Billy Gibbons: The Early Years

From Moving Sidewalks to ZZ Top  

By Jas Obrecht 
Photos: Cover By Rodney Bursiel
Portraits by Kerry Langford

Equal parts storyteller, fire-and-brimstone preacher, rollin’-and-tumblin’ bluesman, and rock guitar hero, Billy Gibbons has been entertaining friends and fans for a half-century. Offstage, he carries himself with an almost professorial dignity, parsing his phrases carefully as he pulls on his foot-long beard. He laces his conversation with sly innuendos, double entendres, and gentle Texas charm. He’s charismatic, generous, and funny, a passionate collector of classic cars, fine art, weird hats, rare records, and bizarre and beautiful guitars. For Gibbons, though, the biggest thrills still come when ZZ Top hits the stage. What he told me early in the band’s career – “If we can just keep getting low-down, keep getting funky and playing them blues, we’ll always have a smile on our faces” – still holds true today. 

In the Beginning 

William Frederick Gibbons was born in the Houston suburb of Tanglewood on December 16, 1949. His was a musical household. His father, Frederick Royal Gibbons, worked as a concert pianist and as the conductor of the Freddie Gibbons Orchestra and the Gibbons Brothers Band. His mother, Lorraine, did secretarial work for Lyndon Johnson. By grade school, Billy had already concluded that he wanted to be a performer. The catalysts?  “I saw Elvis Presley shaking his hips. Even way before that, I had that radio tuned in way to the end of the dial there, and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were just tearing the speaker out of the radio.” 

Billy had to wait until 1963 until he got his first electric guitar: “I got a Gibson Melody Maker and a Fender Champ amp – I was ready to tear it up!” Inspired by records and the radio, Gibbons taught himself to play. “I was not really taking any lessons, just had to sit back on that porch and make up what I could. I just did what felt right, and that was all that wild music I kept hearing on that late-night radio – B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker. I’m strictly by ear. I can do charts, but mostly it’s get up there and turn it up to Patent Applied For or Patent Pending and go for it!” Around the time Billy got his first Gibson, the recordings of Jimmy Reed inspired him to take up harmonica, a skill he showcased on the Moving Sidewalks records and the ZZ classic “Waitin’ for the Bus.” He also dabbled with violin.

The Moving Sidewalks 

In 1965, high schoolers Billy Gibbons, bassist Don Summers and drummer Dan Mitchell organized a cover band called the Coachmen. Mitchell, for one, was instantly impressed by Gibbons’ vocals and guitar playing: “Billy loved singing the blues,” Mitchell said, “and by 17 had mastered all the licks of some of the greatest blues guitarists.” The following June, Gibbons renamed the band Moving Sidewalks, in honor of the newly installed moving sidewalks at Dallas’ Love Field airport. By New Year’s Eve 1966, the Moving Sidewalks had expanded to a four-piece. “Until then,” Gibbons said, “we were three guys making a bare-bones go at it – guitar, bass, and drums, that was it. A keyboardist with a Hammond solidified the Moving Sidewalks.” Inspired by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Austin-based 13th Floor Elevators, the Moving Sidewalks pumped up the volume, installed flash pots atop their amplifiers, and veered into psychedelic territory. But their long hair, paisley shirts, and crossover R&B-psychedelic sound didn’t always set well in some of the honky-tonk bars they played. “Girls liked us,” Gibbons recalled, “but boyfriends wanted to kill us.” At Houston’s more open-minded teen-scene venues, the band’s theatrics and pyrotechnics brought them a following. 

