Every time Vintage Guitar sets up an interview with the redoubtable Billy F Gibbons, lead guitarist/vocalist of the legendary Texas trio ZZ Top, it’s always a matter of “expect the unexpected.” The L’il Ol’ Band from Texas has been going strong for 30 years, and their latest studio release is the 17-track Mescalero (RCA), which avers that the band is as potent as ever. Ditto their 2003-’04 Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers and the Summer ’04 El Cabron tour supporting the newest release.
The band continues working hard, reaffirming its status as one of the preeminent purveyors of Texas Tone. There’s also a pair of fresh grandé releases – the four-CD boxed set Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (with a number of early tracks and other rarities), and Rancho Texicano, another fascinating package that brings to light a few previously unreleased tracks and some alternate takes of some ZZ Top favorites.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the fresh cuts that make up Mescalero were first and foremost on Rev. Gibbons’ mind when we recently went on-the-record. Pontificating from the road, the good Reverend was amenable to discussing the aforementioned discs, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and various other topics.
Vintage Guitar: Going into the studio to do Mescalero, did you have an overall concept of what guitars and amplifiers you were going to use? And what did you end up utilizing?
Billy F Gibbons: Early in the recording process, it became obvious that this album would require something quite a bit different. Our two engineers, Joe Hardy and Mr. G.L. “G-Mane” Moon, had a go at the guitar vault, searching for that rare, perhaps waiting-to-be-seen instrument, at which time they discovered a lonely case at the bottom of the stack. It turned out to be the 1959 Jupiter Thunderbird Gretsch made for Bo Diddley. After pulling it out and re-stringing it, making sure everything worked – the tires were kicked – that peculiar instrument lent some interesting sounds in the mix of this madness.
The title track starts things off with some interesting tones; for instance, there’s the ratchet-like instrument that kicks in after a few measures.
That is the delightful Dust (Hill) doing his “fuzztone finger” thing. He’s one of the few instrumentalists that has distortion built into his digits! I don’t quite know how to describe it other than, uh… he’s a freak! He did use one of the interesting stompboxes from Austone in the middle of the signal path, and that certainly assisted in grinding it up a bit in the opening few bars.
Then there are the marimbas at the end of the song. Even with the overall “vibe” of the album, fans probably wouldn’t expect that.
Yes. The marimbas were kind of an automatic decision as an add-in. During the recording sessions, we often took lunch at our favorite Mexican haunt, which provided entertainment by an authentic Mexican marimba duet. One played the bass end of the contraption, one played the solo end, and they turned out to be a father/son team that spoke no English but were very eager to get into a rock and roll studio scene. I think the deal that closed it was the fact we explained there’s only three chords! They graciously added their special touch. It’s quite an interesting addition.
In “Alley-Gator,” is that the ’55 Gibson P-90 goldtop that you’ve noted in these pages before?
Yes, 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.
There’s also a broken-up guitar signal on that song, and on the album’s final track, “Liquor.”
Ah, yes. It’s a special effect created in studio, appearing first during the Rhythmeen recording session. It’s quite a complex series of hoops to jump through getting to that broken-up sound. But for convenience we now refer to it as “The Frazz.” You might consider listening once or twice just to make sure that your record player is not broken.
“Goin’ So Good” has a plaintive instrumental intro; the call-and-respond between guitar and steel sounds conversational.
That was inspired by Steve Cropper’s great soul-guitar riffs. The entire guitar section smacks of Memphis/Stax days, and we were assisted by D. “Steel” Dougmore, with his inimitable style on the pedals. It makes for a real moody element.
I was attempting to call attention to the inspiration provided by so many of the great works of Steve Cropper’s guitar technique. As he has often made mention of, his sound, which has become so identifiable, emanated from his use of the Fender Telecaster with a Fender tweed Harvard amp. To this day, that is a stunning combination when used either with a single rear pickup or even switching to the middle position, igniting both pickups. It seems the Harvard is just right for a close-mic’ed studio setup that can provide some real grit when you bear down with it. It’s a tough combo to beat… very, very soulful!
