As a teenager in shop class at Bay High School, Jon Hill quickly realized his enjoyment of woodworking was unmatched among his fellow students.
"How everything was shaped, beveled, contoured, sanded — I always seemed to take it a step further," Hill remembers. "Not to sound egotistical, but I kind of felt like I was the one to watch."
Indeed, it was hard not to notice Hill when, for a final project, he turned in an electric guitar of his own design. "Making a cutting board seemed boring to me," he says with a shrug.
Since then, Hill, now 46, has built hundreds of guitars. He got started as owner of Hill Custom Guitars in 1989, served as an in-house builder for Dean Guitars in Florida and worked frequently as a subcontract "ghost builder" for multiple guitar brands.
His current enterprise, Bootleg Guitars and Basses, which he founded in 2010, is the product of what he's learned along the way. Hill's designs for Bootleg's 2012-13 lineup of nine guitar and two bass models range from subtle variations on classic Fender and Gibson body styles to provocatively original head-turners.
One of the latter — a 7-string beast dubbed "The Rojak" — features spiked copper tuning pegs and a claw-marked red finish that bleeds across its devilish contours.
Hill's work has garnered high-profile clientele, including Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard, Skid Row guitarist Scotti Hill and Cleveland bluesman Butch Armstrong (of Armstrong Bearcat), who recalls falling in love with Hill's guitars after trying one out years ago.
"I was just flyin' on this thing," Armstrong says. "The neck is so thin and so beautiful and so fast. It's absolutely one of the most beautiful guitars I've ever played."
Word-of-mouth advertising by similarly ecstatic customers has been great for business. It was local musician and former Warrant guitarist Billy Morris raving about Hill's guitars that got Skid Row's Scotti Hill to hop on board.
In addition to designing Bootleg's production-model guitars, Jon Hill also creates one-of-a-kind instruments that can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. For those, he says, much of his creative inspiration comes directly from the customer.
"I joke about it a little, but I call myself the guitar whisperer," Hill says of his ability to discern a guitarist's needs.
"When people play guitar, at some point they need a reset switch," he explains. "I try and find that out, and make an adjustment. Sometimes it's the weight of the instrument, the neck shape or how it's set up."
Hill recently moved his company's guitar production to a larger space on Prospect Avenue, but he prefers to do the design work from his fifth-floor loft inside the Bradley Building on West Sixth Street.
Hill and his associates are attracting backers and investing in equipment that will enable faster production while still adhering to Hill's strict quality standards. Despite remaining very much hands-on at this stage, he hopes to reach a point where his role will solely be design and quality control, with his team executing the actual production work.
It's an exciting juncture in Hill's career, but the soft-spoken axe-maker is taking it in stride.
"I work best under pressure," he says. "I've got a can of spray paint, a guitar body, and I've got to pay my rent. What can I do with these three things?"