Around 1967, Billy acquired the beautifully figured Gibson Les Paul, nicknamed “Pearly Gates,” that would be prominently featured on many of his early recordings. During our 1981 interview for Guitar Player magazine, I asked him about how he scored this guitar: “Oh, God – that’s a beautiful story!” Gibbons responded. “I had a ’36 Packard that was a pretty dependable automobile, and there was a girlfriend of mine who was offered a part in a movie out in California. She didn’t have any way to get there, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what – you take the Packard and roll on out to California and see what happens.’ Well, she got there and they gave her the part, and we decided that the car had divine connections, so we named it Pearly Gates. She kept that car and drove it around, and oh, about six months later, she called me and said, ‘I’ve sold the car and I’m sending you the money.’ It was quite ironic, because the day the check arrived was the day I found that guitar. It was sitting under a bed at an old farmhouse outside of Houston. I called her up and said, ‘It worked out just great. The check arrived and I was able to buy a new guitar.’ And she said, ‘Well, we’re going to name it Pearly Gates, because I know you’ll be playing some divine music.’ It’s a 1959, and it’s stock all the way. Right out of the box.” 

The Moving Sidewalks scored their first regional hit in 1967 with the Gibbons-penned single “99th Floor” backed with “What Are You Going to Do,” on the Tantara label. With its pulsing Vox organ, fuzzed-out chords, and maniacal soloing, this two-minute psychedelic romp gave little indication of Gibbons’ blues roots or the direction he’d go with ZZ Top. The Moving Sidewalks followed with another regional hit single, “Need Me”/“Every Night a New Surprise” on Wand Record. Their third single, in 1968, featured a heavily psychedelicized cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” backed with “Joe Blues,” again on Tantara. Later that year, the band reissued their first two singles as a mono 7″ EP called The Moving Sidewalks – A Band From Texas, on the obscure Another Mangy Mutt label. 

In February 1968 the Moving Sidewalks scored the plum gig of opening four shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Soft Machine, and Neal Ford and the Fanatics. On the 15th and 16th  they warmed up the crowds at San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium and Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall. After the following night’s gig at Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Auditorium, Jimi and Billy swapped Stratocasters. Gibbons details: “I think we had both just finished breaking all the mirrors in the dressing room over some kind of something. We were having a pretty good time. After the smoke had cleared, we got back to a little blues picking and traded guitars. I had another Strat, a ’57, but it was left-handed, so he used it better than I did. So he got that one, and gave me an original pink Strat. It’s a ’58 with the tremolo bar.”

On the official Moving Sidewalks website, Gibbons fondly recalls another event that occurred during their four days together: “I remember it being very late, like three o’clock in the morning, and Jimi called me aside and said, ‘Don’t leave just yet, we’re going to do something.’ I noticed a wall of Jimi’s amps was still plugged in, standing before this giant, white paper backdrop, and from out of nowhere came these buckets of fluorescent paint, gallons and gallons of blue, red, this greenish-yellow fluorescent paint. And Jimi, with his stack of Stratocasters, handed me one, and I said, ‘Well, man, it’s upside down,’ and he said, ‘Well, man…let’s play it.’ You don’t need anything at moments like that…just pure, raw energy. That night was a rare and most interesting evening.” 

Backstage at their final gig, at Houston’s Music Hall on the 18th, Jimi posed for a photo with the Moving Sidewalks, with teenaged Billy sporting the beginnings of what would become rock and roll’s most famous beard. What did Gibbons’ folks think of their son’s foray into psychedelia? “I was definitely stretching the issue with them,” he laughed, “and I think it’s when I locked into the tour with Jimi Hendrix when I was 18 that they were really kind of scratching their heads.” During a subsequent appearance on late-night television – different sources list it as The Dick Cavett Show or The Tonight Show – Hendrix reportedly mentioned Gibbons as one of America’s best young guitarists. 

In July 1968, the Moving Sidewalks scored another high-profile gig in their hometown, opening for the Doors. In the July 10, 2008, issue of the Houston Chronicle, Rick Campbell described the Moving Sidewalks’ grand finale that night, which provides insight into the band’s theatrical side: “The Sidewalks ended their set, as they usually did, with ‘I’m a Man.’ The song went kind of like this: As it started, a fog machine and strobe came on. Toward the end, Gibbons got feedback going on his guitar, leaned it against the amp and left the stage. Organist Moore stuck matchbook covers between the keys of his Hammond B-3 so that an E chord would continue to play as he left the stage. Mitchell continued to whale away on the drums and Summers, with a few seconds left, started spinning his Flying V bass in the stobe-lit fog. Right at the end, shrouded by fog, Summers and Mitchell slipped off the stage. With feedback, lights, fog, and the organ blasting, the roadies fired the [flash] bombs and pulled the plug to the equipment. The audience exploded.” 

