Interview:Interview with Guitarist Johnny Hiland on his Music Career and Playing Technique

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Johnny Hiland: Rippin' Pickin'

by Adam St. James



Hot guitar pickers have flocked to Nashville by the thousands - if not tens of thousands - over the years. Not very many of them ever get further than the tiny stages and funky little bars that line "Lower" Broadway, in the heart of Music City, USA. Just like metal-edged shredders trying to become the next Joe Satriani, or rockin' blues cats trying to fill the boots of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan, there's always someone who thinks he can whip through Nashville like a tornado and gust right on into the national spotlight. But few ever do.


Enter Johnny Hiland. Hiland moved to Nashville a few short years ago after leaving his home state of Maine, and has taken the home of country music by storm. After blowing through Lower Broadway, Hiland is now traveling the world, burning down stages with his incredible playing. Call it shreddin' honky-tonk, 'cause it's certainly closer to what Steve Vai would be doin (if he were a country picker) than it is to Buck Owens.


And what about Steve Vai? Oh, he recently signed Hiland to his Favored Nations label, the first country-fied player to find a home among the many (primarily) rock-based virtuosos who Vai has endorsed. We're told a rip-snortin' CD is on it's way, but we couldn't wait that long. We had to release this interview now, and we'll have to catch up with Johnny again when the disc hits the streets. In the meantime, look for Johnny Hiland's two fantastic and amazing Hot Licks instructional videos, and his audio lesson series through Mel Bay. I see from looking at your website and your schedule that you're traveling all over the world these days, aren't you?


Hiland: Yeah, man. We're having a ball. That's really cool. That gig last July during NAMM with you and Brett Mason and Seymour Duncan and everybody, that was pretty cool.


Hiland: Oh Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night. Oh yeah, man, that was a lot of fun. You've done that for the last three years, haven't you?


Hiland: Yes. It is very fun. So you grew up in Maine, right?


Hiland: Yes. I actually grew up in a little town called Woodland, Maine. And when did you start playing guitar?


Hiland: Well, actually I got my first guitar when I was about 21/2 years old. Basically it was just a little plastic guitar and I use to jump around the living room and listen to the Bee Gees, Skynyrd, and stuff like that. Then of course, my granddad left a 1939 (Gibson) J45 behind and of course, he passed away when my dad was 6-months old so my dad didn't really get a chance to know his own dad either, but I'm his namesake as well, so of course, my dad doesn't play and so the guitar got passed on to me. I still have the guitar. I'll never part with it. So my dad used to tune that guitar through an open E chord and I used to play kind of like Jeff Healey, with my fingers and thumb to bar the bass runs and things like that. And I did that probably up until I was 10 years old. And that's when my dad took me for my first lesson which basically, I learned 6 chords. That's pretty much what spawned it all. But even in the time I wasn't playing correctly, I still did a TV show. I did "Big Stacy's Jamboree" when I was 7. Cool.


Hiland: And that was pretty fun. And of course, when I took my first lesson and learned those first 6 chords, I entered the "Talent America" competition in New York City and pretty much took home all the trophies for that. Cool.


Hiland: Yeah, so my career definitely started at an early age. Was music pretty much all you paid attention to.


Hiland: Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately I'm legally blind. I was born with an eye disease called Nystagnus where your eyes really can't focus correctly and so I wasn't able to play sports like all the other kids, and of course, growing up in a small town in Maine, that was the main focus with kids. You know, playing baseball or basketball. And of course, that didn't happen for me so the guitar was an emotional outlet for me if you will. And it really worked out well. I got told at 16 I could never drive a car and for most handicapped kids that would be pretty devastating, but for me it was like, 'Fine ... I'll go out in the shed and crank up my guitar,' and I was fine. But, you know I'm really thankful for how the guitar is an emotional outlet because it didn't allow me to get bogged down with the doldrums of living a handicapped life. You can see a little bit.


Hiland: Oh yeah, I can get around somewhat and you know, I'll break my neck now and again, but (laugh) for the most part, yeah I can see enough to get around a little bit. So how did you end up gravitating toward country?


Hiland: Well, actually, my dad took me to see Ricky Skaggs at the Bangor Auditorium back in '85 and that's when he was doing the Country Boy Tour and he had Ray Flack playing the guitar with him. To see Ricky play that purple Tele with the "B-bender" [Editor's note: Read the article on B-Benders in our Column Corner>Mothers of Invention section.] in it and go crazy on stage, you know, doing "Country Boy" and "Highway 40 Blues" and all those big hits. That's pretty much what took me into the country realm. I'm just overwhelmed with Ricky's playing. And of course, my granddad on my mom's side of the family ... I spent a lot of time with him growing up and he turned me on to Willie and Waylon and Faron Young and Web Pierce and a lot of the older classic country styles. You know, I just found that I really loved it. You know, I was 7 years old and my favorite artists were Don Williams and Waylon Jennings. So of course, that's really why my parents said, 'Well, let's take him to see Ricky Scaggs.' Cause I was a big country fan. Is Maine a big country music area?


