Billy Gibbons

In Gibson.com's ongoing series, we're saluting Billy Gibbons, who turns 67 this week. He’s spent 45 of those 67 years in ZZ Top, rock’s longest-running trio with an unchanged lineup. Yup, when Gibbons got the current Top lineup together, The Beatles were still a band!

Who is he?

Leader of that “L’il Ol’ Band from Texas”. Primo dude of the Tres Hombres. The Reverend Willy G. BFG. William Frederick Gibbons. Bon viveur, raconteur, guitarist in ZZ Top and, simply, one of the most badass 6-stringers in rock history. Even Jimi Hendrix, who praised him back in ‘68, knew that...

Yet Gibbons has plenty of strings to his bow. He’s father was a concert pianist, conductor and bandleader. He’s collaborated with the late Les Paul and B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Brooks and Dunn, Queens of the Stone Age, Lou Reed and many more. He showed off his Afro-Cuban skills on 2015 solo album Perfectamundo, on which he also played B3 organ, piano, bass and timbales. He had a recurring role in TV drama Bones, and has his own hot sauce brand. Yep, Billy’s a unique man, even in the world in eccentric guitar legends.

Yet even when he talks rather circuitously, his words always contain a big nugget o’ wisdom. His advice for aspiring guitarists, for example? “I picked up quite a bit from B.B. King during a friendship that lasted for many years,” he said. “One of the best things he said to me was, ‘I always found it handy to learn to play what I wanted to hear’.” Amen, Reverend!

Signature Sounds

If you want to get to close to the BFG sound, you need to master the John Lee Hooker “boogie” - a touchstone for Gibbons tight-but-loose rhythm guitar. If there were one word to describe his sound, it might be “greasy”. He’ll often start his lead breaks before the “one”, leading the listener into his solo. Repetition is part of the mission. He’ll repeat riffs, licks and turnarounds until they’re nagging earworms – check out Top perennial “La Grange.”

For lead breaks and licks, you’ll want to master your pentatonic blues but also pepper them liberally with a Gibbons trademark of pinched harmonics. “If you’re not using a quarter or a peso,” says Gibbons, and he does, “use a regulation triangular pick. The small edge, 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 string), the edge of the thumb can graze that twine and make it whine.” 

Gibbons may employ quite “standard” building blocks and phrases in his guitar vocab, but the way he pulls them together lead to a very individual voice.

Willy G and Gibson

Young William got his first electric “from Santa” just after he turned 13. “Gibson Melody Maker, single pickup, single cutaway, two-toned sunburst. 1962. Pin-striping extra... While the kids from my neighborhood were into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I was trying to learn licks from Little Richard, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed records.” There was no going back.

But if there’s just one Gibbons Gibson that’s become folklore, it’s his 1959 Les Paul Standard, whom he calls “my beloved Miss Pearly Gates. “The first time I wanted a Burst was after seeing Eric Clapton with the famous combination of Les Paul and Marshall. I think that was during his tenure with the Bluesbreakers. I knew I had to have one of these.”

Billy Gibbons

Gibbons’ yarn about acquiring Pearly when he was 18 – involving a wannabe actress called Renee Thomas, a ‘39 Packard borrowed from Billy and Co, an audition trip to Hollywood where she scored a role newly named as Pearly Gates, a $250 check for the Packard eventually funding a ‘59 Burst Billy found under a rancher’s bed! – has more than a whiff of self-mythology. But it’s the blues, folks. Myths and legends are more than okay. The important truth is that the LP, promptly named Pearly Gates in tribute, became a legend of its own.

“Divine, simply divine,” says Gibbons of his favorite ever guitar. “Pearly was born on one of those fateful days when just everything was all right. The wood was well balanced, the glue was right, and the electronics were built in perfectly. She was waiting underneath a bed for years, just waiting to burst out of there. And I was the lucky one who was to be her conqueror.

“Pearly is the reason for my guitar mania... I own a lot of great and valuable instruments, but none of them could match the sound of Pearly Gates. You can hear Pearly on each and every ZZ Top album.”

Gibson Custom built a limited run of Pearly Gates replicas in 2009, which immediately sold out: #003 of the replicas was recently re-sold by Chicago Music Exchange for $20,500.

Billy told Guitar Player of the now-retired from live shows original, “There was a Japanese gent who offered $5 million U.S. Which is an attractive offer, but then again, I’ve spent plenty of money putting together a collection of guitars attempting to find something to replicate Pearly, and it just hasn’t happened yet.”

For an eyeful of BFG’s stunning collection of guitars and cars, buy his lavish book Rock + Roll Gearhead. Other notable Gibsons he owns include what he says is the only ‘50s prototype of a Gibson Moderne (not the ‘82 reissues) – this one he bought off “a painter from San Antonio.” But of course!

Another favorite is his 1955 Gibson P-90 goldtop. “Another one of Gibson’s remarkable additions to the world of solidbody electric guitars. That particular goldtop is a stop-bridge with one working/rear pickup. And sometimes that’s all it takes. In this case, that guitar lends itself to interesting sounds, particularly when tuned down, down, and down some more.”

Billy Gibbons

Gibbons used that as an inspiration for his on Gibson Custom Billy F Gibbons Goldtop. This Limited Run beauty has unique spec – two volume controls, one master tone, and no pickup selector! It features a unique pinstripe design created by Billy himself, which is hand-recreated one at a time by respected hotrod-pinstripe artist Rick Harris and a Gibson artist trained personally by Rick. Two Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbuckers bring the tone.

Gibbons latest Gibson Custom co-creation is the BGSG. Gibbons says the BGSG – a stripped back SG with a Flying V-style neck. Billy says it “came about following discovery in Paris of a mint example of the transition Les Paul produced in 1961. The feel of the instrument maintained power and balance and the sound was right. That ignited my resurgence in interest of the guitar’s glamorous appeal.”

Billy Gibbons

The BGSG does not have a pickup selector, opting to use separate volume knobs for each pickup, and a joint tone control. “The straight-ahead assignment of one master tone control allows a personalized blend between the twin pickups,” says Gibbons before concluding “It’s another example of Gibson’s ‘less-is-more’ greatness.” Read the BGSG story!

But underneath his huge haul of instruments – “ballpark figure? It’d fill a ballpark” – Gibbons knows, “It’s all got to feel right to sound right. If the instrument ‘fits,’ it becomes a positive. We’re always on the lookout for something that meets the tactile test before assessing its sonic sincerity.” 

Essential Listening

Given its bargain price and adherence to the original mixes, there’s no excuse not to go large on the ZZ Top CD boxset Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990, if you don’t already own the original records.

Billy Gibbons

More recently, the band recently released its first proper live album, 2016’s solid, if not spectacular Live from around the World, and Gibbons’ own Perfectamundo (2015) is classy detour into Latino blues rock.

Or, take Gibbons’ advice and listen to the folks he learned from. “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.”

Watch!

Here’s Billy on Gibson SG in the Live At Daryl’s House series – resurrecting ZZ Top’s version of Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You”. So simple, but oodles of groove. Have mercy!