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COOL JOBS: Zack Green - Guitar Maker Extraordinaire

Zack Green-Reverend Guitars Livonia
Zack Green-Reverend Guitars Livonia - David Lewinski Photography
Every day the workload that greets Zack Green is as high as the ceiling.

Four stories of shelves in his workshop hold cardboard boxes, standing upright and containing freshly minted electric guitars and basses. They await Green's skill as the chief set-up technician for Reverend Guitars in Livonia. It's Green's tuning, tweaking and talent with hundreds of tools that customize and prepare the instruments for the musical tour they will take after leaving Livonia.

The electric guitar slung over a red Fedora-wearing Kid Rock on his "History of Rock" album cover? That's a Reverend and one of thousands that bear Green's initials, ZSG, for Zack Scot Green. 

ZSG is handwritten on each and every one of the 100-plus styles that Reverend makes, and they are played by other famous musicians - Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure's Reeves Gabrels, Pete Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Meshell Ndegeocello. It was Kid Rock's ad that helped elevate the guitar-make's international reputation. 

Reverend Guitars was founded in 1996 by Joe Naylor, a degreed luthier who made his name first in amplifiers built in his Kalamazoo basement before he launched a worldwide guitar business from a small shop in Eastpointe.

For Green the mountain of musical instruments that greet him each day at Reverend aren't really work. He is a guy who loves everything about guitars: playing them, hearing them, designing them. To Green there is endless satisfaction and challenge in coaxing out the best possible sound from each six string electric.

"What I do here, I do for fun at home," says the 41 year-old Green, who attributes both his passion and talent to his family. He points to his mother and late father, a Detroit firefighter, for his knack for being both handy and artsy. He credits his uncle with exposing him to the guitar and his grandmother for paying for lessons.

"When I come here in the morning I sit here and before I know it it's like, wow, where has the day gone?" 

From one of three work-benches stocked with drills, soldering irons, a countless number of tools (some made by his own hand), he can make a guitar sound exactly as it should or play precisely as a musician requests. His idea of fun is repairing and restoring guitars after they've run over by a forklift or beat up on stage.

Until recently Green inspected and worked the guitars all on his own. It was such a solitary job, a friend gave Green a Wilson volleyball to comfort him like the one Tom Hanks befriended in Cast Away. Green's ball sits in a corner overlooking the bench where he plugs in to an amp, picks and strums a few riffs before numbering and initialing each instrument. When we spoke he was at 17,943 and the serial numbers started with Number 1.

Things are going so well for Reverend, which reached $1 million in sales last year, Green may finally bring on more co-workers. The shop just turned out an order for 90 guitars to a French dealer – its second largest single order, says Ken Haas, general manager, partner to Naylor and head of artist relations. He says he and his crew play off of Reverend's being in only show in town. 

"It's one of the main reasons we want to stay here," Haas says. "We want to be the only one making guitars in Detroit."

Metromode talks to Green, AKA Boy Wonder at Reverend, and asks him what it's like to see famous people rock out on his handiwork. We also wanted to know how a local luthier like himself landed on the movie database, IMDb, where he sums up his approach: "Get your hands in there, fuck shit up and see how it works."

The quote, IMDb?
My dad always said, don't be afraid of anything. If humans made it, you can fix it. And don't worry about making mistakes. That's the only way you're going to learn. That's why I came up with the quote. The first couple of guitars, I really screwed up. Note: He landed on IMDb after appearing in a California filmmaker's documentary about classic arcade collectors and restorers. Green has 35 vintage arcade games.

What's the reaction when people ask what you do for a living?
Most of the time I get a big smile from people. They say I didn't know people like that existed. I'm like how do you think this stuff gets made? One time my wife and I were at a brewery together writing thank-you notes for my dad's funeral. A couple of guys were there and … we started talking and they asked what I did. One of the guys was a CEO for a worldwide business. The other was a corporate executive. When I told them what I did they were like, that's so cool. One guy was like: my job, I hate it. I don't want to die doing this job. I want to love what I do. That's how I feel about my job. I love it.

So how did you learn to screw up – and then fix – guitars?
Well, first, I learned to love the guitar by listening to my uncle play. Later I worked at Joe's Music. I started as a stock boy. That's basically how I got my foot in the door. Slowly, it was, ‘hey, can you tune this guitar, can you tune this bass. From there I became a guitar tech. I met a lot of people in the industry and started establishing friendships with musicians coming into the store…

One of those people was Joe Naylor?
Well, after I left Joe's Music, I was a pattern maker for an auto supplier. I had heard about Joe Naylor and his new Reverend location in East Detroit. I would go there and buy guitar parts and buy wood. I got to know him. I would shoot the crap with him, buy parts, see what he had going. After I was laid off, I stopped in and he offered me a part-time job. One thing led to another.

Before you, only Naylor inspected and signed Reverend guitars, right?
Yes, I started signing them at Number 1,235. Before then only Joe Naylor signed them. Before then I would do my work and he would inspect it. It felt good, very good to get his seal of approval.

That famous musicians, talented musicians play the guitars you've worked on and signed, does that add to how much you love it?
Yeah, absolutely. It's really cool. It's like everybody has my autograph. But I don't have anybody's autograph. But truthfully as long as I'm touching a guitar, I'm happy.

Why choose Reverend over big names like Fender or Gibson?
They're just something different. They're newer designs, design changes to guitars that haven't been seen for 40 odd years. With our instruments we set them up ourselves. We take pride in the stuff.

Reverend guitars were once made here but are now made in South Korea, why is that?
A lot of companies actually do have them made in other countries and they ship them right to the stores. They never pass through a middle guy that touches them and makes sure they sound like they should or that they sound and play just the way someone needs it to play. Basically I'm putting that final touch on the instrument. We get a lot of crap about being made overseas. But here's the thing: People think of sweatshops and that kind of thing when you say where it's made, but it's not like that. It's a family business. It's like a shop you would think of in America. There are wood-making tools, craftsman working in a small shop and making quality instruments. Another note: Naylor was faced with shutting down altogether when sales dropped during Detroit's economic slump.

You mentioned that many Reverend customers were autoworkers. Does being in Detroit help or hurt?
I don't think it matters what area of the country you come from as long as you produce good, quality instruments. But being in the Detroit area, there's that hardened quality about the city, that perception that people from Detroit are tough. It can actually be cool to be from Detroit. So if anything, I think, being in the Detroit area adds a cool element to Reverend. And with the artist community here, the history of music, to be near that has to be a good thing.

For an industry view of Reverend, check out this blog and this story on Reverend founder, Joe Naylor: 
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