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10 Things You Gotta Do: 10 Billy Gibbons

January 1, 2009
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Whoa. When you creep into Jeff Beck’s psyche and receive accolades from Jimi Hendrix (more on that in a minute), you’re clearly doing something right. Add endorsements by Edward Van Halen, Joe Satriani, and the late Dimebag Darrell, plus the fact that his little ol’ band from Texas is currently celebrating their fourth decade together, and it’s obvious that the honorable Reverend William F. Gibbons has enjoyed one hell of a career. ZZ Top, America’s most enduring power trio, have been doing blues-rock right since big-bearded guitarist Billy Gibbons, big-bearded bassist Dusty Hill, and clean-shaven, ironically named drummer Frank Beard pledged allegiance to the band in 1969. The trio has weathered every trend and fad of the past four decades without musical compromise, and continue to fill sheds every time they tour. At the heart of ZZ’s massive success is their collective chemistry and, of course, gigantor guitar riffs.

Gibbons may not always get his due as one of the greats, but the Rev is the real deal, deep enough to hang with B.B. King and Bo Diddley, and wild enough to spar with Hendrix and Beck. He lists King, Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Pee Wee Crayton, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Wayne Bennett, Hendrix, Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, and Eric Johnson as key influences on his uniquely American style. Gibbons is also a respected blues scholar and historian, hot-rod enthusiast, author, and longtime friend of GP. (He interviewed B.B. King for our July ’91 issue.)

With a back catalog of classic albums that includes ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango!, Tejas, Degüello, Eliminator, Afterburner, Recycler, and XXX, and a new album in the works, the band shows no signs of slowing down. Gibbons’ intuitive mastery of touch, timbre, and timing is something guitarists spend a lifetime trying to achieve, so if you haven’t started, time’s a-wastin’! To walk a few steps in Gibbons’ boots, you’ve gotta ...

1.GAIN THE RESPECT OF A LEGEND

The stars aligned for Gibbons in June, 1968, when the Houston native’s band, the Moving Sidewalks, opened for Jimi Hendrix’s Texas tour. Impressed with young Gibbons’ talent, Hendrix began spreading his name around as a hot, up-and-coming player. Jimmie Vaughan has fond memories of a friendly rivalry with Gibbons around the same time: “Billy Gibbons is Bo Diddley’s bastard son from his 1956 tour of Mars,” said Vaughan in the July ’86 GP. “We used to have these guitar battles, and he’d never admit that I won!” The Moving Sidewalks dissolved a short time later, but not before Hendrix laid a pink 1958 Fender Stratocaster on Gibbons as a token of his admiration.

2.HONE A SIGNATURE SOUND

Universally regarded as one of rock’s premiere tonemeisters, Gibbons has amassed a worldfamous guitar collection, which, along with his cars, has been thouroughly documented in his bodacious coffee table book Rock + Roll Gearhead [Motorbooks International]. Gibbons coaxes his signature sound from a slew of different axes, but the one we’ve come to know and love best is Pearly Gates, his 1959 Gibson Les Paul ’burst. Characterized by a grinding, Marshallstyle midrange and chunky bottom end, Gibbons’ toneful riffs have also emanated from the aforementioned Hendrix Strat, a 1955 Gibson Les Paul goldtop with P-90s, various Les Paul Juniors, custom Dean ML Standards, a 1959 Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird made for Bo Diddley, Gretsch Billy Bo models, various Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, a Teisco Del Ray, a Rickenbacker lap steel, a Chiquita travel guitar, a Dean “Mummy,” and the “Muddywood,” made from a piece of wood from Muddy Waters’ shack in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Gibbons’ stable of amps has included various Marshalls (he particularly favors an 18-watt 2x12 combo loaded with early 20-watt Celestion Greenbacks), Crate 50-watt V50 2x12 combos loaded with Tone Tubby hemp speakers, a Jake Stack Rio Grande, a Legend 50, a modified Scholz Rockman, Z-Vex Nano Amps, assorted Voxes, and Fenders, including a Champ and a blond piggyback Bassman. Effects of choice throughout the years have included one or more of the following: Vox CryBaby wah, Jake Stack Bisarktone, Bionix Expandora (Gibbons chains six of these together!), Roland chorus, Roland Dimension D, Lexicon Digital Reverb, MXR Pitch Transposer, and Peavey graphic EQ.