On that particular track, I was aided by the 1949 Tele/Esquire prototype belonging to Mr. Greg Bayles of Make’n Music, in Chicago. It’s chambered, although it appears to be a solidbody, as there are no exterior holes. And it is the first Fender with the six-in-line headstock. Greg says it’s the second and final prototype prior to production. 55 years later, the design still rocks!
“What It Is Kid” is a loud shuffle that sounds like it was a lot of fun to record.
We had a great time making that particular track. We had just returned from doing some sessions with Kid Rock. And on close listen to the lyrics you can see that it is, in no small part, our homage to not only a great friend, but certainly a great performer. The song does rock. Additionally, it’s one of the first actual walking bass lines that Dusty learned toward making it one of those in-between-shuffle-and-4/4 compositions.
Details about “Que Lastima” being sung en Espanol?
Ah, a good one! One afternoon at our favorite cantina down in Houston, Texas, we took a break from our studio, Foam Box Recordings, and found ourselves at a joint known around town known as El Tiempo, which basically means “the time,” and for musicians that’s always a good notion to keep in mind.
As we rallied with a few friends, our good pal Rafael Cisneros had raided a bottle and was issuing a rather pious toast prior to commencing the afternoon’s festivities. I asked him what he said, and he asked me if I thought I knew what he said. I grinned, and I suppose that was enough, so he said, “Yes, you do know what I said!”
And [the toast] was a haunting two-line sort of rhyme which inspired the remainder of the tune. Oddly enough, [the track's] Spanish is limited just enough where we managed to create a Western rhyming scheme for the track – something not usually heard in Mexican ballads. But if you have the notion, ask any of your Spanish-speaking buddies to help out on the translation. I think you’ll be entertained.
How and why did you choose to cover Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”?
“Tramp” is a standard and an old favorite. The Lowell Fulsom version gave rise to the aim that we preferred. And slowing the tempo down helped us get a very thick and heavy lay-down on that particular track. The original is inspiration for any direction one might choose – good for low-tuned guitars, as well.
“Crunchy” is a bit of an experimental tune, a la “Dreadmonboogaloo” from XXX, with spoken-word samples, etc.
Perhaps the closest thing to an instrumental offering on this Mescalero outing. The African words are phone conversation with our dear friend and African art dealer, King Hamidou, who still smiles when he’s around and that track is playing. We teach him Spanish, and in turn he teaches us some African jive for our mutual amusement.
There’s a wah-wah on “Dusted.” Unusual for your setup…
That wah is the choice of New York City’s famous pedal dealer, The Pedal Man – Rom, from France. Rom loaned us an extremely rare and odd Foxx Tone Machine. This happens to be the one with multiple settings – four in all. Most have three, this is the odd four-position unit, and it really twists a signal in any direction, and it’s all unpredictable. A great device.
What’s been the reception of the audiences to the new material on your recent tours?
They seem to like it. The good news is they want more, so we’re playing not only the new stuff, we’re including some early stuff, and – as the saying goes – “everything in-between.”
You also reached back and pulled out songs like “Precious and Grace” and others that haven’t been played live in some time. How did you build the set list?
Well, within the scope of a couple of hours, it gives us the opportunity to draw from some old standby favorites, and now some band favorites. It’s interesting that you’d note “Precious and Grace.” I just finished a collaboration with Josh [Homme] from Queens of the Stone Age, who did a remarkable version of “Precious and Grace” so good that it pumped me to return to our Foam Box Recordings hideaway, and we re-learned what we thought we knew (laughs)! Interesting excursion.
It’s a delight to be in a position to not only select what the band likes, but include things that arrive to us by fax or on the website, “Hey, could you play this?” We’ve even done a questionnaire that says, “We’re coming to your town. Who wants to hear what?” We take a vote.
How many guitars are you and Dusty playing onstage during this tour?
We’re doing one guitar change, plus the famous furry guitars, which makes three. If we break a string, we’ll just have to wait a minute.
Any other variants at any other point during the tour?
Yes. Billy Garrettson, at The Guitar Shop, in Garland, Texas, found for us one of Schecter’s very limited oddball instruments called the Genesis. It’s Explorer-like, with holes in the body.
Why that one?