The Moving Sidewalks then hunkered down to compose and record their first album, the aptly named Flash, which came out on Tantara in April 1969. Gibbons sang, played guitar and harmonica, and wrote about half of the songs. A few months after its release, the Moving Sidewalks ground to a halt when Moore and Summers were drafted into the U.S. Army. Billy and Dan Mitchell moved on to their next project. 

In its very first incarnation, the new lineup consisted of Billy Gibbons, Dan Mitchell, and organist Lanier Greig. Billy Etheridge briefly came in on bass. Gibbons explains how the final lineup came into place. “At the time, there was a lot of exchange among Texas musicians, and I became close friends with Mr. Beard, who in turn introduced me to Dusty Hill. After about a three-hour blues shuffle, we decided that it felt pretty good. And that, basically, was the beginning of the band.” That lineup – Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard – endures to this day. 

But how did they come up with the name ZZ Top? When I asked Gibbons in 1981, he responded, “Good question! I just know that we’re in the last bin in the record shop.” A decade later, he gave another explanation to my pal Cub Koda in Goldmine magazine: “We wanted something real bluesy-sounding, like B.B. King, you know? There was this R&B singer named Z.Z. Hill, and that seemed like a good place to start. We also wanted the name to suggest the best, the ultimate. For a while, we were just gonna call ourselves Z.Z. Brown – I thought that sounded pretty right. We knew Z.Z. King or Z.Z. Queen wasn’t going to work! Then one day I was driving with a friend of mine and we passed by an old barn with the hayloft doors open, facing out. He pointed up at those two doors that had those old-fashioned Z-shaped beams on them and said, ‘Look, Z.Z. Top!’ I knew right then we had our name.” ZZ Top made its public debut at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Beaumont, Texas, on February 10, 1970. 

ZZ Top – The First Decade  

In the beginning, Gibbons served as the band’s leader, singer, guitarist, main lyricist, and musical arranger. ZZ Top secured a long-time manager, Bill Ham, who booked them eight-track studio time to record their first single, “Salt Lick” backed with “Miller’s Farm,” both composed by Gibbons. The band signed with London Records and went to work on 1971’s ZZ Top’s First Album, with the emphasis solidly on blues-rock. Whereas Gibbons had relied heavily on whammy-equipped guitars with the Moving Sidewalks, on ZZ’s first full platter he used Pearly Gates and wicked finger vibrato. The trio’s unabashed enthusiasm leapt from the groves, but with its bare-bones budget and production, the album produced no hits. One of the tracks, though, “Just Got Back From Baby’s,” is a bona-fide Gibbons masterpiece, with impassioned vocals and some of the most beautiful blues playing he’s ever recorded. Have mercy! The country-influenced “Shaking Your Tree” featured Gibbons playing pedal steel, an instrument he would haul out again for “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” on Deguello. Another stellar track off the first album, “Backdoor Love Affair,” became a concert favorite. After the LP ‘s release, the band went on the road, appearing at blues festivals and opening shows for Mott the Hoople, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and Brownsville Station. The late Cub Koda, Brownsville Station’s front man, observed: “The band was young and hungry, and their attitude of getting the band’s rep out there the hard way was no better crystallized than the night they headlined in Alvin, Texas, playing two 75-minute sets to exactly on paying customer.” ZZ Top persevered. 

