There's a lot to look at when you walk into Jon Hill's loft apartment in the Warehouse District: The photo of the custom guitar he built for comedian George Lopez. The half-finished guitar on the workbench that he's building for metal guitarist Jack Frost (Frost Bite, Seven Witches, Savatage). The picture of Slayer singer-bassist Tom Araya playing one of his guitars.
But the most revealing item is a modest-looking guitar with a black neck and a maple and walnut body. The guitar, which Hill affectionately calls the "20 by 20," a reference to its body size, is the first one he ever built. On the back, a tarnished gold stamp reads "Jon Robert Hill 1984."
"I bought that neck from some replacement-part place," recalls the soft-spoken Hill as he picks up the guitar and examines it. "It actually still plays pretty good, though it needs some TLC. But it's nice to look at."
With his buzz cut and soul patch, Hill looks like someone who would be more into jazz than rock. But his custom-built guitars are widely respected in the rock world. Michael Stanley has been playing them for 20 years.
"Over the years I have owned four of his guitars and one of his basses," says Stanley. "I still own two of his guitars. My favorite is a beautiful tobacco burst Les Paul-style outing that you can see on the cover of The Soft Addictions CD. The bass is just an incredible instrument and has been used, almost exclusively, on every album I've made over the last 12 years."
Skid Row guitarist Scotti Hill, who plays a custom-built Jon Hill guitar called the Generator, says, "I knew the minute I put my hand on it that it was the one."
Chances are that Hill would have an even broader customer base and bigger name if he had any business acumen. Instead, his career has been a wild series of ups and downs that he describes as "35 years of grief." He refers to himself as "the ultimate underdog," and it's not hard to understand why. As a result of a botched business deal, he no longer even owns the rights to his original Jon Hill logo.
But Hill is on an upswing once again. Earlier this month he moved his shop from the Warehouse District loft where he lives to a Midtown space that will enable him to increase production and reestablish his name, and the Jon Hill brand, on both a local and national scale.
He's rechristened his business Bootleg Guitars. It's an appropriate name for an artisan whose life story mirrors those of his rock & roll clientele.
Originally from Bay Village, Hill, 46, first picked up a guitar in the early 1980s, when Jeff Daw, a friend who was taking guitar lessons, showed him how to play a few chords on a Les Paul.
"I learned a couple of Rush tunes," recalls Hill. "'Fly by Night' was the first song I learned."
A naturally gifted woodworker, Hill showed outsized ambition even when he was still in shop classes at Bay Village High School. For his first project, he wanted to build an oak rolltop desk. His teacher vetoed the idea, telling him it was too expensive and too ambitious.
"I really liked woodworking, but I never wanted to do what the rest of the class was doing," Hill says. "They were making cutting boards and stuff like that."
So instead of the rolltop desk, Hill built his "20 by 20." But he didn't start building guitars immediately after high school. He first worked as an audio and video salesman at Fretter Appliance. He then sold used cars for a while and worked at Radio Shack. But after a few years, he realized that he wanted something more.