In the wee hours of a July morning in 1996, Johnny Hiland made a crucial decision.
He deleted the 52-page term paper he’d been working on, left college and his home state of Maine, and made the pilgrimage to Nashville. He was
A bold move, indeed, for yet another guy with a Telecaster and big dreams. But unlike most, Hiland brought the goods and made the connections that made a difference. He has been turning Music City on its ear since his arrival. And he recently started doing the same on a worldwide scale.
Today, Hiland is a solo recording artist, session player, and teacher. Legally blind since birth, he has defied the odds and become an inspiration to his students, a source of pride for his mentors and family, a force to be reckoned with among his peers, and a rare find for a growing number of fans.
Vintage Guitar: You’re recording your first solo record, your chicken pickin’ and bluegrass Hot Licks videos were recently released, you’ve released an audio teaching series, you’re playing shows all over the country, and you’re teaching master classes at music schools. How do you keep up the pace?
Johnny Hiland: For one thing, I have a great manager in Mac Wilson. Mac and I are friends, first. Of course, we’re both jumping on this career in a monster way, but we maintain the friendship first, and that’s what so great about what we do. We just have so much fun when we’re on the road.
I’m getting to see different parts of the world, and that has always been a goal for me. I’ve always wanted to say, “I’ve been to Texas. I’ve been to Japan. I’ve taught at GIT and AIM.” To say I’ve done all these things is just a joy. I’m doing what I love to do, and that’s pick and grin!
Countless aspiring stars – particularly guitar players – flock to Nashville hoping to realize their dreams. Most go home with their tail between their legs. How did you get on the fast track?
Well, I had a strong determination, for one thing. When I moved to town, I played Lower Broadway a lot. It’s a fun place to play and it keeps your chops up and allows for a lot of visibility. For awhile I got kind of burned out because it was the same songs every night and I wasn’t feeling productive as far as my guitar style goes. I didn’t feel like I was in the woodshed anymore.
But we were also doing Kentucky Headhunter stuff, so I could use more distortion and have some fun, but stay true to the roots of country. And that brought about my licks without a B-Bender and brought out my style more than anything else.
I was trying to figure out how I was going to move people with my solos while playing a Ray Price shuffle. So it made me hone my style very quickly, right there on stage. And you have to do it right because you never know who’s going to be in there.
But I give Mac credit for taking my career out of the reach of my own imagination. It’s been a monster jet ride!
Your tone is distinct. How long did it take you to find your own sound, and who or what helped along with way?
I ran into tone by accident. I was trying to acquire tones I heard on records, but with the gear that I had I was unable to do so. So I got as close as I could come. But in the state of Maine, the music stores aren’t nearly as big as they are here in Nashville. They’ve expanded their stores now, but when I was a kid, I even had to UPS my strings!
So I didn’t find out about tone until I heard Redd Volkaert play. His tone was so fat and so full. He played a Tele with three little Boss pedals – a CS-3 Compression Sustainer, a Blues Driver, and an Analog Delay. He had a little Music Man 1×12, 130-watt amp, and his tone was just fabulous!
Well, the Peavey ended up dying on me. I also had a DigiTech RP10 foot processor. But then I found out that this wasn’t the way tone was really devised; when you hear Jimmy Bryant, you hear a straight Fender amp and a Tele.
So I called Redd and asked if he had an amp for sale. He had another Music Man just like the one he was using, so I bought it from him. I also bought a Tele for 300 bucks that really didn’t play worth anything, but I plugged it in and immediately said, “Oh man, there’s that fat sound!” Adding a little compressor really fattened it up, like Volkaert’s tone.
As for my rock music, I’ve just been experimenting with a bunch of distortion pedals. Bob Weil’s Visual Sound pedals are it for me right now.
You’ve had some very high-profile appearances in the past few years; you headlined CMT’s “Most Wanted Live,” you played the grand opening of the Fender Museum in Corona, California, and you’ve played the Grand Ole Opry twice. You’ve dreamed of playing the Opry since you were a kid.
It was unbelievable, and I was just as nervous as all get-out! I didn’t know I could shake that bad. Matter of fact, towards the beginning of the song, the piano player was takin’ his ride, his solo, and I looked down and saw that my hand was goin’ on the strings… my right arm was strummin’… but I wasn’t movin’ it! I was like, “Oh man, I’ve got a solo comin’ up next and I’d better get this hand calmed down!”
