Hamilton-made Jillard Guitars growing into musical juggernaut
Said the Whale, Basement Revolver, The Elwins and more all play Jay Jillard's guitars
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."
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.
"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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.