Billy Gibbons

Groupology

  • Moving Sidewalks
  • ZZ Top

 

Jurassic

 

Watch Billy Gibbons in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous For: The brownest, thickest tone you'll ever hear. Being the meanest white boogy-man in the business. A beard longer than the Ayatollah's — allegedly grown during a three and a half year hiatus from ZZ Top in late 70s. Pearly Gates, a gorgeous 1959 sunburst Les Paul that's synonymous with Gibbons. Comical guitars, such as fur covered Explorers, and guitars with all kinds of crap like miniature TVs and Bowie knives embedded into the bodies. An association with hot-rods, including the famous bucket T featured in the Eliminator videos. Bizarre song names, bedroom/bathroom humor. Recording one of the greatest comeback, and best selling albums of all time. Several big-name guitarists have listed Billy Gibbons among their favorites, including Ted Nugent and even Jimi Hendrix.

Infamous For: Recording Eliminator again, in 1986, and calling it Afterburner. And recording it again and calling it the aptly named Recycler. Billy said in an interview that he sent a letter to NASA to ask if ZZ Top could be the lounge band on the first commercial flight to Mars. They're gonna get back to him on that.

Influences

Obvious: Just about any American blues legend you can name. B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James. Bo Diddley, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Hubert Sumlin. Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore. Said Billy, "I'm always thinking of Pops Staples."

Not-so-obvious: Johnny Winter, The Fabulous Thunderbird, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doesn't matter to Billy if you came before him or after him. If you're from Texas and playing blues, Billy's paying attention. Like everyone else, he was a Hendrix fan. There's probably some Clapton in there too.

Strengths

Tone. When you talk about Billy Gibbons, you talk about tone. So what is his tone like? Thick, brown n' nasty. Like that jar of gunk on the Rhythmeen album cover. Billy doesn't work up much of a sweat playing. He lets his tone do the work for him.

Attitude. Billy Gibbons' music and guitar work is all about attitude. He serves up straight-forward Texas boogie blues rock with balls and tons of attitude. But unlike most Dinosaur Rock Guitarists, Billy's attitude is about creating a Texas cool vibe rather than intensity and aggression. His playing feels like hanging out with an old friend, wearing your favorite worn jeans, the first swig of an ice-cold beer.

Sex. There is a whole lot of sex in Billy's music. We'll discuss this in more detail in the Guitar Style section, but suffice it to say you can definitely get down and do the nasty to ZZ Top. The rhythms have a relentless sexual grind factor. Don't believe us? Pop Rhythmeen in the player, grab your partner and get busy. You'll thank us later.

Feel. Related to the above. One of Billy's greatest strengths is his ability to lay back in the groove. He never rushes his parts. And he never over-plays — on rhythm or leads. This helps creates that Texas cool vibe that permeates his music.

Songwriting. Billy's great if you like the blues. His approach to song writing is simple and formulaic, but he knows how to create and release tension in a song. When possible, he tries to push the blues formula envelope by embracing technology. It doesn't always succeed, but it usually grooves.

Weaknesses

Songwriting. Point of view is everything, and Top's simple, formulaic approach wears thin fast unless you never tire of I-IV-V based blues. The bottom line is there isn't much variety at all. ZZ Top are what they are — take it or leave it. ZZ Top fans love the band's if it's not broke, don't fix it mentality. So they haven't. But they haven't always been as successful as they are today. Between 1976-1979 they practically disappeared from the rock music scene altogether. And after a brilliant release, El Loco, Top floundered until a Madonna video influenced them to incorporate drum machines, hot rods, and Playboy playmates in their videos. The rest is history. And while Eliminator bore little sonic resemblance to the dirty Texas blues of Tres Hombres, the band's updated sound and video gimmicks certainly struck a cord with the masses in 1983. The good folks at MTV did their bit by ramming Eliminator videos down our throats every ten minutes. And like everyone else who's ever struck overexposure gold, ZZ Top strived mightily to repeat their success by dishing out the same formula on too many follow-up albums. Those albums sold, but not like Eliminator.

Chops. Like Leslie West, Gibbons is an almost primitive player from a technique standpoint. Billy Gibbons isn't flashy at all. He never overplays. He's not about chops. He is anti-shred.

Tone

Gibbon's tone is almost as famous as his beard. Billy's tone is very dino, and has more in common with Leslie West's tone and Tony Iommi's rhythm tone than it does with the tone of most blues players. If you don't understand brown tone, Gibbons' tone is as brown as it gets! Raw, fuzzed, woody, and warm, are some of the terms that have been used to describe his tone. What's cool — and distinctive — is that Billy's tone has loads of bite, but very little trebly top. It's beyond fat. It's thick with loads of nasty, ass. Billy, like Tony Iommi, often tunes down as far as C in places to increase his tonal nastiness.

During the Eliminator - Recycler period, Top's blues went techno. This meant everything including Billy's guitar tone — though still brown — became very processed and techno. After that period, Billy returned to the rawer guitar tones he'd been known for in the pre-Eliminator days. Rhythmeen is a terrific tonal benchmark, and I believe his tone has improved with each successive album.

Gibbons has used Fenders and various boutique amps at different stages in his career, but EL34 Marshalls have been the recurring theme over the years. In recent years, Billy used a 1959 Marshall Plexi through a 2x12 cab. He also used a Marshall JMP-1 preamp ran in parallel to the plexi.

