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How to Capture Billy Gibbons’ ZZ Top Guitar Tone

The Next in a Series of Step-by-Step Guides to Home Recording

Jim Dalrymple
|
06.28.2010

Have you ever tried to play like one of your guitar heroes, but weren’t able to get your tone quiet right? Allow us to lend a hand. Straight from the Gibson archives, “The Gibson Classic Tone Tip” can help you sound just like some of music’s biggest stars and greatest legends. Today we feature the furry tone of Billy Gibbons. With ZZ Top, Billy’s been pumping out that Texas roadhouse sound since the ’60s. Clearly this is tone that has “Legs.”

Billy Gibbons is one of those guitarists you can recognize from looking at him or from hearing his guitar playing. Both styles are so unique they rarely get confused for someone else.

Using a long list of Gibson guitars, including his iconic '59 Les Paul known as "Pearly Gates," Gibbons has tirelessly led ZZ Top to become one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. Along the way, the legendary power-rock trio has managed to maintain a constant and easily recognizable sound for almost 40 years.

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You’re not likely to find a single person sitting down in a club when one of ZZ Top’s classic songs is being played. Whether it’s the beat, the lyrics, or that bluesy guitar tone, something always brings people to their feet for “Tush,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” and “Tube Snake Boogie.”

What’s more, the band is still touring. As a matter of fact, they are in the midst of a summer tour right now, so if you haven’t had a chance to see them, there is still time.

When it comes to guitar tone, Gibbons uses what you would expect any rockin’ blues man to have in his arsenal, including Gibson guitars and Marshall amps. He has also been known to use a Fuzz pedal and a couple of other devices too.

For our purposes, in building Gibbons’ ZZ Top guitar tone at a home computer, I am going to go very simple and let the amp do the talking. I’ve said before if you start off with the right amp, you won’t need a bunch of pedals to make your tone sound like you want it to.

Gibbons has used a Marshall Plexi amp and a JCM 800. I’m going to use the Plexi model in Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3 because I think it is a closer match for the sound we’re going after.

Even though Gibbons’ tone is a bluesy rock tone, we are going to go more to the blues side of the scale. That means that we won’t need as much gain in the amp as guitar players that use a chunkier rock tone.

To get the ZZ Top tone, set your Plexi amp to these settings: Volume 7; Volume II 2; Bass 1; Mid 10; Treble 9; and Presence 2. The cabinet is also going to need some adjustments too. Move the mic slider 80 percent to the right on mic B and the Dry/Air mix to 3.31. The master volume on the cab should be at 7.

I only added one effect in the whole setup and that is a Treble Booster. I have the Boost set at 6 and the Bright set at 8.

We could have probably gotten away without using the Treble Booster if we had of chosen the JCM 800 amp model, but I think this works much better. Out of the box, we get a cleaner, crunchier sound without the need for extra effects by using the Plexi.

That’s it. You should be able to get a good rendition of most of ZZ Top’s most played songs by using those settings.

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