Hiland: I would say so, yeah. Yeah, country and bluegrass mostly. You also mentioned Lynyrd Skynyrd, so you grew up listening to some rock.


Hiland: Oh yeah and it was kind of neat. My family was really ... they had such a diverse music background. My mom, she loved the light rock style, you know, Christopher Cross and Gary Morris and you know America and all the older bands like that ... you know, the softer side of stuff. My dad listened to the Outlaws and Skynyrd and Blackfoot ... a lot of the Southern rock stuff. And my mom's brother who - of course, I hung out with my uncle a lot too - he was into the Animals and the Byrds and a lot of the older rock stuff.


And of course, my granddad got me into country so I had quite a widespread musical background as far as what I listened to with different members of the family, so I really grew to find that I really loved all music. Music is such a ... you know, no matter what you listen to, it really hits the soul sometimes, you know. And in most cases, it's a wonderful thing. My CD collection even today is filled with different styles of music, so I'm really thankful for the background. So did you take lessons for a while?


Hiland: When I was about 10 I took about ... just like I said I took that first lesson just playing regular chords and whatnot and of course, after I saw Ricky Scaggs play, I told my dad I wanted to put the acoustic down and play electric. And, of course, playing electric guitar and playing lead, you have to know some theory, so my dad took me to a guy named Billy Peters who was a GIT graduate. It was funny because I wanted to be Ricky Scaggs at that point and he was a classical kind of guy, a classical-fusionist. And I was so overwhelmed with his playing, but yet stylistically, I wanted something different.


So he basically gave me eight lessons on just theory on the chop board. And of course, it was boring for me as a kid ... I was probably 13 or 14 years old, but I certainly do remember the day that all the theory really started making sense, so I'm really thankful for the background. And, of course, I'm not the biggest theory buff in the world, as a matter of fact, my style basically derived from just playing along with CDs and trying to figure out what all my favorite cats were playing, you know. Do you read sheet music?


Hiland: No, but I actually played every instrument in the high school band before I graduated, so I learned how to read music playing trumpet and trombone and stuff like that, but as far as reading guitar music, no, I'm not really all that good at it. Too many notes ...


Hiland: Too many notes and yes too many scribbles on paper man, for me. A little difficult to see. I've been struggling with it most of my life and I sometimes think like, 'Man, it would be easier if I just got some single note sheet music like trumpet lines and made myself learn to read that stuff first,' you know.


Hiland: I actually like the little lines that players will give you in the back of Guitar Player, you know, of course Guitar Player mag is like the bible of all guitar magazines, so of course, as a kid I always had to have the newest copy. And, for me it was the one liners that guitar players would throw at you, you know. And I'd spend a lot of time trying to figure those out, but of course with visual impairment, it didn't really work out all that well. So were you playing for hours and hours even as a young kid?


Hiland: Oh yeah. Really?


Hiland: Yeah, man, I couldn't get enough. And I'm still that way today. You know, I just can't put it down, man. And I basically play about 22 instruments so I'm having a lot of fun now in the studio playing all my own stuff: playing drums, bass, and keyboards, and of course laying the guitar tracks on that. Really?


Hiland: Oh yeah. Did you do all the instruments on your demo CD, Red Hot and Rippin?


Hiland: I did a lot of them. Really?


Hiland: Yeah, a lot of the stuff. Most of the stuff on "Turn It Up." I played all the drums on there. My drummer in my band played drums on that cut and "Song for Brandy" on that record, that's all me and ah ... I'm trying to think of what other songs on there.


A lot of them ... I mostly played all the bass, drums, and keys on the whole entire thing with the exception of "Swinging the Strings" which was my band in the studio live rehearsing for a gig. The engineer happened to tape it and so yeah, I mostly played all bass and keyboards and things on there. And on a few I played the drums and played the entire song. Uh huh.


Hiland: Yeah, man, I have so much fun playing other instruments as well, but I've now just decided that my main focus is the guitar and ... You just decided that?


