Johnny Hiland Demos the Art of Hot Country Open-String Riffs

When Les Paul met Johnny Hiland and witnessed firsthand the Nashville virtuoso’s singular brand of blazing hot country shred, the elder statesman of electric guitar asked the young cowboy, “Boy, what are you thinking about when you play?” Hiland answered, “Well, I guess I’m thinking about fishing next weekend. What about you?” Not to be outdone, Paul saw Hiland’s nonchalance and raised him a shot of the ribald, replying, “Well, I tend to think of my wife’s sister.”
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Despite the none-too-serious nature of this exchange, it got Hiland wondering: What do I think about when I’m playing guitar? “I realized,” shares Hiland, “that being legally blind, I’m always trying to play it safe—at least in the sense of trying to remain in position whenever possible—so I don’t have to make long jumps up and down the neck. I’m always thinking about convenient ways to leave myself prepared for the next lick. I’m like a pool player trying to set himself up for the next shot.”

Indeed, despite the fact his signature-model Paul Reed Smith (a flame-topped beauty that makes Hiland beam like a proud father) has extra-large dot fret markers on its neck (which, being solid maple, seems a throwback to the custom Fender Telecasters Hiland was known for playing during the first years of his career), Hiland’s visual impairment does affect his ability to leap up the neck and consistently land on the correct fret.

“That’s where open strings come in,” says Hiland. “They act as a convenient way to connect licks and phrases as I move across the fretboard. And it hardly matters what key you’re playing in—there’s always at least one or two open pitches that will work as notes within licks and melodies. Most of all, I love how accessible open-string licks are when you’re burning super-fast country stuff. They’re great for adding a new color to your solos—for example if you have two solos in the same song, throw some cascades and other open-string stuff into the second one to give it a different sound from the first. Open-string riffs give you such a unique tone, whether you’re playing clean or with distortion, rock or country.”

Scalar Cascades

Whether Hiland is bustin’ out twangy hot-rodded hillbilly riffs at the lower Broadway honky tonks in Nashville or rocking out with Sammy Hagar (as he has on more than one occasion) out on the West Coast, whether he’s leading a clinic at a guitar school or taking an extended solo at a guitar festival, whether he’s doing session work with Hank Williams III and his personal hero Ricky Skaggs or tracking in Steve Vai’s Hollywood studio (where Hiland recorded his eponymous full-length Favored Nations debut), the guitarist almost always incorporates the lively jangle of open strings into his playing.

“It all starts with scales,” says Hiland. “I used to sit in my room for hours practicing all the different ways you can play a single scale. For instance take the G major scale—this is the typical fingering most people are taught [Ex. 1]. But flatpickers and bluegrass players would probably inject some open strings and pull-offs by playing it this way [Ex. 2].”

To really get the cascading, harp sound, though, Hiland “opens things up” one step further. “Play the scale starting in the sixth position and descend using pull-offs and open strings so it really rings, ” says Hiland, demonstrating with Ex. 3. To give the scale a flowing, piano-with-the-sustain-pedal-engaged sound, he lets the notes overlap in time and ring for as long as possible. And notice the use of hybrid picking—Hiland often plucks the open strings with the nail of his middle finger [m]. “Other scales are easy to play this way, too. Try C major [Ex. 4] or take our G major scale and lower each

F# to F and you have G Mixolydian [Ex. 5]. Whatever you play, the open strings will give it a whole new vibe.”

A Case of the Bends

Open-strings, insists Hiland, sound awesome within single-note licks no matter what style you play. “Even with heavy distortion, they sound smokin’, because sometimes the overtones get picked up, and you hear this really cool harmonic thing happening,” says Hiland. “Eventually, you’ll want to throw in some bends to get that pedal steel sound.”

Indeed, bent notes and open strings complement each other within the same lick the same way aces and kings complement each other within a full house—very nicely. Hiland illustrates this fact with Ex. 6, which, in the second bar, features a sweet sounding oblique bend between the third and second strings.

“My first major influence was Ricky Skaggs, who I saw perform when I was just ten years old, growing up in Maine,” says Hiland. “Now, of course, Ricky used a B-bender, and there was nowhere in Maine to find a B-bender guitar, so I’d get out every Skaggs record and just sit around my room for hours matching notes. I didn’t actually understand the whole concept behind B-benders until later, so I devised ways to play all Ricky’s string-bending licks on a standard guitar, just by trying to figure how he was getting that sound. It really helped me learn to bend strings around.”

Upward Spiral

After reminding us to continually pursue scalar cascades in as many different keys as possible (“Try a D7-type scale [Ex. 7]”), Hiland proceeds to share some of his most agressive cascade kung fu yet. Examples 8 and 9 present upward avalanches of triplets, and each sounds like water raging backwards up a jagged waterfall.

“These are great licks for opening solos with,” says Hiland. “Notice that while the picking pattern is down-down-middle, I don’t sweep-pick the first two notes of every triplet as one might expect—I pick the notes separately with two individual pick downstrokes, because that keeps the triplets even. Sweep-pick ’em, and you may lose that perfectly even banjo-roll sound we’re after.

“Once you get the picking down, these licks become quite accessible, and you’ll find they’re easy to grab onto and throw into your solos. Then, you’ll find other ways of playing them. Instead of triplets, rhythmically reconfigure the down-down-middle pattern using even eighth-notes [Ex. 10]. And find ways to put interesting tags on the end of your cascades [Examples 11 and 12].”

A Look Ahead

It’s worth remembering that open-string riffs don’t strictly have to be knuckle-busting, head-cutting show-off maneuvers—they can have a slow, lyrical side too, as Hiland demonstrates with Ex. 13. An easy, flowing A minor riff that employs two open strings, this passage may (in some incarnation or another) appear on Hiland’s next solo album. It may sound wholly different by that point because, like many great guitarists, Hiland is constantly evolving his style. In fact, his bandmates say some mornings he shows up in the hotel lobby looking completely spent—not because he partied the night before, but because he came straight back to his room after the gig and practiced all night.

“I still play six to eight hours a day,” says Hiland. “When you’re on Steve Vai’s label, you’re not gonna sit at home playing cards with your wife, you’re gonna be on that guitar. I mean, listen to Vai play and tell me you don’t need to practice! I’m not going to slack just because I have a record deal.

“And it’s really not about how much you practice, but how well you practice. I’ve really become good at developing a good practice regimen, and even if you have a nine-to-five and can only practice one hour a day, you can make a lot of progress. The key is not playing everything you already know for that hour, but breaking it up into useful segments. Do ten minutes of warm-up followed by 30 minutes of practicing new scales and techniques. Then, take ten minutes to see if you can incorporate the new stuff into the stuff you already know. Finally, for the last ten minutes just jam—pop on a record and play along or do whatever it is you enjoy. People say to me, ‘C’mon, what are you really going to learn in half an hour?’ Trust me, you can learn a lot. You’ll be surprised by how just a few minutes can open your mind to so many new things.”