Hill Performance Series Review
Acoustic Guitar checks out a punchy-sounding double-top classical. With video.
By Michael Millham
At a Glance
The Specs:Double top (Alpine spruce on outside, Nomex honeycomb in the center, western red cedar on inside). Solid Indian rosewood back and sides. Lattice bracing. Spanish cedar neck with Spanish heel joint and dual-action truss rod. Ebony fingerboard. Indian rosewood bridge. 650-mm scale. 51-mm (2 inches) nut width. 57.5-mm (217/64-inches) string spacing at the saddle. Gotoh Deluxe tuners. French-polish finish. D’Addario Pro-Arté normal-tension strings. Made in USA.
This Is Cool:Double-top power. Fat tone. Overall value.
Watch For:Modern tone and construction may not appeal to traditionalists.
Price:$5,500 list/$4,850 street.
Maker:Hill Guitar Company: (831) 336-9317; hillguitar.com.
California luthier Kenny Hill first planned on building organs—the kind with pipes—but quickly shifted his focus to guitars in the mid-1970s. Starting out as a solo builder, Hill has since expanded his operation to the point where his six-person atelier is the largest dedicated manufacturer of nylon-string guitars in the United States. Much of the Hill Guitar Company’s growth has come by offering high-quality, yet affordable, replicas of designs by Fleta, Hauser, Rodriguez, Ruck, and Torres. In recent years, however, Hill has put an increased emphasis on his original designs, which he calls the Signature series. Featuring double tops, elevated fingerboards, soundports, and other contemporary innovations, these instruments have found favor with many top-tier players and teachers. True to his company’s dedication to offering value, Hill started looking at ways to offer his contemporary designs’ tone and playability at a price that working classical musicians would find relatively affordable. Launched earlier this year, the culmination of Hill’s efforts is the Hill Performance series, of which we checked out the standard model.
Understated Style, Flawless Craftsmanship
The Performance series shares much of the Signature model’s DNA. Chief among these is the double-top construction. A bit of a misnomer, the double top (as pioneered by German luthiers Matthias Dammann and Gernot Wagner) is actually a single soundboard composed of three parts: two ultrathin “skins” of wood laminated around a honeycomb-like core of Nomex (a type of Kevlar). The goal of the double top is to provide traditional top stiffness with greatly reduced weight. Hill tends toward a yin-yang relationship between wood skins: if the outer top is cedar, he will use spruce inside, and vice versa—with the outer wood providing the dominant tonality. Our review guitar uses a creamy expanse of silky, tightly grained Alpine spruce for the outer layer, with a skin of western red cedar under the Nomex grid. In a further nod to contemporary classical guitar construction, the Performance series is braced in a nine-by-nine lattice pattern rather than the more traditional fan bracing. Using combined strips of spruce and cedar, the pattern’s crossed braces create a grid of elongated diamonds set lengthwise underneath the top grain, with the spruce braces centered in the lattice under the treble side (to enhance upper partials) and more cedar bracing at the lattice edges.
The consummate Spanish appearance of the Performance series guitar belies its high-tech construction, although two Robert Ruck–style soundports on each side of the neck’s heel add a contemporary look. The most significant construction difference between this guitar and the upscale Signature series is that it has a traditional neck set and fingerboard, rather than the elevated fingerboard found on the pricier guitar, a choice that adds to the Performance series’ more-traditional overall vibe.
The straight-grained Indian rosewood used for the guitar’s back and sides exudes depth and character, and the instrument’s unbound ebony fingerboard extends to the 20th fret for the first string. The guitar’s fretwork is flawless. The Hill’s body is wrapped in clean mahogany binding that intersects precisely with the matching minimalist mahogany backstrip and tailblock inlay. It’s a handsome, organic understatement somewhat reminiscent of Lowden steel-strings. A look inside the guitar reveals similar attention to detail. The svelte top and back bars are precisely carved, placed, and smoothly sanded—with no excess glue to be seen—and the kerfing is a wonder of consistency.
The Performance model’s neck sports a decidedly contemporary low-profile U-shaped carve, with an excellent “medium” factory setup (3.5 mm for the first string, 4 mm for the sixth string, both measured at the 12th fret) that feels much faster than the specs would suggest. The guitar’s truss rod allows for perfect neck relief, and intonation remains spot-on both up the neck and between fretted and open-string unisons. A single side dot marker at the seventh fret provides a minimalist way to keep things organized during shifts, and the overall neck geometry, string spacing, and top construction allow for fatigue-free picking hand performance, even when I tried the guitar with high-tension Savarez strings.
The result of all these modern construction efforts is a smooth, warm, yet punchy instrument with sustain, outstanding balance from low to high, and a wide dynamic range. Double tops and lattice braces typically produce a loud guitar, but at times this comes at the cost of tonal warmth. Not so with the Hill. While it is respectably loud (enough, for example, to accompany a soprano), it retains a full, weighty tone with tons of sustain even at the lowest volumes, and its response is uniform at every dynamic level. Running through the second movement of Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro, I found it effortless to observe Brouwer’s wide and fastidiously notated dynamic contrasts during the echoes section. Color changes were likewise magnified across a broad palette—from sul tasto to ponticello—an advantage that nimbly sidesteps one common criticism of double-top instruments as being overly uniform in tonal response compared to traditional solid tops.
As beguiling as its dynamic range may be, the guitar’s flat string-to-string response is equally apparent. Even the transition from the wound D string to the nylon G passes without intrusion. Spinning the low E’s ivoroid Gotoh tuner up to F for Dusan Bogdanovic’s Mysterious Habitats, I found it easy to move between the melody notes on the upper strings and the five-beat perpetual motion ostinato in the bass. Each individual note comes off as round, with typical double-top beef and a fast response that masks the initial nail attack. Combine this character with the soundports channeling tone back toward you, and the overall impression is of both intimacy and a huge sound—a paradox perhaps befitting the Performance series’ yin-yang construction methods. It’s worth noting that the lattice and majority of the top are wood and thus subject to “playing in.” I noticed that the guitar’s tone increased somewhat in complexity, adding sparkle to the highs, during the time I had the guitar—again, in similar fashion to a traditional classical guitar.
With its extroverted sound, easy playability, and clean craftsmanship, this modern guitar in traditional guise has a lot to offer someone looking for a concert-quality classical with exceptional balance and a warm, punchy tone with wide dynamic range. In short, the Performance series may be the best manifestation yet of Kenny Hill’s desire to provide concert-quality guitars, in accessible quantities, at affordable prices.
Michael Millham (guitarandvoice.com) lives in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches at Gonzaga and Eastern Washington Universities and performs as a soloist and with vocalist Keleren Millham.