Hiland: Well, coming to Nashville, I really thought I want to be a stylist, I want to be able to play in studios, you know. So to keep the producer happy, you have to play a lot of different styles. And of course growing up with all the music I was listening to, that wasn't a problem. But you know, I really had to put my focus into the guitar as far as my learning curve and all that, 'cause as a kid, you know, I was playing 5-string banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. And I had a little bluegrass band with my brother and sister. We won "Talent America," and then we were down at the Down East Country Music Association and so we were constantly playing. And finally I decided after my voice started changing, you know, growing up, I had to put my main focus into the guitar alone. And I'm real thankful I did. I'm really blessed these days to be doing what I love to do, so I'm real thankful for that. So you were really performing quite often as a kid too.


Hiland: Oh yeah. Probably age 10 to age 15 I was constantly gone every weekend. Really?


Hiland: Yeah, doing shows for the Down East Country Music Association or ... or bluegrass stuff ...


Hiland: ... or doing bluegrass festivals, yeah. It was pretty amazing as a kid. I met a lot of great bluegrass players and stuff and of course, [traveled to] other states. We went into Canada and played some shows and so yeah, as a kid, I was constantly gone on the weekends ... out with my brother and sister and our little band. And we always had a great time. What was it called?


Hiland: ... the 3 J's; (laughs) Johnny, Jodi and Jerry. Yeah, we had a lot of fun as kids, you know. It was a good time and I'm real thankful for my parents, you know, traveling everywhere with us. It was a wonderful experience, certainly one I'll never forget. And then where did you go from there? You said you did that from ages 10 to15. What did you do after that?


Hiland: Basically, I just started playing in local country bands and really focusing on learning electric guitar. And by the time ... well, even at 14 I was playing in the band, but I was really studying hard trying to learn all the top 40 country stuff. As far a being a lead player - and actually, I was in a 3-piece band, so a lot of the job was up to me to make the band sound full - and singing all the backup harmonies and whatnot.


So I was actually the rhythm player and the lead player and so it kinda' spawned a different style in me. Playing in a 3-piece band is a lot different than playing lead in a good 5-piece band with fiddle and steel and everything else. So it certainly helped my style, and of course, helped all my rhythm jobs as well. So I mostly put my attention into that and the band I mostly played with was called Standing Room Only. I pretty much played with those cats up until I went off to college. I got a pretty widespread education as far as country guitar goes. How often were you playing?


Hiland: Oh every weekend. All around Maine?


Hiland: Yeah, mostly just up around my home town. We had one bar gig that we'd play every weekend. That's not bad. Ongoing weekend-long gigs aren't always easy to score.


Hiland: It wasn't bad, man. We made some pretty decent money and you know, it was just a really fun gig. I really enjoyed myself with that band. I'm still friends with all those cats. And then you went away to college?


Hiland: Yeah, and then I went off to the University of Southern Maine for 3 years. I was a history major with a minor in elementary ed and mostly went off to college just to please my parents. Of course, I always had great grades in school. My dad was, you know: 'You don't play if you don't pay.' So I always made sure my school grades were up. I was president of the National Honor Society in school and all that fun stuff ... In high school?



Hiland: Yeah and so when I went off to college, to me, college was an experience where you know, most kids would go out and party a lot. For me it was constantly guitar. And I lived with my grandma down in Portland, Maine, and so it was really nice living with her because I'm unable to see all that well. But she had a hearing problem. And the first couple of years I lived with her she didn't have a hearing aid or anything, so I could crank the guitar up and she never even knew it. It was a wonderful thing! I never got told to turn the shit down ... it was great. I loved living with her. And then she got a hearing aid and it all changed?


Hiland: Oh yeah. I mean it was so funny man, I told a friend of mine one time, if you could have been in that house when she played the news on television every night, I said it was so loud man, you couldn't help but put an amp on 60 ... it was a wonderful thing. That's pretty funny.


Hiland: But God love her. She's like 83 now. She's been down here, you know, in Nashville and saw me play the Opry. So she'd always stop in the bedroom and know that I was playing guitar and not doing my studies. Her favorite saying was 'Your dad's not gonna' come down on me 'cause you ain't studying!' (laugh) But needless to say, I went 3 years at USM and had a wonderful experience doing it. But you know again, it was just really hard for me to be like the normal student, you know, read all the books.


The Maine Center for the Blind was great for me. You know, I had a laptop and a closed-circuit television which enlarged books. But other kids, I noticed would be walking to school reading and I didn't really have that luxury, so I was trying to cram all my studies into my home life, and you know, it just was really hard. Recordings for the Blind sent my books on cassette and a lot of times I wouldn't get them until a week before finals, you know. So I really had a hard time.


