By Julie Horner
A solo classical guitar breathed seductively into the winter chill as I let myself into the Hill Guitar Company showroom in Ben Lomond, CA. Gentleman luthier, Kenny Hill, sat just inside, momentarily absorbed in music making, hands wrapped purposefully sensuous around one of his own instruments. The music was written by someone he knew, “It’s a lovely piece, full of tucks and folds.”
Master builder of contemporary nylon strung classical guitars in San Lorenzo Valley since the 1970s, Kenny Hill enjoys a personal and well-rounded relationship with guitar making. He started out as a guitarist – an aspiring classical player – who began making guitars as a hobby “to get a more complete feel for the instrument as an extension of the music, to understand the instrument more biologically.”
He played professionally for a few years then dropped out of the scene briefly in the 80s. He got back into it after the earthquake. “I got really shaken up…I was on 17 and wrecked my car.” He came back to guitar making with a more businesslike approach. “I got organized, more realistic about running a business. It was a second beginning.”
Now with worldwide renown, the secret ingredient for him is his lifelong immersion in the instrument as a player, a composer, and a builder. “It gives me a certain insight,” he says. He developed his own uniquely personal guitar building style based on classic Spanish traditions and global influences, pulling from a number of different inspirations to “produce something very full of life for players and for audiences…capable of playing adventurous new music” while still holding true to rigor. “It makes for a great feel.”
Admitting to having a certain creative arrogance from youth, “I wanted to keep my artistic purity pure, so I ignored the past.” Part of his second beginning included realizing that he was a fool for not learning from the ones who came before. “I was a presumptuous schmuck.”
“We tend to be lone wolves, very opinionated and stubborn, which can make for a lot of boondoggles and blind alleys” in making a fine instrument.
The instinct to break barriers remains; to be “tilting the gravity a bit.”
“Innovation is finding a need that no one knew they had. And it helps to be right about it and persistent. I find what pleases me, that’s the best way.” He gets flashes of insight which compel him to straddle different aesthetics. “I love finding something completely new and unexpected. I revere the work of the future.”
Quality is “under the hood” in the engineering that makes his guitars excel. “Playing a guitar, you’re embracing it, caressing it with both hands – that’s one of the things that’s so magical about it.” He explained that nylon strings are softer, more embraceable, and the tension is lower for a more relaxed instrument. “It’s more dynamic, you can shape the sound. I want the player to be able to coax whatever they want out of the guitar. It’s a matter of flavor and style, the guitar will give you back whatever you can put in.”
“Some guitar makers are trying to find an engineered formula, trying to predict outcomes.” Kenny creates things that suit his fancy. Most of the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing going in, he says. “I’m making strokes, seeing patterns emerging.”
He notes that custom guitar makers, especially in the US, enjoy three kinds of prestige: Which famous artists buy your instruments, how much you charge, and how long you have to wait for the instrument to be made. “I don’t like that. I’m a musician.” But of course he’s flattered when a big time artist picks up one of his instruments. “Great musicians inspire me. I become inspired as a maker, a player, as a person.”
Top classical guitarists from around the world revere Kenny Hill guitars. “We have a very good reputation,” Hill says. “And I answer the phone.”
He’s swamped with custom orders right now. When asked how long it takes to build a custom guitar, Kenny says he “puts it together like a meal. Any guitar is made out of 4 or 5 kinds of wood from all over the world. It’s a little bit like selecting ingredients, you want good quality ingredients. I get them from the source.” A Hill guitar takes a few months to build once an order is placed.
“I want to see the instruments getting into people’s hands. I love it when young, upcoming players get one. My most satisfying client base is young kids taking up the instrument and taking it seriously. It becomes part of their growth, part of their musical evolution,” he says.
For Kenny the joy of guitar making is everything from “the wood, the tools, the satisfaction of the craftsmanship, the cross-cultural relationships, an opening of the world – it’s got the whole thing.”
“And it’s very cool to be here in the valley – an ideal, marvelous place to be based.” For his family, the village atmosphere, plus the cultural stimulation from Santa Cruz. “It’s a great springboard.”
“We’re trying to make the world a better place, it’s pretty simple, through affection for the guitar. We’re not destroying resources, not taking away from more important things in life, we’re not bad for your health. It’s low impact in a global sense but high impact on the quality of the person’s life.”
“The intensity of thought, the hope in every living soul. Making guitars has vitality and impact and gives me a great deal of pleasure.”
On the Web: http://www.hillguitar.com/
On Facebook: www.facebook.com/hillguitarcompany/
Kenny Hill performs monthly at Casa Nostra and has a CD, Pilgrimage.
Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org On the Web: santacruzmountainslocal.com
Copyright 2017 Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin. Originally published in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin February, 2016. www.santacruzmountainbulletin.net