Guitar Aficionado

Dave Hill Fuels His Comedy with a Serious Dose of Guitar Playing

The comedian and author got into comedy because of music. But he never left the music behind.
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This is a feature from the JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on comedian/podcaster/writer/actor/musician Marc Maron, former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and his new career as a solo performer and painter, Matt Bruck’s collection of rare and vintage British amps, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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DAVE’S WORLD: Iggy Pop’s apartment, John Oliver, Mexican prisons, and lots and lots of guitars may seem like disparate things, but they’re all part of the wonderful life of comedian/author Dave Hill.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Rayon Richards

Seven years ago, comedian Dave Hill decided to challenge himself. Doing standup in clubs and theaters around the world was getting old. It was time to take his act somewhere a little more unusual. Okay, a lot more unusual: the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.

“A comedian hadn’t performed there since Moms Mabley in the late Sixties, and I was warned that the inmates can really intimidate people. If they don’t like your show, they’ll make you end it,” Hill recounts over a cup of coffee and a plate of chocolate chip cookies in the living room of his cozy, whimsically decorated Greenwich Village apartment, which takes up the third floor of a 19th-century brownstone and was once the residence of James Osterberg, a.k.a. Iggy Pop. “Because my comedy’s not exactly broad—I guess you’d call it ‘alternative’—it seemed like the worst possible environment I could put myself in. But I wanted to try it, so I thought, what does every man in the world—even a violent felon—respect? Guitar solos.”

And so, when the time came to head for the big house, Hill brought along one small part of a guitar collection that numbers about two dozen: his 2007 Gibson Firebird with flame maple wings, signed by the Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes (the signature was the product of a chance airport meeting on the way back from the 2009 Bonnaroo festival). Before saying a word, he plugged in, turned up, and launched into “Eruption” by Van Halen. “I was scared shitless,” he says, “but it worked. The guards were saying to each other, ‘They respect him.’ And then I talked for an hour and a half, and they let me do it. The guitar playing bridged the gap.”

Hill—who appears regularly on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central’s @midnight, and the public radio program This American Life—upped the personal challenge a few years later when he visited a prison in Saltillo, Mexico, that was essentially run by a crime cartel. “They’d murdered the warden,” he explains, “and the Mexican government said, ‘Okay, looks like you guys got this one, we’ll just keep our guards on the outside.’ It was like Thunderdome. I thought, well, I had a great time at Sing Sing, and this sounds way crazier!” Once again, Hill’s guitar prowess served him in good stead…but you can read more about that in his hilarious new book of autobiographical essays, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

All of this illustrates that well before Hill was a comedian or a writer, he was a guitar player. And not just for laughs, either. The alt-rock bands he’s toiled with over the years include Sons of Elvis, whose “Formaldehyde” got decent exposure on MTV in the mid Nineties, and the critically acclaimed Cobra Verde (for whom he played bass). It was only after he moved to New York from his native Cleveland in 2003 that his talents as a humorist came to the fore.

“I got into comedy because of music,” Hill says. “I formed a band called Uptown Sinclair, and I was reluctant about being the singer, but I did it, and then I found that I really enjoyed talking onstage in between songs. If someone broke a string or an amp blew up, I’d be like, ‘Cool, I can talk for five minutes.’ That part became as fun to me as playing.”

Eventually, Hill was invited to do a standup set at the Parkside Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, during which he read semi-randomly from entries in his journal. “Within a year and a half of that night,” he says with a level of bemusement that suggests he’s still processing it all, “I was filming my own TV show [The King of Miami]. This whole thing just grew, and it was because I had no expectations. The way I saw it was, ‘I’ll make you the best spaghetti I can, but ultimately I don’t give a shit because I’m not in the spaghetti business.’ I basically felt zero pressure to accomplish anything, and that freed me up.”

