Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top
by Mike Mettler
Seeing ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons without his trademark shades on is like viewing the emperor with no clothes: it's a startling vision. Yet here's the Reverend Billy F. himself, decked out in a weather-beaten leather ensemble and a striped ski cap, his shades taking up quiet residence on a nearby couch while the lanky Texan is on the phone to the concierge of the ritzy New York City hotel he's staying at to take care of some important business. "Could one of your bellman, perhaps during one of his free late-night moments, monitor a recording of David Letterman tonight?" he asks politely. "That would be fabulous, because we won't be in to watch it ourselves." He then explains, "[Paul] Shaffer [Letterman's musical director] asked me to sit in with the band, and, during one of the skits, the camera zeroed in on my headgear as a joke." The said headgear, which is on display in the booklet for ZZ Top's recent Rhythmeen record, has been dubbed the ZZ Hat de Afriqu which looks like a cross between Rastafarian dreadlock
Perhaps the shades have come off, however temporarily, because Gibbons is Texas-sized proud about Rhythmeen, ZZ Top's 12th album of new material that's been trumpeted as a throwback to the rude, raw, and rugged form of the Top of yore. "Stripped-down and streamlined are good terms for it--for what you have on Rhythmeen is a return to early-style ZZ that really doesn't require much more than three guys playing their favorite chords," Gibbons explains. "When I speak of early ZZ, I'm going back to ZZ Top's First Album (1970).
Although the Eliminator-Afterburner-Recycler period [of the late '80's] was an enjoyable one and still stands as great fun onstage, we're now back to what we really enjoy doing--and that's just thrashing."
Thrashing isn't a bad name for it, for Rhythmeen indeed smokes like no ZZ album has since 1979's Deguello--"Vincent Price Blues" emits a gnarly crunch; "My Mind Is Gone" and "Zipper Job" feature some nasty delay action; and "Hummbucking, Part 2" serves up a tasty plate of expert slide work. Much of the crunch is because the 47-year-old Gibbons is back to playing his legendary "Pearly Gates," in place of the Fender Esquire/Fender Jaguar tag-team that dominated 1994's Antenna. "Yeah, Pearly Gates is a cornerstone," he agrees. "Without saying what's been said about it so many times, the tone and the mystery elements that all exist in this mechanical marvel make Pearly Gates a magical piece of gear."
Gibbons also fingered a '55 Gold Top that's fitted with a P90 pickup in its back position as well as one of four rare, square '60 Bo Diddley Gretsches given to the man by Bo himself. "We entered the new land of the single-coil DeArmond pickup on the Gretsch and that weird P90 on the Gibson," he recounts with a grin. "It was uncharted territory until the day we were looking at the picture of Muddy Waters from about 1953, holding this Gold Top, and a very interesting attraction to that instrument soon developed."
Gibbons' tone is as dry as a well-made martini on Rhythmeen, something he attributes to the mysterious properties of his current favorite stompbox, the intriguingly dubbed Bixonic Expandora. "That particular pedal was the big surprise during the recording sessions," he enthuses. "It's small, it's manageable, and it only requires a 9-volt battery and some careful tweaking; it's like a Skoal can with knobs on it. And there's no worries about kicking it aside by accident and having your favorite sound trashed--it's got three controls on the face, and there's also some dipswitches accessible to the user on the inside. The Bixonic Expandora gives you a warmth that manages to sit with any guitar or any amp."
ZZ Top has been a prime exponent of the blues for over a quarter century, and Gibbons likes what he sees in the genre's future. "Kenny Wayne Shepard is one really dedicated player; he has all of the blues greats in his repertoire and in his reference collection. We're also enjoying elements of the blues that are popping up in corners of rap and hip-hop; I mean, who knows what next great sample will be brought back from years and years ago? I just heard a black rapper out of France who used a Robert Johnson figure. What a wild combination!" Could Top Doggy Dogg be far behind? Only Gibbons' hairdresser knows for sure.