Of the relatively small cadre of name guitarists who possess a sound that can readily be identified within just few notes, Billy Gibbons holds the high ground. As far back as 1968 he was getting accolades from Jimi Hendrix, and after forming ZZ Top with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard in 1969, Gibbons quickly cemented his stature as a guitar-slingin’ badass with a string of albums that began with the 1971 release, ZZ Top’s First Album, and continued with Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango!, Tejas, Deguello, and El Loco—all of which led to massive touring throughout the ’70s, helping to make Gibbons a certified American blues-rock legend.
As the ’80s rolled around ZZ Top got to work on creating its biggest selling albums—Eliminator and Afterburner,—both of which strayed like feral mustangs from the stripped-down, dirty blues ’n’ boogie format that the “little ol’ band from Texas” had so perfected. But even amidst the synths and sequencers pumping away on those MTV hits like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” Gibbons’ cool playing, juicy tones, and spot-on note choices underscored that a master guitar player was always driving the bus.
Tune into Gibbons when he plays live and you see how Zen he is with his guitar. It’s almost a sleight-of-hand trick: His lanky fingers touch the strings with the slyness of a card shark, all the while dealing out tones that seem impossibly huge. Gibbons doesn’t shred per se—not that he can’t—but what he brings is all about timing, rhythm, and making big musical statements without ever seeming like he’s busting a nut. Like B.B. King did, Gibbons has that uncanny ability to grab you with a single note. It’s always a little amusing to watch guitarists who rip into machine-gun solos when covering ZZ tunes. It’s all good, of course, but Gibbons is an incredible “pocket” player who never seems to want to express himself that way. As he puts it, “The real excitement is actually to be found in layin’ back. Ain’t no reason for hurrying. What’s the rush?”
It takes a lot of dedication to maintain a successful brand in this business, and here too ZZ Top have masterfully kept their sound, style, and audience intact for nearly 47 years—an unbelievable feat in itself when you consider the half-wave trajectory of so many other big-name rock trios (Rush excluded). It’s a tribute to all the great songs they’ve written that ZZ Top has remained hugely popular even without having a major album since 1994. In fact, since 2003’s Mescalero, they haven’t even had a new record. That hasn’t kept them from continuing to tour wherever they please, but for a guy with Gibbons’ desire to keep pushing the envelope, living out his golden years playing oldies probably isn’t an attractive option. In 2008, ZZ Top began working with producer Rick Rubin on a new album, but when the effort didn’t pan out, the band went back to Gibbons’ studio in Houston and re-recorded the songs, finally coming up with an EP called Texicali (released digitally in 2012), which featured three songs that are in the ZZ wheelhouse—“ Chartreuse,” “Consumption,” and “Over You”—along with a version of an unreleased tune by Houston’s DJ DMD and rappers Lil’ Keke and Fat Pat called “25 Lighters,” which ZZ renamed “I Gotsta Get Paid.” You can read about the significance of all this—including a dissertation about the Houston rap scene and how the term “25 Lighters” relates to crack cocaine—in detail in an excellent article in Texas Monthly magazine called “How Billy Gibbons Got His Groove Back” (www.texasmonthly.com/articles/how-billygibbons-got-his-groove-back).
The gist is that Gibbons apparently found some real excitement in doing a tune that was way out of the ZZ box, and perhaps it helped kickstart something that got him reevaluating the long-held tradition of avoiding projects outside of ZZ Top. Whatever the reasons, suddenly Gibbons was everywhere: There were cameos with Johnny Depp, the Racontours, and Queens of the Stone Age; he was in the TV show Bones; and was doing promo for Pura Vida tequila. Now an even bigger sign of this sea change is that—for the first time ever—Gibbons has stepped out with a solo album; one that does not include Dusty and Frank. It’s called Perfectamundo, and the heart of it is a multicultural presentation of Afro-Cuban, Mexican, and Caribbean elements. Yeah, there’s rap, blues, R&B, and rock in there too—and Gibbons’ gravelly vocals and thorny guitar tone remain front and center throughout. But a few seconds of spinning the CD makes it clear that we’re not in Kansas anymore, and much of that has to do with the pulsing Latin rhythms (Gibbons tackled much of the percussion duties himself) as well as the musicians that were inducted to play on this project. The BFG’s, as they are known, include Alx “Guitarzza” Garza on vocals and bass, Greg Morrow on drums, Martine “G.G.” GuiGui on piano and B3, Gary “G.L. G-Mane” Moon on guitar, as well as Gibbons’ long-time partner in crime, Joe Hardy, on guitar, keys, bass, and vocals. Some of it was recorded at a studio in Spain. Some of it features the “Cubano Nationale Beat Generator” (listed as “Friends and followers with the foreign funk”). It adds up to make Perfectamundo about as different a direction for Gibbons as one could imagine, yet—and here’s where that old adage about “taking the boy out of the country” rings true—as always, Billy Gibbons remains utterly himself.
