Joe Naylor, left, holds a Ron Asheton Signature and sales director Ken Haas has a Pete Anderson. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
The unremarkable '70s-era industrial complex that inhabits an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood near I-696 and 11 Mile gives little indication that anything awesome is happening inside.
Yet, when you push open the metal door of "unit D" on Gloede in Warren, what greets you is a chorus line of cool: two enormous, three-tiered, double-sided racks filled with more than 30 gleaming electric guitars.
The creator of these colorful, powerful rock 'n' roll machines is, by contrast, a pretty low-key guy. But, like most guitar nerds, Reverend Guitars owner/designer Joe Naylor is creative and just a little obsessed. Thirteen years after launching the company, those attributes are paying off as Reverend moves from niche brand to global contender.
"To me, this is the perfect combination of art and technology," says Naylor, 48, as models with names like the Charger and the Jetstream dangle from wall racks in the "sound testing" room at company headquarters. "First and foremost, it's a business. But it's also a place where I can express my artistic vision."
Though the company's wares are displayed proudly at the entrance, the Warren location is more weigh station than retail spot. The space, a combo ware house, bench shop and business office, serves mostly to receive, set up and distribute the 200 to 300 instruments that ship from Reverend's Korean manufacturer each month.
Made in the U.S. from 1996 to 2006, the company had to start importing to stay competitive. While guitar snobs have traditionally turned their noses at instruments made in places like Mexico, Korea and Japan, Naylor says the bias against foreign imports is dwindling as the quality of the instruments escalates and the realities of doing business in America are made manifest.
"We don't look at it as 'country of origin,' it's more 'company of origin,' " Naylor says. "I think the emphasis on U.S.-made instruments was a much bigger deal five or 10 years ago. The Koreans have been building guitars for decades now, and they've gotten consistent input from American designers. In a lot of cases, the quality is better than the U.S.-made stuff."
He adds that the decision to start importing was not a choice, but a necessity.
"If we didn't import, we'd be out of business right now," Naylor says. "Labor costs and parts costs were escalating rapidly, which means we had to raise the price of the instruments. After that, sales declined. Moving to import production made it so I didn't have to reduce my work staff. Now, the company makes money, the employees make money and the American dealers and music stores make money - so there are dollars staying here in the country."
Reverend hit about $1.3 million in gross sales in 2008, and expects to do the same this year.
Brand has star following
Naylor came to Metro Detroit from hometown Ann Arbor in 1992 when he opened Joe's Guitar Exchange in Eastpointe. A retail and repair business, it also served as ground zero for his first wholesale enterprise: Naylor made replacement speakers and later namesake hand-built amplifiers. In 1996, he sold the amp business to his partner and turned his attentions to the electric guitar.
A graduate of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery - a guitar-making school - in Phoenix, Naylor used his love for the Who, Led Zeppelin and other '70s hard rock acts as a template for his classic, retro-influenced designs. Who guitarist Pete Townshend, in particular, made a big impression.
"You could conquer the world and be the cool guy," Naylor says. "That's probably 80 percent of the reason people want to play guitar."
Reverend's sales director, Ken Haas, agrees.
"If the perception of our stuff is that it's cool, then guitar players feel cool when they're using it," says Haas, 39, who owns more than 60 guitars. "Everybody wants to feel good about what they're playing."
If its star-studded list of endorsers is any indication, than cool is the rule at Reverend. Indie rock heroes like the Black Keys and the Tragically Hip wave the banner for the company, as do metal gods like Shinedown, studio pros like Reeves Gabrels, and local luminaries such as Kid Rock and Jack White.
When Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton died suddenly earlier this year, it was on the heels of launching the Ron Asheton signature model: a V-shaped stunner in black or orange. Though the circumstances were unfortunate, publicity photos of the punk icon with his Reverend were soon appearing in magazines and on Web sites all over the world. The partnership represented the kind of branding that has made the company a hit in the mid-priced ($599-$1099) guitar market.
'Muscle car of guitar world'
"It's something that guys working down at the corner bar could afford to use," says Reeves Gabrels, 52, from his Nashville home.
Longtime guitarist for David Bowie, Gabrels has worked with Ozzy Osbourne, the Rolling Stones and numerous other high-profile acts. He was so impressed with the Reverend guitar after receiving one from the company at the NAMM show (the industry's biggest trade event) that he contacted Naylor about developing his own signature model.
"I was approached by three other companies and I sent them all back," he says. "I just kept going back to the Reverend."
One of the things that attracted Gabrels to the instrument was its bass contour knob, a feature unique to Reverends that allows players to adjust the bass frequencies of their pickups (the magnetized metal components that detect string vibrations).
NAMM director of marketing and development, Morgan Ringwald says that with guitar sales up 3 percent overall from last year, Reverend is poised to have a healthy future in the market.
"I would acquaint Reverend with the big guys (Gibson, Fender, etc.)," says Ringwald, from his office in Southern California. "They've definitely got a solid brand name and a loyal fan base."
According to Naylor, Reverend remains solvent and steady in the face of this historic economic maelstrom.
"We're watching our fixed costs very carefully and we're making sure everything is as efficient as possible in every aspect of the operation," he says.
And while that may sound like a familiar mantra to Detroiters, Naylor's pride of craftsmanship sounds equally familiar. With more than 24 models in production and more on the way, he is feeling bullish.
"I like to think of our products as high-performance, no-nonsense products," he says. "We build the muscle car of the guitar world."
Wendy Case is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.