Born in Cowpens, South Carolina, Garland began playing the guitar at the age of 6. He appeared on local radio shows at 12 and was discovered at 14 at a South Carolina record store. He moved to Nashville at age 16, staying in Ma Upchurch's boarding house, where he roomed with upright bassist Bob Moore and fiddler Dale Potter.
At age 19, Garland recorded his million-selling hit "Sugarfoot Rag", although some attribute the song to Bernie B. Smith, Jr., published two years earlier by M.M. Cole/BMI as "Bernie's Reel". An instrumental version was the opening theme for ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee from 1955–1960. Garland appeared on the Jubilee with Grady Martin's band, and on Eddy Arnold's network and syndicatedtelevision shows.
He is best known for his work on Elvis Presley's recordings from 1957 to 1961 which produced such rock hits as "Little Sister", "I Need Your Love Tonight" and "A Big Hunk O' Love". However, Garland also worked with many country music as well as rock 'n roll stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s including Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Mel Tillis, Marty Robbins, the Everly Brothers, Boots Randolph, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty. He also played with jazz artists such as George Shearing and Charlie Parker in New York and went on to record Jazz Winds From a New Direction, showcasing his evolving talent. It is also believed that he is the first to explore the use of the Power chord in popular music.
At the request of Gibson Guitar company president, Ted McCarty, Garland and fellow guitarist Billy Byrd strongly influenced the design of the Byrdland guitar, which derived from the Gibson L-5 guitar Garland is seen holding in the photograph.
In September 1961, he was playing for the soundtrack of Presley's movie, Follow That Dream when a car accident left Garland in a coma that lasted for a week. With the help of his wife, he re-learned how to walk, talk, and play the guitar though he never recovered sufficiently to return to the studios. It was believed electroconvulsive therapy, prescribed by his doctors, may have caused more damage to his brain, but little evidence exists to support this theory. Garland's brother, Billy, claimed the crash was actually an attempted murder by someone in the Nashville music scene, but there is no evidence of that. Garland was widely respected by his peers and Nashville producers such as Chet Atkins, Don Law and Owen Bradley.
Garland died on December 27, 2004 of a staph infection in Orange Park, Florida. He is survived by two Daughters, Cheryl and Debra. He is also survived by 4 Grandsons: Derek & Chris Gruendemann and Jason & Mark Garland.
On May 10, 2012 Hank's daughter, Cheryl Norene Garland Gruendemann, died in McHenry, Illinois.