By Nicole Hennessy
Jon Hill’s handmade guitars hang on the walls of his West Sixth Street loft apartment. Opposite the instruments, pale blue sky filters in through large windows, outside of which lurks the harsh orange of Browns Stadium seats, at the moment empty of fans.
There is a certain characteristic particular to artists: to persist despite failure. And failure. And loss.
Before Hill Custom Guitars, before Bootleg Guitars and Basses, before a list of famous clientele, portfolios, money or no money, Hill – a Bay High School student with a newfound talent for woodworking, who lusted over $1,200 guitars he couldn’t afford – thought he could make his own guitar for much cheaper.
But was it possible? he wondered.
He walks across the room, picks up the finished product of this thought and lays it on his desk.
“I didn’t make the neck,” he mentions, running his hand over its smooth chessboard surface, “but the body.”
Modest and laid back, he explains how it took him 10 years of building to feel confident that he could produce the best guitars possible. And now, after 23 years of trying to make it in the industry, he is starting over again.
In 1989, a few years after high school, Hill decided to build guitars full time, and he set up shop in his father’s Vermilion garage. About a year later, in need of more space, he moved to Cleveland’s Slavic Village and sold the instruments he built at the local music shop, Lentine’s.
Outgrowing the location in less than three years, he moved again, just outside of downtown, at which point 10 employees produced 30 guitars each month.
As Hill continues to recite his story, summarizing his past, he always ends up, quickly, back to the present and the future.
“What I am trying to do, or what I’ve tried to do my whole life, is to create a job for myself and for some other people,” he says.
It’s not been easy.
After accepting an offer to build for Dean Guitars, Hill moved to Plant City, Fla., in 1994, abandoning what he had going in Cleveland. But eventually the wood shop was shut down, and he found himself moving again, this time to Fort Myers, where he worked for a door company.
Seven months later, Hill returned to Cleveland and took on various cabinetry and millwork positions before opening Hill Custom Guitars.
Before long, he found himself building instruments for bands such as Megadeath. And, listing some local names — Butch from Armstrong Bearcat, Billy Morris, Mike Szuter — he says the relationships he built early on helped him rebuild and maintain what he considers to be a good reputation.
Sitting in front of his computer, uploading thousands of photos of his work – which will take all day – he fiddles with his coffee mug, worrying about the grants he has to apply for, website design, social media, trying to afford insanely expensive booths at trade shows and other things that take time away from actually making guitars. He sighs a lot when explaining these things, but laughs it off just as easily, then shifts his attention to a cat rolling around on packing paper, chasing a strip of discarded plastic beside his desk.
“That’s Prince,” he explains, smiling at the gray cat.
Unfortunately, when he created Hill Custom Guitars back in 2000, he did so with a partner who later sued him, gaining the right to his “Jon Hill” logo, which he could no longer use on his instruments. So in 2007, broke and out of options in Cleveland, he moved back to Florida and started a new woodshop for Dean Guitars from scratch. But he knew what he had always known: that he had to build guitars. More than a dream, for Hill it seems an uncontrollable impulse. That’s when he decided to take one last chance.
When Hill returned again to Cleveland about two years ago, he took odd jobs, establishing himself financially, until he felt able to launch Bootleg.
“I have a hard time doing other stuff,” Hill says, having touched on nearly every up and down of his professional life. “It’s kind of a curse for me. But what keeps it going for me, ultimately, is just having people play the guitars.”
Like this summer, at Blossom Music Center, when he got to hear one of his basses played at the Dave Matthews Band concert: It is these moments that keep him going. It’s also hanging out with members of the Skid Row band, the glimpses of success and moving again to a new space on East 40th Street out of the need for more room in which to produce more merchandise.
And while it’s cool that a deal with Godsmack’s Robbie Merrill is spiraling to selling guitars and basses to other musicians and studio owners, and he’s in the process of selling his instruments at Sam Ash stores, what Hill is most proud of is the industry connections he’s made, the fact he can order specific wood and parts without hassle.
His latest “masterpiece,” Rojak 7, hangs next to the first guitar he ever built. Picking it up, he goes over every tiny detail, worried the ultimate buyer will buy it as a collection piece – artwork to hang on a wall – rather than actually play it.
“There’s so many things about it that blows away normal guitars,” he says. “If anybody picked it up, it’d be the best seven-string guitar they’ve ever played.”
Though he no longer needs his loft, which costs much more in rent than a mortgage, he thinks he’ll stay – for Prince’s sake, he laughs. “He likes it here.”
PULL OUT QUOTE: “Right now, I’m pretty close to figuring out how to sell a lot of guitars,” Hill says. “If I can sell ’em, I can afford to build ’em.”