I was scared to death. But after the first minute or so, I was fine. It was just that initial shock of going out there that was the big thing. And knowing that Little Jimmy Dickens, Wilma Lee Cooper, Porter Waggoner, and all these huge Opry stars are standin’ off to the side clappin’ their hands and watchin’ you play, welcoming you to the Opry… It was a dream come true.
Last July, you headlined All-Star Guitar Night to a packed house at the Ryman Auditorium. Is it harder or more nerve-wracking to play in front of your peers – the best in the business – as opposed to, say, a Nashville club filled with tourists?
Yes. Even during sound check, I’m doin’ “That’s Alright Mama,” and I’m trying to burn it up, and what got me the most is that Brent Mason was walking around, setting up. Usually, I don’t see him [at gigs], so I don’t get nerved up. But the fact that he was standing right there… I was thinking, “I better just spank it really hard here. I have to impress one of my guitar heroes.”
So I really came on to it, and when I finished, Brent let a big beller out and said, “Boy, you’re gonna kill ‘em tonight! That was smokin’!” Coming from Brent, I was just like, “Man!”
What can we expect to hear on your debut CD?
I want to make a guitar record that fully shows who I am as a person, emotionally, and how much I love the instrument. It’s not a matter of saying, “Well, you have far more chicken pickin’ fans than you do rock fans.” That’s okay, and we’re certainly going to give them an earful of chicken pickin'; but in my rock music, I’m trying to bring the Telecaster back into style and say, “Hey, you know what? You don’t have to play only Marty Stuart stuff on a Tele.”
One of my goals is to stand on a stage with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai and come out playin’ my Tele – but playing their style of music. That’s what I’m really looking to do – to bring the Tele around to these rock cats and say, “Hey, this guitar is real versatile.” And on my record I’m going to incorporate the chicken pickin’ sound into my rock music.
Are you getting a lot of calls for session work, and how much of a role do you see session work playing in your overall career?
I love the studio. There are two places I love to be on this Earth – the studio and the stage. I love the studio as much as the live show, so I definitely see that becoming a huge part of my life. I’d like to have my own studio in my house one day. However, playing on other people’s records is a joy because it makes you expand as a player. Since I’m legally blind, I can’t read their charts, so it kind of fine-tunes my ears better. I hear the demo, then try to rehash it and make it better.
It also makes me play in different styles. When I’m playing my own music, I’m pretty much going after one thing. But when you’re on other people’s records, producers get sounds you don’t normally get. It’s fun to be in a studio under those conditions.
You’re fully endorsed by Fender and you have a beautiful gold-sparkle signature Tele. Can you run down the specifics on it?
It was built in Nashville by Jim DeCola – he also built the Eddie Van Halen Wolfgang for Peavey. The biggest thrill of my life was being allowed to go in there with a video camera and film parts of my guitar being built. They showed me how they dropped the pearl inlay in the neck and walked me right though the entire guitar. I got to film them spraying it in the spray booth. I was blown away by that.
Most people will order a custom shop guitar, then wait a year to receive it. So to actually take part in the building of mine was just an awesome thrill, and I think the guitar means a lot more to me because of it. Anyway, I wanted to make a cross between Don Rich’s Tele and Danny Gatton’s Tele. I’m a huge Danny Gatton fan, and I wanted three Joe Barden pickups.
Are your pickups stock, or custom-wound?
They’re stock. Fender still had some Barden’s left from the Gatton model. They called Joe to get the middle pickup. I wanted three instead of two to get more of a Strat sound with the middle pickup, to make the guitar a little more versatile for sessions. Plus, three pickups really look cool on a Tele.
They asked if I wanted an ash or an alder body… I just wanted whatever would sound good and still acquire a sparkle with that many coats of paint. As far as the rest of the guitar goes, it has an antiqued white binding with a parchment guard, a birdseye maple neck, two [Vintique] knobs, an American standard bridge, and a slide clip.
Another cool thing about it is that Jim came across a ’60s Fender logo in gold sparkle. It was just the cherry on top of everything! It’s really cool.