I understand that the Perfectamundo project started after you were invited to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival. Can you talk about how this prompted you to veer from the ZZ Top format and do something so different?
That invitation to participate in the Havana Jazz Festival was unexpected. However, it immediately became the focus for “Let’s do this.” A little bit of rock and a little bit of blues is one thing, but that jazz thing is something else. It’s by no means our area of expertise, so we thought about what we might be able to do. Finding a way to merge that with the Afro-Cuban sensibility emerged into this thing called Perfectamundo, and it’s certainly quite the new perspective.
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 did 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.”
On the new record is that you playing the timbales and maracas on “Picking Up Chicks Down on Dowling Street”?
Yeah. The back room in the ZZ studio is the parking place for all sorts of gear, and includes a special spot for Latin percussion pieces. One of the prized possessions is a pair of autographed maracas formerly played by Bo Diddley’s sidekick Jerome Green. Needless to say, just to shake ’em on down is inspirational! An interesting part of the percussive sounds also came from a pair of Corona ice buckets that were transformed into timbale- like batteries by drum-tech wizard John Douglas. Ain’t nothing wrong with that—a dual sensation for a rhythmic starting point.
Is that also you playing the funky rhythm guitar parts on that song?
The Jimmy Nolan sounding guitar lick was the work of Mr. G.L. “G-Mane” Moon, who loaned his infamous “veggiecaster” chops with James Brown flair on the rhythm track.
As you’ve pointed out, the lyrical rhyming schemes in American music differ from the more storytelling aspects found in Latin music. That said, the Latin vibe seems perfectly natural on your versions of the Slim Harpo tune “Got Love If You Want It” and Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.”
Austin’s Hammond B3 specialist, Mike Flanigin, shed light on the deep Cuban influences heard on so many blues and pop recordings from as long back as one might remember. That “Got Love” thing—at its core—is basically a cha-cha, so it was a good fit. “Treat Her Right” was always a heavy rhythmic workout and certainly lent itself to some Hispanic bionic boogie. What was especially satisfying during the Houston sessions was Roy Head’s personal offering of a glowing appreciation of the unusual effect, which really hit the nail on the head. When the red light lit, it went down as a one-take treatment.
Roy Head was kind of like the white James Brown. How did you get turned onto him?
Roy’s a fellow Texan and he recorded for the Back Beat label—part of Houston’s Duke and Peacock Records—and home of Bobby Blue Bland, Little Junior Parker, Big Mama Thornton, Long John Hunter, Little Richard, Johnny Ace, and so many other R&B greats. If you tuned a radio to just about any station with just about any format—rock, blues, R&B, maybe even country, you heard it. “Treat Her Right” was a sensation at the time and still is. Roy, by the way, is still going strong. He recently knocked ’em dead at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. Two wild sets with the second one starting at 2:00 A.M. The man endures!
Hearing a Slim Harpo song on this record was a nice surprise. What’s your take on him?
He was all about space—the kind of intervals spaced between sonic phrases. His song “Baby Scratch My Back” is more about what’s not recorded than what is. Same goes for “I’m a King Bee,” which the Stones covered so brilliantly. There’s a mysterious quality that’s got something to do with one’s biorhythm. The Stones also did his tune “Shake Your Hips,” and that one’s got it too.
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 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 wanted to emulate just that in some way. You’ll recall back in 1991, B.B. allowed an up-close and intimate exchange for what became a cover for Guitar Player. He was very forthcoming that day, which was a real charge. Check out that Big Boss Blues issue from July of ’91. What a privilege and honor it was to be part of that.
“Quiero Mas Dinero” starts off like an R&B tune and then alternates between rock and hip-hop, and finally outros on a blues-rock groove. What inspired that tune, and what artists have most influenced you in the areas of hip-hop and rap?
Yeah, that one is all over the map but, maybe that’s the point. When exploring the “landscape of loud” there’s scant reason to stay with one genre or continent. There’s a bit of that Steve Cropper dual-string comping in there, along with lots of those threads taking it back to Memphis. We just threw everything we had right in and shook it up. As far as hip-hop is concerned, we’ve got to give props to the cats who came up with “25 Lighters”—DJ DMD, Fat Pat, and Lil’ Keke. That’s the basis of ZZ Top’s “I Gotsta Get Paid,” and, of course, they’re products of the fertile, lo-down Houston ghetto—just like Lightin’ Hopkins was so many decades earlier. Quite a bit of time was spent at John Moran’s studio in Houston, JM Digital Services, where we met the Geto Boys—Bushwick Bill and Scarface—and the Cash Money Records guys. It was quite a scene, and it opened our minds to their creativity.
