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Johnny Hiland: "Never allow the business of music to overtake your love of music"

One of Nashville's hottest guitarists Johnny Hiland reveals his signal chain secrets and shares how he keeps his passion for music alive.

Johnny Hiland playing guitar
Johnny, as a session musician, how do you choose your gigs?

I have the motivation to take on any session that comes my way. In recording music, you come to realize that the music that you create will live beyond you. People can come to see you play live at a show, but it is over in 90 minutes to 2 hours. Records that you play on will be passed down generation to generation. That’s very important to me.

What would be THE dream gig for you, and what kind of gig would you never take? Why?

Johnny's new album 'Standing Strong' is out now

The ultimate dream gig for me would be to start a CP3 tour, which would be like Joe Satriani’s G3, only with country chicken pickin’ guitar players. Actually...I am working on that endeavor now. Stay tuned!

The gig that I can say I would not take would be one that involves reading sheet music. In being legally blind, I find that even reading Nashville number charts is hard for me in a session.

How much creative freedom do you get during studio sessions? 

I have been very blessed in doing sessions here in Nashville. I have played on records for artists such as Toby Keith, Trick Pony, Randy Travis, Janie Fricke, Lynn Anderson, Ricky Skaggs, Hank 3, Nokie Edwards, Rodney Dillard, and many others. I have always been able to play the way I play, and sometimes leave my mojo on recordings. I am not going to say that I have not had to please producers and I've been blessed in being able to deliver what they have needed to fit the song properly.

Johnny Hiland

I do feel that it is amazing when I get to have freedom in the studio. It is truly important to create your own identity, in style and tone, within the music that is on record forever. It becomes a part of any session musicians legacy, so to speak.

One of the most legendary session ensembles is the Wrecking Crew which ruled the 60s - is there a similar outfit working today? 

The Wrecking Crew was absolutely phenomenal! I was so tickled to find out that Glen Campbell was a part of that session team back then. As most of you know, he went on to become a country music icon!

Today, there are so many wonderful session musicians all over the world, it's hard to pick just a few. In Nashville, especially back in the 90s, there was the Nashville A Team. They had guys like Brent Mason on guitar, Paul Franklin (steel), Biff Watson (ac. guitar), Michael Rhodes (bass), Eddie Bayers (drums), and many others.

We're seeing a massive decrease in big sessions in Nashville because of the rise of home studios.

Johnny Hiland studio pedalboardJohnny's studio pedalboard

And yes, there are so many other awesome session musicians that never get mentioned. As a country music fan, I have been intrigued by the number of awesome musicians that have paved the way for guys like me to continue doing sessions. I am thankful to God above for the gift of music, and to live in the best city on planet earth where music is created every minute of the day. It is a dream come true.

Johnny checks out the KHDK Scuzz Bux

How do you see studio business changing due to the technology and affordability of home studios? 

I have definitely seen a massive decrease in “big” sessions in Nashville due to home studios. In fact, there are a lot of big studios that have closed down because of this.

And of course, you can tell a major difference in a recording from someone’s basement and the major studios that I’ve had the opportunity to record in over the years. That’s for sure.

But there are a lot of factors; I am certainly not saying that great records cannot be done from somebody’s home studio. It truly comes down to how acoustically sound the studio is setup, the microphones and instruments used in the session, how good the engineer is in using the gear that they have access to, and how good the musicians are that track the music. That is the bottom line.

How did you arrive at your tone? What were your biggest influences?

Johnny's amp rig

As a session musician and a guitarist who plays multiple genres, my rigs are all over the place. I have many influences. Danny Gatton was my biggest influence. However, I have influences that cover, pretty much, every genre. Examples would include guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan in blues, Ricky Skaggs in country music, Brent Mason and Albert Lee in chicken pickin,’ Jimmy Bruno in jazz, and Jimmy Bryant in western swing. Oh yeah, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, and Steve Vai in rock, too. And there are many others.

Does genre define tone or does tone define genre?

I believe that genre defines tone in most cases. Well, for me at least. When I first heard Ricky Skaggs play his purple Glaser tele, I wanted his tone to chicken pick with. Then, when I heard Brent Mason and Albert Lee, their tones were similar to Ricky’s.

Johnny's secondary pedalboardJohnny's live pedalboard

Then I heard Danny Gatton and I added a bit more grit to my country tone. To match Stevie Ray Vaughan, I had to add a tube screamer style pedal to my board. Then, to match Eddie Van Halen, I needed more gain plus a phaser! You see, my influences helped me determine how my rig was going to sound. I could not make up my mind as to what genre I loved more, so I reached for all of them.

