From the Winter 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
A few years ago an old friend from music school, an operatic baritone, came over for dinner. Afterward, he treated my family to an impromptu performance of the “Toreador Song” from Carmen, and we were all struck by the power and richness of the instrument he was playing. I was recently reminded of this visit when Kenny Hill, whose workshop is not far from my home, stopped by to deliver a concert guitar for review. Hill retrieved it from its case, strummed some open chords, and played a few single-note runs. Although he had a broken fingernail, the instrument sounded similarly deep and projective, almost as if amplified. It was exciting to hear.
A preeminent American luthier for decades, Kenny Hill presides over the Hill Guitar Company, overseeing a small team of guitar makers in his Ben Lomond, California, workshop. As a member of Hill’s Signature Series, the review model sits at the top of the company’s line, and this particular example, a custom Anniversary Signature, represents the top of the top. Its back and sides (the sides laminated with cypress, for stiffness and stability) are made from old-growth Brazilian rosewood that Hill had stashed away for decades—absolutely stunning, with its lovely orange-brown coloring and dramatic ribbon figuring, highlighted by an impeccable French polish finish. Brazilian rosewood is also seen in decorative elements like the body binding and headstock veneer.
The guitar boasts all of the contemporary features that Hill is known for. Most noticeable is a pair of soundports on the upper bout near the neck heel, intended to make the guitar sound more present to both the performer and the listener. The ebony fingerboard is elevated, making it easier to access the highest regions of the fretboard, while contributing to a satisfying attack.
Other details are less apparent. The guitar has a double soundboard: thin layers of Western red cedar and European spruce with a core of Nomex—cedar being the outside layer in this case—reinforced with spruce-and-cedar lattice bracing. The double top adds stiffness while reducing weight, translating to enhanced power and tone. In another departure from tradition, the neck is reinforced with a lightweight two-way truss rod, which has its obvious advantages in terms of adjustability. (Hill told me a great story about a repair tech re-fretting one of his guitars, unaware that the guitar had a truss rod that could have much more easily addressed the problem.)
ERGONOMIC AND HIGHLY RESONANT
The first thing I noticed about the Anniversary Signature was how correct it feels. This particular model is a half-inch deeper on the treble side than the bass. When the guitar is played in seated position, the taper—in concert with an ebony armrest—makes it more ergonomic than a standard guitar, and it’s easier to see the notes on the neck as well. The review model came with gold strap buttons installed, and when played in standing position—outside of the realm of traditional concert etiquette, but not completely unknown in classical circles—the guitar sits against the chest in a snug and balanced way.
The intonation is flawless; the notes ring clearly and consistently in all regions, without any unwanted transient sounds, and the guitar is both a breeze and a joy to play, having a 640mm scale-length fretboard, optimal action, and a perfect setup. Its quickness of attack and its punch and power are immediately noticeable—and quickly addictive.
Hill intends for his guitars to be compliant and not dictate a player’s sound, and the Signature exceeds this goal. It’s an open-sounding, richly harmonic instrument—as a fine modern guitar should be—sympathetic to a range of approaches and repertoire. Whether I read through a Bach transcription, a Toru Takemitsu piece, or a solo bossa nova arrangement, the guitar responds with great warmth and clarity, and it has a wide sweep in terms of dynamics and tonal shadings.
At $15,000, the Brazilian rosewood Anniversary Signature will likely not be an option for the typical conservatory student, let alone concert guitarist. But the good news is that the Signature model has a base price of half of that, and the Performance series guitars start at $5,500. And if the review model is any indication, the Hill Guitar Company is making some seriously fine instruments that any student or performer in the market for a new instrument would be remiss not to explore.
Hill Guitars Anniversary Signature
BODY Cedar-and-spruce double soundboard; Brazilian rosewood back and laminated Brazilian rosewood sides; tapered body; ebony armrest; upper bout soundports; French polish finish
NECK Spanish cedar neck; ebony fretboard; 640mm scale length; 51mm nut; Rodgers tuners with mother-of-pearl buttons
EXTRAS D’Addario J46 Hard Tension Strings; Visesnut hardshell case
PRICE $15,000 (base price $7,500)
Made in the United States.