3.CREATE A BRAND

Though ZZ Top’s commitment to their music is undeniable, the band has always utilized fashion and style to complement it. Gibbons, Hill, and Beard wisely recognized the potential of the media, and became one of the first bands to embrace the emergence of MTV, a shrewd move that put them into heavy rotation and exposed their music and image to millions of viewers. From Gibbons and Hill’s ten-gallon beards and hats, dapper suits, vintage hot-rods, furry, spinning guitars, and signature strut, to the band’s trendsetting MTV videos and elaborate stage sets, ZZ’s often outrageous visuals and productions have played an important role in their mass appeal. Gibbons has since become an international icon—draw a stick figure with a cowboy hat, a long beard, and a guitar, and just about anyone on the planet will recognize it.

4.BOOGIE

John Lee Hooker started it in the ’50s, and bands from both sides of the Atlantic—Canned Heat and Savoy Brown among them—fostered it through the late ’60s, but it was Billy Gibbons’ little ol’ band from Texas who ushered a revitalized version of it into the ’70s. We’re talking about Hooker’s timeless “Boogie Chillen” groove. Ex. 1a will help you get a handle on this infectious, syncopated rhythm figure. You’ll find this straight-eighth boogie figure at the heart of many ZZ Top grooves. Crank up your finest Plexi grind and clamp down on an open-position A5, then hit the downbeat followed by each successive eighthnote upbeat. (Tip: Keep ’em short.) In Ex. 1b, we switch to a swing-eighth feel, jack up the tempo, add a C-to-D turnaround, and behold: a classic, two-bar boogie figure is reborn. Ex. 1c elaborates on this riff and takes us deeper into Top territory. Here, we simply substitute a pair of strategically placed quarter-bent C’s for the open A’s on the downbeat of bar 1 and beat four of bar 2, and add a slight rhythmic variation in the second half of bar 2. (Tip: Think “La Grange.”) Lather, rinse and repeat.

5.KEEP IT GREASY

Sure, you can rub salami on your fingerboard or boil your strings in barbeque sauce, but what’s the point if it doesn’t sound greasy? (Tip: It’s in the hands, people!) Players in search of sonic lubrication would be better advised to study the Gospel according to Billy Gibbons. Whether he’s laying down meaty, signature riffs or sublime solos, the Reverend’s notes and chords always sound authoritative, yet effortless, and drip with emotive finger grease. Drawn from a deep well of blues/rock tradition, the following eight examples, some of which have been notated in half-time to conserve space, are snippets from Gibbons’ vocabulary that commonly turn up in his rhythm figures and solo excursions. Ex. 2a’s boogie lick (tip: Play that upper-octave A as a single note, or add the parenthesized notes for a complete A5), Ex. 2b’s faux slide/bluesharp triplets, and the slippery, Beck-style run in Ex. 2c all begin on beat one. Meanwhile, the half-ringing, root-and-b7 major seconds in Ex. 2d (tip: Let the first string ring while slightly muting the second), greasy prebend/ release/pull-off/quarter-bend move (another Beck fave) in Ex. 2e, plus the quirky Rev-riff in Ex. 2f all start a beat later relative to their respective tempos. Gibbons is also fond of commencing his 6-string declarations before the downbeat, as shown in Ex. 2g’s staccato triplets, which are infused with trademark “pinched” pick harmonics. “It’s a phenomenon of the last decade where you can lean on harmonics as a definitive tonal signature,” Gibbons advised GP in March 1986. “If you’re not using a quarter or a peso, use a regulation triangular pick. The small edge, which is designated as the picking side, should be turned away from the instrument, so you are actually picking with the fatter side, the shoulder. It gives you a wider grip and offers that meat connection: When the pick slides off (the string), the edge of the thumb can graze that twine and make it whine.” Fish around with your picking hand to pull one- and two-octave, 5, 3, b7, and 9 harmonics from each fretted or bent pitch. (Tip: For a complete discourse on harmonics, see my Master Class in the May ’08 GP.) The IV-chord lick in Ex. 2h also starts on beat four, and features cool-then-crammed phrasing in the style of Gibbons’ Texas forefathers. All of these licks are in the key of A, so you can mix-and-match at will.

6.TAKE YOUR TIME AND TELL A TALE

Far from a hodgepodge of memorized licks tossed off in random fashion, a typical Billy Gibbons solo is conversational and relies heavily on the age-old concept of call-and-response phrasing. Note how both of the four-bar solo excerpts in the next two examples begin with an opening statement—the “call”—that is repeated in bar 3 (albeit with slight variations), while the ’tweener measures (bars 2 and 4) contain different, yet complementary “responses.” Played over an atypical I-IV vamp (three bars of C and one bar of F), the opening lick and its variation depicted in Ex. 3a alternates first with trilled octaves, then with Hammond organ-style double-stops. Similarly, Ex. 3b divides a spicy 6-to-b3-based motif in bars 1 and 3 (note the recurring sixteenth-to-dotted-eighth figure) with contrasting answer licks in bars 2 and 4. Got the idea? Now, go talk to your peoples!

