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.”