The band’s second album, 1972’s Rio Grande Mud, began with Dusty Hill belting out the Rolling Stones-influenced “Francine.” Gibbons stepped out on slide guitar on “Just Got Paid” and wailed on harmonica for the Chicago-blues-approved “Mushmouth Shoutin’.” He paid homage to slide maestro Elmore James with the full-throttle “Apologies to Pearly,” which got its name when his beloved ’59 Les Paul was not available on the day this instrumental was recorded. Pearly was on hand, though, for “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” “Brown Sugar,” and most of the album’s other tracks. “Bar-B-Q” showcased Gibbons’ patented side-of-the-picks harmonics, which rapidly became a hallmark of his style. Gibbons later confided how he conjured the “Bar-B-Q” solo: “At the time, we were just tearing it up as best we could in the studio, and most of the solo work came in the wee, wee hours. The lights were down, we turned the amp up, and it was just right for the moment. That’s some of that off-the-cuff, off-the-wall playing that just kind of happens. I was using the side of my pick to get those harmonics.” Another highlight was the hard-rocking “Just Got Paid.” Bad-ass as it was, the album, alas, did not fare well commercially, and the band reportedly faced many a half-filled venue during their ensuing months on the road. 

ZZ Top fared much, much better with 1973’s Tres Hombres. The album jumpstarted with “Waitin’ on the Bus,” with its bug-eyed harmonica solo, and segued straight into the 12-bar blues “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” one of the band’s most enduring songs. With Gibbons’ rusty-zipper vocals, crashing chords, stellar string-shaking, and Robert Johnson turnarounds, this song is a must-hear! “The rhythm for those two songs was done with two Fender Strat tracks to get that bell-like quality,” Billy explained, “using different pickup settings for each of the tracks. The lead track on ‘Jesus’ was a Fender, and then on ‘Waiting for the Bus’ I used a square guitar – a Bo Diddley special that was made for me in George Gruhn’s shop.” On “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers,” another concert staple, Billy briefly ventured into fingertap territory. He showcased another unusual technique to create in the whining ending of “Precious and Grace”: “I slipped a slide bar on and picked between the stop bridge and the tune-o-matic. With most of the older Gibson setups featuring the original tune-o-matic and stop-bridge setup, if you turn your amp up loud enough, you can get that pick between the two and get some really unusual sounds out of it. That’s where that came from.” 

Tres Hombres’ best-known track, “La Grange,” brought ZZ Top national recognition. The song is about Texas’ infamous Chicken Ranch – remembered by Gibbons as “one of the more illustrious cathouses in the state.” Savvy blues fans instantly recognized Gibbons’ vocal homage to John Lee Hooker, and the song’s high-octane guitar solo is among the best Gibbons has recorded. I asked Gibbons how to recreate the track’s distinctive side-of-the-picks harmonics. “If you’re not using a quarter or a peso,” he offered, “use a regular triangular pick. The small edge [tip], which is designated as the picking side, should be turned away from the instrument. So you are actually picking with the fatter side, the shoulder. It gives you a wider grip and offers that meat connection. When the pick slides off, the edge of that thumb can graze that twine and make it whine. If you can get around a high-set pickup – if the pick isn’t interfering with the pickup – it’s better. A lot of players complain that when they try to go for harmonics, the pick hits the pickup and they find themselves missing notes. But the higher the pickup – the closer to the string – the better.” 

Tres Hombres reached #8 in the national charts. To the band’s dismay, though, most critics dismissed the album. Cub Koda, who became an astute critic and rock historian following his tenure in Brownsville Station, explained in Goldmine: “As euphoric as the band was over this breakthrough success, the caustic barbs of ’70s rock criticism brought them quickly crashing back to reality. . . . ZZ Top didn’t do drum solos, concept albums, or sing about dungeons and dragons and mythical kingdoms. They weren’t English and had the nerve to be proud of their Texas roots. This, in the eyes of most critics of the period, cast ZZ firmly in the undeserved stereotype of Unrepentant Stupid Redneck Boogie Band, likening them to the no-playing squat-rock antics of Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas. At this point, Bill Ham and the band cut off relations with the press and it was years before ZZ Top granted an interview to anybody.” 