7.HOOK ’EM HARD

While one hallmark of great arena rock is giant guitar hooks that audiences can easily latch onto, as Nigel Tufnel once observed, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Situated squarely in the former camp, ZZ Top have always grown their deceptively simple-sounding, yet fiendishly inventive riffage to Texas-sized proportions. We covered “Tush” and “La Grange” back in October ’06, so let’s tear into a few monster riffs from another ZZ favorite, “Cheap Sunglasses” (Degüello). As illustrated in Ex. 4a, Gibbons overdubbed three guitars on verses of the studio version. For live performance, he cleverly condenses all three to a single, hybrid-picked guitar part [Ex. 4b]. Gibbons slides A-to-Bb triads—note the difference in voicings between the studio and live versions—to create a chromatic approach to the tonic Gm7 chord, albeit on the second sixteenth of beat one. Compare the notes in Bb (Bb, D, and F) with Gm7 (G, Bb, D, and F), and you’ll find many common tones—mighty handy! Ex. 4c depicts the song’s chunky intro riff, which sports the same rhythmic motif as Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” and, more recently, Todd Rundgren’s “Mercenary.” Add the parenthetical open G’s for extra girth. (Tip: See the October ’99 GP for a full “Cheap Sunglasses” solo transcription.)

8.ADAPT AND EMBRACE

When ’80s production values began to rely heavily on synthetic drum sounds and robotic sequenced bass lines, many groups struggled to maintain a unique identity, but none made the transition with more class and finesse than ZZ Top. Gibbons and company embraced the new technology and forged a new, highly influential and commercially appealing sound without compromising their roots. The band’s 1983 milestone, Eliminator, recently rereleased in a deluxe, 25th Anniversary Edition, featured the commercial blockbuster “Legs,” which offered the infectious, pseudo-rockabilly riff presented in Ex. 5a (heck, there’s even some Beatles in there), played over a percolating synth sequence of sixteenth-note E’s. Gibbons also injected syncopated blues-style sliding sixths, over the same groove, as shown in Ex. 5b. This combination of heavy Texan guitars and stateof- the-art dance music coincided with the dawn of MTV, resulting in the band’s biggest success to date. Of course, a video that lived up to the song’s title didn’t hurt, either ....

9.TURN IT AROUND

Gibbons’ sly reworking of classic blues turnarounds into featured riffs and interludes is another example of how effective emphasizing the commonplace can be. Ex. 6a is a standard turnaround most of us have played hundreds of times, but simply repeating it— as Gibbons does at the end of his “My Head’s in Mississippi” progression—elevates this pedestrian lick to greater heights. Moving to the key of A, the same can be said for Ex. 6b, which is similar to Gibbons’ post-solo interlude in “La Grange.” (Tip: For total authenticity, replace the A half-note in bar 2 with the 2/4 lick in Ex. 2a.) The Rev often incorporates turnaround-style licks into his solos, as well. Begin Ex. 6c by prepping a sixth-position G7 chord as you would an open D7, then grok the syncopated rhythm and picking pattern in bar 1. Got it wired? The rest of the lick is a breeze. Simply repeat the same moves one fret lower in bar 2, another fret lower in bar 3, and sting it with a tonic G. Tasty!

10.DRESS SHARP AND WALK THE WALK

If there’s one B.G. riff you’ve got to know, it’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” from Eliminator. Gibbons’ virtual one-man rhythm section lick may as well have come from the pen of Hendrix himself—yep, it’s that powerful. Pedaling between C bass notes and middleregister double stops, the main rhythm figure in Ex. 7a explodes with an intensity not unlike Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix. A second guitar punctuates the C5 lick on the studio version, but again, Gibbons combines both parts onstage, and so can you. Ex. 7b, the verse figure, begins with two rounds of guitar 2’s part from Ex. 7a, then drops C5-to-Bb5 and Bb5-to-F5 into the same rhythmic motif before the four-bar riff recycles. Follow the “tacet” instructions on the repeat and lay out for the last two beats of bar 4, then adlib two bars of G5 (use the previous F5 played two frets higher) to form the entire verse rhythm figure. Play it with a signature Texas strut, and rock ’til the cows come home.

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