Finally one day I just decided to delete this 52-page term paper I was writing on the Civil War and just made the decision that I was moving to Nashville. I just turned 21 and thought, 'Who's going to stop me.' (laugh) You know I guess you turn 21 and you think you're invincible. So of course, the whole family got really mad at me and all that ... You just did it though?


Hiland: I just made the decision that that's what I was going to do. At that point I'd studied Brent Mason's style and Albert Lee so much, that I could pretty much play along with any top 40 country record and feel really confident about it. So I thought, 'If I'm going to go, it's going to be now while I'm young, so I can spend my lifetime trying to be the player I want to be.' So, you know, I just went home for a couple of weeks and took off for Nashville. So I stopped by Orlando, Florida, with a friend of mine who was the bass player in Standing Room Only. It was funny 'cause by chance he called me and said, 'Hey listen, I've just been to Nashville ... we need to go.' So I hooked up with him and we came to town together. So it was a great time. So did you play with him for a while in Nashville?


Hiland: Oh yeah ... You still play with him?


Hiland: Oh yeah, we played a couple of years together. He's a bass player and he ... you know, we've parted ways since then and everything. But I'm really thankful to be in Nashville. It's certainly Music City, that's for sure. What year was it when you moved there.


Hiland: '96 ... August of '96. Did you have any contacts there before you went?


Hiland: No. As a matter of fact when we came to town, man, we got a hotel on Dickerson Road and basically had a gig the next day. We played the world-famous Turf for the first two years in town and it was great. I was really thankful to be working downtown Broadway in Nashville. How'd you get the gig so fast?


Hiland: Well, we sat in. It was funny. We went in and asked if they had "sit-ins" and they said, 'Yeah, you'll have to wait 'til midnight.' and I was like, 'Man, that's pretty late, but ... ' So we pretty much hung around Broadway, and of course, that's when I first heard Redd Volkaert [Editor's note: Volkaert, a true honky-tonk shredder - not unlike Johnny Hiland - has been Merle Haggard's lead guitarist since 1997.] play and I went, 'My goodness! I need to move back home.' But, you know, I just hung around and got up and sat in and sure enough the bartender was on the phone with the owner and she said, 'You gotta hear this kid!' So the next day I had a gig. Cool ... wow, so you jammed the first night and the next night you were playing for cash.


Hiland: Yeah, the next night I had a 3-8 gig in the afternoon, believe it or not. Which bar was that?


Hiland: It was called the World-Famous Turf. Is it right there on Broadway?


Hiland: It's gone now. They had a big tornado here a few years back and it pretty much shattered Nashville, and of course, it's all rebuilt now, and of course, the Turf never did get rebuilt. It actually was right on lower Broadway. [Editor's note: Lower Broadway in Nashville is famous for it's numerous live music clubs, and it's there that many famous country acts got their start.] Of course it's no longer there, but ... yeah, it was a lot of fun, man. I had a great time in that club. And then how did you get yourself into doing the session work that you do now?


Hiland: Well, I'll be honest with you man, Mac Wilson, my manager ... of course, you met Mac in Buffalo at the Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival, he's been the biggest Godsend to my career for sure. I mean it's one thing to be a guitar player and love country music and to be in Nashville. I mean, just to be in town playing is a big honor in itself. But when you can find someone like Mac who knows the industry as well as he does, you know, it's just amazing to watch that man work. You know, to really find out where his mindset is in the industry and to find out where you need to go next as an artist.


He came into Roberts one night, and I played with Don Kelly for about 4 1/2 years. Don has been ... I call it his gig barroom boot camp because basically Don has had all the top guitar players in town. All the great musicians seem to have come through his band: Brent Mason being one of them and ... ... you know, Paul Franklin played with him and Clinton Gregory, the fiddle player. So many great cats. And of course, Redd ... I mean I could go on with a huge list of names that are all great country players and became session cats and whatnot.


So I played with Don Kelly for about 4 1/2 years in town doing a steady gig. Mac actually walked in and heard me playing with Don one night and walked up and asked me if I gave lessons. And I said, 'Well, yeah, absolutely.' And so we started hanging out together and of course, he found out that I was looking to do bigger and better things with my career than you know, being a sideman musician for a big-time artist. I wanted to go beyond that and make guitar records and have a career like Danny ... you know, like Danny Gatton. And become an artist as a guitar player. Right.


Hiland: And so Mac really spawned a really huge interest in me to pursue the artist end of the music industry. I guess I really didn't know where my heart was at that point, but yet I wanted to try it. And to basically see where Mac took me in such a short time - from being a Level A endorsee with Fender for the last three years and of course, shooting two Hot Licks instructional videos right off the bat, you know, and having those come out on the market. And just to see how awesome Mac is. He's a marketing genius, you know. To see him work is just a joy, it really is. Of course I got to see him take my career from being a Broadway picker to stardom, you know, at least at this point.