How closely do you and Joe Hardy collaborate on songwriting? I see he also plays guitar, bass, keys, and sings on the record.
Mr. Hardy and I constantly bounce ideas off each other, and the credit we collect on all the projects is well earned. Working with Joe is like having a vision in front and in back of your head, as well as the rare side view. Joe’s an eminently intuitive guy in terms of sonics, and he can certainly jumpstart the songwriting process. He’s a fire starter fo’ sho’!
The songs “Piedras Negras” and “Hombre Sin Nombre” are delivered in Spanish. Are you fluent in Español and how did the language steer your songwriting?
The Spanish language was learnt while living in Mexico City way back when, and the Perfectamundo lyrics are some kind of amalgamation of English, Spanish, and Spanglish, which we’ve taken to calling “Slanguish”—vernacular stuff thrown into a blender with some Pura Vida tequila in mix. Add a quart of hot sauce and it starts to sizzle.
How did the recording process start? Did you layer the initial rhythm parts yourself or did you cut basic tracks with the band?
We sketched the skeleton to create a template for where to go when we got all our players on board. The method of the madness, like everything else we do, is a mash-up of both careful design and reckless go-for-it.
How did you pick the players for the BFG’s band?
We knew Mike Flanigin, the “boss of the B3” for quite some time. He’s got that organtrio thing going in Austin, and we were fortunate enough to guest with him on his solo album, The Drifter—on the title song no less. The other keyboard cat is G.G. Martine, with whom we like to hang out in in LA. He’s from Argentina, grew up in Puerto Rico and New York, and his Latin infusion really brings him as the great go-to guy. On percussion is Alx “Guitarzza” Garza from Houston, who is our resident hip-hop poet and quite an accomplished vocalist in his own right. We’ve got two trap drummers on the road, and both happen to be lovely ladies: Melanie DiLorenzo is a take-no-prisoners stick woman, and her co-conspirator goes by the name of SoZo, and she too is simply fierce. Put ’em together and they make some serious noise. The band just feels righteous, and as far as a bass player, there ain’t one to be found on deck per se. However, Mike Flanigin hits hard on the B3 pedals, leaving me the only Spanish electric guy onstage. Big fun!
Can you talk about guitars, amps, and other gear you used for the recordings?
A fine-tuned array of both 6-string things and a wave of amplifiers made their way onto the tracks. An original red ’61 Les Paul, complete with the Gibson sideways Vibrola whammy, led the way early on. It was followed with a flagon of fine, solidbody Fenders, including a ’50s blackguard Esquire lent for the outing by Nacho Baños, our pal in Spain. Pearly Gates is always in there, too. Our go-to custom guitar specialists, J & J Bolin Guitars produced some custom axes with a theme aimed at the upcoming trip to Havana. Elegant is the word. The recorded sound originates from a mix of some great amps and well-placed microphones. An early ’60s 18-watt Marshall—the rare 2x12 combo—and Ted Kornblum’s latest Magnatone, the Super 59, are in there too. Dave Friedman’s Pink Taco amp absolutely kills, and another robust 50-watt tube combo—known from the guys that operate Bigtone Amps from Valencia, Spain—rounded out the voltage side of things. The new-on-the-scene ribbon diaphragm mics from sE Electronics took in the delivery, both up close, and away across the room. All good!
You employed two-hand tapping back in the mid-’70s, 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. 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.
You have an ungodly sense of the downbeat. What does the “pocket” mean to you? Are you aware of being behind the beat, ahead of the beat, etc? What are your thoughts on the subject of time and rhythm?
I believe it comes from blues … it all comes together in its own quirky time. Just as you think things are going to fall apart, they come together in a most engaging manner. You hear that on those great Stax Records where Al Jackson, Jr.—Booker T and the MG’s drummer—was the undisputed master of finding the just-right pocket and keeping it going. The real excitement is actually to be found in layin’ back. Ain’t no reason for hurrying. What’s the rush? It’s a sixth sense one develops over time and, most likely, probably divine intervention.
You groove so naturally on this record, and it seems you didn’t alter your guitar approach very much from how you play with ZZ Top. Is that true or did you slyly adjust your playing to compensate for the different rhythmic feel?
We certainly wanted the Afro-Cuban influence to be compatible with the feel but, of course, I can only be me, so I don’t think it’s all that difficult to discern. In a blindfold test, it’s the guy from ZZ Top playing on this record. Having said that, I did my best to keep the rhythm and percussion up front and did that guitar thing in back—kind of the reverse of what’s done when you’re playing rock.
You toured with Jeff Beck last year, and he would sit in with you on “Tush” and other tunes. What was that like? What do you hear when that guy plays?