That’s how my desire for becoming a session player evolved. After moving to Nashville, I realized that I loved playing in front of people as well. My guitar artistry was born when I first signed with Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations, in 2004.

Since then, I have had a few more record deals and my sound and tone have changed several times throughout the years as I grew as a writer, recording artist, and performer.

What is your signal path, and the reasoning behind pedal placement?

"Johnny's fly board (top) and honky tonk board (bottom)

I currently have four different pedalboards, three main amp heads, many different sized cabinets, and a crazy fun-filled career to need all of it! 

When I first moved to Nashville, I quickly learned how to build out a proper board from advice by guys like Redd Volkaert and Brent Mason. Plus, I tried to peek at every pedalboard that was on any stage in the many honky tonks here in Guitar Town.

I learned that you plug your guitar into your tuner, then go right into a compressor. Follow that with a KHDK No.2 clean boost and then go right into overdrives and distortions. Follow those with some kind of a noise reducer pedal, and then any modulation pedals you may use. Your delay and reverb should be the last out to your amp.

Never run your power cables parallel with your pedal connector cables. That creates too much noise. They should cross over each other perpendicularly.

The other thing I learned that's very important is to never run your power cables parallel with your pedal connector cables. That creates too much noise. They should cross over each other perpendicularly.

The last thing is that you should always use a power supply that offers isolated power for each pedal. I happen to prefer Voodoo Lab Power Supplies.

I actually build all of my own boards. That way, I know where everything is run, and how it is all put together in case something goes wrong on stage.

Johnny and his KHDK No.2 Overdrive

What's your routine when it comes to polishing and evolving your style? How do you keep yourself on your toes?

Johnny's Godin road guitars

I was born and raised in a very small town in Maine with an eye disease called nystagmus, which rendered me legally blind. Everybody wondered where my life would go. Thankfully, God gifted me with music at a very early age. Throughout the years, I have played 22 instruments.

Since moving to Nashville in 1996, I devoted all of my attention to guitar. I am still a massive addict of guitar to this day, and I still have a massive guitar CD collection that I learn from.

Guitar music still pumps me up, especially when I hear a lick that I want I will rewind the track until I learn it. To me, that’s how you get better.

I've even stolen licks from saxophone and keyboard players.

That is how I evolve and keep up with the craft. I go out to gigs, and steal licks from my favorite pickers. Shoot, I have even stolen licks from saxophone and keyboard players. It all helps make you better!

Then, you have to think about the gear that you use. I like to keep up with technology. In making my last album, “Standing Strong,” I revamped my entire guitar rig in finding updated effects that inspired me. That stuff helps you grow, too. Anything that inspires you and helps you grow is essential. 

What is the greatest piece of advice you ever got when it comes to music or guitar-playing? And the worst?

The best piece of advice that I have ever been given is to not allow the business of music to overtake your love of music. Stay true to yourself, and keep true to the dedication and motivation of being the best you can be. Those pieces of advice came from Vince Gill and Les Paul.

New line of Johnny Hiland signature Kiesel guitars comes out soon

The worst piece of advice I was ever given was to trust people in this business. Honestly folks, nobody is going to promote you better than you. Nobody’s going to make you the best at anything but you. Yes, we need people to help our career grow, but trust needs to be earned. Remember that.

Nowadays, I turn to God, and my sweet wife, Kimmie, for advice in all things. Everybody else has to earn trust with me now. I have learned from my mistakes in this business, and I will never make them again. 

On top of being an artist and a session musician, you teach guitar and do master classes and clinics all over the world. What's next for you?

I am now a Kiesel Guitar artist, as of 2018, and I am truly looking forward to having my new signature model released with them soon.

I also have been working on my autobiography with Eric Dahl, who wrote the B.B. King book, and I have a brand new radio show that comes on every Monday night, on Renegade Radio called, “Guitarmania with Johnny Hiland.” This is an awesome way to help keep guitar music alive! 

I will soon be back on the road this year with my band. We hope to see you in a town near you real soon! Plus, you can also come to Nashville and see us perform on the first Wednesday of every month at Acme Feed n’ Seed from 8-10pm. Plus, I am still teaching privately, here in my home, as well as online.

Most importantly, I am a very happy man these days. I have been married to my sweet wife, Kimmie, for 13 years. We still have our two dogs, Buddy and Ella Belle, and continue living in our ranch home here in Nashville!

I am very thankful to God above for blessing my life! I am very thankful for my sweet Kimmie girl, my manager, John Haring of Crush Worldwide, my band, my endorsers, family, friends, and all my fans all over the world! I am truly blessed to be able to make a living doing what I love to do, and I thank everybody for their continued support! It truly means a lot to me.

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