Johnny Hiland is revered for his chicken pickin’, yet he’s not afraid to honor his shred heroes with blazing two-handed tapping. “I love that side of music,” he says, “even though it’s not really at the forefront anymore …
though it is in my house.” Photo by Bob Seaman

There are guitarists who are creatures of habit, playing the same rigs for years or even entire careers, and then there are those who engage in ongoing searches for gear that will allow them to recreate the sounds they hear in their heads. Johnny Hiland, the electric-guitar virtuoso based in Nashville, falls squarely into the latter camp. He not only recently joined forces with Kiesel Custom Guitars to produce his dream axe, but in preparation for his latest album, Standing Strong, he gathered a boatload of new pedals to create a palette of inspiring sounds.

At 42, Hiland has been refining his signature approach—a spirited fusion of chicken pickin’ and pyrotechnical rock moves—for decades now. Country music has always been at the heart of his playing. Hiland grew up in Maine, visually impaired through the condition nystagmus, and at 4 learned to play his late grandfather’s Gibson J-45, tuned to an open-E chord, flat on his lap. Before long he had morphed into a bluegrass virtuoso, and he toured all over New England in his early teens.

A pivotal moment in Hiland’s musical development came in the mid ’80s, when his father took him to see Ricky Skaggs in concert. Witnessing Skaggs’ mastery of the Fender Telecaster, Hiland was immediately drawn to the electric guitar. Then, Hiland got the rig, modest by his current standards, that would set him off on his tone quest: a Fender Standard Stratocaster, a Peavey Classic Chorus 212 combo amp, a Dunlop Cry Baby wah, and a DOD FX56 American Metal pedal.

In “Gatton After It,” a blistering instrumental track from Standing Strong, Johnny Hiland pays tribute to one of his guitar heroes, the legendary Danny Gatton.

While he was working out country-style bends on his Strat, Hiland learned from transcriptions of guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, as well as blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robben Ford. He knew then, as a teenager, that his music would be an amalgam of the hottest picking approaches in all styles.

He also knew that Nashville, Tennessee, would be the ideal home base, and in 1996 took residency in Music City and soon realized his dream of being an in-demand guitarist. Since then, he’s worked as a sideman for high-profile country artists from Toby Keith to Hank Williams III. At the same time, beginning with a 2004 self-titled album for Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label, Hiland has enjoyed success as a solo artist.

On Standing Strong, the follow-up to 2016’s Loud and Proud, Hiland puts his new pedals to excellent use in his most song-oriented set to date. The album has plenty to recommend it to guitar fans of all persuasions, from serious chicken pickin’ to killer slide work, and even two-handed tapping. In our recent conversation, Hiland had a lot to say about his pedals, the inner workings of his music, being in Nashville, and, of course, his new signature guitar.

Judging from Standing Strong, it sounds like lately you’ve been experimenting with your guitar tone while sticking to a lean ensemble.
Yes. And I would say that my basic tone—you know, the clean tone you hear on [the album’s] “Freeborn Man” and “Honky Tonk Daddy”—is actually pretty much the same as the Johnny Hiland live sound. And I really spent a lot of time on this album making sure I didn’t go over-the-top with extra instrumentation you wouldn’t hear onstage, because I really didn’t want to make a record I couldn’t deliver to people at live shows. So we stuck to a four-piece configuration—bass, drums, rhythm guitar, and, of course, me on lead.

“Even though I’m not an old man yet, I find I’ve changed over the years to where I really enjoy taking my time to find that proper tone.”

But some of the tones on the album were the result of me having lots of fun with pedals and sculpting the sounds I was searching for. Really, all my pedalboards were built based off just trying a bunch of things and finding what puts a smile on my face. So I guess that’s what really made this album so special for me—I had time to try different tones and see what I really loved about what’s out there nowadays, for effects.

How did you get that warm and gritty sound on “Long Road Home?”
I tried every distortion pedal I had and just wasn’t quite getting what I wanted, so I literally went to Guitar Center and bought an MXR Super Badass after jamming with [former Allman Brother and legendary Nashville guitarist] Jack Pearson. I’d heard him get such a killer sound from an MXR at a live show, that I just had to get one for myself. The version I got is basically a heavier and more distorted version of what Jack was using, the Custom Badass. So I bought it, went into the studio, put it on my board, and that was the tone. It was like, “Oh, there it is. That’s what I was missing.”

Why do you think you hadn’t found these sounds before?
I think what it is, man, is that sometimes the distortion pedals work really good with the compressor and sometimes they do not. Of course, I have different pedals for different levels of distortion, but I had literally tried everything in my arsenal. I was like the little kid with his box of toys. I just pulled out all these pedals and tried different things. But on that song, I realized I really needed that push over the edge of extra dirt, extra gain. And so the Super Badass was just something that really took it over the top for me. I should add that at that time, I had not tried the new Angry Charlie from JHS. I would say that the Super Badass and the Angry Charlie are comparable pedals because, while each one has such a unique voice, they’re both very close in the gain stage. But that little Super Badass is not only an affordable pedal, but one that really makes you grin all over. It makes you play better.

“This new album is more vocal-based than anything I’ve ever done,” says Hiland. “I thought it would be good to step out of my comfort zone and sing a little more.”

How did you get the spacey sounds on the intro and transitional parts of the song?
These all had the DLS Versa Vibe on it, which is one of my favorite pedals as well. It’s another pedal that people wouldn’t think that I would ever use, but it has that Hendrix-y, squirrely sound that’s so great. I added the DLS Versa Vibe for that extra something and it really gave me what I needed, man. Again, it put a smile on my face and was just what I was looking for.

What other modulation effects are you using now?
I love both the TC Electronics Flashback X4 and Hall of Fame dearly, and I’m also using the Helix Phaser by them. But I have other favorite pedals I just have to tell folks about. One is made by DLS, and it’s called the RotoSIM. That’s how I get my Danny Gatton kind of Leslie tones. That pedal is just phenomenal, buddy. It sounds as true to a Leslie as I’ve found yet. The next pedal is the DigiTech Mosaic—it’s a 12-string simulator and I use it to get the sound of an electric Rickenbacker.

Is that what I hear on the intro to “Standing Strong?”
Yes, as a matter of fact. It sounds really realistic to me. And of course, when it comes to phasers and flangers and all the other fun stuff, man, I’m kind of all over the place. TC Electronic, DLS, and Big Joe—they all make those great pedals that just put a big grin on my face to use.

Compression plays a key role in hot country picking. What are you using for compression at the moment?
Right now I’m using an Origin Effects Cali76—the deluxe version, which is the new smaller edition they’ve come out with. People know that I love being a chicken picker and that I’m real hypersensitive about compressors. So to be honest, I have two others that are also my favorites right now—the JHS Pulp ’N’ Peel and TC Electronic HyperGravity. And, of course, every board of mine includes an ISP Decimator II. I love that pedal, man. It’s a must-have.

Why is that?
Well, because really when you’re running any kind of a compressor and dirt pedal together, you’re going to have excessive noise. The ISP Decimator II helps take out a lot of that unwanted noise, and it works really well.