By Scott MacClelland
On last Sunday morning’s edition of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, guest Edward Glaeser talked about his new book “The Triumph of the City.” Answering one of Zakaria’s questions Glaeser said, “The successful cities in the 21st century are marked by three things: Smart people, small firms and connections to the outside world.”
Ben Lomond guitar maker Kenny Hill fits all three. As a result, he and his fellow artisans, especially from China, have turned their share of the global market from about 15 percent to “I don’t have the exact numbers, but probably about 50 percent” in recent years.
Hill began playing the guitar as a teenager in San Jose at the height of the American folk music revival—“Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary”—playing in coffee houses and other hippie venues. Then, in 1971, he picked up a classical guitar which led him to discover the music of JS Bach. That took him to the pipe organ and “a language I completely related to.” While he loved it, its impracticality became obvious. He discovered a record of Bach on the lute by Walter Gerwig. “The daisy got plucked,” he says, “and I grunted through” toward mastering the classical guitar. He didn’t study formally with a teacher but attended master classes in order to improve his skills from, among others, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, Benjamin Verdery, David Tanenbaum and Pepe Romero. He became active with the late Guy Horn’s Carmel Classic Guitar Festival.
Hill built his first guitar in 1975, around the time he settled in Santa Cruz. Those were the still-heady days of ‘doing your own thing.’ “There was a psychedelic mood in the air,” he says. “I did some things that I look back on with a little humiliation.” While he played a great deal, he dropped out of guitar-making until, in the ‘90s, “I had a restart.” Since he didn’t know about marketing he went to the basics by making replicas of iconic 19th and 20th century instruments. (A last-of-its-kind Antonio Torres copy is offered for sale on his website.) “I built the business in the late ‘90s with those replicas.” It was also in the ‘90s that he stopped working alone and began farming out his designs for others to make. “I got a grant to set up a guitar shop at Soledad prison,” he says. This made far more efficient use of his time. “I was no longer Gepetto in his workshop. I had a crew of workers who had to do what I told them.” He adds, “Sometimes you learn more by teaching it than by doing it.”
This resourcefulness and the realization that success would come from making a product that other people wanted changed the direction of his life.
In the late ‘90s, he engaged the guitar-making town of Paracho in Michoacán to develop a line of “New World” guitars. “Then I was invited to China.” Chinese artisans began making New World guitars, and in the five years following their production increased from 5,000 to 25,000 instruments per year. In 2008 he began consulting with Cordoba, a young firm specializing in lightweight, hand-made, nylon-string, affordable guitars, and set up an artisan-run workshop in Oxnard. He sold his Masters Series of classic replicas and technologies to Cordoba and taught the crew of six workers how to build them.
With Cordoba and other brands, the Chinese connection became Hill’s goldmine. “Over the last fifteen years I’ve made at least 70 trips there.” Chinese guitar playing is a growth industry, he says. (By contrast, American guitar players are keen for varieties of models and higher quality.) The key to Hill’s success is his innovative designs and his by now long-seasoned marketing skills. The venerable Ramírez guitars of Spain had a much larger market share worldwide than they do today. “Ramírez hasn’t been innovating,” Hill says. “Globalization has decimated them. We off-shored the ‘Spanish’ product. They could have done it but they were too impressed with their own traditions.”
Today, Hill-designed, handmade guitars are played by numerous major artists, including Johannes Möller, Michael Partington, Evan Hirschelman, Eva Beneke, William Coulter and Almer Imanovic. Mesut Özgen, late of Santa Cruz and now in Miami, plays Hill guitars, as do Phil Collins of the New Music Works and well-known Monterey guitarist Terrence Farrell.
“Kenny is a great guitar maker,” declares Farrell. “He makes quite a few different models, experiments, looks for different ways to improve his instruments, and also to make them relevant to a wide variety of guitarists. He’s made some of the best I’ve ever played.” Farrell explains some of Hill’s specific innovations. “He designed a side bout so it fits into your body better, and a cutaway on the top that fits your am better.” Since Farrell also teaches guitar at CSU Monterey Bay, these design features make it easy for him to play classical guitar standing up. He also praises Hill guitars for their greater volume of sound and projection. “I’m old school, but he’s made very loud instruments that younger players like because they project really well.”
At his workshop in Ben Lomond, Hill and his sons, and a son-in-law, turn out 100 to 150 instruments a year. Instead of Masters Series replicas that built his company in the ‘90s, Hill’s pride today is his Signature series (Cedar Signature 2014 pictured). “Ben Lomond is still the beating heart” of Hill Guitars. “It’s where we make discoveries, breakthroughs and mistakes.” His taste in music has also changed over time. “At this point, what moves me is not the level of performance,” he says, “but, rather, what’s next. The guitar repertoire is still mostly fenced in. I have very little nostalgia but am totally susceptible to something new.”
Hill still travels a lot, and works the trade shows. He loves to meet the master guitar makers, not so much with expectations of learning from them but “to get the vibe.” At 65, he describes himself as “a supreme generalist,” seeking to learn how to “make all this stuff fit into the bigger picture” of life lessons.
Hill in his workshop photo by Jeff Luhn