Critics be damned. Throughout the Tres Hombres tour ZZ Top played to adoring fans at standing-room-only venues. On September 1, 1974, that “little old band from Texas,” as they now referred to themselves, drew 80,000 fans to their headlining appearance at a day-long event billed as ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and Bar B Q, held at Austin’s Texas Memorial Stadium. Listed on the poster as “friends,” the warm-up acts included Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company. An aerial photo of the event was featured on the inside of their next album, 1975’s Fandango.

Fandango followed its predecessor into the Top 10. One side featured high-energy concert tracks; studio tracks filled the other. “The live side was cut at The Warehouse, down in New Orleans,” Gibbons explained, “and what you hear is what went down. We weren’t really too much into doctoring up the stuff, you know. It’s fairly representative of what was going down at the time.” ZZ kicked off the live set with a cover of “Thunderbird,” a Texas shuffle previously recorded by Billy Joe Shine and the Nightcaps in 1960. ZZ Top had long been using the next section of the live side – Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” and their original “Backdoor Melody” – as their concert encore. 

Among the studio tracks, two loom large in ZZ’s legacy: “Blues Jean Blues” and “Tush.” The first, a slow, smoldering, late-at-night blues, showcases Gibbons subtlety as a singer and master string-bender. His other-worldly guitar tone and sublime vocals make this one a 10. “We were searching for a blues cut that we could do,” Gibbons said. “We really didn’t want to knock out just another blues cut, but something that somebody could relate to who perhaps didn’t have quite as bluesy a background. And the words, I think, are a little apropos to everyone. I think that there’s enough in there that everyone can understand. We knocked that song out in one take.” 

Clocking in at about two minutes, the raucous “Tush” brought ZZ its first Top-20 hit on the national singles chart. Dusty Hill sang its impassioned plea for some – well, you get it – before Gibbons shut the song and the album down with a hair-raising slide solo. “That song came together one evening,” Gibbons says of its origins. “The particular room we were playing in was about 100 degrees, and it was one of those nights where nobody wanted to quit. We kept on playing and just started making it up, and that tune literally came out as we went along. Dusty made up the words, and it kind of stuck. That particular track has become an old standard, and it was cut with Pearly Gates.” After the album’s release, ZZ Top’s success on the road continued unabated, with Newsweek reporting that the band had “outdrawn Elvis Presley in Nashville, broken Led Zeppelin’s attendance record in New Orleans, and reportedly sold more records last summer than the Rolling Stones at the height of their celebrated national tour.” 

The near-constant touring, though, was taking its toll on the trio. With studio time booked for the next album, the band had only one song ready, Billy’s nylon-string instrumental “Asleep in the Desert.” So Tejas, as the new album was called, was reported to have been recorded piecemeal. Frank Beard explained to Cub Koda, “At the time we were touring so much that that was literally true. A lotta times we’d go into the studio and do one or two songs, then go off and tour for two or three more months and come back and do a couple more songs. It didn’t really have a good feel to it, and Tejas is probably the album we like least of any of ’em.” This is not to say that Tejas is a throwaway. “Arrested for Driving While Blind” is another classic ZZ shuffle, and “She’s a Heartbreaker” provides a rare example of Gibbons bowing an electric violin. 

Burned out as they were, ZZ Top now faced the most daunting schedule of their career: the 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour. A year-and-a-half’s worth of dates had been booked, and $140,000 had been spent on an onstage menagerie of longhorn cattle, bison, a coyote, and rattlesnakes. These Texas critters were displayed onstage amid cactus. More than a million tickets were sold during the tour. When it ended and the final figures were tallied – a whopping $11.5 million – it was declared one of the highest-grossing rock tours in history. 

