Reverb Interview: Billy Gibbons, More Than Meets The Beard

Rocking through the years — more than 45 at this point — with his Texas blues-boogie-rock band ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons has racked up enough distinctions to make him one of music’s most celebrated guitarists. And celebrated is hardly an exaggeration: No less than Jimi Hendrix, it is said, dubbed Gibbons a teenage guitar prodigy.

Since learning to play the opening of “Foxy Lady” from Hendrix himself, Gibbons has moved from strength to strength as a six-string slinger. And though ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, he has hardly rested on his laurels. Today, “That Little Ol' Band from Texas” is one of the few acts in history that has lasted more than four decades with its original lineup. To put in perspective: When Gibbons formed the current ZZ Top, The Beatles were still together.

Yet if you think of Gibbons as just a hard-rocking guitarist, guess again and again. The son of a concert pianist, conductor and bandleader, Gibbons has collaborated with the late Les Paul and showed off his Afro-Cuban chops with the 2015 solo album Perfectamundo. Is that Gibbons on the B3 organ and piano? Yes. Is that him playing bass? Si, señor. And … timbales? Long before he set the rock world on fire, Gibbons was sent by his father to study spicy percussion with the legendary “Mambo King” Tito Puente.

Gibbons doesn’t give many interviews. In part, it’s because the 66-year-old is too busy rocking out. He’s on ZZ’s Hell Raisers tour, which hits Europe and Scandinavia after its North American run. But he sat down with Reverb to talk about what keeps ZZ Top going, how his passion for guitar started—and answers the obligatory questions about gear and beards.

Take us back to the moment when you knew you wanted to play guitar as a living and a life. How old were you, and what were the circumstances when the light bulb went off?

I was maybe five or six when I saw Elvis Presley. My mom took me and my sister to see him and I was pretty transfixed and thought: This could be something I’d want to do. A few years later my dad took me to see B.B. King record, and that’s when the idea of playing became a fixed one. Elvis and B.B., two real “kings.” Talk about sourcing one’s inspirations at the font of it all. [Editors note: Gibbons originally wanted to name the group ZZ King, in part as a tribute to those giants.]

Billy Gibbons

Even though it’s the same three guys in the band, we’d imagine the telepathy and vibe have really evolved over the decades. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in terms of the dynamic between you, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard?

Telepathy is exactly the word to describe how we communicate. The band anticipates each other’s moves with an algorithmic sense about each other. Each of us deals with the amalgamation as an individual, although we’re a collective. Also, muscle memory is certainly a significant element in how it works together.

Tell us about the ongoing Hell Raisers tour. You’ve obviously prepped folks by saying that it’ll be “a good, loud time.” What else can you tell us? Any chestnuts, for example?

We’re gonna go way back — earlier than even the very appropriately titled ZZ Top’s First Album, so you’ll be hearing some things you might never have heard, even if all of the records are memorized. We always throw some Jimi Hendrix into the mix because without him we probably wouldn’t be doing this.

Speaking of Hendrix, much has been said about your friendship with him — but you’ve also been asked every question on the planet about it. If there were anything you wish an interviewer would ask about, but hasn’t, what would it be?

Maybe about the offstage Jimi. He was, essentially, a soft-spoken and rather shy guy — very much at odds with the brilliant, flamboyant showman onstage. He was very generous and engaged but didn’t impose himself on others. I think he had a terrific sense of balance in terms of how he expended his energy.

Billy Gibbons

There’s also a lot in your background people don’t always know about: studying with Tito Puente, for example, and your father’s influence as a pianist and conductor. How did those earliest experiences impact the musician you are today?

Dad certainly instilled the idea that playing could be pursued professionally. It wasn’t a hobby or distraction for him; it’s what he did. His bent was classical and orchestral, so what I did wasn’t exactly in line with his sonic skew, but I did take a cue from his work ethic. Tito Puente, his good friend, admonished us to “play what you want to hear … take it all the way.”

It’s fairly ironic that a drummer named Frank Beard doesn’t grow the same legendary beard as you and Dusty. Any insight as to why?

Billy Gibbons

It might be wrapped up in his identity — why grow your name on your face when it’s on your birth certificate? He may also be, in some way, follicle-ly challenged but I can’t confirm that. We’ve been juxtaposed for four-plus decades, but there are some questions best not asked.

Guitarists make a lot of the gear they use and buy. But what has been your approach from the heart and soul in terms of how you play?

It’s all got to feel right to sound right. If the instrument “fits,” it becomes a positive. We’re always on the lookout for something that meets the tactile test before assessing its sonic sincerity.

And now, the desert island question: You have just one guitar, one amp and one effects pedal you can take with you. What are you packing?

Guitar-wise, it’s gotta be Pearly Gates, our beloved 1959 Les Paul Standard. It’s the one that sounds like it’s inhabited by a very willing collaborator — maybe akin to a conjoined twin. The amp is gonna be a Magnatone Super 59 with tube circuitry, true vibrato and lots of power. But where is the electric coming from on that island? If we crank it up a bit, you’d be able to be heard by passing ships quite a few miles off shore. We’d have our genius guitar tech Elwood Francis whip us up an all-in-one effects pedal … but is there gonna be a soldering gun on that island?

Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons

RELATED ARTICLE



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lou Carlozo

Lou Carlozo is a studio musician, engineer and producer based in Chicago and a former Chicago Tribune music editor and writer. In 2013 he scored and performed the soundtrack for the independent comedy “We’ve Got Balls,” which won multiple awards on nationwide festival circuits.

comments powered by Disqus