Matt Blackett: In the Studio with Johnny Hiland

March 04, 2011
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I was psyched to get an email from legendary talent scout, producer, and shred historian Mike Varney informing me that Johnny Hiland is making a record for Shrapnel. Not only that, but he’s cutting tracks in the Bay Area and I was cordially invited to swing by Prairie Sun studios, chat with Mike and Johnny, and listen to some tracks. So that’s what I did yesterday, one of those days that reminds me that I have a cool job. I drove up to Prairie Sun, pulled into the driveway that is bordered by a big lawn full of chickens scampering about, and walked into the studio to hear some chicken pickin’.
Varney said that they were mixing one of the album’s heavier tunes, but that the record contained a wide variety of countrified playing. I settled in and they rolled the track, which started with a spooky, Sonny Landreth-style quivering slide chord. Just as I was getting used to that, a monstrous low-string gliss heralded the arrival of the full band, with Hiland, bassist Stu Hamm, and drummer Jeremy Colson absolutely crushing the dropped-D main riff. Over the course of the next few minutes I was treated to Hiland’s slippery slide work, spot-on bends, clangy open strings, and insane chops. The tune itself was full of memorable and hummable hooks and the two solos—one with slide one without—were super tasty, even with the mind-blowing technique. At one point Varney, the guy who discovered Yngwie Freaking Malmsteen, said, “Can this guy play, or what?”
A real treat was when they called up another mix, muted the lead guitar, and had Johnny play over the tracks. I don’t want to shock anyone, but it was really, really good. They not only allowed but encouraged me to shoot video of it all, so stay tuned for that. After, Hiland was cool enough to demonstrate some of his picking, double-stops, and what might have been the most impressive playing of the day: his multi-string bends. Once again, I got it on video but I don’t know if I have the wherewithal to transcribe these licks and get them into the print mag so no promises there. When I post the video I’ll invite any fearless guitar teacher to take a stab at them.
Varney says the record should hit in August, with a tour to follow. My prediction is this album will turn your head around. This blog is just a tease. Look for video and a full interview as we get closer to release time. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the question I asked Johnny Hiland: “Damn. Why don’t you try playing something good?”

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