Billy Gibbons: "B.B. King Meant Everything to Me"

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The Reverend Billy Gibbons sat down with Guitar Player for the cover story of our upcoming February 2016 issue, and as always he had plenty of fascinating tales to tell.

Senior editor Art Thompson did the honors and spoke with Billy about a range of subjects—from his guitar influences to his gear to the inspiration behind his newly released debut solo album, Perfectamundo, a blazing mix of Afro-Cuban, Mexican and Caribbean elements.

Below, we present five highlights from our interview to tide you over until the magazine comes out later this month. And you’ll definitely want to check it out. In addition to our sit-down with Billy, we present sneak previews of the new gear at NAMM 2016, plenty of lessons and a revamped Riffs section with how-to’s, self-help tips and more.

Can you talk about what B.B. King meant to you?
B.B. meant everything. Quite possibly he was my earliest influence. I tagged along with my dad to Bill Holford’s recording room at ACA Studios in Houston, and I watched B.B. and his band cut tracks when I was around 7 or 8. B.B. handled the guitar with so much finesse, feeling and presence, and I knew I waned to emulate just that in some way.

You mention that when you were young, your father sent you on an excursion to Manhattan to learn Latin percussion, where you wound up studying with Tito Puente. Why do you think your dad wanted you to be schooled in that rhythm style? How has that experience impacted your songwriting in ZZ Top and now on this record?
My dad was humorously entertained with all the banging and clanging on everything in the house—battering trash cans, beating on the fridge door, and all that. So getting some grounding in real percussion rhythms would be a worthwhile distraction. Señor Puente showed me in fine detail the basis of the beat—the timing and counterpoint—and that’s what has remained. It probably did impact some of our recordings in ZZ Top. There’s a sonic influence in “Party on the Patio,” “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Cheap Sunglasses.”

You employed two-hand tapping back in the mid-Seventies on “Beer Drinkers and Hellraisers.” This was way before the first Van Halen record, and Brian May credits you with turning him on to the technique [see below the video]. How did you come up with it?
Totally by accident. As Frank Beard—our man with no beard—waited for the tape to roll, I was attempting to illustrate with Dusty the high note for the bass-guitar track. I held the low fret down and tapped the high octave, and that did it. Dusty leaned back and said, “Man, do that and do it again!”

Why haven’t you done more of it over the years?
Well, it’s still in the technique corral. Van Halen made it a regular thing, and now it’s a genuine part of the player’s approach to shred. I dig it.

What did you think when the first Van Halen album hit in 1978 and this technique of yours was all over it?
Of course, I liked what Eddie’s addition brought about, including a lot more lines inside the technique. We realized we were spirits of a kindred kind.

As for Brian May crediting Gibbons with turning him onto two-hand tapping, Guitar Player associate Matt Blackett first addressed the matter with May in our January 2008 issue in what proved to be a mutually enlightening exchange.

Your solo in “It’s Late” features some rare, pre-1978 two-handed tapping. How come you never pursued that?
BRIAN MAY: Eddie Van Halen asked me that same question. He was very interested in that. That idea came to me because I was in a bar in Texas and there was this guy—I wish I could remember his name. He was playing a solo and suddenly on went his right hand to the fretboard and he produced this yodeling sound that I thought was amazing—just an incredible extension of what the guitar can do. I went up to him afterwards and said, “That’s great! I’m going to nick it!” His answer to me was, “I got it from Billy Gibbons.” But I’ve heard a lot of Billy Gibbons and I don’t remember ever finding it.

I believe he does it in “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.”
BRIAN MAY: OK—mystery solved then. When I went home, I started playing around with it—putting my right-hand finger on and pulling that finger off while also doing hammer-ons and pull-offs with my left hand. When it came time to cut that solo, it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out because I was looking for something different—something off the wall. Having done it, I liked it, but I was sitting down when I did it. I didn’t find it so easy to play onstage standing up so I kind of got off the idea. I thought it was fine for that track but I didn’t care to pursue it. I didn’t think it was that important until later when a certain genius in the world made it into an art form. I want to say this very clearly: Eddie is a god and always will be. It’s not just his technique, it’s also his color and spirit. But his technique is brilliant.