ZZ Top, still tops 

Billy Gibbons on 40 years in America's best boogie band

The irony of ZZ Top is that while the two guys out in front, guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, are famous for their impenetrably long beards, the drummer doesn't have one. And his name is Frank Beard.

These three Texans have been ZZ Top for 44 years now, without a single personnel change. Like the facial hair situation, the band's music hasn't shifted a whole lot — it's dependably growly and guttural blues-based rock 'n' roll, fierce and fearless electric boogie.

After a brief flirtation with synthesized additives, Top has returned to fighting weight with the recent, Rick Rubin-produced La Futura album, their first in 10 years.

The Houston-based band imprinted on these here United States with FM hits "La Grange" and "Tush" in the '70s, and in the decade that followed they got even bigger with "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," "Cheap Sunglasses" and "Gimme All Your Lovin,'" reaching a broad new audience with their striking, MTV-friendly videos (they're darn photogenic with them beards 'n' shades, y'know).

To date, Top has sold somewhere in the vicinity of 25 million albums. The band was inducted (by Keith Richards) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

This week, Billy Gibbons kindly responded to a few e-mail questions from Connect.

What was your working experience with Rick Rubin like? Some artists think the guy is the greatest producer in the world, and others say he's controlling and hard to work with.

Billy Gibbons: We would prefer "entertaining" to describe Rick along with "perfectionistic." And of course, "enthusiastic." Those are descriptions for us that are much more like it.

Our longstanding friendship crossed over to experienced associates and they both stand for a very positive collective experience. And in the studio setting, we go in, do our stuff to come up with what we feel close to a completed take, then present it to Rick. Invariably, his response is "you can do better." Which in short order allowed the band to go back in and do it again (and again and again) and prove him correct, time after time. And that speaks volumes about our admiration for Rick's specialized method of madness and mayhem. 

 You've said that La Futura represented your desire to get back to ZZ Top's earlier, grittier sound. Was this a result of feeling that you'd gone too far afield in more recent years? Do you have second thoughts about the use of synthesizers and technology?

Billy Gibbons: As Rick suggested, "Be the best ZZ Top you can be" and that's what we were striving for. Our essence is heard in the very first recordings through incorporating new technology from the day and now back to square one. Our ongoing experiment is a continuum — we're ZZ Top ... not a tribute to ZZ Top, if you get the meaning.

Have you ever felt constricted by the kind of music you created — "I want to do an acoustic album of Peruvian lullabies, but we're the best electric boogie band in the world" kind of thing? Similarly, was there ever a time — I'm thinking particularly in the MTV era — that you wished you didn't have to stick with the visual image you'd created?

Billy Gibbons: Well, this somewhat peculiar image is what we've inherited and continue to stand behind. What started out as a disguise became a trademark!  

"Acoustic," by the way, means "bad luck" in our universe. When the video revolution happened we, as a band, were game long as we weren't necessarily the pinpoint. We found a way into our videos as, at the same time, observers of 'em. The stars are always about the car, the kid, the girls and LOUD sounds. We're more often just along for the ride.

Why has it meant so much to you, over the years, to represent Texas? All the Texans I know are strong-willed, proud of their heritage, and extremely funny to boot. Would you say this sums you up?

Billy Gibbons: Yes. And you might add "taciturn" to the list of Tex traits.

What was your first guitar? How old were you, and do you still have it?

Billy Gibbons: First electric guitar was found under the tree just after I had turned 13.  It was a Gibson Melody Maker — a dream that had come true. Gave it to the brother of a girlfriend back in the day, but reconnected with it just recently at a BFG book signing in Hollywood, California!  He still had it 2,000 miles from Houston with the original flatwound strings still in tune!  

Got to play it later that night at a joint down on Sunset Boulevard, for the first time in eons, and it was total instant time travel at its finest. 

I imagine you own a lot of guitars. How many? What's the pride and joy of your collection — is it Pearly Gates? Tell me why that instrument is so special for you (other than the fact that it's a '59 Les Paul, which I wish I had).

Billy Gibbons: As the saying goes, "One's too many and a hundred ain't enough!" Each one still gets put through the grinder. They're chronicled in the book Rock + Roll Gearhead.  The band's cornerstone 6-string "Pearly Gates" is, indeed, a '59 Les Paul Sunburst yet there's something about 'er that stands apart from all others.  It's sonic mojo. Gibson's Custom Shop and company recreated a limited edition tribute model, so feel free to invite "Pearly" into your life. 

Do you take pride in the fact that the three of you have hung in this together for so long? That's got to be some kind of record. What do you attribute it to?

Billy Gibbons: That question is favorably recurrent: "How have you guys stayed together as long as you have?" The answer? We actually have a good time doing what we get to do so we've never thought of a reason to sidetrack. Other bands break up, switch out members, get back together, etc. Yet early on, we decided to remain intact. Plain and simple.

If you like, you can think of the last four decades as an "on the road reunion tour." Rock on...!


ZZ Top

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 8 p.m. Thursday, May 23

Tickets: $34.50-$74.50 at etix.com



About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

More by Bill DeYoung


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