“I think Johnny is the most versatile guitar player I’ve ever heard. From Bill Monroe to Eddie Van Halen, he can play it all.”
- Ricky Skaggs
To me, there are a lot of different traits that make a hero. These include being humble, nice, having a sense of humor, helping others, and making success out of an unlikely situation. Though no hero can have all the possible traits, I found many of them in the relatively unknown guitarist, Johnny Hiland.
Johnny Hiland was born in Woodland, Maine with a condition called nystagmus. This condition causes his eyes to move involuntarily and had him declared legally blind. He was a musical prodigy and started playing in the family band, the Three J’s, at age eight. Originally, he only listened to and played bluegrass, but when he saw Ricky Skaggs in concert, he was inspired to expand his listening to other styles. Throughout high school, he began listening to rock musicians like Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, and Eddie Van Halen.
After high school, he went to college to become a history teacher. His life was changed when he was studying one day. His books on tape didn’t come in, so he was forced to read. After straining his eyes for hours, he realized it wasn’t worth it and moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
During his first night in Nashville, he blew away a local band with his guitar playing. Soon he was getting calls to do session work for other artists. This is when he met his manager, Mac Wilson. Wilson got Hiland to play for Bruce Bolen, vice president of Fender Musical Instruments. Bolen was so impressed that he gave Hiland a full endorsement deal.
Once again, Wilson fast forwarded Hiland’s career. He left an excerpt from one of Hiland’s tapes on Steve Vai’s voicemail. Soon after, Hiland was signed to the Favored Nations label.
Though many artists have made their way to fame this way, you have to remember that Hiland has been legally blind his whole life. He can’t drive; he can’t read anything unless it’s right in front of his face, and in some cases, he needs to be guided to a location. If this isn’t overcoming difficulty, I don’t know what is.
Most can only imagine what he had to go through in school. With other kids making fun of him, it is a wonder that his spirit wasn’t completely crushed. In an interview with Modern Guitars Magazine, he stated that the guitar was an emotional outlet and a security blanket for him.
Even though he gave up on being a history teacher, that doesn’t mean he gave up on being a teacher completely. Inspired by his own difficulties as a child, he made two guitar lesson DVDs, Chickin’ Pickin’ Volume 1 and Strictly Rhythm. As a child, he was unable to grasp concepts on guitar lesson videos, not only because he could not see what they were doing, but they didn’t slow down enough for him to grasp the concept. Also, as a regular part of his tours, he gives guitar clinics in colleges and guitar shops.
When he was not touring, teaching or playing, Hiland spent time writing and illustrating the children’s book, Tuff the Special Bear. He has said in his interview with Modern Guitars Magazine that Tuff is about inspiring kids to find music and to help handicapped kids believe in themselves.
“Music programs are diminishing in schools, I think it’s important that the kids find out just how inspirational it is to play music,” said Hiland.
You can’t judge everything on what you read on the Internet, though. However, in my case, I have actually met my hero. In person, he is exactly what you want your heroes to be like when you meet them. He is an incredibly nice person, despite all the people coming up to him throughout the day. He appreciates any compliment you give him and is very humble about his extraordinary abilities.
Johnny Hiland is a great hero in my opinion. His life shows me that dreams can come true. His amazing personality lets me know that there is still goodness in the world. He inspires me to keep trying. This is why Johnny Hiland is my hero.
- 's website
American Nystagmus Network
- is a nonprofit organization established to serve the needs and interests of those affected by Nystagmus.
- Samples of Johnny Hiland's music
- with BUG Magazine
- with Modern Guitars
Demarco, Johnny. "Johnny Hiland Big BOSS Man." [Online] Available http://www.bossus.com/bugonline/features.asp?art=hiland.
Messock, Rick. "Johnny Hiland Interview." [Online] Available http://www.modernguitars.com/archives/001717.html.
author, unknown. "Johnny Hiland." [Online] Available http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Hiland.
author, unknown. "Johnny Hiland Bio." [Online] Available http://www.johnnyhiland.com/index2.htm.