Why rock stars love Jon Hill's custom guitars

The Axe Man 

Why rock stars love Jon Hill's custom guitars

There's a lot to look at when you walk into Jon Hill's loft apartment in the Warehouse District: The photo of the custom guitar he built for comedian George Lopez. The half-finished guitar on the workbench that he's building for metal guitarist Jack Frost (Frost Bite, Seven Witches, Savatage). The picture of Slayer singer-bassist Tom Araya playing one of his guitars.

But the most revealing item is a modest-looking guitar with a black neck and a maple and walnut body. The guitar, which Hill affectionately calls the "20 by 20," a reference to its body size, is the first one he ever built. On the back, a tarnished gold stamp reads "Jon Robert Hill 1984."

"I bought that neck from some replacement-part place," recalls the soft-spoken Hill as he picks up the guitar and examines it. "It actually still plays pretty good, though it needs some TLC. But it's nice to look at."

With his buzz cut and soul patch, Hill looks like someone who would be more into jazz than rock. But his custom-built guitars are widely respected in the rock world. Michael Stanley has been playing them for 20 years.

"Over the years I have owned four of his guitars and one of his basses," says Stanley. "I still own two of his guitars. My favorite is a beautiful tobacco burst Les Paul-style outing that you can see on the cover of The Soft Addictions CD. The bass is just an incredible instrument and has been used, almost exclusively, on every album I've made over the last 12 years."

Skid Row guitarist Scotti Hill, who plays a custom-built Jon Hill guitar called the Generator, says, "I knew the minute I put my hand on it that it was the one."

Chances are that Hill would have an even broader customer base and bigger name if he had any business acumen. Instead, his career has been a wild series of ups and downs that he describes as "35 years of grief." He refers to himself as "the ultimate underdog," and it's not hard to understand why. As a result of a botched business deal, he no longer even owns the rights to his original Jon Hill logo.

But Hill is on an upswing once again. Earlier this month he moved his shop from the Warehouse District loft where he lives to a Midtown space that will enable him to increase production and reestablish his name, and the Jon Hill brand, on both a local and national scale.

He's rechristened his business Bootleg Guitars. It's an appropriate name for an artisan whose life story mirrors those of his rock & roll clientele.

Originally from Bay Village, Hill, 46, first picked up a guitar in the early 1980s, when Jeff Daw, a friend who was taking guitar lessons, showed him how to play a few chords on a Les Paul.

"I learned a couple of Rush tunes," recalls Hill. "'Fly by Night' was the first song I learned."

A naturally gifted woodworker, Hill showed outsized ambition even when he was still in shop classes at Bay Village High School. For his first project, he wanted to build an oak rolltop desk. His teacher vetoed the idea, telling him it was too expensive and too ambitious.

"I really liked woodworking, but I never wanted to do what the rest of the class was doing," Hill says. "They were making cutting boards and stuff like that."

So instead of the rolltop desk, Hill built his "20 by 20." But he didn't start building guitars immediately after high school. He first worked as an audio and video salesman at Fretter Appliance. He then sold used cars for a while and worked at Radio Shack. But after a few years, he realized that he wanted something more.

"When you're 22 or 23, you're like, 'What the fuck am I going to do with the rest of my life?'" he says. "I thought about what I wanted to do, and the dream was to build guitars. I figured if I didn't try it, I would always regret it. If I at least tried, I could get it out of my system."

In 1989, he moved into his father's Vermillion house and set up shop in the garage.

"That was really cool because I didn't get to know my father while I was growing up, because my family wasn't tight, and when you're a little kid, you don't understand the complexity of your father," Hill says. "It was crazy. I was hanging guitars from the chandelier in the dining room. It would be snowing, and I would be working in the garage with a propane gas heater so I could paint."

One time, he got a bit carried away with the spray gun. His father wasn't happy about it.

