JOE NAYLOR - RAILHAMMER FOUNDER
His story: visionary designer, weird kid
Joe likes guitars. A lot
Joe bought his first electric guitar in 1980, at the age of nineteen. Within one hour, it was completely disassembled on the kitchen table, and he decided right then and there that the rest of his life would revolve around guitars. Rash decision? Maybe, but it felt right to Joe, "It made perfect sense. I grew up in a musical family, mom taught classical piano, dad played bassoon, and three of my brothers played guitar. As a kid, I was a pretty good artist, and I was fascinated with building things. I made those flying models out of balsa wood which required precision craftsmanship. I used to mod my toys so they'd kick ass on the other kid's toys. In high school, I worked as a bicycle mechanic. So when I took apart that first guitar, I knew instantly that I'd found my calling, it was the perfect combination of art and science, and guitars were cool too!" It's that kind of fanatical passion for guitars that Joe carries with him to this day, and has driven him through decades of guitar technology exploration.
Passion means nothing without experience, and Joe was ready to get his hands dirty. Playing in rock bands as a college student, he began repairing guitars in 1981 for fellow musicians. In 1986 he earned his degree in Industrial Design. Hungry to learn more about guitar building, he headed to Phoenix in1987 to attend the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. At this world renowned school, he learned the finer points of electric and acoustic guitar building, as well as pickup winding, under the guidance of master luthiers John Reuter, James Weisner and William Eaton. Returning to Kalamazoo, Joe set up shop in his basement, where for the next five years he immersed himself in guitar repair, guitar building, and pickup winding, while holding down a succession of day jobs as a graphic designer, draftsman, and production supervisor.
Outgrowing the basement, he moved to the Detroit area and opened Joe's Guitar Exchange & Repair, a storefront specializing in buying, selling and repairing of vintage/used guitars and amps. This experience proved to be invaluable, as Joe was able to test and analyze every conceivable brand and type of guitar gear on the market. The store was also a busy repair shop, and he learned first hand what kind of features and modifications real working pros needed. In 1993 Joe introduced the Naylor Special Design 50 speaker, one of the first vintage style replacement speakers.
In 1994 the store was converted into a micro-factory, dubbed J.F. Naylor Engineering, known for Naylor Amps. The highly acclaimed Super-Drive Sixty followed, designed in collaboration with renowned amp modder Dan Russell, and was the first high gain/master volume tube amp in the handwired boutique market. Original Naylor amps have attained collector status, and were used by artists such as Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Ron Asheton (The Stooges), Billy Howerdel (A Perfect Circle), Nick Perri (Silvertide), Jagori Tanna (I Mother Earth), Kenny Olson (Kid Rock), and many more.
In 1996 Joe sold Naylor Engineering, and formed Reverend Guitars. While building the Reverend facility during the day, he worked evenings in the repair department at Joe's Music in East Detroit. One of the larger independent stores in the area, Joe worked there for almost a year as an authorized Fender and Gibson repair tech.
Reverend launched their first guitar in 1997, using the innovative High Resonance Body Design based on Joe's U.S. Patent No. 6114616. He went on to design Reverend amplifiers and cabinets, the Drivetrain pedal, and Alltone speakers. Most notably, Joe designed the entire line of Reverend guitars and basses (including all the proprietary pickups), well known worldwide for their clean design and high performance. Joe worked with Reverend users such as Dan Auerbach (Black Keys), Ron Asheton (The Stooges), Bob Balch (Fu Manchu), Jeff Young (Megadeth), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Reeves Gabrels (David Bowie, Tin Machine), Audley Freed (Cry of Love), Marc Ford (Black Crowes), Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam), Rick Vito (Bob Seeger), Eiden Thorr (Valient Thorr) and many more. Currently, Reverend is managed by Joe's business partner Ken Haas, while Joe continues to handle all the design work and technical support.
A tireless designer, Joe also managed to conceive several other innovative guitar products including Armor Gold Cables, StringDog Products, the Heads Up Strap, and now Railhammer Pickups. To date, products designed by Joe have won no less than 19 awards from major guitar and industry magazines.
The quest for clarity
The Railhammer design was inspired by Joe's personal tone quest. He really liked the sound of a neck humbucker, especially clean. But with distortion, he found the neck tone turned to mush, especially when playing rhythm on the wound strings. At the time, Joe was writing songs that required very quick transitions between clean and dirty, and he couldn't switch to the bridge pickup for the dirty parts fast enough. What to do...
Quest in hand, Joe headed for the lab, "I decided to build myself a neck humbucker that could handle distorted rhythm parts, and that led to the Railhammer concept. I was a fan of the Lawrence XL500, which was the first dual rail humbucker. It was tight and clear on the wound strings, but a bit thin sounding on the plain strings for my taste. So I thought if I can keep the clarity of the rails on the wound strings, but build in the fat tone of large round poles for the plain strings, it'd be perfect. I hand built a crude prototype out of an old Reverend humbucker I had lying around. I cut the rails out of steel shelf brackets, and used nail heads for the large poles, and it worked." Bridge pickup experiments followed, and Joe realized the design was viable for both positions, and had a tonal balance and clarity he had not heard before in a humbucker.
Test, revise, test, revise. Repeat
Joe had a concept, but it needed to be developed. This involved months of design work, testing, and revisions to get the specifications of the rails, poles, baseplate and bobbins just right. None of these parts are standard issue, and required expensive tooling and molds to produce.
Once the parts were finalized, the winding began. Winding one good pickup is easy. Coming up with a line of pickups that includes matching bridge and neck models is a challenge. No less than 40 prototypes were wound, involving various combinations of magnets and wire.
One thing Joe knows from decades of designing, is that proper testing is a must. Enter "Red Betsy", the modified guitar used to test pickups. Betsy is a Schecter S-1 with pickup routs that go all the way through the back of the body, and a control panel with spring loaded quick release clips for the pickup lead wires. Swapping a pickup in and out takes about 30 seconds!
Play testing by Joe and several local pros ensued. Prototypes were compared to each other, and finalists selected. These were then tested against the industry standards... the usual suspects: Duncan, Dimarzio, EMG, Lawrence, Gibson, and various others. If you want to be the best, you have to test against the best. Revisions were made, more testing, more revisions. The cycle continued for months, until winners emerged. Betsy was exhausted. The final group was then tested again in different brands and types of guitars: solidbody, semi-hollow, hollow, long scale, short scale, set-neck, bolt-on, etc. Months more of testing and revisions continued, until Joe was finally satisfied he had a line of humbuckers as good or better than anything out there.
Railhammer officially launched in January 2012. Strong reviews and positive player feedback have confirmed what Joe has always believed, "There's a lot of players who appreciate more clarity and tonal balance, especially on the wound strings. Railhammers are designed for those players, or for any player who wants to experience a heightened level of performance". The tone quest continues. All aboard.