amping up and piping down: making music in the physical sense

On any given Saturday night, Cleveland is a veritable glissando of sound, from Brothers Lounge on the West Side to Nighttown on the East Side, and all points in between. Come Monday morning, however, a small band of Clevelanders is making music in the most literal sense. Within inconspicuous shops, blocks of wood are reborn as screamin' guitars, electronic doohickeys are rejiggered into amps, and lead and tin ingots are molded into resonating pipes.

So you want to be a rock and roll star

You're on your own when it comes to talent, but when it comes to the guitar, CLE's got you covered -- and we're not talking about a trip to Sam Ash or Guitar Center. Downtown, in one of those hulking brick buildings turned über-cool, you'll find Jon Hill turning out some cool of his own at Bootleg Guitars and Basses.

With more than 25 years experience building and designing guitars, Hill founded Bootleg when family matters brought him back to Cleveland in 2010 from Florida, where he was working with Dean Guitars.

"I started over with nothing," says the Bay Village native, who ran Hill Guitars for 20 years prior to joining Dean. "I had a belt sander and a chisel and a block of wood. I built up all this in three years," he says, motioning around his 6,500-square-foot shop, where stacks of guitar bodies wait to be painted and finished amid an array of machinery and tool-lined workbenches.

"I knew starting over that I had to build every single guitar and bass totally bad ass," he adds. "It had to have perfect playability and balance. If you deliver that kind of quality, everything else seems to fit into place."

Hill describes his instruments as "perfect working man's guitars" that are low on bling and high on authenticity. "I like the Plain Jane look," says Hill as he picks up one of his Sidearm models. "It looks like a normal Telecaster, but when you pick it up and plug it in and play it, it's like -- this thing's really got some mojo."

Artists who play Bootlegs include Skid Row's Scotti Hill and Stefan Lessard from the Dave Matthews Band. Plenty of regular folk are bellying up for Bootlegs too. Since the company's 2010 inception, Hill has produced about 100 guitars and expects to sell 60 this year. "We’re cranking them out right now."

Hill is almost done with a new showroom space and aims to eventually open a retail counter. Until then, it's all about the guitars. "We really take the time to make it an instrument that has vibrant tonal qualities," he says. "It just motivates people to want to play and want to create music."

Kiss Dr. Love goodbye; call Dr. Z instead

It might look like a quiet little building on Broadway Avenue, but inside Dr. Z's Amplification, a crew of 10 is building amplifiers that crank up the chords in a way that screams "Cleveland Rocks!"

"What I build are the old vacuum tube type amps that are alive," says company founder Michael Zaite, aka Dr. Z. "There is a warmth and a feeling that a vacuum tube has that a solid-state transistor does not have."

Zaite has been making his legendary amps, which eschew solid-state electronics and sampling, since 1988, when he sold his first Carmen Ghia. The compact 18-watt model is still one of his most popular amps. So much so, that Zaite will be offering up a special version of it with a vintage wood facing in honor of the company's 25th anniversary.

"They're built the way amps used to be built," says Zaite of his product line. "We use the same tried and true hand-built techniques making an American made product here in Cleveland that's used all over the world."

The enduring attraction of Dr. Z's "vintage tone for today" has garnered him 50 distributors from coast to coast and nearly two-dozen overseas. In 2012 alone, that network sold 1,800 Dr. Z amps. The vintage-style gear also transcends musical genres; rocker Joe Walsh has used Zaite's amps for years, and both Mark Lee of the Christian Rock band Third Day and country crooner Brad Paisley are clients. "Steve Miller once sent me a letter and made me honorary mayor of Swingtown," adds Zaite with a laugh.

He also credits at least part of his success to knowing how to handle his customers -- on their own terms. That advice was delivered years ago by Cleveland organ repair specialist Charlie Jobe. "'Mike,' Charlie said, 'When these artists want you, they're going to be calling you up. They're going to be all over you. They're going to want everything that you have. But when they don’t want you, don't call them because they don't want to talk to you,'" recalls Zaite. "I'm telling you, those are words to live by."

Dr. Z keeps it as local as possible with about 25 percent of his parts coming from Northeast Ohio companies such as S & B Metal Products in Twinsburg, Etched Metal Company in Solon, and Best Audio Services downtown. Northeast Ohio's manageable rules, regulations, and taxes are another business-friendly attribute, says Zaite. "People don’t realize how good it is here compared to other places. Cleveland really does have an open door to ideas and growth of business." The local businesses themselves are an important piece of the pie as well. "I'm able to work with other industries. We all stay close. We call each other. It's a wonderful network," says Zaite.

"I think that's the Cleveland way."

A stairway to heaven via Clark-Fulton

A small Holtkamp Organs sign is all that designates the humble brick building on Meyer Avenue, but inside, a unique team is handcrafting beautiful pipe organs for the country's loftiest spaces, although it's no stretch to call the Holtkamp shop divine in it's own right.

Holtkamp's neo-Gothic wood paneled office area truly is a Cleveland jewel. Hand-carved tracery depicting soldering irons, tuning forks and block planes lines the walls alongside portraits of Holtkamp family members and notable organ designers. Catapult into the shop area and you'll find Marilyn, Twiggy, South Park's Eric Cartman, and even a fiddling werewolf watching over the shop staff of 14, which includes woodworkers, pipe makers and voicers, who work on the sound of the 100-percent handmade instruments.

A Holtkamp organ costs anywhere from $150,000 to $1.4 million depending on its size and complexity. The shop has nine projects scheduled for this year and just one massive project for 2014. "Right now," says president and organ designer Chris Holtkamp, "business is good." But when pressed for details about the 2014 biggie, he won't give up so much as a peep. "It's bad luck."

Apparently, even such heavenly work doesn't come along without saying a little prayer.

Holtkamp originally was founded in 1855 as the G. F. Votteler Organ Company. Staying in business -- let alone staying contemporary -- for more than 150 years is no easy task. First you have to have impeccable skill. "If you try and do this stuff fast and cut corners it just goes down the tubes," says Holtkamp. "That doesn't mean that everybody takes their time. You have to work efficiently and you have to make it right the first time."

Next, you have to keep it all about organs. "We stay small and flexible," says Holtkamp, adding that in addition to the grand new builds, his crew does restorations, renovations and service work. "We do the whole gambit. So as the organ building economy changes and fluctuates, we can sort of flex along with it."

Local examples of Holtkamp's work grace the Cathedral of Saint John downtown and the Gartner Auditorium in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The oldest Holtkamp organ still in service -- built in 1867 -- resides in Zion Church in Winesburg, Ohio. The newest one was installed earlier this year at Hungar's Episcopal Church in Bridgetown, Virginia.

"There's nothing like it," says Holtkamp of the shop's work, "nothing whatsoever."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.