ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons tells me “them low-down blues ain’t bad”

Antenna

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 1994

By Steve Newton

When famous rock guitarists reminisce about their first instruments, the talk tends toward dirt-cheap acoustics with heavy strings set so high off the fretboard that it hurts just to look at them. Not with Billy Gibbons, though. The incomparable guitarman for ZZ Top got an atypical start when his father splurged and bought him a Gibson Melody Maker electric guitar and a Fender Champ amplifier for his 11th birthday.

“My dad was quite vigilant about seeing something utilitarian come into the fold,” drawls Gibbons, on the line from San Francisco. “He was an entertainer, and I think that he just didn’t relish the idea of a long-drawn-out process of learning. He said, ‘Let’s speed this up.'”

The elder Gibbons certainly did blues-rock fans a favour when he cancelled the unplugged portion of his son’s early guitaring. Since then, Billy Gibbons has seared his way into mass rock consciousness via branding-iron licks on such deathless Texas-boogie hits as “La Grange”, “Tush”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Pearl Necklace”, and “Tube Snake Boogie”. Mostly because of Gibbons’s superior musicianship, ZZ Top has gotten as big as a band can get, but its rise to wealth and fame has all been part of a plan.

“I knew this was comin’ since I can remember,” says Gibbons, “Rock ‘n’ roll and fast cars and all that goes with it—everything that people know me to be about—I’ve had this on the front burner from day one.”

Of course, it helped that Gibbons grew up in the musical melting pot that is the Lone Star State. British groups like the Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had a big influence on him, but rather than one particular act, he credits a combination of the many musical colours that make up the exotic rainbow of Texas radio.

“While ZZ Top maintains this image of ‘the little old band from Texas’, Texas is giant and enormous, and that is exactly what kind of input you could expect to get, even today. We had a little bit of everything, and it’d be a wild guess to really pinpoint who, when, and where. The great news is, even before we were playin’ guitar, bass, or drums, we were playin’ the radio, and the old story of late night with the radio tucked close enough where the parents might not be able to bust ya–man, that was true of us. In fact, it’s still done that way today. That’s the magic of radio for me, because you’re never quite sure what you might dial in.”

Nowadays, if you’re a rock-radio fan in Texas, there’s a pretty fair chance you’ll dial in a track from ZZ Top’s latest release, Antenna, which is a tribute to the old Texan and Mexican border stations the band members would lock into as kids. The raw, bare-bones musical approach on Antenna also harkens back somewhat to the group’s early ’70s Tres Hombres period.

“It’s pretty thrash,” says Gibbons of his group’s latest sound. “This Antenna thing is the result of us really performing as a live trio—we just happened to be in a recording studio. I guess what you get is really the rudeness of the three guys’ garage posture.”

There aren’t many bands from the early ’70s that have managed to stay together to this day, but the Top is different. Ever sinceZZ Top’s First Album in ’71, the band has featured the same lineup: Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard. So what’s the secret ingredient of the Amazing Super-Glue that has kept this trio intact?

“The most honest answer would be ‘Three guys lovin’ to play music’,” says Gibbons. “Don’t get me wrong, the fast cars and pretty girls, them low-down blues ain’t bad, but just gettin’ up there with no other reason than to try a new way to play three chords is still our favourite thing to do.”

Gibbons is also quick to give credit for the band’s amazing longevity to its manager, Bill Ham, who has overseen the group’s career since 1969. Gibbons says that Ham is like the fourth member of ZZ Top, and that there’s also a fifth, more phantomlike participant in the ZZ scheme of things. “On a good night, when you’re playin’ a good tempo, you get the boost of havin’ an extra guy on your stage—Mister Time—just to cut that solid groove, ya know.”

Mr. Time also had something to do with a little career-enhancing coincidence that occurred in 1979. After seven years of virtually nonstop touring, the band took a long and well-deserved holiday: Gibbons travelled to Europe, Hill went sailing in the Pacific, and Beard took off for the Caribbean. When the rockers reunited after their separate jaunts, both Gibbons and Hill just happened to be sporting chest-length beards. A trademark was born, one that could be easily accessorized with shades, matching suits, and custom-made guitars.

“It keeps you warm in winter,” says Gibbons of the famous facial hair. “What started off as a disguise has become our neon sign. There are still a few people who pass us off as escapees from a cowboy-movie set or perhaps a religious documentary, but it turned into quite an image thing. Then you’ve got Frank Beard, the man with no beard, which makes it even funnier.”

ZZ Top stumbled across its highly recognizable look just in time to capitalize on the music-video boom; by 1984, you could barely switch on MTV or its spin-off channels without coming across a slick clip featuring a gorgeous hot rod, a gaggle of hard-bodied females, and two sharp-dressed guys with crazy beards and fuzzy guitars strutting around in front of a barefaced drummer. ZZ Top’s popularity peaked in the mid-’80s, but the band still commands a lot of heavy-duty attention in the ’90s, proof being the $30-million worldwide record deal it inked with BMG/RCA in ’92.

“Uh…that’s just my share!” jokes Gibbons of the 30 mil. “No, actually, that was the guitar dealer’s.”

Success hasn’t spoiled ZZ Top, or given Billy Gibbons a big head. He’s one of the nicest, most humble and polite millionaire rock stars yours truly has ever had the pleasure of chatting with. And even with the lavish props ZZ Top will brings to the Pacific Coliseum this Sunday (September 3)—including a giant radio set and antenna towers—that “little old band from Texas” still hums along like the ballsy blues-rock power trio it’s always been.

“Well, without giving away too much, what you’ll see is what you might anticipate—that being a Fender Esquire guitar and a Fender Precision bass. Frank’ll be poundin’ out the percussion side of things. Same three guys, same three chords. You may wanna bring earplugs and some dancing shoes, ’cause we’re still makin’ music that bypasses the brain and goes straight to the feet.”

 

To hear the audio of my interview with Billy Gibbons from 1994 subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 200 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover of Deep Purple, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

….with hundreds more to come

Leave a Reply