Still Rocking Hard
An exclusive one-on-one interview with iconic rocker Billy Gibbons
By Robin Jay
ZZ Top, aka “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” lays undisputed claim to being the longest running major rock band with its original personnel lineup intact. The Texas trio, Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. At a recent ZZ Top performance at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Opulence Magazine sat down with ZZ Top’s legendary drummer Billy Gibbons.
OPULENCE: Billy, you grew up in the Houston area with a father who was an orchestra conductor and a concert pianist. What was your father’s reaction when he learned your career path in music was so vastly different than his – and how did it come to be that he sent you to New York to study with Tito Puente?
BILLY: My dad was a professional musician, so that in itself cleared the path for me in terms of pursing music quite obsessively from a very, very young age. He never stood in my way or counseled me to “get a real job” because his “real job” was music. He brought me to a B.B. King session when I was 7 or 8 years old and that was a huge eye opener as far as my focus on guitar was concerned. As a kid, I would bang on whatever was handy — trash cans, pots and pans, etc. and that kind of drove my parents a little batty so my father decided to enlist the aid of a professional and that was Tito Puente. Off to New York I was shipped and my percussive proclivities were brought into some semblance of order. He taught me that putting the rhythm frontside was critical to moving backsides. Like riding a bicycle, this idea stayed with me even though in rock and blues, the rhythm is out back. When I decided to do a Latin-flavored Afro-Cuban inspired solo project (Perfectamundo), it all came flooding back.
OPULENCE: When you were 13, what memories do you have about the moment you received your first electric guitar?
BILLY: I suspect it started with that lust to be rockin’ and rollin,’ so the move for a plug-in axe was automatic. And, on Christmas morning just after my 13th birthday, it was there under the tree. A Gibson Melody Maker – that was the gateway to what’s still happening to this day. Before the sun set, I managed to get behind the intro to “What’d I Say” and the Jimmy Reed turnaround which remains a part of the conceptual repertoire to this day.
OPULENCE: How did you get connected and become friends with Jimi Hendrix?! Tell us some compelling memories you have about him. What went through your mind when Jimi went on “The Tonight Show” saying that you’d be the next hottest guitarist?
BILLY: Our pre-ZZ band, The Moving Sidewalks, shared bills with quite a few high profile touring acts, including the Doors, the Jeff Beck Group (featuring a shy singer named Rod Stewart) and, of course, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was wild on stage but shy and reticent off. Of course I was impressed with his performance but I was equally touched by his warmth and giving nature. He was very kind to me and showed me some techniques (transposed for me being right handed… he was a lefty) and approaches that are still in the “guitarsenal” to this day. The fact that our admiration was mutual is still a source of pride, so we do our best to work one of his songs into our set just about every night as a kind of ongoing tribute to the man who took the electric guitar to places its inventors would never have imagined.
OPULENCE: They say ZZ Top is the longest running iconic rock band with original band members. What do you attribute to this longevity – what’s the secret to creating your band that has been cool and relevant for generations?
BILLY: It’s been a good time for all this while, so we’ve never really had cause to stop the party train. Because three is an odd number (some say very odd), there ain’t no ties when we make a group decision ’cause the biggest possible faction would only be two. We give each other lots of space, both personal and musical, so when we are on stage, on tour or in the studio, there’s a sense of occasion and really something to look forward to. As far as our appeal to successive generations is concerned, we think that it’s a thing that’s passed down from one to another. ZZ Top for quite a few is something of a family affair. A very loud family affair.
OPULENCE: Tell us about your “founding father” Muddy Waters and how you turned a piece of scrap timber from his share cropping shed into the famous guitar. How did it contribute to the brand of ZZ Top?
BILLY: We had unbound admiration for the late, great McKinley Morganfield a/k/a Muddy Waters and were privileged to share concert bills with him over the years. His music was transformative in a way that might not be totally reckoned with for a few more centuries — like Bach or Mozart. After he was gone, we had occasion to tour Stovall’s Plantation in Clarksdale down in the Mississippi Delta and came upon the shotgun shack in which he grew up. A huge windstorm had dislodged some massive cedar timbers from the roof of the house, which had been abandoned for some time. We asked if we could take one of those fallen roof beams with us as a talisman of sorts and then it dawned on us that we could turn that plank into an electric guitar that would be both a tribute and physical embodiment of what he meant to so many. The result was the “Muddywood” guitar which went on tour and served as a fund raising focus for the Delta Blues Museum, which is still a thriving institution in Clarksdale.
OPULENCE: You’ve said that “Tone, Taste and Tenacity” are important virtues of ZZ Top. Please elaborate on what you mean by that specifically – and how the name ZZ Top was created.
BILLY: Tone is both the actual sound you hear and our effect… how we present ourselves and our music and the specifics of the audio output. Taste is reflected in the choices we make… the repertoire, the thought given to our overall presentation both in public and else wise. Tenacity is just that. We’ve been doing this a long, long time, so we’re sort of “baked in” to the fabric of people’s lives… and the other way around. The name springs to mind because “AA Bottom” just seemed too jejune.
OPULENCE: You’ve been noted as being ‘part scientist, part prankster’ – what does that mean exactly and how does it relate to the success of ZZ Top being named to the Rock Hall of Fame and your being named among the top 100 greatest guitarists in history?
BILLY: I guess the science part is our proclivity to experiment to see if an unexpected result might come to the fore. That releases to our songwriting and production, as well as just keeping an open mind to whatever possibilities might present themselves. Our idea to include electronics in a blues-based music was met with puzzlement at first but the success of “Eliminator” bore testimony to the worth of having undertaken the exercise. The “prankster” part relates to our never-ending efforts to have a good time wherever we are. It’s not as if we play practical (or impractical) jokes, but we do try to maintain a sense of mirth along the lines of the surrealists back in the last century.
OPULENCE: You made wearing a beard cool long before today’s mainstream trend in men’s facial hair being in high style. What influenced your band beards…and what can you tell us about life with a long beard that most people wouldn’t think of?
BILLY: There was no specific influence that made the chin whiskers that Dusty and I sport come to be. We had taken a lengthy break and, quite independently, both of us had neglected to shave for all that while. Chalk it up to sloth or indifference, but neither of us took razor to cheek for many months. When we finally met up in person after all that while, we were both surprised that the other had a beard. It was not planned at all, but the result of a serendipitous happenstance. Frank Beard, on the other hand, didn’t grow one because that’s his last name so, really, no need to gild the lily. Surrealism in action!