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Industry Leadership Award 2015 - Kenny Hill
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For more than forty years Kenny Hill has explored the vast possibilities of the classical guitar as a builder, player, and even composer. However, he is best recognized for his guitar-making. He began as an individual luthier but over the decades has formed a complete team at Hill Guitar Company. In addition, he created the import brand New World Guitars through ground-breaking work in China and served as a major designer for Cordoba Guitars during that company’s worldwide expansion.


Hill was born in San Jose, California. He began his professional journey in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, teaching himself as he went. He started out with some strikingly original designs but very little source information to guide him—only books, a few players, and his own ideas. His first direct influence and goad was John Gilbert. During the 1980s, as he was raising his family of four young children, he took a hiatus from lutherie, though he remained an active performer. In 1989 he returned to making guitars with renewed passion, this time concentrating on a series of copies of iconic, contrasting instruments: Torres, Fleta, Hauser, Rodriguez, Panormo, and others. The resulting research and practice gave him new grounding in guitar design traditions.


In 1993 he received a three-year grant to set up a guitar-building shop in Soledad State Prison. This was the first time he directed an entire crew of guitar makers, and it offered an opportunity not only to make more instruments but to try new things. It also turned out to be a very unusual study in the management of people and methods of learning, an experience that indirectly led to the development of workshops in California, Mexico, and China.


During the ’90s, working with those venerable historic guitar designs in far-flung cultural environments, he evolved new ones of his own. They eventually became known as his Signature and Performance models. Concurrently, he developed the business experience and vision to grow beyond the circumscribed world of a lone luthier and expand entrepreneurially into the production of multiple guitar lines. As that process unfolded, he enlarged the capacities of the concert classical guitar while also raising the standards of commercial-grade instruments. And through all of this he maintained an active musical life. He continues to emphasize hands-on musicianship as the key to staying in love with the instrument and in touch with the needs of players. For him it is another means of sharing the gift that only music can bring.


Kenny’s home workshop is in Ben Lomond, nestled in the mountains near Santa Cruz, California. It’s a sweet worksite in a sweet place. Six craftsmen—his son, son-in-law, and other trusted workers who have been with him for many years—build and refine Signature and Performance guitars by hand, in the long-standing tradition of the grand master himself. Kenny also continues as a founding shareholder of the factory in Guangzhou, China, where New World Guitars are made under his close supervision, and as designer emeritus for Cordoba Guitars, where he has long remained a consultant.


After four decades in the field, Kenny Hill continues to be fascinated with the instrument, the music, the people, and the world of classical guitar. His attitudes and hopes are focused on the future, new players, new music, new capacities of the instrument, and the view that, from where he stands, that world is still just beginning.


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