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Happy Birthday BFG! The Warped Genius of Billy Gibbons

Michael Leonard
|
12.16.2011

William Frederick Gibbons is not just a guitar player. He is one the great guitar players. He’s ZZ Top’s beard of weird. A titan of Texan twang. A peso-pickin’ primo. A scholar, yet warper, of the blues.

Billy F. Gibbons turns 62 on December 16, and remains an American guitar treasure. In the late ’60s, Jimi Hendrix praised Billy Gibbons as America’s greatest new talent – “one of the few guitarists I’d pay to see,” said Jimi – and the “Reverend Willie G” has delivered on Jimi’s promise. At Billy’s command throughout has been his legendary 1959 Gibson Les Paul sunburst, known as Pearly Gates.

ZZ Top, inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, have been the same trio for over 40 years and are currently recording a new album with Rick Rubin producing.

Want a 101 on Billy Gibbons’ six-string style, wit and savvy over five decades? Have mercy! – here it is.

Billy Gibbons’ Guitars

Gibbons is famed not just for his playing, but also for his guitar and amp collection. He owns a dizzying array of vintage, rare and custom guitars – grab a copy of his own book Rock + Roll Gearhead to have your jaw truly dropped. Billy’s first guitar was a sunburst Gibson Melody Maker, which he still owns – “I could never let go of guitars,” he says. He also has a super-rare (original?) Gibson Moderne.

But most famous, of course, is his 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard known as “Pearly Gates.” This legendary Les Paul has its own story, as Gibbons relates:

“ZZ Top owned an old Packard, a car from the ’30s. It served us well, but it was really, really old. One of our girlfriends decided to head to California to try out for a part in a movie. We gave her the Packard as a way to get there. Not only did she arrive, but she got the part. We named the automobile “Pearly Gates” because we thought it must have had divine connections.

“Renee Thomas – that was her name – sold the car to a collector in California and sent the money to us. Her timing couldn’t have been better. The very day that the money arrived a guy called me up wanting to sell an old guitar. It was a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul. It was found underneath a bed, by the way, in which her previous owner died. I had to buy the guitar, of course, and I called Renee on the same day to thank her for being so kind. She said that it looks like the Packard went for a good cause and we should name the guitar after the car, Pearly Gates. At the end she said, ‘Now you can go make divine music.’”

How much of this tale – which reads like a fable – is true, only Gibbons really knows. Let’s be realistic: how many farmers have a super-rare 1959 Les Paul lying under their bed? Maybe Billy found the only one.

But Gibbons understands the power of rock ’n’ roll mythology. Received wisdom is that Billy also plays with a Mexican peso as a pick. Well, he has done that, but he is more often heard playing with a Dunlop metal pick and/or his fingers. He’s also used a quarter as a pick.

Gibson produced a limited edition of Pearly Gates replicas in the 2000s (see above). They are now rare as a razor in Billy’s bathroom.

Watch Billy Gibbons and his Les Paul in action from 1980, on “I Thank You”/“Cheap Sunglasses.”

Billy Gibbons and the Blues

Gibbons is a scholar of electric blues: “I’ve definitely been an avid student of the genre my whole life,” he says. His favourite albums, as told to MusicRadar include Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall (1961), Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign (1967), albums by Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Gibbons has guested on tracks for Les Paul, John Mayall, Gov’t Mule, B.B. King and many more. In a harder-rockin’ vein he has also played with Sammy Hagar, Jeff Beck, Nickelback and numerous others.

Gibbons has admitted that his cranked Les Paul fetish was kickstarted by the electric blues that came from the U.K. in the 1960s: the playing of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and more. He soon devoured and mastered all electric blues, but admits there is one solo that tests him.

"My personal, all-time favorite guitar solo is found on Bobby Bland’s recording of “Stormy Monday Blues,” recorded by the late, great Wayne Bennett. To this day, there’s a certain passage that I’m still trying to learn to play.”

Billy Gibbons’ Weird World

Gibbons doesn’t just play good guitar, he and ZZ Top seem to live in their own world. Consider their Worldwide Texas Tour, in support of the album Tejas, of the mid-’70s.

“Somehow I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to get a huge stage set and take Texas to the people,” Gibbons told Guitar World. “We had a stage in the shape of the state of Texas, and a number of rattlesnakes, vultures and even a couple of buffalo onstage. It was authentic! It was disastrous! At first, everything went well: the rattlers behaved, the birds seemed to stand the noise and the buffalo grazed quietly – until one night one buffalo decided he’d had enough. He rammed two glass cages containing the snakes. Suddenly we had a dozen rattlers crawling around onstage. Frank [Beard, drummer] suggested we play “something quiet, to soothe them” – a stupid idea, ’cos most snakes are deaf. We didn’t even attempt it. We just fled and left the roadies to minimize the damage.”

After Tejas, in 1977, ZZ Top went on hiatus. When they reconvened, Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill had grown (unknown to each other, Gibbons says) full-length beards. The only member who hadn’t was drummer, Frank Beard. From 1981, ZZ Top’s weird-beard look made them unlikely stars of MTV, particularly for the hit songs from Eliminator.

Billy’s Eliminator car – a hot-rodded 1933 Ford – became a star on its own. Demand for public appearances was so high that Gibbons had California Street Rods construct an Eliminator clone to go “on tour.” Gibbons’ 2005 superb book, Rock + Roll Gearhead, is as much about cars as guitars. Watch BFG talking about his cars.

Not content with cars, ZZ Top love the idea of space travel. Rumor has it the trio booked to go on the Space Shuttle’s first commercial flight (which never happened, of course), but in 2011 they sent a new song “Flyin’ High” to space via U.S. astronaut Michael Fossum, who is on the International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 28 and 29 projects. “We figured it’d be the perfect song to pass along to the astronauts,” said Gibbons in August.

Gibbons has his own cooking sauce brand, his own-brand picks, slides and strings (all at his BillyGibbons.com website), he is often invited to fashion shows, he’s a well-loved cameo actor in the crime drama TV hit Bones, and his own whiskers have even led to him judging the Austin Facial Hair Club's beard and moustache competition. “A good conditioner is advisable,” notes Billy.

But, ultimately Billy F. Gibbons is renowned for what he does best. On presenting BFG with the Les Paul Award at Mojo magazine’s 2009 ceremony, Jeff Beck said Gibbons’ solos were “like every porno film and delicious meal in one package.” That was a compliment, by the way. For the record Beck’s own favourite Billy solo is on Afterburner’s “Rough Boy.”

Outside of the hot-rods, beards, cooking and video japes, Billy F. Gibbons is all about the guitar. “I hope,” he’s said, “when they’re getting ready to scatter my ashes over south Texas and they open the window in the airplane, they say: ‘Here was a guy who liked the guitar.’ That would be alright by me.”

And that would be alright by us. Happy birthday, BFG.

More ZZ Top:

Get the ZZ Top guitar tone

ZZ Top’s Top 10 Texas tunes

ZZ Top and the Eliminator Car

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