It’s such a modern instrument, so contemporary not only in its design but in the almost ridiculous nature of its construction, that we are pushing it into service to play the most traditional moment in the set, which is a slow blues tune. It just doesn’t make sense!
Your stage set is fairly bare-bones in regard to speaker cabs, etc. But sonically, the band sounds as good as ever. Details?
Well, we’ve saved the benchmark ZZ Top sound which launched us in the beginning and has never really been necessarily changed, for any reason. Offstage, of course, Marshall is pushing a couple of iso boxes to provide signal to the front-of-house PA. And we are experimenting with the 50-watt Crate V50.
How did you get into that amp?
Most recently, I bumped into Ted K. from Ampeg/Crate, who came around with their newest introduction from the Crate series… our favorite being the new 50-watt tube-powered combo. This particular V-50 was selected out of the line with its 2×12 arrangement, and using John Harrison’s Tone Tubby hemp speakers. We slapped a couple in those V-50s, and they really have a sweetness reminiscent of the early Marshall Bluesbreaker combos.
Speaking of, you recently had a run-in with one of the real-deal mid-’60s Marshall 18-watt amps at Bruce Barnes’ and Kenny Rardin’s Solidbody vintage shop in Minneapolis…
Yes, indeed! In fact, they had not one, but two of these extremely rare examples of Marshall’s spectacular early-’60s creations; a real tone giant from 18 watts of manageable sweetness. Off the wall we pulled a pristine 1960 ‘Burst and went straight to work discovering the surprising monstrosity of this really cool combo.
So did that trip lead you fully back into the 18-watt realm?
Most assuredly. The richness of the 18-watt experience can be a flash-fly back in time. The notion of 18 watts might be misleading, but when gunnin’ it up full-throttle… stand back and relax! The sound is stunning.
As a result of that sojourn to Solidbody, we quite fortunately acquired a rare 2×12 18-watt combo loaded with the early Celestion Greenback 20s. And continuing our serious pursuit within the burgeoning 18-watt community, we have made some handy discoveries along the way, engaging in some animated discussions with guys like Danny Gork at Balls Amplification and Jeff Swanson and Bob Dettorre from DST, who are turning out some exquisite versions based on the early British 18-watt amps. And for the truly adventurous, GDS Amplification is offering yet another version of 18 watts. And I’m finding others. This excursion is a real return to our early ZZ Top roots.
What about the Catatonic Compadres, who got into the action in the middle of the performances during last year’s tour?
Well, they served us well and provided a nice moment to send our sincere thanks to the many fans who chose to attend that round of shows. We also took a moment to enjoy a brisk sniff of Petrone tequila. Presently we’ve run out, so we had to retire the Catatonic Compadres for the time being. They’re out on a tequila run…
Then there were the Paris appearances, when Frank was hit by appendicitis, and for the first time in over 30 years the ZZ Top lineup was briefly altered, as Mr. Beard’s drum tech, Johnny “Drum” Douglas, sat in.
That was quite an unexpected turn of events, however, the brilliant selection by Mr. Beard to have a qualified drum player, as well as drum technician, allowed the show to go on. Four nights with a new face behind the kit was a novelty for Dusty and I, and enjoyably so. That is until the fifth night, when we caught Frank standing in the wings, smiling, and we realized he was taking an extra holiday that we didn’t get. Back on the bandstand he went.
October of ’03 saw the release of Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, a boxed set with a lot of old favorites plus some new surprises. What are the differences between it and previous compilations?
The Chrome, Smoke & BBQ box set is complete and true to the original tapes. There were some odd releases previous to Chrome, Smoke & BBQ that had been both remastered, and I think re-mixed. However, as a faithful offering to ZZ Top listeners, we felt that the original, unadulterated raw goods were in order, complete and more so.
It includes some Moving Sidewalks material, as well as the very first ZZ Top single, “Salt Lick,” among other rarities.
Credit must go to the organizers at Rhino and Warner Bros. for digging deep and uncovering some thought-to-be-lost old tracks, which did include Sidewalks stuff, the first ZZ Top single, the odd live track, and a few extended mixes. It makes for a well-rounded box set – there’s quite a few interesting items that make it special.
