Stewart is a devoted guitarist who has a background in Christian rock and metal, and is currently touring with a tribute performer, covering Billy Joel and Rascal Flatts among others. He lives in Ohio.
Stewart is our Community Manager inside Musical U. He helps make sure that members are well taken care of, supports them through any struggles they might encounter, and nurtures the wonderful community spirit and thriving discussions inside Musical U.
A Musical Starting Place
Musical U: Hi Stewart, and thanks for joining us on the Musical U blog today! First up, what made you decide to learn to play the guitar? How long have you been playing?
Stewart Hilton: To be honest, it goes back to when I was a kid and watched shows like the Partridge Family (one my first guitars was a Partridge Family toy guitar!) and the Monkees. Later, though, it was KISS and then Led Zeppelin and more. I always enjoyed the out front appeal of the guitar as it “appeared” to be the instrument creating the groove and then, of course, the guitar solos. I started guitar lessons when I was about 12 or so and then as most kids do, lost interest and then was back and forth with it. Now I have been playing guitar for around 35 years.
MU: What other instruments, if any, do you play?
SH: I played trumpet/cornet all through middle school and high school. My Dad was a big jazz fan, so I heard great jazz trumpet players growing up. However, the trumpet got trumped by the guitar as I got older. I do wish I had kept up on the trumpet, though.
MU: Who are some of your most influential or favorite musicians?
SH: I have quite a few. My favorite musicians and ones who influence me have changed a lot over time, so I will just name a couple handfuls. [Laughs] Guitarists that have influenced me the most over time – I could probably give five. Jimmy Page was first as his playing really influenced how I played and wrote. His diversity in styles.
Jim Matheos (guitarist for metal band Fates Warning). He is a rhythm and odd meter king. I’ve been a fan of the band and his work since the 90’s.
Brian Setzer for his amazing abilities and musicality. The energy he plays with and how he keeps even finger style (Chet Atkins) alive and well along with rockabilly.
James Burton, guitarist for Elvis Presley in Vegas and on. Chickin’ Pickin’ master. He plays clean and distinct, one of the best you will find. I love listening to him.
Dave Bainbridge, guitarist for IONA. His solo’s and writing have been one of my favorites since early 90’s when I first heard them. The guy is an amazing guitarist but also pianist.
As for five bands/groups: IONA, for how they mix Celtic with prog rock and the singer has a very Karen Carpenter-tone to her voice. Great music.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – the southern rock kings. Musically and lyrically, I have always enjoyed them. They never get old to me.
Opeth for bringing what I feel is prog rock back and re-visiting sounds of the early years. Every album they put out is a new adventure and for that, I love them.
…Going jazz with Stan Kenton. I love old big band and Kenton was great at serving it up interestingly with latin, experimental and more.
Lastly, I guess, Chicago. Early Chicago with another favorite guitarist, Terry Kath. The early years were amazing with the horn arrangements and combining that with great rock music and compositions. I have collected a good bit of the early stuff.
I have so much more but currently, those are some of my favorites.
Professional Career Moves
MU: What initially drew you to Christian rock music? Metal music? How did these genres influence you as a musician?
SH: Honestly my becoming a Christian had everything to do with that. I had played in the local metal scene for many years and when I became a believer, I felt led to write music that focused upon that faith.
I have found that playing with people you make friends with and connect with can make playing music very enjoyable and less like “work.”
The music we did in my first Christian band, though, was more on the progressive side. We did that on purpose, as we felt there was a commandment to go and do something new. We were together for about five years until members just got pushed different directions. I recently had another Christian group but we were more southern rock and blues. When writing, we still tried to challenge ourselves within the music to do something new and different.
With metal music and – all music for that matter – I tend to not be into the most popular music, per se. I always have been attracted to music with odd timings, interesting melodies, and musicality. And that goes into many different forms of music whether it be rock, metal, jazz, country, and even Hawaiian music.
MU: You’re currently touring with a tribute band. Tell us more about that – it sounds awesome!
SH: Yes. I was contacted last year to fill in on two shows for a local Elton John tribute. I have known the guy who does it for years but just got called last year. Both shows went well and so this year, he called in a very timely way. A band I was part of helping to start had just fallen apart.
