Guitar Solo

Handmade craftsmanship is instrumental to Jon Hill.

Raphael and His Age Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard Through November 3; 216-421-7350.
The curse has cost Jon Hill a lot of things. Today, it's the phone in his Tremont home, which was disconnected this morning. "I gotta take care of that," he sighs.

The curse is Hill's obsession with guitar making, which has alternately served as an artistic outlet, a rewarding career, and a path to the poorhouse.

"I hate to say that, but I've come to think of it as a curse, and the reason is that I just can't get out of it," he says. This means more headaches for Hill, but it's good news for the many stars for whom he's done work over the years, among them Slayer's Tom Araya, Poison's C.C. Deville, and former Dokken axeman George Lynch. Hill's passion started in his father's garage 15 years ago and grew into a nationally renowned enterprise. He was wooed into a joint venture with a burgeoning guitar company, only to lose everything in the deal. Now, with Hill Instruments, he's begun to put the pieces of his livelihood back together again.

Hill's garage looks kind of like a bombed-out Home Depot, all crowded with table saws, routers, and blocks of lumber. But the rebuilding process, it appears, is off to a good start: The freshly cut bodies of three guitars are scattered about, and the work keeps him as busy as he'd like to be. Two doors down, at the Flying Monkey Pub, a retrospective of Hill's work hangs on the walls, including an eye-popping model decorated with an elaborate Superman paint job and blinking LED lights in the fretboard; there's also a beautiful sunburst number that belongs to Michael Stanley.

"Jon puts a lot of love into his instruments, and it certainly shows," Stanley says. "What makes them different is that they aren't rolled off an assembly line, but tailor-made to whatever it is that makes a guitar special for the player."

"Jon really is an artist," says Kidd Wicked guitarist Aaron Adkins. "He uses a lot of exotic woods. He isn't stunted by a particular body shape or style. He's really in tune with the musician he's building for."

Hill's work hasn't always been so lauded. He built his first guitar body in high school wood shop. By age 21, he decided to start his own guitar-building company, despite having no experience in either business or guitar manufacturing.

"I found one of these little supply-house companies for guitar parts and supplies, and I just started buying like a precut fretboard, then I'd buy some maple and glue it together," he recalls with a chuckle. "And they were horrible. The first couple of guitars I did were total disasters."

Hill kept at it, making the rounds in the local music scene, getting work doing repairs for such notables as Neil Zaza, Mike Szuter, and Kidd Wicked in the early '90s, and establishing a reputation for his hands-on style and distinct craftsmanship. Through his contacts at various guitar-part vendors, Hill also began to land some national clients: His first big break came in '93, when Slayer's Araya requested one of Hill's guitars. Soon, he had his own shop -- Hill Guitar -- on East 36th and Superior, a staff of eight employees, and a reputation that caught the attention of Dean Guitars, with which Hill signed on by the end of '94. He relocated to the company's Miami headquarters, financing the move by selling his equipment to Dean. Soon after the move, Dean went belly-up.

"The owner had just lost too much money," Hill recalls. "They basically folded, and my equipment was gone. Our distributor, Armadillo Enterprises, ended up buying the company, and they shut down the U.S. shop. That's really the grand finale of Hill Guitar from the past."

It also marked the awkward birth of today's Hill Instruments. Hill moved back to Cleveland and slowly reconstructed his business, with a sales pitch that centers around the uniqueness of handcrafted guitars in a machine-made world. Competing with well-monied corporate giants is a hard-knock life for a dude temporarily without a phone, but by now, Hill is used to it.

"I've always struggled -- always, always, always," he says. "But what do you do? Give it up? I don't think so."

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