Billy Gibbons – aka Billy F. Gibbons, BFG, the Rev. Willie G. Thanks to MTV, he’s known mostly for cool customized cars, a long beard, cheap sunglasses, and being surrounded by gorgeous women. What those people who know of him for only those things don’t know is that Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is one hell of a guitar player. The first ZZ Top album I ever owned was Degüello. I bought it when it was new in 1979. I’ve been a fan ever since. Their motto is “tone, taste, and tenacity.” What do those mean? Of all the guitar players I like [and there are many], what makes Billy Gibbons so special?
Tone. I’ve seen a lot of words to describe his tone - fuzz-drenched, distorted, crunchy, muddy, dirty, gritty, raunchy, nasty, fat, rude, thick, brown, tuned-down, earthy, reverb- and tremolo-drenched. All of those words apply. He does love those pinch harmonics. The Rev. Willie G has no use for treble. The nastiest tones Billy Gibbons put on record can be found on Rhythmeen and Mescalero [see clips below].
Zipper Job – Rhythmeen
Alley-Gator - Mescalero
Taste. Not flashy, anti-shred, laid-back, rhythmical, creates cool, simple but effective rhythms. He’s not fast – he doesn’t have to be. Always melodic - I’ve never heard him play a bad solo. One of Billy's greatest strengths is his ability to lay back in the groove. He never rushes his parts. And he never over-plays — on rhythm or leads. He’s an excellent slide player, too [Just Got Paid, Tush].
Tenacity. ZZ Top have been together over forty years. The same three guys have been in the band since the first album. He once told BE Entertainment: “We still enjoy doing what we do, more than most anything else that a given day might offer. Playing is foremost in our minds, 24 hours a day. The notion of tone, taste and tenacity has been our byline for forever.” BFG’s secret to longevity - “Play what you want to hear. Keep it fresh and keep the enjoyment factor in focus.”
Influences – BB King, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Roky Erickson, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, and Eric Johnson. Note that there are quite a few Texans on this list.
Hendrix. Unlike the other guitarists about whom I blog, Billy Gibbons actually knew Jimi Hendrix. In June 1968, Billy’s pre-ZZ Top Band, the Moving Sidewalks, opened for Hendrix on a Texas tour. After this tour, Jimi remarked that Billy Gibbons was his favorite guitar player. If the Rev. Willie G. was Hendrix’s favorite, who am I to argue?
Guitars – BFG has a book titled Rock & Roll Gearhead. It’s a coffee-table picture book of BFG’s guitars, hot rods, and oh yes, ZZ Top. BFG is an obsessive collector of both cars and guitars – he has over 450 guitars. The book doesn’t show all of them, but the important ones are there. His ’59 Les Paul [Pearly Gates], a ’58 Les Paul he used for slide on Just Got Paid, the “Fuzzy One” from the Legs video, and a ’66 Strat he used on La Grange are included. By and large, BFG is a Gibson man – he loves his Les Pauls, and his Pearly Gates has been copied for a limited edition from Gibson. Lately he’s been playing a Gretsch G6199 Billy-Bo signature model [aka Jupiter Thunderbird], based on a guitar given to him by Bo Diddley. He’s been known to play Fender Telecasters and Esquires too. Luthier John Bolin builds custom guitars for Billy. But his favorite guitar is his Pearly Gates.
Effects - On those guitars, he likes light gauge strings – he uses the 7 gauge version. One would think he’d use heavy strings to get the tones he gets, but BB King suggested he try lighter strings so he wouldn’t have to work so hard at playing. As for pedals and amps and stuff, BFG has lots of toys and plays with them all. Premier Guitar interviewed BFG's guitar tech, Elwood Francis. He can show you in the clip below better than I can write about what his employer uses to get his righteous tones.
Rig Rundown – Billy Gibbons – courtesy of Premier Guitar
One Foot in the Blues – When I think of Texans who were purveyors of the blues, I think of Freddie King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lightning Hopkins, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan. ZZ Top draws influences from many blues musicians. The blues permeated everything they play - there's usually a I-IV-V blues progression in most ZZ Top songs, but blues is not the only thing they play. To borrow a phrase from Warner Brothers, ZZ Top always has one foot in the blues. They try to have one blues [and nothing but the blues] on each album [Afterburner didn’t have one – Rough Boy was a bit too syrupy].
The “blues songs”:
Certified Blues / Just Got Back From Baby’s / Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell / Hot, Blue and Righteous / Blue Jean Blues / It’s Only Love / A Fool for Your Stockings / Dust My Broom / She Loves My Automobile / It’s So Hard / I Need You Tonight / 2000 Blues / Cover Your Rig / Vincent Price Blues / Made into a Movie / Tramp / Heartache in Blue
Tony’s iPod List:
ZZ Top’s First Album - (Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree / Brown Sugar / Goin’ Down to Mexico / Certified Blues / Just Got Back From Baby’s / Backdoor Love Affair
Rio Grande Mud – Francine / Just Got Paid / Chevrolet / Bar-B-Q / Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell
Tres Hombres – Waitin’ On The Bus / Jesus Just Left Chicago / Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers / Master of Sparks / Hot, Blue and Righteous / La Grange / Precious and Grace / Sheik
Fandango – Thunderbird / Blue Jean Blues / Mexican Blackbird / Heard It on the X / Tush
Tejas – It’s Only Love / Arrested for Driving While Blind / El Diablo / Enjoy and Get It On
Degüello – I Thank You / I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide / A Fool for Your Stockings / Dust My Broom / Lowdown in the Street / Cheap Sunglasses / Esther Be the One
El Loco – Tube Snake Boogie / I Wanna Drive You Home / It’s So Hard / Pearl Necklace / Heaven, Hell or Houston
Eliminator – Gimme All Your Lovin’ / Got Me Under Pressure / Sharp Dressed Man / Legs / Thug / TV Dinners / Dirty Dog / I Need You Tonight
Afterburner – Sleeping Bag / Stages / Woke Up With Wood / Can’t Stop Rockin’ / Delirious
Recycler – Concrete and Steel / Lovething / Penthouse Eyes / My Head’s in Mississippi / Give It Up / 2000 Blues / Doubleback
Antenna – Pincushion / World of Swirl / Fuzzbox Voodoo / PCH / Cover Your Rig
Rhythmeen – Rhythmeen / What’s Up With That / Vincent Price Blues / Zipper Job / She’s Just Killing Me / Loaded
XXX – Poke Chop Sandwich / 36-22-36 / Made into a Movie / Sinpusher / [Let Me Be Your] Teddy Bear / Hey Mr. Millionaire
Mescalero – Mescalero / Alley-Gator / Buck Nekkid / Me So Stupid / Punk Ass Boyfriend / Stackin’ Paper/ Que Lastima / Tramp
La Futura - I Gotsta Get Paid / Chartreuse / Consumption / Heartache in Blue / Flyin’ High / Big Shiny Nine / Threshold of a Breakdown