Exhausted from being so long in the center of the maelstrom, the musicians decided to take a “short vacation” that ended up lasting two years. “We had really turned in the time on the road,” Gibbons explained. “Our touring schedule was incessant, non-stop, and it had been going on for quite some time. And you’re right – that was one of the largest tours that has ever hit the road – not in terms of size, but in terms of length. I don’t think we saw the light of day for months. And shortly thereafter, we all decided it was better to unsaddle that pony. We didn’t want to ride him into the ground. This is a wild business, definitely seat-belt city. We all took off and went our separate ways. We had made quite a few friends around the world, and we each took time off to venture out. Musically. I think it was kind of rewarding for us because it allowed us to remove ourselves from this intense togetherness as the group ZZ Top and go out and explore some personal realms.”

During his hiatus from recording, Billy traveled the world, playing the blues on the French Riviera, touring North Africa, Europe, and all points in between. For a while he joined an artist collective in Paris, called Artiste Contemporaire. He also began experimenting with synthesizers, which would eventually play a huge role in the band’s sonic transformations during the 1980s and beyond. Meanwhile, manager Bill Ham went to work extricating ZZ Top from its contract with London Records and oversaw the release of The Best of ZZ Top album.  

During the summer of 1978, Billy paid a visit to the California offices of my employer at the time, Guitar Player magazine. He stuck his head in my office door to say hello. I was instantly impressed with his classy demeanor and self-effacing personality. We hit it off that day and agreed to stay in touch. Soon thereafter, Billy began sending me all sorts of cool stuff – arty band-themed postcards, a ZZ Top “Ain’t No Mexican Jail Gonna Hold Us” wanted poster, typed and handwritten letters, a silver guitar pick he’d had made out of a Mexican peso, “ZZ Top for President” bumper stickers, freeze-dried shipments of his favorite Memphis barbecue, and lots of other swag. Gibbons proved to be a very fine guy, and eventually we did several in-depth interviews together. 

A few months after Billy’s visit, Bill Ham announced that ZZ Top had signed with Warner Brothers Records. The band began recording its next album in a variety of studios in the Deep South. The result, 1979’s Deguello, is a masterwork of taste, tone, and tenacity – it’s also my all-time favorite ZZ Top album. Its title is Spanish for “no quarter.” “Deguello was the result of us having gotten back together after quite some time,” Gibbons said, “and it was most rewarding. When it came time to record it, we were really searching out some exotic spots. There are a couple of little huts – I keep referring to these places as huts – that are really great to go in. It just goes to show that even now, when everything is modernized and homogenized to the hilt, there are still a few little out-of-the-way spots you can go, kick back, relax, and just turn on the old-time recorder and lay it down. 

“I usually used about two or three tracks for guitar. The amplifiers we used are still the same old tube-type amps that old Jake Stack made for us. We’ve had those since our appearance with the Rolling Stones in 1972. Jake Stack, who operates a place called Jake’s Bait and Music down on the coast of Texas, turns out an interesting amplifier. Those are Rio Grande amps. They’re rated about 125-130 watts. We still use them onstage too.” 

The band jumpstarted Deguello with a holds-its-own cover of Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You.” Images of smoking women, speedy cars, rhinestone shades, stickpins, and New York brims imparted cool vibes to the original songs “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “She Loves My Automobile,” “A Fool for Your Stockings,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” and “Lowdown in the Streets.” In preparation for the sessions, all three members of the band had taken saxophone lessons – Gibbons on baritone, Hill on tenor, Beard on alto. Billed in the album credits as the “Lone Wolf Horns,” the trio played the horn parts of “She Loves My Automobile” and “Hi-Fi Mama” themselves, rather than relying on studio musicians. Another album highlight was a rip-roaring cover of Elmore James’ slide tune “Dust My Broom.” “That was done with a Scrotchtone guitar with an open-D tuning,” Gibbons revealed. “That Scrotchtone is another piece out of Texas. That cut was done on the first take, and the guitar is a little out of tune.” 

