Custom Shop: Pete Hilton of Hilton Guitars
“People always ask me what was the main thing that pushed me into building and I was always like, ‘Hate.’”
Now I don’t want to misrepresent luthier Pete Hilton by leading with this quote; however, there is a theme represented by this simple one-word response that has been a directing force throughout his life. Let me make this clear straightaway: Pete is a nice guy. He’s one of the good ones, and he is very friendly and approachable, so don’t be afraid to talk to him, should the opportunity arise.
As a bass builder, he is a unique example. His instruments easily reach the upper echelons of craftsmanship, yet his style is not easily placed. The time he spent working with legendary luthier Carl Thompson in Brooklyn has had an obvious influence on Pete’s basses, but he has managed to bring his own unique visions to life at his current shop in Los Angeles.
Pete is originally from Owosso, Michigan, but he spent a lot of his youth in Washington, D.C. “I was always playing music. I toured a bunch in the ’90s, and all that stuff kinda led me to building,” he says. In 2001, he moved back to Michigan – Flint, to be exact – and got a job building furniture in Detroit. Here we see the first glimpse of how his ‘hate’ pushed him towards developing his ideal instrument: “I was using the shop after-hours … I was just sick of … everything,” he says. “I played everything … I was always trading and selling, you know, trying to find what I was looking for, and I could never find it.” So he decided, “I’m just going to try building something that I want.”
It was also around this time that Pete first got in touch with Carl Thompson.
“I called Carl … and I talked to him for like two and a half hours on the phone. And then I ended up calling back two days later, ordered an instrument from him, and he told me it would be a two-to-three-year wait or something like that. During that time, I was already getting into building, learning a lot. I had my own little shop in the house I was living in. I was building dinette furniture during the day, coming home, and trying to figure out how to build instruments.”
Shortly thereafter, Pete took a last-minute trip to New York City with some friends.
“I brought a bass with me and took it to Carl’s shop. I went to see him play the next night, and that was the night he asked me if I kind of wanted to help him out. I was like, ‘What do you mean, a job/apprenticeship kind of thing?’ And [Carl] just kind of smiles, pats me on the shoulder, and says, ‘Yeah, just helpin’ this old guy out.’”
Let me take a minute here to point out that this interaction usually goes the other way around. Carl Thompson has had no shortage of aspiring luthiers wanting to work at his humble basement shop in Brooklyn. But clearly, Pete’s early attempts at building a bass were already promising enough to impress a seasoned veteran of the boutique bass world.
Two months later, Pete was in New York starting a new journey.
“At that time, my life was kind of in disarray; everything was … crashing. It was like, ‘What it’s going to be?’ And [this was] a moment of clarity. I’m always a big believer in ‘things happen for reason.’ I’ve always felt like I gambled as far as, like, moving somewhere, going somewhere. I had a good idea, but nothing was in stone. I was always like ‘[expletive] it, roll the dice.’”
“My first day, when I walked in there, … I didn’t ask a ton of questions, I would just … try to figure his whole world out,” Pete explains. It wouldn’t take long for him to acclimate. Not only was he fresh off of a job building furniture and working on his own shop experiments, but his dad was also a woodworker. “I was always around the shop,” he says. Pete spent the next decade and some change working with Carl and his other helpers, including Kelvin Daly and Joe Kruse, who have also gone on to build incredible instruments of their own.
After only a year and a half, Carl told Pete it was okay to use his shop after-hours to build his own instruments. “I always praise you and Kelvin both,” Carl told Pete. “It was almost like a weird … blessing, you could say,” says Pete. “I was hatin’ on everything I was playing,” he says. “[Carl] just pushed me to figure out … how I wanted to do it.” That is the sign of a true mentor: a guiding hand that also knows how to nurture freedom and creativity.
Fast forward to 2013, when Pete and his wife made the move cross-country to Los Angeles, where he currently works full-time building instruments under the name Hilton Guitars. “I’ll be honest,” says Pete, “I wasn’t really doing this to turn it into a business. I was doing this for self-knowledge. That totally backfired on me.”
Pete builds his basses in batches, still picking each piece of wood by hand, especially necks. “It’s the heart of the instrument,” he says. He often preps for several new builds at once, a benefit of working in the temperate climes of Southern California. “Things don’t move around that much here. That’s one less headache.” “I work in almost like a circle,” he continues. “My shop is tiny, it’s really small.” This forces Pete to work economically. Each part of the process is carefully planned and executed.