Why did you choose a C-shaped neck?
It’s just the most comfortable for my hand. I wasn’t that fussy about it, really. It has a nice feel; a cross between the C neck – which is like the old ’52 reissues – and the soft V, which of course came out on the ’50s models as well as the years went on.
Gatton, of course, liked a thick neck. He called his “Half of a Louisville Slugger” (laughs). I definitely wanted something thinner than that because my fingers are like steak fries. They’re pretty short, but I have a big palm. So I wanted something that was somewhat meaty, but yet thin enough to really grab onto and attack the guitar well.
Is your guitar available – or might it be someday – through the custom shop?
I hope so. One of my biggest dreams is to see a Johnny Hiland model come to fruition. I do have a lot of people who have said, “Hey man, when they put that guitar out, I want one.” That’s really nice to hear. I hope to one day sell enough records so that Fender will put one out.
And why a Fender Twin?
I have a ’65 reissue, and to be honest, it’s just the most traditional country amp. I plugged it in and said, “This is it.” And I have a new G12 Century Celestion in it now. They’re really hot speakers.
What pedals are you using?
A Boss TU-2 tuner, because it’s big and lights up like a Christmas tree, so I can see it real well. I’m using Bob Weil’s Visual Sound pedals. The Route 66 has a compressor and distortion, so you can compress your distortion sound and really fatten it up, or use just the compressor, or just the distortion. The cool thing about that pedal is that you can add a bass boost to the distorted side.
I also use the Visual Sound H2O pedal – it has delay and chorus. I set the chorus full blast and it gives me Gatton’s Leslie sound. I’m also using some new X-Series pedals by DigiTech: the Metal Master is a heavy metal pedal, and I have a HyperPhase. I’ve also got their guitar synth pedal, and I’ve got that kind of set to a talk box sound, which is really cool.
Lastly, I have a Digital Delay, which I set for a rock delay kind of thing.
You also play a pretty mean set of drums. Do you play other instruments as well?
I play 21 or 22 instruments.
How have you found time to learn all of them?
I played every instrument in the high school band. My dad thought it would really benefit me because he thought that with my visual impairment, one of the things I might want to do eventually is to teach music. He’d say, “I don’t care what the band director says. Tell him you want a trombone next!” (laughs). My mom was always wondering what I was going to bring off the school bus. I also play fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass.
You have a country gospel recording in the works. What inspired you to do that?
It’s a way to say thanks to God for the gift of music. In my occupation, I get to have fun all the time! It has been a blessing to me. God gave me the courage to leave college against my parents’ wishes and get on the plane to Nashville. And it’s a way for me to give back. Besides, I don’t know of a person in the world who doesn’t like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Peace in the Valley.”
We have four Hall of Fame players on that record; Doug Jernigan on steel, who is probably the best C6 player in the world, as well as John Hughey, who plays with Vince Gill. On fiddle we have the great Vassar Clements, and also Ricky Skaggs’ fiddle player, Bobby Hicks.
You’ve got an enormous amount of CDs, but if you had to pick just a handful – your “desert island” list – what would they be?
My favorite is definitely the Danny Gatton/Joey DeFrancesco disc, Relentless. I also really like Gatton’s 88 Elmira Street, Joe Satriani’s Live in San Francisco, and Steve Vai’s new record The Elusive Light and Sound, Volume 1 – especially the stuff from the movie Crossroads. Jimmy Bryant’s Stratosphere Boogie is on my list for sure. And Brian Setzer’s Ignition is great.
Lastly, you had a great song on the 2000 Nashville Guitars album called “Cudge Boogie.” Who – or what – is a cudge?
That’s the first instrumental I ever wrote. Cudge is a 70-year-old man in my hometown who inspired me to no end, and I love that man like a granddad. He plays a 1958 Martin D-28. He’s one of those old guys that loves to tell dirty jokes and keep you in stitches. But when it comes to singing a great old country song, he’ll slam ‘em down your throat for hours.
When it came time for me to make the decision to leave college and move to Nashville, he was the guy saying, “I don’t care what anyone says. If that’s what you want to do, that’s what you do.” He said, “You make of your life what you see it to be.”
Photo: John Partipilo.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.