Canadian guitarist Steve Hill is a flat-out rocker, smashing blues into rock and roll with terrifying force, as heard on his latest, Dear Illusion. Often playing as a genuine one-man band with foot-powered drums, Hill drapes his new music with horns, powerhouse vocals, and guitar solos steeped in the blues. Pickin’ and poppin’ strings with his fingers, the axe man’s tone is fierce and authentic.
There’s a horn-driven energy in “Keep It Together,” reminiscent of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
One of my favorite albums! That’s a good comparison, but it wasn’t planned. The whole song started with the harp riff. The horns were the last thing we recorded for the track, and they really added that Exile feel. There’s a few guitars on this one, mainly my ’61 Jazzmaster on the left side and a Custom Shop ES-330 on the right. That’s the one I use for slide in open A with a D instead of an E on the big string, which gives you I-IV-V on the three big strings. It’s seriously practical, especially when playing solo fingerstyle, as I often do.
Your tone is blues-certified. There’s overdrive, but it’s not buried in distortion.
I like to hear notes and dynamics. Playing with fingers gives you a lot of possibilities, as the thumb won’t sound the same as the index or middle finger. I also like to use picking location to influence sound – close to the bridge to add an accent. The force with which you pick will also influence things; I find that a lot of that goes away once you have too much distortion. Some players want all their notes to sound equal. I want my notes to tell a story and, just like someone talking, I do that through dynamics.
Where does your finger approach come from – Albert Collins?
First, I’m a lefty who plays right-handed, and it took years to find the adequate technique for my right hand. I’ve tried everything – pick, thumbpick, fingerpicks, hybrid picking. I gave up on plastic picks a long time ago; Albert Collins was definitely an influence in that regard. I got into Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters when I was 15 so, and that’s when I started to develop the finger approach, keeping the thumb going while picking with the other fingers. What I do as a one-man band is really just an evolution from that.
Who are your other guitar influences?
There are so many! There’s no denying Stevie Ray Vaughan was a huge influence in my early years. I saw him at the Montreal Forum a month before he died and that had a deep impact on me. Jimmie Vaughan became a bigger influence after that; I opened for him many times and even played with the Fabulous Thunderbirds once. Of course, Albert King was the baddest! I’ve also been a huge fan of Jeff Beck since I bought Truth when I was 14 and got to open for him twice. In the past few years, I’ve really gotten into Jerry Garcia. Beautiful player.
Do you own any vintage guitars?
I’ve been collecting guitars for 25 years. My favorites are my ’57 and ’66 Telecasters and my ’55 and ’59 Les Paul Juniors. I have a few other Gibsons from the ’50s. I stopped bringing them on the road, but they still get used in the studio a lot.
Which amps and effects did you use?
My main amps are a ’56 Tremolux and ’57 Princeton, but there’s also a ’63 Super Reverb, ’62 Bassman, ’67 Marshall plexi, ’61 Champ, ’68 Fender Pro, and a Magnatone Twilighter Stereo. Usually, I played through two amps at the same time, one with a ’64 Fender Reverb Unit, the other one with a Fulltone Tube tape echo. I used the vibrato from the Tremolux a lot.
Effects are kept to a minimum – a Klon Centaur is usually on, and I also used a King Tone Mini-Fuzz, MXR Echoplex Preamp, EP Booster, a Pedal Pawn Fuzz and an Electro-Harmonix POG.
You released a comic book in tandem with Dear Illusion. What’s the connection with the music?
I collect comic books and I’d been thinking about having a comic with an album for a while. The art for my last two albums were designed by Rob Cannon. For this one, the timing was perfect. Rob came up with a story that makes the last two albums co-exist in one place based on themes. It’s Rob’s own story – it’s metaphorical as well as being a science-fiction adventure. Pretty trippy stuff!
This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.