LIVONIA, Mich. -- When Ken Haas was a 12-year-old living in southeast Michigan he'd go over to his grandparents' home and root around under the bed for his treasure.
It was his uncle's guitar, a Fender Telecaster, and the boy would pull it out to just hold it in his lap. A passion was born and Haas has evolved from that wide-eyed kid to playing in various punk and rock bands to owning his own guitar company.
Credit persistence, luck, relentless hard work, and a natural affinity for selling things combined with a true believer's fervor for his product: Reverend guitars, which are designed by Joe Naylor, who founded the company in 1996. Reverend, based in Livonia, has grown steadily over the years, taking a significant leap with a new design introduced in 2006.
Two years ago, Naylor stepped aside to focus on the design aspect of the business and Haas bought the company, which prides itself on producing instruments used by pros including Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Pete Anderson, Reeves Gabrels, Rick Vito, and dozens of other big-time players. At the same time, they look really cool and are in a price range -- $700 to $1,000 -- that the average amateur guitar hack can afford for a high-end instrument.
"The guitars are very playable even when you first get them and a lot of that quite frankly is Naylor," Haas said. "He has a specific idea in his head how he wants the guitars to look and feel and sound, and Joe can communicate that very, very well through drawings and whatever it takes, so we're really getting the product that's his vision."
'I really hated it'
A Sylvania-area resident and father of four, Haas is frontman for the Polka Floyd Show (his wife, Penny, also is in the band), a member of the Zimmerman Twins where he plays mostly steel guitar, and a seriously busy man. Over the course of a two-hour interview in the company's Livonia offices tucked away in an industrial park, he jumped up to answer the phone four or five times and deal with customers.
At 42, he's balding and his arms are covered in tattoos. He's played guitar since he was a teenager in various Toledo-area bands and he's an excellent player who manages to infuse David Gilmour's spacey Pink Floyd leads into a weird polka punk vibe in the popular Floyd covers band he fronts.
Haas' day job away from music always was in sales and a consistent theme emerges when he talks about his other serious gigs.
For instance, how about the time he sold auto paint? "I really hated it. The money was great. I mean I was doing 60 or 70 [thousand dollars] a year and I was 25 years old selling automotive paint working on a commission, which is a ridiculous amount of money for a guy in his 20s. But I hated it."
And then there was the stint running his own car dealership with a nightmarish business partner.
"I knew I had the skills to do that job. I didn't realize how much it was going to suck to do it," he said. "I was stuck in this permanent hell where the company wasn't making any money, but it wasn't losing any money. It was just pffffft. I could just see it was never going to get better without me putting a lot more into it and I wasn't willing to do that."
During this time, Haas struck up a relationship with the folks from Reverend, which at the time was based in Warren, Mich. He used his vacations and downtime to help with sales, attending National Association of Musical Merchant shows all over the country with Naylor.
The breakthrough came in 2006 when Reverend was introducing a new line of guitars that were manufactured in South Korea and which featured modified body types. At a NAMM show in Los Angeles, Haas sold about 400 guitars and helped establish relationships with a number of new dealerships, so Naylor hired him on full time.
Haas sees his job as getting Reverends into the hands of as many players as possible, believing that the product sells itself. In addition to a unique design that manages to straddle old-school sensibility with a modern vibe, the guitars feature a bass contour switch that allows players to blend how much bass they want in their sound.
Also as a testament to the work of guitar tech Zack Green, when you pick up a brand new Reverend guitar or bass, it's ready to be played. It doesn't have to be souped up with extra pickups or electronic tinkering.
When Rush played in Toledo last year, Haas finagled his way backstage to talk to Lifeson, the guitarist for the band. He gave him three guitars, including one of the company's newer models, a Sensei, to try out, watching from the side of the stage before the show as the guitarist gave the instruments a workout.
Lifeson loved the Sensei and it's now his warmup guitar. While Haas would like to see the Rush guitarist using his guitar on stage, endorsement agreements with industry titan Gibson preclude him from playing anything but its guitars.
That's OK with Haas.
"I got second-row seats for Rush out of the deal and I was good. For what that guitar cost me, we're even," he said, laughing. "It's all about just as many people as I can meet and that connection. I can't do anything with it now, but who knows what that will be worth in five years?"
'A significant company'
Since its inception, Reverend -- www.reverendguitars.com -- has sold about 14,500 guitars, the vast majority of them to weekend players, collectors, and people on a completely different level than Lifeson or Knopfler. The company's main competition is Fender and Gibson, of course, and other major national guitar makers such as Paul Reed Smith and Ibanez.
The difference between them and Reverend is that the owner generally doesn't pick up the phone and answer calls from customers the way Haas was doing on a recent Tuesday morning. Reverend only employs five people and Haas estimated he works about 80 hours a week.
Despite the small work force, Reverend has an excellent reputation in the guitar industry, said Art Thompson, senior editor with Guitar Player magazine.
"They're a pretty significant company these days. The cool thing about Reverend is that their guitars have a real unique look, they perform really well, and they've really been able to carve out their own niche in the industry," he said. "They have the feel of a small boutique company, but they're definitely making production line guitars that don't cost a whole lot for what they offer."
'The luckiest dude ever'
Durdel's Music on West Central Avenue is a Reverend dealer. Joe Boes, who works at the store and teaches lessons (he's also a musician and has a Sensei that he uses when playing the MoJoe Boes and his Noble Jones), deals with Haas on a regular basis.
"He's a very hard-working man and I would say that for as much as the guy does he keeps a positive attitude all the time. Even though he's busy, he's not an idiot or a jerk when it comes to dealing with us as a business and I don't think we get any better service from anybody else in the business. He delivers stuff to us, he doesn't ship it," Boes said.
For all the complexity that goes with running a business selling guitars to an international customer base, Haas isn't that far removed from the kid digging that guitar out from under the bed.
"There are things that I do here that I love. I mean, I'm just the luckiest dude ever. One of the things I've done is that I've kind of made it my mission to go after my guitar heroes and I've got a bunch of my guitar heroes playing my guitars," he said, mentioning Knopfler and former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt.
"Do you know what a thrill that is to see somebody that you've been listening to your whole life playing your instrument and you just go, 'How did this happen?'"
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.