"It was a two-car garage, so I still had room to park, but I came out one day and my white car was kind of pink because he had been painting guitars," recalls Hill's father, Harvey. "But I had a good wax job, so it came off pretty easily. I was surprised at how good he did, given that he only had a drill press and a sander to work with."

After about a year of working in his father's garage, Hill moved to Slavic Village. He set up shop on Union Avenue, where he built instruments that he sold to a local music store, Lentine's. His shop was on the third floor of a building with no elevator, so everything had to be hauled up and down the stairs.

"It was a logistical nightmare," he says. "But it was cool. We were there for two and a half years before we outgrew the space."

Local bassist Doug Johns, who was touring the country with local hard rock guitarist Neil Zaza at the time, was a customer.

"He built me a four-string bass," says Johns. "If I could say one thing about Jon, it's that he's a master builder. When he finishes his instrument, it feels like a player's bass. There's lots of guys who can put frets in, but you pick up the guitar and it doesn't feel like it's been played yet. His stuff feels like you could just play it. That's what I remember about that bass he built me. You pick it up, and you don't want to put it down."

Hill seemed to be on his way. He relocated his business to a 10,000 square foot industrial space just east of downtown Cleveland, near 36th Street and Superior. The company grew to the point that he had 10 employees helping him produce about 30 guitars a month.

In 1994, in what he calls "Round 1," Hill was approached by Dean Guitars, a noted manufacturer founded by Dean Zelinsky, to revamp its product line of American guitars. Hill accepted the offer, moved to Plant City, Florida, and went to work.

"We did some really cool stuff," he says. "But Dean had sold the licensing and branding to this guy Oscar [Mederos] from Tropical Music. When he bought the name, he tried to have an import line only, and he ran the business into the ground. They lost all their artists. I didn't make a lot of money, but I did learn a lot of things."

Then Elliott Rubinson, a distributor who owned the guitar store chain Thoroughbred Music, bought the company and shut down the woodshop. Hill broke up with his fiancée and moved to Fort Myers, where he worked in a door factory.

"That was rough," he says. "It was like a bad Adam Sandler movie. I had to fix all the fucked-up doors that came through. I was like, 'They've been making doors for 2,000 years, and they can't figure out how to make a door right?'"

That lasted about six or seven months. In 1997, Hill moved back to Cleveland on a snowy Thanksgiving weekend. He found a job at Reserve Millwork, drawing charts and building cabinetry. Then he went to Warwick Products, a company that makes point-of-purchase products, where he drew sketches for a year. After that, he ended up at Merit Woodwork, a "super high-end" interior millwork firm, doing a project for the Ford House.

"I worked on that one house for a year, and it was amazing," he says. "They spent a million dollars just on the architectural drawings. But I was chained to a desk every day. Even porn would be hard to watch for 10-12 hours a day. I'm a hands-on guy."

In 2000, Hill went back into business for himself again, opening a shop next to his old space on Superior Avenue under the name Hill Custom Guitars.

"Learning to make guitars for the second time made me really think about it," he says.

It didn't take long to pick up some high-profile clients. Hill built a seven-string for singer Matt Heafy from the hard rock band Trivium and a double neck for Megadeth's Dave Mustaine. But while he was cranking out guitars, his business partner wasn't paying the bills.

"He wasn't helping me and we weren't getting anywhere and we were losing money," says Hill. "I couldn't pay my employees and we got behind on our rent. If the investor was there side-by-side with me grinding it out, I would have stuck with it."

Hill managed to survive for a while by building guitars on a subcontract basis for Dean Guitars. But when the orders from Dean stopped, he was out of work. He called the company, asked about full-time employment, and got hired back. So in 2007, he shut down Hill Custom Guitars and moved to Tampa to work for Dean again.

"I set up their woodshop from scratch," he says. "They had the facilities to be doing 1,000 guitars a month. But when I was there, they were only selling 15 or 20 a month, and making six or seven artist guitars a month. I knew it wasn't going to last, because I had been doing that many guitars in Cleveland."

