Featured on X’s major-label debut, 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun,
the main riff to “The Hungry Wolf” explodes with a wallop that’s part
Paul Burlison’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” part “Pull My Train” by the
Unknowns, and part aural locomotive. Whichever way you slice it, it’s
all Billy Zoom.
“I just barre my 1st finger across the 2nd fret, leaving the A and [low] E strings open,” explains the X guitarist. “My 4th finger holds down the B and high-E strings on the 5th fret, and then I just wiggle my 2nd finger around on the low-E string at the 3rd fret. The line was initially inspired by John Doe’s bass part, and I just tried different things until it developed.”
Of course, emulating the irreverent E minor riff—which is a fraternal twin of the feisty phrase below—and recreating its aggro pulse isn’t just about technique. Nor is it only about nailing the lick’s signature Zoom-ism, the hammered G on the low string (last note of bar 1). It’s also about getting a bit messy.
“I like big chords with open strings ringing, fat sustain, and a bit of feedback,” says Zoom. “When I play that song live with X, I use a custom amp that I built in 1984. I crank the preamp until it starts to break up, and then I turn up the master for the saturation. You can get close to that sound if you plug into a blackface Fender—such as a Pro or Super—and put the Volume on 10, Treble on 10, Middle on 10, and Bass at 2. Then, cover your ears!”
Zoom’s ’55 Gretsch Silver Jet is also a big part of the sonic equation, as its resonant body is essential to the riff’s sustain.
“Gretsch is releasing a Billy Zoom Tribute at Winter NAMM 2008—which is an exact replica of my guitar,” says Zoom. “I don’t think Gretsch believed me when I told them my Silver Jet was mostly hollow until they X-rayed it. Apparently, Chet Atkins was always after the company to make the guitars more solid, because they suited his sound. But I like things to sound a little looser. You definitely need a hollowbody or semi-hollowbody to nail the ‘Wolf’ tone.”
The final piece of the timbral recipe is the Silver Jet’s bridge-position DeArmond single-coil.
“I don’t like humbuckers,” says Zoom. “They diminish hum you don’t really care about—like hum from the sun or fluorescent lights—and they’re too dark sounding. I want a huge, open tone that sounds as live and reckless as possible.”