Anyway, he had called and asked if I was interested in doing more. He actually does a lot of tribute shows, but the main ones are Elton John, Billy Joel, Rascal Flatts, a Disco tribute, and an 80’s music tribute. My wife and I talked about it as it is a paying gig. With the type of work I do with Musical U and the pay, we decided it would work out great – so I took the gig.
It is busy. With so many different shows, you are constantly learning or re-learning sets. One weekend of shows may be Elton and Billy but then the next is one of the other acts.
Thankfully, you can keep music on a stand when playing which helps a lot, considering we are talking about 1 ½ to 2-hour shows per tribute. Also, there are no full band rehearsals, so you have to prepare on your own to get ready. Thankfully, we use back tracks, click tracks, and have live recordings to play along with to get ready. It does challenge me but I am also learning quite a bit, especially in terms of being musical in a “business” type of way.
MU: Did you ever think about quitting in the past? How did you handle it? Why didn’t you quit?
SH: Yes I have. Sometimes you can get tired of the drama of a “band”. People coming in and out and the drama that goes with it can get old really fast. However, I have found that playing with people you make friends with and connect with can make playing music very enjoyable and less like “work.” I have known and done enough that it seems if I try to get out of it, there is normally someone that gets after me to get back in.
You shouldn’t take a music gift for granted. Find a way to use it and find ways to use it help others.
At one point, though, I did come to a complete stop with playing. However, it was due to physical issues related to arthritis. I have been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. When it first hit, my knuckles would swell up and were unable to move. Playing guitar became impossible. That went on for 8 months until I had shots into the knuckles to reduce the swelling.
It has been a many-year journey and my amazing wife has encouraged me through it. Now, I have a great doctor who – along with finding the right meds – has helped stop any more damage and inflammation, and I have been able to keep playing. Before my current doctor, the inflammation destroyed my middle knuckle on my left pinky and destroyed another knuckle on my right. Also, I have some other knuckle issues on a few other fingers, but the destruction has come to a stop, for which I am very thankful. This has shown me that you shouldn’t take a music gift for granted. Find a way to use it and find ways to use it help others.
MU: What’s the hardest part about staying motivated to practice?
SH: For me, I get more involved in a group setting – working and writing music. If I’m by myself, it can get dull, so have to find things like videos of favorite players or other things to keep me challenged. Doing the work for the tribute acts, though, has kept me really busy as far as practice is concerned.
MU: When did you feel like you really “made it” as a musician and a singer?
SH: I am not sure I have ever felt that, per se. I am always doing something new, experiencing something new, you know… I love finding new ways to use my instrument. And I still have so many things I want to do with this gift called music.
Don’t give up. Enjoy it. Make sure you can smile. Music should be something that can give enjoyment so if it is giving nothing other than pain and misery, find out why that is and fix it.
MU: How do you normally organise your practice?
SH: Tough question. My tendency is to really know what goals I have and take the time I need to finish them. When I hit the goal, I stop. I almost have a daily set of activities I want done. One day may be to go over all the songs for an upcoming weekend… Next day may be to look at songs I had issues with and re-address issue areas and work them out. Each day works out like that and then I have a day or two where I am plugged into an amp and practicing turned up and playing to tracks, working out solo ideas and other things.
MU: What advice would you give aspiring musicians?
SH: Don’t give up. Enjoy it. Make sure you can smile. Music should be something that can give enjoyment so if it is giving nothing other than pain and misery, find out why that is and fix it. Sometimes it may be a person or such that is not helping you, but discouraging you. Be around those who help you know you can do it, even if you are struggling.
MU: What is your favorite part about working with the Musical U team?
SH: There is an actual “team” feel to working with them. It isn’t seen as just one doing the work, but all of us working in our roles for one common goal. Very much like being in a good band where the chemistry just works.
MU: In your opinion, what’s the biggest thing Musical U members can get the most out of their membership?
SH: With Musical U, I think one of the big things that is offered is the atmosphere, the feeling that we are there to see you succeed and want to see you enjoy music. The positive vibes and encouragement. If people get discouraged or stuck, there isn’t a negative reaction but instead, a reaction of, “What can we do or show that will clear this up so the member can succeed?”
Thanks for sharing with us, Stewart!
If you’d like to learn more about Stewart’s musical projects, you can check out his Vine Connection CD.