If everyone in Nashville knows the name of a guitarist, that’s really saying something. In a town where every fry cook is seemingly the best picker you’ve ever heard, it takes a lot to get noticed. But that’s what happened to Johnny Hiland when he moved to Music City in the mid ’90s. He got a gig his first night in town and instantly turned heads and kicked butts with his jaw-dropping brand of hot-rod country that comes from the Lee/Gatton/Skaggs camp with some rock, shred, jazz, and blues thrown in for good measure. And when the GP staff showed up in town for a Summer NAMM show a couple of years later, the question everyone on Honky Tonk Row asked us was, “Have you heard Johnny Hiland yet?” We heard him that night alright. Since then he’s seen his star rise with records, clinics, endorsements, and high-profile jams with some of the most monstrous players on the planet.
It’s Hiland’s high-octane hybrid picking that gets the most attention due to its uncanny precision, impeccable time, and blazing speed. Once the dust settles from one of his rapid-fire breaks, however, Hiland reveals a deep knowledge of Western Swing, blues rock, and ungodly multi-string bends that can conjure pedal-steel, train whistles, cat meows, and more. Hiland’s amazing chops grabbed the attention of Steve Vai, who signed him and released his self-titled debut in 2004. The only super-chops blessing that could possibly mean more than Vai’s is that of Mike Varney, who knows burning guitar talent when he hears it. When Varney found out that Hiland was a free agent, he jumped at the chance to get him on Shrapnel Records—another stellar addition to the label’s virtuosic roster that has included Yngwie, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Vinnie Moore, and many more. The results are on All Fired Up, which teams Hiland with bassist Stu Hamm and drummer Jeremy Colson. The album features a heapin’ helpin’ of Hiland’s chicken pickin’ skills, plus some heavy rock, Bakersfield country, and melodic pop. Visiting with Hiland and Varney at Prairie Sun Studios, where the album was tracked, it was clear that Hiland is one of the biggest guitar geeks on the planet—a guy who loves nothing more than sitting around talking gear, guitarists, technique, and tone for hours. He plugged in and played along with some of the album’s tunes and floored everyone in the room in the process. “I swear, we could have released the first day’s rehearsal run-through,” said Varney. “That’s how good this guy is.”
Talk about the recording process for All Fired Up.
I’ve always done pre-production demos and even played a few songs live before I went to do a record. This time I took a different approach. I wrote charts and we did two days of rehearsals before we started to track. I’ve never done that before. We had fun and got to know each other as musicians. I think that really helped because we tracked all 13 songs in one day. We just went in and slammed them down.
The main melody for the title track has a really relaxed feel. Some players with huge chops and great time tend to be on top of the beat or they might even rush the groove. Yet, you’re able to sit back in the pocket.
My dad was a drummer in the ’60s and I have a great love for drums. I still love to play drums and I think it really helps when it comes to your guitar playing. I know many guitar players will sit with a metronome, but being a drummer helped me to be able to understand what the groove is supposed to be. I think a lot of people expect Johnny Hiland the chicken picker to be right on top of the beat, and I’m kind of surprised I wasn’t on top of the beat because I was so happy and excited to be in the studio with Stu and Jeremy. But if I tried to play the title track on top of the beat, it just wouldn’t sound good. It wouldn’t have the vibe that it does.
You use a lot of open strings in the melody, but the song is in F#. That’s a great rock and metal key but not a typical country key. Tell me how you’re employing the open strings.
That was accidental. I really love open string licks. Even as a guitar teacher and giving lessons I tell students don’t be afraid to open up and experiment with open strings because you’ll be amazed at what you can find. It’s invigorating when I find a lick that works. I started messing around one night while watching TV and I just happened to hit the first three notes of the main melodic lick. I went, “Oh man, that’s really cool!” Being in the key of F# did limit things in a way but there was such a cool sound with that dominant 7th ring. It just kind of grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
“Minor Adjustment” has some of your killer string bends in it. You get a lot more press for your picking chops, but talk a little bit about how important bends are to what you do.
They’re massively essential to me. The three main elements that make up the majority of my playing would be steel-guitar bends, double-stops, and open-string licks. But I think bends allow you to be more free—more free in your soul where you can allow a bend to stretch a little further than a double-stop for example. So bends let me pour my soul into a solo to where it doesn’t sound so note-y. I can take my time with what I’m trying to say.