That’s a string slinger’s dream. Jeff was generously enthusiastic about collaborating on deck, and, of course, we were mesmerized while sharing the stage. Mr. Beck is just the most facile player there is, and, of course, that’s always been the case. You know that our earlier band, the Moving Sidewalks, shared some bills with the Jeff Beck Group back in the day when their singer was a shy guy named Rod Stewart. Our friendship and mutual admiration has been something of a long player.
Some of your chords, like in “Rough Boy,” sound almost impossibly in tune. Even though they’re heavily distorted, the overtones don’t clash at all. Do you do anything in particular to achieve that?
The saying, “It’s all in the hands” demands a demonic delicacy when gripping the guitar. And that goes for timing, tuning, and tactile terracing across the board. There’s nothing like the impact of the electric guitar, and that’s that!
Billy Gibbons Live in San Francisco, December 9, 2015
When Gibbons took the stage at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom recently, he did it against the coolest backdrop of four Magnatone amps, three drum kits, two old-school keyboard rigs, and the most bitchin’, bedazzled, bejeweled, banana-seated bicycle on the planet. He fit right in, with his sparkly jacket, raspberry pants, and omnipresent chapeau, but he also somehow managed to upstage the entire proceedings by his mere presence. There is cool, then there’s Billy G cool.
When he starts playing, the first thing you notice is his sound—that thick, greasy, low-down grind that in the hands of a lesser player might be muddy or indistinct, but with Gibbons it never is, even on clashy dominant chords. His artificial harmonics, of which he is the undisputed heavyweight champ, don’t squeal as much as they moan and growl with his tone. When he finally adds some treble to the mix, it’s a pleasure—a surprise that adds new layers and dimension to his powerful mojo.
And on the subject of mojo, that’s the thing that you really take away from a Gibbons performance, even more than the glitz, glam, and sonics. The guy has a sense of time that the rest of us can only dream about—a deep groove that can control a stage full of musicians much like a locomotive engine dictates how fast or slow all the other train cars can move. He’s almost laughably in charge of where he places chords and notes. At one point, he held the guitar at arm’s length with just his left hand, randomly pulling off to various open strings with his available fingers, and every note and every note placement seemed to make perfect sense. When his talented keyboardists took solos, Gibbons would often courteously drop out altogether, because when he didn’t, all you could listen to was his badass rhythm work. When it came time for Gibbons to solo, each one was a master class in taste, touch, space, and economy, with his awesome phrasing and interesting note choices providing gut punches every few bars. When people talk about guitarists who can knock you out with one note, they’re talking about Billy Gibbons.
Billy with Tim Montana in the studio.
A Hair-Raising Hang
Billy Gibbons has collaborated in recent years with Queens of the Stone Age, the Raconteurs, and B.B. King—but one of his latest moonlighting adventures involved the much lesser-known Tim Montana and the Shrednecks, a Nashville-based group who, in addition to being the purveyors of some of the finest country twang, all sport variations of the chest-length beard that gives señor Gibbons his distinction. It was in this light that Gibbons’ collaboration on the Shrednecks’ tune “This Beard Came Here to Party” seemed practically destined, so we asked frontman/guitarist Tim Montana to explain how it all went down and what it was like to be in the studio with the legendary tone maestro.
“I had this idea to pay homage to all the bearded badasses of the world, and my manager thought it might be cool to co-write a song with Billy,” says Montana. “Considering I was such a big ZZ Top fan, I got a little excited to say the least! She emailed Billy the chorus that I had already written, and he dug it so much that he rerouted his bus the next day to stop in Nashville to meet me and finish writing the song. Billy, my producer Marshall Altman, and I finished it in the morning and we tracked it that same day. A few weeks later we sent the song as a long-shot to the Boston Red Sox during the 2013 playoffs, and it was big success: ‘This Beard Came Here To Party’ ended up becoming their anthem for the 2013 World Series.”
How did working with Billy influence your guitar playing or how you record?
Billy inspired me to step my game up as a guitar player by taking more solos in our live shows. I also find myself merging some of his famous blues licks into my country solos. But what Billy does so effortlessly cannot be done by any other guitar player. His tones resonate crispy grit without all the effects, and what he brought to every recording was beautifully identifiable. Billy just plugged in and played, and Marshall would dial in a nice sound on the amp. So organic! What’s amazing to me is that even if Billy’s playing a $50 box guitar, in just a few notes you can identify that it’s him. Maybe it’s something you’re just born with.
What guitars and amps did you and Billy use in the studio?
We both played Les Pauls and I also used an SG. We played through an Analog Outfitters Sarge amp, which gave us a great warm sound.
What’s your take-away from this experience?
Working with Billy is always a colorful experience whether it’s songwriting, recording, or just being friends. Billy has made introductions for me to Gibson and Orange, and this led to endorsements with both companies. He and I have also collaborated on several other songs, a few of which will be on my album coming out in 2016. I’m grateful to have him in my life. As busy as Billy is, he always makes time to treat my family to tacos and a good time!