I ask Pete what specifically drives his bass designs and build style. “My whole thing is ergonomics…so you’re comfortable … you’re not battling the instruments.” Not an easy feat considering the rather complex and detailed style Pete employs. He stresses the importance of “knowing woods, all the different properties, how to incorporate something with multiple pieces together and you still have a five-pound instrument.” You can almost imagine Pete as a sort of bass tailor. Speaking in the voice of a potential customer, he offers, “Hey I want a five or six-string bass, but I have tiny hands and major back issues.” “I always have fun with that,” he says.
You can hear the excitement in Pete’s voice when he talks about starting a new build. He often laminates multiple species of wood in a variety of shapes and sizes into very intricate, geometric patterns. One of his latest builds was inspired by the art-deco styling on the ceiling of LA’s Wiltern Theater. “I was going for a stained-glass kind of vibe,” he says. “I went there and looked up,” and that was it. “Tales from the Scrap Bin, that’s what I’m calling it.” “Each instrument changes,” he continues. “I’ve got this really cool piece, you know, and then all of a sudden you turn it around and the wood grain is doing something really wild.” “It’s like … the wood’s telling me what to do, this one wants to be like this.”
For those who may be apprehensive about a more ornate instrument, Pete is now offering what he calls the “Workhorse Series.” “Once you start talking about woods … people get more confused,” he explains. For the “Workhorse” basses, “I just build with what I have.” “Everything [else] is the same, just simplified, no frills.”
Although initially inspired by his hatred of the instrument, of how it has traditionally been built, Pete seems to have found what he has always been looking for.
“What I am building now is what I always wanted back then. The creativity side of it is what really keeps me going. I was burnt out years ago, … as a lot of builders are. You gotta just keep that fire burning. Stay in the music. Search for those inspirations, and really [think], ‘Why did I do this in the first place?’ You’re your own motivation and your own worst enemy at the same time.”
When asked what he would like to tell future generations of builders, Pete begins, “I see a lot of builders not understanding the properties of wood.” He warns, “Social media is really killing it. It’s really making it hard for people … who really gives a [expletive]. It’s making this illusion.” It’s easy to empathize with his point of view, in light of the fact that builders like Pete are few and far between. It seems to be more and rarer these days that knowledge and skill are passed down directly from one person to another. Why trouble yourself with finding a mentor when the internet can show you the way? That might get you so far, but at what cost? “I feel like no one really understands how social media really works,” Pete continues. “They’re only gonna really show you what they think you should want to see.”
A craft like bass building requires immense attention to detail and highly specialized skills. It takes years to hone these skills, even under the guidance of a seasoned hand. Carl Thompson and the builders he has influenced carve out a unique pocket in the realm of boutique basses. If you take a look at Pete’s, or Kelvin’s or Joe’s, basses for that matter, you can easily trace the lineage. “We dedicated a big chunk of our lives working with him, for him, so those little things are still honoring him,” says Pete. Yet their creations still manage to stand apart, completely unique.
I asked Pete if all of the hatred that has propelled him thus far has settled at all in light of his successes as a luthier. “I’ve always had this thing…it’s never good enough.” He points out a sign above his bench that reads, “Good Enough,” written inside of a circle with a line struck through it. I start to wonder whether hate isn’t always a bad thing. We often make sense of ourselves and the world around us by learning what we DON’T like. It’s okay to draw lines in the sand and to say no, once in a while. “Carl will say it too, man,” says Pete. “The best word out there is ‘No.’”
It’s not an active hatred. Pete isn’t going around spreading negativity into the world. He just knows what he’s after, and it’s clear that he is on a never-ending journey to get there. “Perfect doesn’t exist, and if it [does], then, yeah, I feel sorry for that person,” he laments. I ask what would happen if, by chance, he did build the perfect bass one day. “There’s a coffee shop up the street, I’ll become a barista.”
- Name: Pete Hilton
- Born: 4-12-74
- Current Location: Los Angeles
- Years Building: 18
- Favorite Wood: Mahogany, Black Walnut, Padauk
- Favorite Tool in the Shop: Scraper
- Favorite Bassist: Too many to name
- Favorite Scale Length: 32″
- Best Neck Joint: Set neck
- Favorite Strings: GHS. I won a Battle of the Bands in ’94-95 and ended getting 50 sets of Bass Boomers.
- Favorite Pickups: Kent Armstrong, Bartolini
- If I Wasn’t Building Basses I’d Be: Trying to take more advantage of the country we live in. It’s taken for granted and there’s a lot to see.
From his first time picking up a bass 16 years ago, to starting his own bass company, Serek Basses, in 2015, Jake Serek has been on a mission. Touring with bands such as Smashing Pumpkins, KISS, and Slash gave him a taste of the professional life. His experiences working at Lakland and Third Coast guitar repair sharpened his skills.