How would you recommend players get better at string bends?
It’s a matter of practicing preciseness, so if you’re going to bend a whole tone, make sure you can execute that every single time without really thinking about it. Some players say that with blues you can be all over the map with bends, and that’s true. Sometimes you can overreach a bend and it sounds cool and emotional because it’s a blues tune. But for me, when it comes to chicken pickin’, you really have to be precise. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a pain in the butt to sit and practice the preciseness of a certain bend over and over and over again. It’s not fun, but at the same time, when you’re at a gig and you execute that bend and you nail it every single time, then you know that your practice is working. Once you have the precision down cold, you can add all the emotion and feeling you want.
Can you explain how you you’re bending at 2:19 in “Bluesberry Jam”?
That’s a really cool bend that I’ve been adding to my repertoire that uses a steel-guitar approach. I wanted to sound like Buddy Emmons on steroids with five distortion pedals going. I’m in the key of C, and I’m basically fretting a G at the 12th fret of the G string and a Bb at the 11th fret of the B string. But then I bend the G up to an A, or from the 5 to the 6 while I’m still holding the flat 7—the Bb—which is real dissonant sounding. When you do that, your amp will sometimes grab the harmonic and the vibrations of everything just cause massive chaos within your amp and bring out weird overtones. What I’m doing after that is adding my third finger down on the high E string, and I bounce off the 4, the 3, and the b3 to kind of bring it back to the country sound. That lick really will tweak the ear. It’s a unique and fun thing to do.
What was the signal chain that you used to create the tones on this record?
I cut the whole album with my Ernie Ball Music Man Silhouette with D. Allen pickups and my Bolt amplifier. I’m using the Bolt 2x12 combo. It’s a three-channel amp that’s just monstrous. Since I’ve had that amp I’ve been downsizing my pedalboard because I really haven’t needed as many pedals. On my pedalboard I have a Boss TU-3 tuner, I have a Wampler Ego Compressor, a brand new pedal called the Red Shift that was created by a guy named Brad Jetter—that’s what I’m using mostly for distortion, although I cut “Forever Love” with the new Sparkle Drive Mod from Voodoo Lab. I have an ISP Decimator, which takes all of the excess noise out of my rig. I’m using a Boss Tremolo, an Arion Chorus—E.W.S. re-released the old Arion Chorus through Xotic. It has the Vibe section and that’s what I use to get a rotary sound. I end the chain with a DigiTech Hardwire Delay and I’m using the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 to power everything.
Is it at all strange for you to find yourself on Shrapnel Records?
After signing with them, no. Prior to that, yeah, I thought it was a little interesting. But I’ve been a big fan of Mike Varney for a long time and I have a lot of Shrapnel records in my collection. I had the Yngwie Steeler album. I don’t own it now because I wore the thing out. I had a lot of Vinnie Moore, some Tony MacAlpine, some early Paul Gilbert, Scott Henderson—I could go on for days. So to get the chance to even talk to Mike Varney about signing with him was an honor. I think it’s all about the passion we all share for guitar. I was with Steve Vai before, and he has a massive passion for guitar. Mike Varney does too. The lineage of what they’ve both created is amazing, and I’m proud to be a part of it. So I’m very thrilled to be with Shrapnel and I’m so tickled that we’ve accomplished what we have in such a short time.
With all the chops that you’ve got and all the licks you have under your fingers, what do you find difficult on guitar?
I’ve been having this massive love for jazz and I really have a problem with it in my mind I love that whole distorted style jazz that Frank Gambale would play or Scott Henderson and the Vital Tech Tones, some Michael Landau stuff. I love that whole side of jazz, but yet I also love the bounciness and I guess in some ways the aggressive side of bebop jazz like the way Jimmy Bruno would play. But I’m really fighting with myself because as a chicken picker you tend to play in a very pentatonic-based style. It’s very in the box. You never really think outside. Right now I’m kind of messing around with how outside the box I want to get. That’s why I’ve added a lot of chromaticism recently to my playing. There’s a side of me that’s really wanting to delve into the outside the box thing. I’m a bit scared to do that. So I’d say that’s where I’m struggling with myself right now is how far do I want to get into that and how much would it affect what I’m doing.