Still, it gave him an opportunity to learn the manufacturing and engineering side of the business, and work with some high-end software. Hill finally left when he realized that "there was no future for me to do anything other than make some rich guy richer."

When he moved back to Cleveland about two years ago, Hill's first priority was to get stabilized financially. He took on work like building a 17-foot, $15,000 custom entertainment unit. "It was a crazy job, but it helped me get caught up on some bills," he says.

The stress was overwhelming. His old business partner sued him, and he lost the right to use the Jon Hill logo on his guitars. His wife left him. But he persisted, restarting his business under the name Bootleg in 2010.

"I've essentially been bootlegging my whole life, so the name fits," he says. "But really, it's not about the name, it's about the quality of the product. And Bootleg is a whole new attitude and vibe. We're focusing on our own cool designs for a performance-level, badass guitar."

Since relaunching, he's built a guitar for Godsmack's Robbie Merrill. And Erik Porter, the bass tech from the Dave Matthews Band, recently called Hill to ask him to make a five-string fretless for DMB bassist Stefan Lessard.

Skid Row's Scotti Hill first heard of Jon Hill guitars years ago, after meeting Cleveland rock guitarist Billy Morris, who was on tour with Quiet Riot at the time. Morris was playing a Jon Hill guitar, and Scotti wanted one.

"He built me a guitar back then and it was really nice. but not exactly what I was looking for," Scotti says. "The next one he did was the Generator. That's the one I play every night now."

Earlier this summer, he asked Hill to make him another guitar and even flew to Cleveland to observe the process.

"I watched him take a piece of maple and mill it," Scotti recalls. "That thing was harvested a hundred years ago, probably. He walked me through the process and that became the guitar I call the Sidearm. I told him I wanted something like a military officer's sidearm — something not normally used, but an officer generally carries. It's very, very special. As a player, you can tell when you pick up a guitar whether it will take years to break in. But this guitar had magic right out of the box."

Scotti says he couldn't believe how effortless the process was.

"Jon is very nonchalant and will casually carry on a conversation while shaping the neck," he says. "He let me do some filing, and I practically destroyed the thing. It just comes naturally to him."

Jon Hill enjoyed spending time with the Skid Row guitarist too.

"We went to the Rock Hall, and one night I took him to the Foundry, Billy Morris' club, where he jammed on a couple of songs."

Hill has also started producing custom paint-job guitars. Robb Ortel, an airbrush artist who works for the custom bike shop Orange County Choppers in New York, has painted a few of them.

"I build the best guitar on the planet, but unless you put a lipstick paint job on it, it's not worth anything," Hill admits. "More people are sold by the aesthetics than the instrument value."

Hill has also hired longtime Cleveland musician and promoter Rob Stevens to help him come up with new business ideas, including guitar accessories. They hope to put out a calendar next year that will feature Cleveland-based models holding Hill guitars, like the Ridgid Tool calendars.

Last week, Hill was busy moving his shop into a bigger workspace near Prospect and East 40th Street, where he'll share space with Paul Mills Custom Woodwork, a local cabinetmaker who has done work for the Barley House and other area bars and restaurants. Once he's increased production, Hill hopes to spur international sales to places like Japan, where he has an agreement with Labrea, a distributor that's signed on to carry two models, the Generator and the Burd.

Hill even envisions offering guitar-building classes in the new space. Yet despite all this, he knows he's still an underdog in the guitar-building world.

"I'm up against Fender and Gibson, who both have deep pockets," he says. "The odds are stacked against me. It wears you down, for sure."

But Hill remains true to his artisan roots.

"I just like watching people play my guitars," he says. "That's impressive. Sometimes I build beautiful guitars that people don't even play out. I don't blame them. If I spent $5,000 on a guitar, I wouldn't want to take it to some blues jam and sweat all over it either. I prefer if people play them. They can even beat the shit out of them if they want."

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