And since Mac jumped on board with me as my manager, we've been traveling the country doing Master Classes for all the major universities. Mac started that simply to get my name out there to a lot of the guitar programs in the country. And to also start a fan base. So of course, we've been to AIM [Editor's note: The Atlanta Institute of Music.] and GIT and you know, North Texas State and a lot of the big colleges that have great guitar programs. So we've been doing that, so now I have an audio instructional series coming out with Mel Bay too.


They're just audio CDs that ... basically I think growing up with a visual problem I thought, man I want to create something that you know, that someone could pop the CD in the tray and learn right directly from it. And that's essentially what I've done. And of course, since then we've had the tablature done to it as well, but it started out to be that way and it's become real successful. People really seem to really enjoy them, and as long as they enjoy them, I'll keep making them, you know. So now we have the instructional videos out and have the Mel Bay project, and I've signed on with Steve Vai and Favored Nations. And how did that come about?


Hiland: Well, actually Mac knew Danny Gatton real well and of course, Danny's passed away - he's been gone since '94. And so Mac produced the Danny Gatton Tribute Concert which was really the guitar event of the decade. He had Vince Gill and Albert Lee and Amos Garret and just a huge number of players on the show. And basically he was looking to get that out on the market and to be available for folks, 'cause it was such an awesome show. And Mac had heard that Steve Vai had a new guitar label coming out, so he basically started working with Steve on releasing it. And you know, it's been a long time coming and it's still not released yet, but I'm hoping that it will be soon.


But of course, Mac told Steve that he was working with a new young artist and Steve said, 'Well I'd really love to hear some original stuff.' And so for the past couple years, I've been sending Steve a lot of songs to keep his interest, and finally he's determined that we have enough songs to make a great record. So I'm really looking forward to working with Steve. You know, I'm such a huge fan of his so I'm really pumped about that, man! To actually have my first guitar record come out on Steve Vai's label is quite an honor for me. I'm really just beside myself and it's really amazing that Mac introduced me to Steve at the LA NAMM Show. I told Mac, I said, 'Man, I talked to Steve,' and everything and I said, 'Man, I was damn shaking here just to meet the guy.'


It's very seldom that someone gets to live a dream like I'm doing, but also to meet their guitar heroes. So a lot of things have happened in the last few years, man, that have just blown my mind. Mac's had me in every major guitar magazine, you know, Guitar Player and Guitar One did a feature on me and we've pretty much traveled the world. He's had me in Japan and Germany and Italy and of course, up in Canada and all around the United States. So I've basically seen a lot of the world in the last two years and I'm just so thankful to be living a dream. It's a wonderful thing and of course, I've played The Grand Ol' Opry twice now as a solo artist, so basically I can honestly tell you that every dream I've had thus far in the music industry has already come true. That's pretty cool.


Hiland: And that's really amazing. So Mac has actually dared me to dream further, which is sometimes a scary thing for me to do. My goodness, I'm 28 years old and all my dreams are already accomplished. It's really amazing. So what are you dreaming these days? Where do you go from here?


Hiland: Well, I just ask myself that every day, you know: 'Where do I go from here?' Because every day is a new day and Mac always brings something to the table that just blows me off my feet. And so I think what I'm really pursuing now as an artist is to hopefully continue making guitar records. The first record seemed like it took forever for me to write, but I basically started right from scratch, you know, as a song writer and instrumental guitar writer. It's such a different ballgame than writing a standard country song. So I've been writing now for a couple of years and hopefully I'll have enough material to keep going with this as far as making guitar records. Do you sing at all at this point?


Hiland: Yes. I do in my live shows and we're debating right now whether I'll do that on the first record or not. I actually wrote a vocal tune called "Chicken Pickin' Guitar" - it basically talks about my life. But that's really gone over well in live shows and people seem to enjoy it. And we have a lot of people that like the way I sing, which for me, just let me play guitar, but I really do enjoy singing in the live shows. So we'll really see where that goes. I guess I'm kind of "iffy" about it, but you know, I'm just out to make my fans happy, man, if I can do that by singing a little bit then I'm really glad to do so. And of course, you saw the Buffalo show as well and I did sing a little bit in that show. It was a lot of fun. We've been having a great time. Johnny, it's been great talking with you, and we'll be eagerly anticipating that Favored Nations release of yours!


Hiland: Well thank you too, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.


About the Author
Adam St. James joined shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.