Reverend Rick Vito Series Special & Signature

For plenty of purists, there’s “tone wood” or “tone deaf.” This thinking accepts that your zippy masonite-topped Danelectro, or quirky fiberglass-bodied National Newport, might prove funky fun on occasion, but for serious playing and truly sublime sonics, all organic is the way to go. Ever since founding Reverend Guitars in 1996, Joe Naylor has loudly begged to disagree, and a long and growing list of professional users seems ready to back him up.

The two American-made Reverends on review are versions of the Slingshot model—itself an archetypal Reverend design, but customized with the help of Rick Vito, who has played with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, Hank Williams Jr., and plenty of others. The standard Slingshot uses a top and back of phenolic laminate with a 6"-wide block of solid white mahogany running from neck pocket to tail pin (an even more significant step up from Dano’s pine, poplar or plywood block). Sides are of injection molded high-impact polymer plastic. Materials in the Vito guitars differ only in that the top and back are further faced with a thin laminate of aluminum, and the Naylor-designed P-90 style pickups are wound a little hotter. What you’ll really notice are the sandblasted voodoo-style graphics on front and back. Taken from Vito’s own artwork, they help make these very outspoken guitars.

Rick Vito Special

The differences between the Vito Special and Signature are purely cosmetic: the Special is Lake Superior Blue, and the Signature is black with a matching headstock. On the review samples, however, the former carries the Bigsby option ($165 retail/$135 street), and the latter is the hardtail, so there’s a little more to distinguish this pair (you can order either model with either bridge arrangement). In bare bones terms, these designs blend a pinch of Fender twang with a dash of Gibson fat, and a healthy dollop of something entirely other. The 25-2" scale length and bolt-on maple neck with rosewood board hint at one vibe, while the 12" radius, medium jumbo frets, P-90s, and Bigsby hint at another.

Strap it on, though, and even before plugging in it’s clear that this guitar is a breed unto itself. For one thing, it’s blessedly light, For another, all that plastic and aluminum just feels different—more dinette table than guitar. But give it a strum, and there’s a surprising depth, resonance, and acoustic volume.

The neck has a medium-full C-shaped profile with comfortably turned-in shoulders where the maple meets the fretboard. Coupled with the smoothly finished fret ends, it makes for a hitch-free ride from fret one to 22. Given the medium action of this setup, it’s no shredder’s delight—even with the light factory strings—but the feel works great for the instrument, and affords that extra little bit of snap and grab for tactile playing techniques. The whole mood hints strongly at nouveau rockabilly, hard twang, or the edgier fringes of alt-country. There’s also enough string height here for reasonably smooth slide playing without too many knocks or buzzes—which makes sense, seeing as that’s another color on Vito’s personal palette.

Naylor makes his P-90s with ceramic magnets rather than the vintage-spec alnico, but reins in the number of turns around the coil to keep them from getting overly dark or muddy. They’re also made with mounting tabs at the ends so they can be easily adjusted for height when hanging in a pickguard. Controls include a blade-style 3-way switch, Volume and Tone controls, and a Bass Contour control, which rolls between fat and bright to help you tailor the pickups’ core voice.

Reverend is particularly proud of its Bigsby setups, and justifiably so. Roller saddles on the bridge, a low-friction graphite nut, and locking Sperzel tuners all work together to greatly enhance this guitar’s ability to return to pitch even after judicious vibrato wobbles. Also, the Bigsby arm itself has been modified for zero free play before the pitch variation kicks in, and this gives it a more immediate and controllable response overall. The bridge’s stud anchors are recessed well below the guitar’s top—right down into the mahogany center block, in fact—to allow the lower bridge setting required to make this unit work with the parallel neck/body planes. Even so, a thin shim is still required under the neck heel to provide the slight back-angle necessary to allow a reasonable action. This is pretty standard stuff, and such adaptations are needed when mounting a Bigsby on many bolt-neck guitars (you find shims under the necks of many Bigsby equipped Telecasters, for example), and there’s still enough room to drop the action a few 32nds of an inch should you desire. That said, the practice does slightly decouple the neck from the body.

Rick Vito Signature

Aside from the color change, the only significant difference to discuss is this example’s through-body stringing and non-vibrato bridge. The arrangement is essentially that of a hardtail Stratocaster, with the strings’ ball-ends anchored in ferrules set in the back of the body, and a steel plate bridge base screwed flat to the body, with six individual die cast saddles. The inherently lower bridge height also means that no shim is required under this neck, so the fretboard is parallel to the guitar top, and the pickups are set lower into the body as a result. The only other difference is that due to its steel sustain block this guitar is just a little heavier than the Bigsby equipped Special. At 7 lbs, however, it’s still a light guitar.

Vito Tones

You would think the hallowed through-body stringing and tighter neck/body coupling would put the Signature on course for tonal supremacy, but strummed unplugged the Special has more acoustic volume, and a broader, richer voice—more what you’d expect from a well-crafted semi-solid (or chambered) guitar. By contrast, the Signature sounds a just a little choked and nasal, with most of its volume emanating from the back, where the strings are anchored.

Amped up through a TopHat Club Royale 2x12, these guitars are certainly more alike than not, but it’s the subtle differences that make them individual. These P-90s are definitely hot, and it’s difficult to get a truly clean sound at any useable amp settings without winding down the guitar Volume control a little. After backing off about 20 percent, everything shines more brightly, and you can roll from clean to crunch at the twist of a knob. Both guitars have some of that thunky, percussive edge that is characteristic of classic Danelectros, but there’s a fatter follow-through, and a broader tonal spectrum to work with. These are exceptional instruments for biting rockabilly, indie grind, or alt-rock thump. The bridge pickups pack loads of snap and growl, and they really bark out the riffs when the string is hit hard. Both can be a little strident for subtler styles, but, lowering the pickups slightly does help to soften the brightness.

Either Vito is also a surprisingly sizzling blues or hot R&B guitar—particularly when set to the neck pickup or the middle position, with the Bass Contour control wound fully clockwise for max fatness. The round, vocal tones in these positions are juicy and compelling, with plenty of punch but also an airy transparency that’s pleasing to the ear. The Bass Contour circuit in itself proves useful on many occasions, too, revoicing the guitars’ core tonalities from warm to twangy, or anywhere in between.

I like both Reverends, and both are a lot of fun. But, largely thanks to the very usable Bigsby and the different resonant characteristics it inspires, the Special is both a little richer and a little more versatile. The difference is slight, but the Signature is just a hair sharper and more metallic—qualities that could be just what some players seek.