by Adam Purlmutter
In the early 1980s, a decade into his career as a luthier, Kenneth “Kenny” Hill found himself burnt out on guitar making. Stepping away from the workbench, he followed his father’s path and opened an automotive garage. But then, on a fall day in 1989, Hill was driving in the mountains of northern California when he experienced a seismic shift—both literally and figuratively. “I was in my car when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit,” he says. “I wrecked it and was nearly buried in a landslide. When I finally made it back to the garage, I just looked around and thought, ‘You never know when a building or a mountain or a car is going to fall on your head—especially working under an automobile lift.’ So I put my garage up for sale, sold it in a couple of weeks, started from the ground up and built a new, guitar workshop behind my house.”
Classical guitar players throughout the world have that fateful day to thank for the fine concert instruments that Hill has designed and made during the last three decades—models both traditional and innovative, with double soundboards and upper-bout soundports. The instruments of the Hill Guitar Company are seen in the hands of many formidable performers: teachers, students, winners of international guitar competitions—from Johannes Möller to Eva Beneke.
Hill, 66, was a teenager in the 1960s, and like many of his generation, his first forays into music-making involved learning songs by Bob Dylan. Unlike the typical folkie, though, Hill branched out into playing pieces by J.S. Bach on a church organ. He eventually tired of the instrument and its culture, which he found staid, but not the Baroque. “I made a decision in my mid-20s that I still wanted to play Bach, but on guitar. I was living in Portland, Oregon, and my housemate had a nice little Manuel de la Chica flamenco guitar, and I borrowed it and began teaching myself in a serious way. It was a pretty quick conversion,” Hill says.
The same housemate bought a guitar store and eventually hired Hill as a repairman. After about six months of this work, Hill moved to the sunnier climes of Santa Barbara, California, and set up his own repair shop. One day at the shop, Hill encountered a gentleman who had intended to build instruments in retirement, but had dropped this plan. Hill says, “He brought in a bunch of guitar-making tools and wood, along with an instrument that he’d started.
“I bought it all for $250, and completed the guitar, my first. Then I made another, and another.”
These early guitars were hardly the iconic masterpieces of Hill’s mature work. Rather, they were a kind of cobbling together of ideas by masters like Torres, Hauser, and others—construction aspects that were readily apparent on the guitars that Hill had seen in his work as a repairman. “My earliest designs represented my trying to figure out things, seeing what worked and what didn’t,” Hill says. “It was all about picking and choosing from other peoples’ guitars, and it was rather pathetic, I have to say.”
Parallel to his making guitars, Hill blossomed as a musician. Though he never studied classical guitar at a university or conservatory, he got a solid education through attending master classes of the players who came through Southern California.
“I was lucky to learn from Manuel Lopez Ramos, José Tomás, Leo Brouwer, Narcisso Yepes, Michael Lorimer, John Duarte, David Tanenbaum, Benjamin Verdery, Lawrence Ferrara, and more,” says Hill, naming some of the greatest classical guitarists of the 20th century.
That Hill thinks of his early instruments as pathetic, speaks more about his high standards than his level of craftsmanship at the time. In 1978, he was awarded a California Arts Council grant—a real boon for his work both as a luthier and musician. “I got this three-year grant to help set up ‘guitar art,’ as it was phrased by the council. The compensation wasn’t enough to completely live off of, but it certainly helped me get a leg up as a guitar maker, and it also allowed me to devote a lot of attention to playing.”
Around the same time, Hill returned to his place of origin, Santa Cruz, California. He focused on performing, and though his credentials as a classical guitarist were modest, on the strength of his musicianship, he was appointed as a guitar instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hill played in concert regularly during this time, but a livelihood as a performing artist eluded him. “I had a playing career that was personally satisfying,” he says, “but it wasn’t exactly a glorious one.”
In the mid-1980s, Hill focused professionally on his automotive shop, while playing guitar casually on the side. This caused Hill to work using much different methodologies than he had as a luthier. “I suddenly was looking at a book that told me how long it should take to, say, change a water pump, and how much to charge the customer for it. I took this approach with me when I came back to luthierie—looking at making a sound-board not as such a naval-gazing, meditative experience, but as something that would take a certain amount of time to craft into a good guitar component.”
It wasn’t long after Hill returned to guitar making that the California Arts Council awarded him another grant to set up and oversee an instrument-making shop within Soledad State Prison. Previously, building guitars had been a solitary pursuit for Hill, but in three years of working with the program, he came to enjoy building instruments collaboratively. “I learned of the advantages that come with working with a crew—as opposed to being a lonely, tortured soul, working under a gas lamp,” he says.
I want to make guitars
that don’t dictate
a player’s sound,
that are malleable.
In 1995, Hill, also a writer, went to Paracho, Mexico, ostensibly to write a magazine piece about a master class given by José Luis Romanillos, the great Spanish luthier. While covering the event, Hill admired the instruments of the luthiers of Paracho, especially given their paucity of resources in terms of construction materials and general instrument-making knowledge. And so he decided to take action: “I went back to Paracho and hired all those guys. I learned how to speak Spanish and worked side-by-side with these artisans; it was wonderfully inspiring. At the same time, I had four kids and a wife, and so I had to evolve some marketing skills, so as to be profitable enough to support my family and keep building.”
While his Paracho workshop was in operation—until the early 2000s—Hill felt the need to get back to basics, so he spent several years crafting a handful of rather marketable models in the style of the great nylon-string luthiers. “I took myself back to school, so to speak. I built guitars in the style of everyone from Torres to Fleta, always asking things like: Which one is me? Which resonates the most? I developed a line of what I called the Master Series, which helped me build a catalog,” he says, adding that this work in part would help him in recently getting Córdoba Guitars’ American-made Master Series off the ground.
Eventually, Hill grew tired of commuting between California and Mexico, where in Paracho he spent anywhere from several days to several weeks each month. So, he assembled a new team—including Mexican luthiers—in the United States, and with the Master Series in place, got to work on refining his own designs. Hill says, “I pulled out select ingredients from all the great guitars I’d seen to arrive at a new form. I didn’t invent anything from scratch, but I rearranged all the deck chairs for sure.”
In 2006, Hill, emboldened by his work setting up a factory in Mexico, partnered with a factory in China to produce guitars built to his specifications. That operation, which is much larger than Hill’s Ben Lomond, California shop, employs 200 workers who make more than 50,000 guitars per year. “Some might view this as selling out,” Hill says. “They might think that a true artist sits and labors over each piece in a loving way. “But I see it as a good way to put my imprint on all of the instruments while making them much more affordable to so many musicians.”
Still, the instruments Hill finds the most satisfying to make are the ones that he and a small team build on a custom basis at the Hill Guitar Co., all with a very specific goal in mind.
“I want to make instruments that don’t dictate a player’s sound,” he says. “Guitars that are malleable, capable of producing whatever sound and dynamics a player hears in his or her head; instruments that great musicians just really want to play.”
At the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California, in late January, we caught up with Kenny and asked him to play a little and chat.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Sharon Isbin, Frantz Casseus, a special focus on guitar festivals & competitions, and much more. Click here for more information on the issue.
PHOTOS BY JOEY LUSTERMAN, LARRY DARNELL