Regardless of Billy's amp choice, his tone remains characteristic. Here is a peak into why. Other than his hands, Billy uses two things that contribute a large amount to his distinctive tone. As guitar freaks like Nigel Tufnel will tell you, a 59 Les Paul is probably the holiest of grails in the world of guitars. They're rare, exceedingly expensive, and most of them are in the hands of collectors rather than big-name players. And among the 59s out there, Pearly Gates is certainly one of the sweetest sounding 59s ever heard. And while Billy will use just about anything live on stage, he's used Pearly Gates on almost every ZZ Top album. The second characteristic element that comprises Billy's tone is a roughened Mexican peso that he uses as a pick. Like Brian May's fabled sixpence pick, Billy's peso lends a more metallic crunch and much sharper attack than a plastic pick allows. It improves the dynamics of his picking, encourages false harmonics, and enhances subtle picking nuances. It also gives him bite without cranking the treble on the amp.

Billy's not afraid to change his rig around to find new and interesting sounds. He's used a variety of guitars, amps, and stomp boxes over the years to craft his tone. But at the end of the day, Billy gets his sound from his hands, his peso pick, and his guitar. Billy sounds like Billy no matter what he's plugged into.

To simulate the classic Gibbons' sound, try a Les Paul into EL34 tube amp. You want a warm, vintage crunch rather than high gain buzz. Roll the treble back more than you usually would. Then roll it back more. Use a coin with a ridged edge for a pick — preferably a Peso. Tune down, and play slow, bluesy licks and chirp out those false harmonics!

Guitar Style

Billy is not a schooled player, and if he's had formal education, it isn't apparent in his approach. Yet Billy has carved out a very unique style within a simple framework, and that's tough to do. He expresses himself very well and uses dynamics far better than most blues rock players. He is one of a handful of guitarists who's guitar style (and tone) is instantly recognizable.

Rhythmically, Billy works almost exclusively in I-IV-V progressions (and variants) and typically uses quarter or eighth note motifs. Nothing particularly tricky in his chords. He likes diads, and he'll throw in the odd power chord at the climax of a verse to chorus transition a la Gimme all Your Lovin. To change the feel of songs, he typically just varies the tempos. Slow, for songs such as I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide, or TV Dinner. Faster on things like Gimme all Your Lovin, and Legs. Billy likes fast shuffles, like in Tush, Legs, and Sharp Dressed Man. Nationwide also showcases Billy's ability to change tempo and time signature within the same song to create tension and hooks.

ZZ Top were actually a big influence on Van Halen. For a interesting look at Gibbons's style, check out La Grange on Tres Hombres. There is nothing unique about the rhythmic motif in this song. It's a pure John Lee Hooker boogie ala Boom Boom. The song's intro is a bit subdued, not unlike Van Halen's intro to Hot for Teacher. For grins, take a listen to the intro to La Grange. Now listen to the intro to Hot for Teacher. The rhythm is a bit more technically complex for Hot for Teacher, but the motif is the same. Scary. Billy then hits the listener with full force for an amp-crankin' ass-kickin' jam that stays in your head long after the song is over. The bottom line is that once Billy hooks into a groove, he doesn't stray far from it.

As a soloist, Billy's a blues-rock stylist who works exclusively in the minor and major pentatonic. He's not particularly fast. He doesn't need to be. With minimal scalar or technical prowess, Gibbons has an uncanny ability to cut dramatic leads over simple rhythms. His note selection is quite simple, but he plays the notes with such attitude. He lays back in the groove and wrenches out simple melodies and the rudest possible noises from the guitar. He's more rhythmic than melodic, and like Hendrix, Billy's rhythmic style often creeps into his solos. On Sharp Dressed Man, it's hard to tell where the rhythm ends and the solo begins.

Gibbons is masterful in his use of dynamics and his solos often begin with a few short phrases played quietly to medium volume with a slight distorted crunch tone. Just when it seems he's done, he'll really dig in with louder, heavier phrases — typically laced with false harmonics. A fine example such a solo can be found in the epic Cheap Sunglasses. The use of false harmonics is particularly characteristic of Gibbons' style, as is throwing in double stops at critical moments such as on Sharp Dressed Man. This particular technique, as employed by Gibbons, comes directly from Chuck Berry.

There's a lot of sex in Billy's solos. He builds up the tension and then releases it. And then sometimes, Billy brings you back down like an after-sex cigarette — as on the outro in Cheap Sunglasses. Billy likes to build tension in his solos, and on songs like Cheap Sunglasses the solos are like songs themselves. However, it's hard to picture Gibbons working out composed solos ala Randy Rhoads. It's possible, but it seems more likely that when Billy's cutting a solo in the studio, he's probably just going for a certain vibe. Billy is a big proponent of the outro solo. I've always loved the outro solos in songs like Tush and LaGrange. They are some of the best outro solos ever recorded.

Billy uses the piecemeal non-alternate picking style popularized by American blues giants like Albert and B.B. King. He has a fairly heavy touch. Billy also is a master at hybrid picking (also called chicken pickin) where the strings are picked with both the pick and the middle and ring fingers. Hybrid picking lets a guitarist quickly transition from single picked notes to plucking multiple notes on different strings in unison or separately.

Billy is an excellent slide player. For an example of his fine slide work, take a listen to I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide.

Vibrato

For the most part, Billy uses phrasing and ghost bends more than vibrato to make his point. He has a narrow, quick vibrato (see Legs). Billy often adds vibrato to a pinch harmonic. But he rarely stays on a note long enough really milk it. His vibrato has a sense of anxiety or urgency to it.

Billy Gibbons in Action

Recommended listening

ZZ Top

Profile by Chris D. Baker. Copyright Dinosaur Rock Guitar ©2005 All rights reserved.