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Hill maintains the same attitude about music, much to his benefit. Even though comedy has become his career, he keeps getting interesting musical opportunities, both on his own and with Valley Lodge, the power-pop band he currently leads—and which he confesses he formed for the express purpose of touring Japan some day. Not only has such a tour in fact taken place but the experience also inspired him to write the song “Go,” which has since become the main theme of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “I love John, and I hope his show stays on for 30 years,” Hill says. “Not only because he’s a great guy, but because I’ll keep getting royalties.”

Over the years, Hill acknowledges, “my reasons for playing have changed. As a kid, I just wanted to rock. But now, with all the writing I do, I spend so much time up my own ass that I need something to get me outside of myself. I pick up a guitar and play ‘Crazy Train,’ and it’s ‘Crazy Train’ no matter what. There’s nothing subjective about it, the circle’s already complete. Which is why, as my other career grows, music has become more important to me.”

So has guitar collecting, a bug that bit Hill many years ago and is now being helped along by some master manufacturers. “Every guitar in my collection has something weird about it,” he says, and that’s certainly true—in a wonderful way—of the Telecaster-style electric built for him two years ago by Rick Kelly, a luthier based at New York’s Carmine Street Guitars. Kelly specializes in using salvaged woods, and this particular model is sourced from two New York City landmarks: The neck was once part of a roof beam at the Chelsea Hotel (where Hill briefly stayed in his early Manhattanite days), and the body had a previous life as a table in the Greenwich Village pub Chumley’s, famous for its Prohibition-era secret entrance.

“The neck on this is like a baseball bat,” Hill says as he picks the Kelly up and strums a super-resonant A chord. “Fattest neck I’ve ever played, and it doesn’t have a truss rod. At first, you pick it up and go, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know if I can play this.’ But after a few minutes, you love it.”

Another notable custom instrument in Hill’s collection is a Pawar Privateer. Built last year by Cleveland luthier Jay Pawar, it’s a Tele/Rickenbacker hybrid with chambered body, Fralin pickups, and a striking purple finish. “This may be the best guitar I own,” he says. “I saw an illustration in the New York Times—I don’t even remember what the story was about—but the purple color in that illustration looked so cool that I pulled it off the website and sent a swatch to Jay, telling him, ‘This is the color.’ It’s a tricky shade to get right, because if it goes too purple, it would look kinda cheeseball, but I think he nailed it.”

Next to the Pawar is another Tele-style axe: a blue LsL T-Bone with Pamela Lee stickered on the neck plate. Whether it’s referring to the Pamela Lee—née Anderson—is uncertain. Just down the hall in Hill’s bedroom and a connected office are, among others, a 1938 Gibson Mastertone Special lap steel (“Best-sounding pickups ever,” he says), a 2004 Gretsch White Falcon (“This is what you want to play on TV”), a garish Dean Razorbolt (“I was drunk when I bought it”), a Gibson Custom Shop ’56 VOS Goldtop Les Paul from 2011, a 1979 tobacco burst Flying V, and two guitars hand-decorated by Hill himself: a Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster with a swirly psychedelic paint job and a 1978 Ibanez Iceman bedecked with a tapestry of rhinestones, à la Paul Stanley. “I like completely destroying an instrument’s resale value,” he quips.

Perhaps the most unusual guitar in a collection full of oddities is a 20-year-old Yamaha FG-4415 acoustic signed by two disparate individuals: legendary metal singer Ronnie James Dio and This American Life host Ira Glass. “Dio signed it first,” Hill says. “He���d been a guest on a radio show I did for a while in L.A. Then one day, I showed the guitar to Ira, and he didn’t know who Dio was. I said, ‘You’re one of the smartest guys in the world and you don’t know that?’ So I made him sign the guitar as well. It’s the only thing in existence that’s been signed by those two men, and it’s a perfect match. Black Sabbath on one side, NPR on the other. It’s like the yin and yang of popular culture.” Hill pauses and grins. “That pretty much sums me up too.”

Want to see more features like this? Order your copy of Guitar Aficionado's July/August 2016 issue today by clicking HERE.

This is a feature from the JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on comedian/podcaster/writer/actor/musician Marc Maron, Matt Bruck’s collection of rare and vintage British amps, former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and his new career as a solo performer and painter, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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