Billy Gibbons is the high sheriff of Texas blues-rock, a style that no other band plays with the crunching authority of his group ZZ Top. For 44 years Gibbons and his cohorts Frank Beard and Dusty Hill have carved a constantly evolving swath through the low-down and hi-tech, leaving behind a trail of albums that, at their gritty best, have helped define the sound of American music.
And Gibbons, has formulated a distinct, slow-burning guitar style within the group’s framework. Like a real estate agent who preaches “location, location, location,” Gibbons has his own mantra: “tone, tone, tone.” And in particular the burly voice he’s plucked out of a 1959 Les Paul sunburst he named Miss Pearly Gates has been his defining voice as a instrumentalist – a perfectly chiseled, big-bottomed, heavily midrange purr-to-howl range that perfectly compliments his own gravel encrusted singing.
Gibbons has played a slews of guitars over the decades, but he defined his signature style on the early ZZ Top albums Rio Grande Mud,Tres Hombres and Tejas with Miss Pearly and a host of other Gibson models. These include a1955 Les Paul Gold Top with P-90’s,Flying Vs,ES-5 Switchmasters,Explorers and Les Paul Juniors.. And for the most part they’ve been plugged into a host of amps to produce what’s mostly a variation on the classic Gibson/Marshall sound — blending low-end crunch with soaring clarity.
Although that high-density sound is entirely Gibbons’ own, his vocabulary of licks and tricks has a foundation that rests on the shoulders of his blues influences. John Lee Hooker’s syncopated boogie beat, exemplified in ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” is an important and obvious ingredient. He also solos behind the beat for maximum emotional and musical impact, and employs whining pinch harmonics, slippery fingered slurs, a hybrid pick-and-fingers attack, chromatic licks and stone-cold blues turnarounds.
All these moves are plucked from the blues cannon, but many of their sources aren’t as obvious as Hooker. So let’s take a look at some of the artists who Gibbons has identified as important influences over the decades, who are all worth investigating.
• Lightnin’ Hopkins: Every guitar player in Houston who came of age during the 1960s idolized Hopkins. The much-recorded and well-traveled bluesman held down local residency gigs when ZZ Top was forming, and the band’s bassist Frank Beard played with Hopkins. Gibbons has a compendium of good Hopkins stories, but his playing reflects two of the signatures of “Po’ Lightnin’,” as Hopkins sometimes referred to himself in song. They are colorful descending turnarounds and a tendency to play some of his coolest licks laconically.
• Robert Johnson: Gibbons rightly considers the bluesman, who recorded his historic sides on a 1926 Gibson L-1 in the 1930s, a profound influence on everything six-string that came after him. Johnson was a master at percussive effects, open-tuned chord voicings and the unhurried but killer lick as well as hot fretwork. Gibbons says that strands of Johnson are woven into his style, even citing “La Grange” as carrying the early Delta bluesman’s influence.
• Jimmy Reed: Another laid-back pre-rock hero, Reed cut records with such a distinctive chugging rhythm guitar style that the instructions “play a Jimmy Reed beat” register with every decent blues guitar player. Reed didn’t actually play those chomping riffs. They were created by his sideman Eddie Taylor. But it was Reed’s name, voice and harmonica on the millions of records he sold. You can hear Reed’s influence in ZZ Top tunes like “Arrested for Driving While Blind” and “El Diablo.”
• Lil’ Son Jackson: Jackson was a Texas contemporary of Hopkins who played in a similar laid-back and terse style. Unlike many of his fellow blues artists whose recording careers began in the 1930s and ’40s, Jackson did not benefit from the ’60s blues revival. However, one of his songs, “Rockin’ and Rollin’ “ from 1950, was recast by many others and became “Rock Me Baby,” definitively recorded by B.B. King.
• Frankie Lee Sims: The Hopkins connection continues. Sims was a cousin of Lightnin’, and is second only to Hopkins in the cannon of post World War II country bluesmen from the Lone Star State. He performed with T-Bone Walker and the deliciously named Smokey Hogg in the 1940s, but broke out with “Lucy Mae Blues” in 1953. Gibbons gets some of his cosmic drone from Sims, who built a style around repeating rhythm figures with slight variations in order to lure dancers to their feet.
• Pee Wee Crayton: Imagine T-Bone Walker playing with distortion and tearing terse, teeth grinding lines out of his guitar and you’ll have a handle on the sound that Crayton generated. His instrumental “Blues After Hours” actually reached the number one spot on the R&B charts in 1948 and he produced several other hits in the ’50s. To hear some of Crayton in Gibbon’s playing, check out ZZ Top’s phenomenal 12-bar “Blues Jean Blues.”
• Muddy Waters: Waters was the original king of grinding, dirty electric blues guitar — a sound he first created with a Gibson archtop and a D’Armond pickup, and then with a Les Paul Gold Top before moving on to other models. When Pearly Gates purrs like a tiger, Muddy’s dirty tones are in the DNA of her vocal cords.