat between friends that ends in a new six-string innovation.  It’s a theme that seems to keep repeating itself in the Reverend line.

Reverend has an exciting future.  For NAMM 2020, Naylor was at the Railhammer booth (directly across from Reverend), where his unique pickup designs are starting to capture the attention of guitarists who look to boutique brands like Seymour Duncan, Fralin, and Lollar.  Their classic guitar designs, like the Sensei and Double-Agent, are more known now in the general guitar community, and they stand alongside groundbreaking work like the Reverend BC-1, the Billy Corgan signature model that won NAMM’s Best in Show in 2016.  It’s getting intense up there in Toledo – kick out the jams, indeed.