And now there’s Rancho Texicano…
Yes, the newest in the offerings in the greatest hits assembly. Rhino once again stepped to the forefront and created an offering that includes some of the mystery tracks available only through this release. It highlights more of the unusual.
Do you have a favorite box set of non-ZZ Top stuff?
The Jimmy Reed box set released in England, with all of the VJ tracks. I believe it might be an eight-CD box. Jimmy Reed is still an enigma to the world at large. He’s blues, he’s rock and roll, and of course he’s from a country background. He’s still one of our top, top, top favorites.
The set is rare, but what can’t be found in the stores can probably be found online, of course!
ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in early 2004. What did that mean to the band, especially given the strength of Keith Richards’ induction speech.
Keith is an old, dear friend who held up his end of the bargain – worth the price of admission alone! He gave us quite a send-up, and to be part of such an honorable entity… it was our great pleasure to step forward and graciously attempt to receive such an honor. And make no mistake, everybody loves Keith.
Anything notable about the jam session that concluded the ceremony?
Yes, the jam session was very interesting, a real study in professionalism. You have one of two ways to go; the elegance of the highway or a trainwreck and collision at the side of a muddy road. And somehow, everybody made a statement. There was simply no interference, and there was tone for days.
Then there was your participation in Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival in Dallas in early June.
That was a great weekend, and a first in the ever-expanding world of “guitarists take over the planet.” 70,000 strong and a good time had by all. Some righteous playing and wicked performing by some of everybody’s favorites.
For us, the real magic of the moment were the warm-up days preceding the actual opening of the gates. There was rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal. Plus Clapton, Jeff Beck, and I compared hot rod notes for hours upon hours. We knew we’d get to play, but we rarely get to drive. So we slid behind the wheel.
What were you driving?
We all had cars – Eric brought his ’40 customized coupe, Jeff had a deuce roadster, and I brought the ’32 Ford rat-rodder, and we just had a blast! We drove ’til we were almost out of gas, both physically and in the tank.
And word has it there’s a bootleg video of a rehearsal with ZZ Top and Jeff Beck…
Well, apparently, somewhere backstage was a hidden video camera capturing the whole bit. There are several good blues tunes, a version of “Going Down,” and some monster mystery thing made up on the spot where Jeff decides he is not from this planet. We’ve always known it, but he proved it!
Any recent additions to the fabled Gibbons guitar collection you want to cite?
Yes, we have managed to maintain our association with John Bolin’s famous outfit from Idaho. John and his staff at “House of J.B.” continue to design, invent, and create some exquisite solidbody Spanish six-string electrics. Mr. Bolin has shared his assistants in restructuring a prototype now under consideration with Mike Lewis, Ritchie Fliegler, Billy Commisky, with Gretsch and Fender’s interest in a fresh reissue of the guitar given to me by Bo Diddley years ago. This, of course, is one of the three custom-made electrics which Bo designed personally for his band, and manufactured by Gretsch. For the new version, we flipped the design upside down, which makes the headstock backward…!
Mr. Bolin is also set to reissue the Bolin Bonneville Special Guitar which actually made a pass on the Salt Flats a few years back.
What’s the story with that instrument?
Well, it started with a trip to Mr.Bolin’s shop just after the Eliminator period, when he and I opted to take a trip to one of the “lesser-known” gaming establishments along the Utah-Nevada border. There, we happened upon a group of enthusiasts who were planning to run a five-window Ford coupe on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, with the goal of becoming members of the 200-mile-per-hour club. Well, sure enough, the driver was a guitar player, and he offered to take one of Mr. Bolin’s creations along for the trip. That day, it was crowned the first 200 m.p.h. ‘On-Land’ Speed Record Electric Guitar. And the reissue is a real killer-diller, I may add.
How about an update on the long-promised book on your collection?
Yes, we are considering creating a highlight of the custom-made guitars and special-interest instruments from the collection, as a courtesy to our fans and the curio It will be a tasty item.
The band is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and things have been noticeably upbeat, sonically and visually, on tour. Fair to say it’s more fun than ever?
In a word, “Yes!” We still diggin’ doin’ it. Nuff said!
This article originally appeared in VG December 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.