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This article was originally published in issue #15
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Like many of the finest achievements in Rock, the ZZ Top formula looks simple. Take heavily Delta Blues influenced Rock, drive it with a classically tight rhythm section, so locked together that it's just about indistinguishable as two players, then add a great Blues Rock guitar and growling vocals over the top and hey presto! instant multi-million selling success.
To celebrate the release of ZZ Top's La Futura, the “little ol' band from Texas'” 15th album, GI brings you not just one but two interviews with the living legend Billy F. Gibbons! Stuart Bull delves into the ZZ Top history book for a full gear and background interview, while Michael Casswell brings us up to date with the new album. Meanwhile Gary Cooper offers a career profile and later in this issue, Danny Gill delivers a Billy Gibbons masterclass!
'The thing that's hard to remember is that there are only three of them - and there only ever has been.' What the man standing next to me was saying slowly sank in. At first I thought he was referring to there being another two '59 Les Pauls like the one Billy Gibbons has immortalised - 'Pearly Gates (and if he had been, he'd have been wrong). But no, he meant just three of them in ZZ Top. And he was right about that. There are just three musicians up there on stage and yet they produce an irresistible tsunami that sweeps you up and carries you away. It's not volume - there are louder bands - it's intensity. ZZ Top are intense.
Like many of the finest achievements in Rock, the ZZ Top formula looks simple. Take heavily Delta Blues influenced Rock, drive it with a classically tight rhythm section, so locked together that it's just about indistinguishable as two players, then add a great Blues Rock guitar and growling vocals over the top and hey presto! instant multi-million selling success. Only it isn't that easy and you can walk into bars all around the world and hear bands who think they have it nailed. Some of them are bad, some are good, some are very good, but none of them has that ZZ Top magic.
It even works on television. Back in the early 1980s, I recall a defining TV moment on a British music show called The Tube. In among the habitual line-up of glam-era early '80s bands the presenter (a then young Jools Holland) introduced ZZ Top. Ten seconds later Gimme All Your Loving was hammering out at what seemed like twice the volume and forty times the intensity (that word again) of anything else on the programme during that entire series.
Funnily enough, the same programme offered a similar experience a year or so later. The studio audience was milling around looking cool and bored and hip, as Holland announced the next act. You could see the 'who the hell is that old black guy?' looks on their faces... and then the jaws dropped as Bo Diddley nailed them to the wall with 'that riff'.
There is, as we shall see, a link. There are connections between Bo Diddley and Billy Gibbons.
If the image was reality, William Frederick Gibbons would have been born on a cattle ranch somewhere dusty and remote in his native Texas. He would have strolled into town one day, a guitar over his shoulder, looking just like he does today, ready to take on the world and spit in its eye. In fact, he was born to Frederick Royal and Lorraine Gibbons, in the Tanglewood suburb of Houston, Texas. Billy's father wasn't a rancher or a gun slinger, he was a conductor and a pianist, who worked at MGM's studios in Hollywood. And it was while he was attending MGM's Hollywood school that, as he tells Stuart Bull in our interview, Gibbons persuaded his family to buy him a guitar. And what a present that was! There, beneath the family Christmas tree, the 13 year old Billy discovered a Gibson Melody Maker and a Fender Champ!
Gibbons may have been relocated some way West but has heart was clearly still in the South and he was already a convert to the hugely underrated Bluesman, Jimmy Reed, as he says in our video interview.
By the age of 18, Gibbons already had a successful band - The Moving Sidewalks - a hit record and a tour with Jimi Hendrix. It was some start to a career and the friendship with Hendrix was celebrated with the gift of a Stratocaster which he still has... somewhere in what must be one of the greatest guitar collections! It also led to a prophetic quote from Hendrix, who predicted, during a TV interview, that Billy Gibbons would be the next big US guitar hero.
In our interview, Gibbons speaks of his long standing love affair with the magical combination of a Les Paul and a Marshall and also the debt he, very generously, pays to the generation of British Blues guitarists who took the music back home to the USA - notably the three John Mayall greats, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, plus the legends that are Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. There is nothing to add to this, than to say, listen to the great man speak. He says it far better than we ever could and explains why going back to the source is always great advice.
ZZ Top got off to a fine start, back in what seems like another world - 1969. The band's first album followed in 1971 and it wasn't that long before the word had begun to spread among guitarists, if not so much the general music buying public of the time. If I mention that I was turned on to ZZ Top by Judas Priest's Glenn Tipton in 1976, it's not to drop names, but to show just how wide Billy's reputation had spread, and how quickly. Already, Tres Hombres and Fandango had become the 'you are not going to believe this!' of clued-up guitarists, the world over.
What was hooking people wasn't so much Billy's technique, which isn't to say he is deficient in it. What was blowing them away was his sound and his feel. Both are fiendishly difficult to write about, being entirely subjective; neither lending themselves to explanation by notation or analysis, any more than do the chugging rhythms of Keith Richards or the spine-chilling power of a guitar riff from a Bluesman like Hubert Sumlin (check out Smokestack Lightning by Howling Wolf). With this kind of music it's not about the notes, it's how the notes are played or even, in some cases, how they aren't. That, plus tone, is what Billy Gibbons has. It's authentic and it's about as American as a bald eagle in a spitting contest with Clint Eastwood.
