Bow at the Altar: A Chat with Ken Haas at Reverend Guitars

  • By Phillip Dodge @tonereport
  • April 25, 2017

While it might seem like the “new kid in town,” Reverend has been quietly building guitars for a long while. So long in fact, that 2017 marks the company’s 20th Anniversary. The company was established in 1997 by Joe Naylor (you might know his name from the amps) in an East Detroit garage. Joe is a graduate of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery and his early guitars were sort of a modern take on the Danelectro theme with Korina center clocks, Formica tops, and polymer sides. If you haven’t played one, you are missing out.

In the mid-2000s, Reverend expanded its line-up to include a line of more affordable guitars that were made in Korea but set up in the US. In 2007, they discontinued the US-made guitars and to this day focus exclusively on guitars that are built in Korea and setup in the US. In 2010, long-time employees Ken and Penny Haas bought the company, freeing Joe to focus on designing guitars (and pickups, and whatever other inventions he conjures up). I had the pleasure to talk with Ken Haas about the history of Reverend, the details of their guitars, the artist selection process, and what the next 20 years of Reverend might entail.


Phillip Dodge: I first learned of Reverend in 2004 or 2005 when a friend who lives in Detroit turned me on to you guys. I bought my first Reverend (a USA Slingshot Custom) in 2006. I quickly added more over the years, but at gigs, no one ever knew the brand. Now it seems like just in the last two to three years your brand recognition has exploded. How did you achieve that?


Ken Haas: A combination of product, high profile artists, and marketing. We’ve always had great artist relations, and the pleasure of working with Ron Asheton, Pete Anderson, Rick Vito, Reeves Gabrels, the Jacksons, the Decemberists, Fu Manchu, and many, many others over the years. The last few years have seen Reeves joining the Cure, the launch of the Billy Corgan model, and lots of younger bands—the Sword, Code Orange, Neck Deep, Defeater—joining the crew. Add to that the Meshell Ndegeocello Fellowship and Mike Watt Basses, and we’re a powerhouse out on stages around the world. It’s gotten to the point where there are too many to list.


And our marketing has improved vastly in the last four or five years. We’re working with a firm in Detroit called Driven. Joe’s daughter is actually a graphic designer there. And having a professional firm do our advertising and branding makes a real difference. We now have great materials and tag lines and our advertising presence is much bigger than before.


Phillip Dodge: You are celebrating your 20th anniversary, how many Reverends now exist in the world? Roughly how many are being built and sold per year now?


Ken Haas: As of March 17, 2017, there are 27,920 Revs on the planet. We’re making roughly 3,500 a year.


PD: How has that number increased over the last five or so years?


KH: We are growing by about 20 percent per year. We’ve more than tripled the business since 2010. There are so many artists coming to us that I don’t have to actively pursue.


PD: How many guitars can you realistically make in a year?


KH: There doesn’t have to be a ceiling. We’re still so small, even compared to a company like Schecter. We can keep expanding at the same rate that demand grows.


PD: What do you think led to this growth?


KH: The value thing is certainly there. And it sounds like a cliché, but there really is room in the market for people who are doing something different. We bring something you don’t always see. Again, I hate the cliché, but we really are offering a look and feel of a vintage instrument but with a modern playability. Joe Naylor has the ability to design a guitar that looks like a vintage instrument, but still has a new or different angle, so that’s one piece of the puzzle.


And then there’s the longevity piece. We’ve been at this for 20 years and people need to see something so many times before you believe it is legitimate. I think the uniqueness of Joe’s designs along with some of these shapes being around for 20 years now - it’s all starting to click. And we’ve been around long enough that players are taking us seriously.


Finally, we’ve had a couple of very successful models with the Descent (baritone) and the Airwave (12-string). We sell a lot of those two guitars. When Joe set out to design both of them, he didn’t just slap a longer or thicker neck on a standard guitar. He set out to build each from the ground up. The Descent doesn’t play like a baritone because of where the bridge is located. It plays like a guitar and you can solo on it. And with the Airwave, we worked closely with Chris Funk from the Decemberists. He was using vintage 12-strings and they suffered from neck dive and tuning instability. So, Joe set out to build a 12-string that doesn’t suffer from those problems.


PD: How long have you and Penny been at Reverend? Did you start in the artist’s relations role?


KH: I started as an artist in early 1999 and built a relationship with Joe. I started going to NAMM and other guitar shows, which led to a job as Sales Director in 2006. In 2010 Penny and I bought the company from Joe so he could focus on the creative side. As the company starting growing, Joe was spending more and more time in a managerial role handling the day to day operations, taking his focus away from why he got into this business in the first place. We were lucky enough to work it out so Penny and I took over the business end and Joe has the freedom to do what he does best: design guitars.


