For an artist who hadn’t yet seen his first solo release when VG spoke with him 18 months ago, Johnny Hiland had made a lot of inroads. His well-deserved reputation as a downright dangerous force on the Telecaster was earned through master classes, NAMM appearances, session work, and a number of high-profile performances.
Now, that missing piece is in place. His blazing, all-instrumental self-titled release on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label was produced by Peter Collins, who has worked with Rush, Bon Jovi, the Indigo Girls, Jewel, Gary Moore, Brian Setzer and many more. The supporting cast includes Bill Holloman (Danny Gatton) on keys and sax, Billy Sheehan (the “Eddie Van Halen of the bass”), and Pat Torpey on drums.
Vintage Guitar: How long did the recording process take?
Johnny Hiland: We tracked for two solid days, then had an overdub day, and then we mastered and mixed. It was recorded at The Mothership Studio, Steve’s studio in the Hollywood Hills.
Tell us about the guitars and other equipment used.
I just used my custom shop gold sparkle Tele, which has three Joe Barden pickups. For amps I mainly used my ’65 reissue blackface Twin. In “Run With It” I used Steve’s Legacy. Peter wanted something a little heavier for that one. I also had my Johnson J-Station in case I needed any other effects, but the only time we used it was for the rock part in the middle of “Celtic Country” – we loved the sound of it.
I had a small pedalboard with me, too. I had a Boss TU-2 tuner and all three of Bob Weil’s Visual Sound pedals – the Route 66, the Jeckyl and Hyde, and the H2O. And then I used the ISP Decimator for noise reduction.
How did Peter Collins get involved?
Through Paul McGill – he’s one of the finest guitar makers in the world. He’s made guitars for Chet Atkins, Earl Klugh, Muriel Anderson… anyway, Paul brought Peter down to one of my shows in Nashville. Peter came up to me afterward and offered his services. We shared some ideas and did a demo. We had such a great rapport and he was such a joy to be with in the studio. I really grew to love him very quickly – he was so down to earth, and on top of his success with so many artists, I just felt like he was someone who was really understanding me as a guitar player and as a person. He really helped me turn some of the songs around – playing less licks and bringing the melody out more.
“Truth Hurts” is a nice ballad that really shines.
Well, when we got out to Steve’s, we really cranked up the Twin on that one. We added some distortion to it… and then it just took on a life of its own. We slowed it down some, and the new tempo really fit. Steve said he really wanted to feel the amp breathe, that it was really important, and the engineer, Neil Citron, really emphasized that, as well. Everything just started to fit, and as soon as I hit the first bend, it felt like the guitar became its own entity, like I wasn’t even playing it.
“G Wiz” is another great song. It’s so… happy!
That’s one of the last songs I’d written for the record. I really wanted to create something that’s bluegrassy yet has a contemporary Tele sound. I was hoping it would really tweak a guitar player’s ear because it’s written in open G – that’s why I called it “G Wiz.”
How were the musicians selected?
Well, I knew I wanted Holloman – for the Gatton lovers, and because of my inner feelings about Gatton. My manager suggested Sheehan, and I was so happy when he agreed to do it. I knew he would really add a lot of punch, and I let him choose the drummer because that bassist/drummer connection really has to be there. And he chose Pat; he knew he’d be especially great for the train beats and double-kick stuff. Once we hit the first note, every bit of anxiety I felt was gone. It was like, “Yeah! This is what I’ve been waiting for!”
Did you consider singing on the record?
Yes, but I just wasn’t sure if I should come out vocally on the first record, or save it. But I definitely plan to sing next time around.
You have a few acoustic parts on “Truth Hurts.” Do you plan to utilize an acoustic more in the future?
I think I’ll add nuances of it here and there, but I really want to keep it more electric-based. That’s how my live show is, and I want to keep it rockin’.
What session work have you done recently?
I played on two acoustic “jamgrass” records with producer Bil VornDick. One was a tribute to Phish, and one a tribute to Dave Matthews. Bil wanted to take bluegrass to a more rockin’ extreme. I did Lynn Anderson and Janie Fricke’s new records. Those are in traditional bluegrass style – all acoustic. I played Tele on on the title track of Ricky Skaggs’ forthcoming record, Brand New Strings. It’s a real fast, rippin’ tune.
Most recently, I played on four tracks on Randy Travis’ new album. They’re slower songs – I played kind of a Reggie Young/Delbert McClinton style. Randy’s a tremendous guy. I had a ball with him.
Any especially memorable live performances in the last year?
Yes! I joined Vai, Satriani, and Malmsteen on stage for a few songs when the G3 tour stopped in Nashville last fall. That was just incredible! And Sammy Hagar invited me to play the grand opening of his new club in Tahoe last spring. I had so much fun with that man! I also played with Toby Keith and Ted Nugent out there.
You were an instructor at the First World Guitar Congress in Baltimore in June.
That was an amazing time. I taught a master class on chicken pickin’ and headlined a show with my band, but I also got to introduce one of my biggest guitar heroes, Albert Lee, before his concert there. That was a huge honor for me; I was overwhelmed. And I was floored to have so many guitar players of that caliber in one location… Derek Trucks, Eric Johnson, Tony Rice, Albert Lee, Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno – it was phenomenal!
The whole point was to inspire the public, to let them see that guitar music still exists. These days, it seems everything is about athletes, NASCAR, etc. The guitar hero has kind of fallen by the wayside. We were discussing how we could inspire the next generation to learn how to play guitar. We wanted to show people that it’s still alive and well.
Hiland in Nashville, 2003 . Photo: Rusty Russell.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.