Hamilton

Hamilton-made Jillard Guitars growing into musical juggernaut

Jay Jillard has carved out a formidable niche as a premier custom guitar builder in the city, crafting handmade instruments that are making their way onto stages across the country.

Said the Whale, Basement Revolver, The Elwins and more all play Jay Jillard's guitars

Jay Jillard moved to Hamilton in early 2016. Since then, his custom guitar-making business has really blossomed. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Sawdust clings to every surface on the upper floor of Jay Jillard's Hamilton home, floating in the air like some kind of never-ending renovation.

Some might find these sawmill-like conditions oppressive, but for Jillard, the sound of the band saw is the sound of creativity.

The 27-year-old has carved out a formidable niche as a premier custom guitar builder in the city, crafting handmade instruments that are making their way onto stages across the country.

There's a joy that comes with seeing a guitar he laboured over shining under stage lights, Jillard says.

"It's standing in an audience and seeing a band performing, and feeling like I'm a part of it in some way," he said. "Or when a record comes out, I feel like I'm a part of that."

Hamilton custom guitar builder Jay Jillard takes us inside his workshop. 1:00

Now, with the number of orders he receives creeping up each year, Jillard Guitars seems poised to become a much more common name in the province's music circles.

Jillard's beginnings as a luthier were humble enough, with his first guitar coming as a high school project at Harold M. Brathewaite Secondary in Brampton.

"I would skip all my other classes and go to wood shop," he said with a smirk. What emerged was something a little more angular than the smooth lines of his more elegant later work, but still a totally playable, solid guitar.

This electric guitar is a prototype model Jillard created to feel like an acoustic guitar. (Adam Carter/CBC)

"It worked. It wasn't the best thing in the world, but it worked," he said.

Someone in a local band asked for a custom build not long after, and the foundations of the business started to form. But his first big break came in 2009, when Juno-winning indie rock band Said The Whale was on tour in the U.S., and lost most of their gear after their van was broken into.

Jillard contacted the band and offered to give them a guitar to help out. Guitarist Ben Worcester responded, and said he'd prefer to work together on building a custom build to his specifications.

Guitarist Ben Worcester from Vancouver's Said the Whale plays a custom Jillard guitar. (Lindsey Blane/Facebook)

In a review, Worcester said he called the finished project, which was modeled after Bob Marley's Gibson Les Paul, "Little Bird" — because "she sings."

"It's everything I dreamed of and more and I know that it was made with care," Worchester said. "I couldn't be happier."

Jillard is embarking on a project this year involving reclaimed wood from a Hamilton building. (Jay Jillard)

Basement Revolver's Chrisy Hurn is another convert, and has been playing a Jillard guitar for over a year now.

"I think it's extra special because he cares so much about every guitar he makes — it's art to him," she said.

"Maybe it's a little romantic, but I think you can feel that love and attention to detail when you pick up a Jillard guitar."

This is Jillard's first guitar, which he made back in high school. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Jillard made his way to Hamilton in early 2016, drawn by the city's housing stock and music scene. It's here that he has found a community that enables him to thrive.

"When I moved here, everything started falling into place," he said. "Hamilton has been a lynchpin. I don't think other cities would have allowed me to do what I do here."

While things started small with around two to five orders a year, business has significantly ramped up.

Basement Revolver's Chrisy Hurn has been playing a Jillard guitar for over a year. (Jay Jillard)

Jillard is expecting to complete his hundreth instrument this year, which accounts for hundreds of hours of painstaking work.

A single build can take about 30 hours on the low end, to up to 100 hours for more complex custom orders, with intricate inlays on the fretboard, custom contours, and binding. He's now embarking on a project that includes locally sourced, reclaimed wood.

His guitars aren't cheap instruments. A lower-end Jillard guitar costs around $2,600, with custom builds starting at $4,000. The most expensive guitar he's ever built cost $5,600.

Jillard also makes basses. (Jay Jillard)

While that may seem like a lot, it's in line with (and in some cases, much cheaper than) similar instruments from big brands like Gibson and Fender.

In some ways, what Jillard is crafting is a tool — though one that carries a connection and cachet higher than most.

"It becomes part of the musician's identity," he said.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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