With Deguello, Billy began using a modern effects board to shape his sound: “Haley Labs of Austin put together a fairly ingenious one for us. It has a computerized setup that integrates a flanger, Harmonizers, and a Roland chorus unit. There is one effect you can hear on ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ called a Bisarktone. This is actually one of Jake Stack’s creations. And Mr. Haley has managed to combine all of these effects and put them in line with these amplifiers – one pedal, operable by either an engineer or the player. It’s proved to be most intriguing. Gone is the cumbersome giant plank of wood that has hundreds of pedals screwed down to it. Here’s everything nicely rack-mounted. That, I think, makes it less taxing on the brain.” To enhance his tone, Gibbons had his guitars set up with higher-than-normal action and strung with “Billy G” strings, which are gauged from .011 to .052. His choice of picks also affected his tone: “I use a quarter. I’ve been using a 25c piece for a long, long time – that’s when I can get ’em! It gives a real nice, rich tone. If you’re not careful, it will take a toll on the guitar strings, but it’s beefy and chewy.” He’s also been known to use traditional plastic picks. 

By the time ZZ Top’s first decade came to a close, Gibbons had amassed a formidable collection of vintage Fenders, Gibsons, Gretches, and other highly desirable guitars, as well as more than a few unusual specimens of American craftsmanship. As he explained at the time, “I think there’s probably close to 150, 200 guitars, maybe. And several people have helped me to take care of them over the years, including Jimmy Emerson, Bill Tickle, and Dave Blayney. These guys are all very qualified technicians. Our motto is, ‘If we can’t fix it, we can fix it so nobody else can.’ In terms of finding the guitars, my mainstays have been Tony Dukes and George Gruhn. They have been more than instrumental in locating just about anything you can dream up. If it’s out there, they can find it. 

“The majority of my collection is completely stock, just like it was right off the shelf. There’s a corner that we’ve saved for some of the more exotic tortures that have been performed on a few instruments, but those are pretty much for laughs. We do get around to using most of these instruments, and it’s pretty amazing. I’ve got a guitar that was made of parts off a Model T! It sounds pretty rustic – primitivo!” Asked about his all-time favorite guitar setup, Gibbons responded, “Pearly Gates and a Fender amp – give me a piggyback Bassman in blonde!” 

As the 1970s drew to a close, “I Thank You” was climbing up the singles charts and ZZ Top could look back on their first decade with feelings of accomplishment and pride. In the ensuing years, they would be on the forefront of the music video explosion, winning a new generation of fans with Eliminator and Afterburner, and go on to record several more high-quality albums to the delight of millions of fan. Forty-five years after its formation, the classic lineup – Gibbons, Hill, and Beard – is still hitting it hard. When I’m in the mood for some ZZ Top, I often find myself reaching back to “Just Got Back From Baby’s,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Blue Jean Blues,” “La Grange,” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.” These classics still raise the hairs on my arm and make me grateful that I have ears to hear. Thanks, Billy! 


Over the decades I’ve had many close encounters with Billy Gibbons – cover story interviews for Guitar Player magazine, surprise phone calls, assorted backstage wildness . . . . My favorite moment with him occurred at an Indianapolis photo studio in 1991. We had decided to interview B.B. King together for a Guitar Player cover story, and arranged to meet at the airport. As Billy and I waited at the luggage carousel, a cheap guitar case came up the conveyor. Billy grabbed that case and the rest of his luggage, and off we went. The next day we were at the Bill Reitzel photo shoot with Mr. King, and Billy opened up the case and pulled out Pearly Gates. I was stunned. “Gibbons,” I exclaimed, “I can’t believe you put a’59 Les Paul in airline luggage. Why didn’t you buy it a seat?!” Billy smiled slyly and handed me the guitar. “Take a real close look at it, amigo.” Holding it up to my face, I noticed tiny registration marks in the guitar’s coloring. Someone had glued a full-sized photographic reproduction of Pearly Gates onto the face of another Les Paul and varnished it over. From more than a few inches away, you’d swear that instrument was Pearly. “American ingenuity,” Gibbons said, sagely raising his index finger, “does not end with the paint job.”

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