Kenny Hill is one of America’s premier and most influential high end classical guitar builders. His company Hill Guitar is based in Ben Lomond near Santa Cruz, California. Kenny has also designed a line of high-quality yet moderately priced guitars, New World Guitar, which were built to his specifications in China. For a few years now Kenny has been offering his customers True Temperament.
Building and constructing classical nylon string guitars during the years you have evolved several own original designs, some of them ergonomic based, such as elevated fingerboards and body-adapted guitar bodies. How did you get the ideas for this?
– At first I mostly tried to mimic and live up to the traditions and examples set by the icons of classical guitar making, both historic and living. Later I considered that maybe some of my own instincts and preferences could be worthwhile on their own, and started making changes that would please me and satisfy some needs that hadn’t been tried. The elevated fingerboard makes the sound stronger and also helps with high register left hand playing. The Ergonomic design is about playing posture and comfort and it feels wonderful to hold the guitar.
– Not much is truly original, but the re-combination of design elements is what I’m responsible for. I experiment with things that make me feel better, and hope that there may be others that feel the way I do.
Your signature models also have double tops. Can you explain the benefit of that?
– I’ve been doing double tops for over 20 years now. There is a sense of more power and volume, but also there is a very responsive control over dynamics both in volume and color. These guitars can speak expressively from soft to loud, from dark to bright, from sharp attack to smooth. I can’t really explain why, but it seems to work.
– The double top itself is just one ingredient in the recipe. It’s how all of the design elements come together in balance that makes any instrument what it is.
In your opinion, what is the basics making a classical nylon string guitar a really good instrument?
– We all want are the same things; power, beauty of sound, tone control, ease of playing, physical beauty, reliability, smells good, etc. I want the instrument to not only sound good on its own, but to be a willing partner with the player, responding to the unique and personal sounds of the musician who is playing it.
What different classical models are included in your production catalog?
– We have the Signature Model, New Century, Anniversary and Heritage Models. We also produce a nostalgic Torres Model. These days most of our instruments are custom built, offering variations in string length, body size, materials, and special features such as the Ergonomic design and True Temperament fretting.
You are in many ways a leading pioneer when it comes to renewing and developing the classical guitar. Not least, as mentioned, you have embraced the True Temperament Fretting System.
– When I first was exposed to TT I was skeptical and not sure of the need for it. But once I finally tried it out I was – and still am – amazed at the subtle but transformative effect on the playing experience. For the last five years or so all of my personal guitars have been TT and it is a very satisfying sound. I’ve written elsewhere in greater detail about my experience and growth with TT (read about Kenny´s thoughts about TT here: www.hillguitar.com/website/catalog/tt.html) and I’m glad to share what I know with anyone. I’m sold! We still do make beautiful guitars with standard fretting, but the the TT system is a wonderful option that I am proud to represent.
What do you think is required for an innovation like TT to have a real impact on the guitar market?
– The first people to really appreciate TT have been studio musicians and producers. They are artists who are dealing with the pure sound, and listen the most carefully. To have a bigger impact on the culture it needs to be adopted by high profile performing and touring artists in live contact with larger audiences. And those players can be pretty conservative. At first the audience may not truly understand or perceive the advantages, but if the player gets behind it it will expand the exposure to the curious and the sophisticated guitar people. In my world the interest and understanding is growing steadily. It is going from being a perceived novelty to being seen as a serious advancement to the guitar.
You are not only a luthier and a musician, but also a successful businessman with guitar factories both in the US and China. This is something that doesn’t always go hand in hand. What´s the secret?
– Secret? That’s funny. Most of business is just common sense. I generally think “show up, do what you say, and be generous”. At some point I realized that even as an individual guitar maker I was a small business person. Many luthiers do business poorly, reluctant, quirky and rebellious. Business is not at all my natural inclination, but my reasoning is that given that there’s no way around it, I might as well try to do my best.
In your classical guitar pieces, I find myself hearing some folk rock influences. Is it living in California in the 60s that are reminded? Which are your musical influences?
– I’m definitely a California child of the 60’s. I don’t have much formal education but I’ve listened to a lot of music, a full range of classical, folk, pop, rock, avant garde, African, Chinese, and more. I can find thrill and inspiration in all of it. But I acknowledge that my own working musical vocabulary is limited. For the time being I accept that, and try to let the music come through even with my simple mind and skills. These days I think of the guitar as much as a harp as a keyboard, or lead/rhythm instrument. I hear as much ambience and “aroma” as I hear melody, harmony and development. This is keeping my imagination pretty busy and I accept and try to exploit my limitations for now, at least until I get bored with myself or start repeating too much. I realize that being a guitar maker or even a guitar player doesn’t necessarily lead to composing, but for me it is kind of all one thing.
You seem to be a person with social pathos and who, in my opinion, made a great effort when you founded a guitar workshop for the prisoners in the Soledad prison.
– That certainly was a formative experience. I received a grant to set up a guitar building workshop in prison, and at that time it was as much about a steady paycheck as ”social pathos”. But I always understood that it would put me together with people and circumstances and challenges that I would never experience on the outside. This was the first time I worked with a crew, and it was an unusual one. I learned to work with people of a wide spectrum of life experiences and skill levels or talent, social and racial backgrounds. And in dealing with the prison institution I learned about bureaucracy and rules and a different kind of cooperation. I learned a lot about human potential, both wasted and realized. The prison is very much like a foreign country, and as it turned out it was a personal apprenticeship to projects that eventually took me to Mexico and to China as well as keeping my work going here at home.
What do you see in the future of the guitar?
– Young people. The level of skill and resources today are exponentially bigger than before, in my generation. But it is still a lot of work, there’s no way around that. The biggest competition is from the smart phone. Guitar is not just a musical and social thing, it is also sensual and spiritual. If there is a future for those things it’s our obligation to keep alive and expand the opportunities for young people to be seduced by the guitar. Once it’s in your blood there is no way back. Ulf Zackrisson ©
Photo: Larry Darnell