PD: How many staff are you guys up to?

KH: 10 total.


PD: Is Zach still doing all of the setups?


KH: Almost all guitars are still crossing Zach Green’s station. He’s been here for 19 years and he’s signed something like 26,000 guitars, but he’s allowed to take a vacation. We have another guy, Robert Douglas Wuellner, who has been trained by Zach, and so there are some “RDW” guitars out there now to complement the “ZSGs.” And I’ve even signed a few. But I just sign “Ken.”


PD: Do you think we’ll ever see a reissue of the original USA-made Reverends with the polymer frames and phenolic tops? What about the metal tops? It seems like those could be done with the current Jetstreams?


KH: No. We’ve truly moved on. At this time we are making the best guitars we’ve ever made. Joe’s design work and the attention to detail are better than they’ve ever been.


PD: What can you tell us about the factory where Reverends are made?


KH: Our guitars are made by Mirr in South Korea, but we do a full setup here at the shop.


PD: How often do you visit the factory?


KH: I’ve never been there. They take a lot of pride in their workmanship. The factory has been in the same family for three generations and the average worker is 50. We’ve been working with them for necks and pickups for 16 or 17 years and whole guitars for 14 years. They’ve been building Joe’s stuff for so long that they do a great job of realizing his vision. As Penny says, we’re tapping into all of the experience they have as guitar builders. We’re able to add all of that experience into Joe’s designs to put out an excellent product.


PD: I feel like every time I turn around, a new model is in the Reverend fold. How many active models do you guys currently have? Where is all of the inspiration coming from?


KH: A lot. 62 models. Yikes. Three new ones coming soon, and many more in the queue.

Joe has been on fire lately. A lot of the inspiration comes from artists we work with, but much of it comes from Joe continually looking for ways to make things better. He spends a lot of time listening to current music—keeping up with amps, pedals, overall artist sounds—and he’s always looking for ways to make the guitar more versatile while also keeping it simple.


PD: With regard to signature models, it seems like you have giants like Billy Corgan and Reeves Gabrels at one end of the spectrum and then up and coming artists like Jenn Wasner and Kyle Shutt at the other. How does Reverend go about selecting artists for signature models?


KH: We don’t select them—they select us. It sounds cliché, but it’s totally true. I love the idea of working with people who are moving the guitar forward. I could easily break down all of our signature models and show you what I mean. We’ve never approached someone and said “Hey, I want to put your name on this . . . ” They usually like our style to begin with, and then we ask them what they’ve always wanted in a guitar. We then make the exact guitar they want to play and perform with and also offer it to their fans.


PD: Is there any hope we might one day see a signature model of Reeves’s Bass Six Gun?


KH: I learned a long time ago to never say never. The prototype he uses in the Cure is amazing.


PD: What are the odds we’ll ever see Reverend return to the amplifier or effects game?


KH: At the moment we don’t have any plans. There are so many people out there doing it right. We have a tight relationship with Carr Amps—they share NAMM space with us—and they make some of the best amps on the planet. We’re also friends with EarthQuaker, Z. Vex, MXR, Creepy Fingers, Daredevil, Truetone, and so many others that do it so well that I’m not sure I have anything to add at this time!


PD: I seem to recall hearing that your dream endorsee was Prince. Now that he’s gone, who is your new white whale?


KH: Wow, tough one. We landed Mike Watt this year, which is just huge for me personally. As far as guitar goes, I love the crew we have at the moment. I wouldn’t know who to add. More punk rock.


PD: Looking ahead, do you have any worries about sourcing materials, the supply of tone woods, or other factors that could inhibit guitar production?


KH: We’re worried a lot about it right now because the new rosewood regulations are kicking our ass. The rosewood we have used is sustainably farmed in India and Indonesia. But with the new regulations, we can’t use it. We have a plan moving forward and we’ll be fine. We’ll be using a blackwood variant instead of rosewood here soon. We’ve found some other really neat woods that sound and feel great. And it’s more sustainable.


So that’s a brief history of Reverend guitars—how they originated, where they’ve been, and where they are heading. If you haven’t yet played a Reverend guitar, there’s no time like the present to start. With 62 models currently available and at least three more coming soon, the options are wide open. And with innovations like a super stable six-bolt neck (on bolt-on models), the bass contour control, and the optional Railhammer pickups, you might just find your new favorite guitar. But don’t take my word for it—trust the monster players like Reeves Gabrels, Pete Anderson, Billy Corgan, and Rick Vito or the “up-and-comers” like Jenn Wasner and Kyle Shutt that choose Reverend.





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