For some ZZ Top fans, the band's accommodation of electronic and even disco influences that followed 1983's Eliminator may have dulled the edge of their raw Blues Rock, but on the upside it, and the following elevation of the band via MTV to international super stardom, complete with impossibly cool hot-rods and impossibly long-legged models, really did 'take Texas to the world' and, coupled with the trademark beards, made Gibbons and ZZ Top Bassist Dusty Hill icons. And, anyway, making some allowances for the effects (and there's a lesson for young musicians - nothing dates your sound like effects ten or more years after their time!) the fact remains that Eliminator gave the world three of the band's greatest ever tracks: Gimme All Your Loving, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs.
Having said that a thousand bar bands try to cover ZZ Top, rarely with much success, the Gibbons sound certainly isn't out of reach for those who want it. Yes, in a perfect world, we would all have a '59 Les Paul (though we're unlikely to get one for the $250 Gibbons paid for the legendary Pearly Gates!) but for those who despair of even approaching that legendary tone, check out our investigations into the '59 Les Paul mythology, back in Guitar Interactive issue four. After some extensive delving into the mythology of the '59 Les Paul, we concluded that by no means were all '59 Les Pauls created equal and by no means is 'the real thing' the only way of getting 'that sound'!
As a starting point, ideally, you do need a Les Paul or at least, a Les Paul clone. Of those, a cheap Epiphone would be a good choice, but our tests suggest a humble Vintage V100 gets you worryingly closer for a smaller amount of money involved! A Marshall is a must but, as Billy says in our interview, don't overlook Marshall's solid state amps! If you are working to a tight budget, a Marshall solid state combo, with a decent quality Les Paul copy would be a great start. Just remember, not too much treble, and boost the front end with an overdrive pedal!
Even if you don't happen to have a handy Les Paul or suchlike, there's no need to despair. And here is another important point about Mr Gibbons' style. While Pearly Gates has graced every ZZ Top album, he has used a wide range of guitars in his time, not least the impossibly rare Grestch Jupiter 'Billy-Bo' Thunderbird that he was given by the legendary Bo Diddley (there's that connection I promised earlier) as a token of esteem. Gretsch recreated this guitar around 2005, and it is every bit as 'authentic' as a Les Paul for the Gibbons sound, albeit a rare treat to find today.
You could also get yourself a set of Seymour Duncan's meticulously researched Pearly Gates pickups if you wanted - and what they would do to a good Les Paul clone beggar's belief! A nice old (or new!) Epiphone or Tokai fitted with a pair of those would set your socks on fire, though it might be a bit much to put an expensive set of pickups like these into a cheap Chinese copy. On the other hand, they could be the perfect supercharger needed by one of the less than wonderful Les Pauls that Gibson has produced at times!
And what if the word Fender is engraved on your heart and you just can't break the habit? Well, perhaps surprisingly, Gibbons is reputed to have used a 1950 Broadcaster on Jesus Just Left Chicago (from Tres Hombres) so, as ever, there is no one formula and the Gibbons sound can be, and has been, wrung out of many different guitars down the years, from the aforementioned Broadcaster and Strats, through to Explorers, Gretsches and SGs, but always with Pearly Gates showing the high road to salvation.
For amplifiers, as Billy says in our interview with Stuart Bull, he is pretty much a Marshall man, through and through and has a loyalty to the brand that seems close to devotion. It goes back a long way too, as he seems to have had the first, or at least one of the very first, Marshall Super Leads in the USA, back in the 1960s. Since then, though he has used ancient Fenders in the studio and played through a variety of other amps from time to time, he has remained a committed Marshall user with his choices including Super Leads, Bluesbreaker combos and others. For stage use, he is one of the fans of the JMP-1 pre-amp, something of a lost sheep in the Marshall flock, but still very highly prized by guitar tone cognoscenti. A racked valve/tube pre-amp, Gibbons seems to treasure this amp and is still using them on tour, though his have recently been 'breathed on' by the American master-tweaker Trace Davis, of Voodoo Amps. While visiting Voodoo in New York recently, Gibbons apparently ordered several of Voodoo's handmade V Rock single channel heads so, to see what had excited the great man, we borrowed one for this issue and you'll find our review further on in the mag.
To give voice to the JMP-1's tone, the Gibbons formula calls for a rack of another idiosyncratic choice - Marshall's Valvestate 120 power amps.
In the end, as Michael Casswell says in his interview with Billy, a guitarist's sound is mostly in his hands and what you need to do, beyond getting the gear right, is to steep yourself in the music of Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters. This is music of attitude and feel, raised out of dust and made a monster with amplification.
One technique that is worth mastering if you are really after the Gibbons style is the pinched harmonic, made a lot easier when you use an old Peso coin as Billy has at times (interestingly, Brian May is another coin user, which may say something about the virtues of metal over plastic picks). Mastering the ability to clip a harmonic with the edge of your thumb after the pick stroke, is an essential if you really want to nail that ZZ Top sound! The difficulty, once you've mastered it, is forcing yourself not to use it all the time!
We have two interviews for you in this issue - the first filmed a while ago, in which Stuart Bull goes into the roots and details of the Billy Gibbons legend, the second filmed just a few weeks ago, when Michael Casswell met Billy to discuss the launch of the latest ZZ Top album, La Futura. You often hear phrases like 'he’s one of the nicest guys in the business' but, as you can see in both videos, in the case of the Billy Gibbons it's plainly true.
As we enter into the staggering forty fourth year of ZZ Top's reign as the definitive 'Little ol' band from Texas' with the riff from I Gotsta Get Paid ringing in our ears, it is worth pausing to wonder about why a mere three piece band, playing music that, at last in essence, is from the 1940s and '50s or even earlier, still has such power. My vote is for its honesty and integrity and because what ZZ Top is about - sex, and cars and having a hell of a time - simply doesn't date.