The Axe Man 

Why rock stars love Jon Hill's custom guitars

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"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.


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