Hop on board: New book takes you for a ride with ZZ Top

December 16th, 2005

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

Besides cranking out greasy guitar riffs and keeping his signature beard in check, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons has spent the last 35 years amassing his twin collections of vintage guitars and cars.

The Texas legend, whose guitar playing was endorsed by Jimmy Hendrix in his early days, recently assembled both loves into “Rock and Roll Gearhead” (MBI), a coffeetable book that tells his story in music through his hot rods and unusual six-strings.

We talked recently about the blues, his beard and his collections. what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q. What’s the connection between the guitars and the cars?

A. I guess the simplest connectivity that I can dream of anyway is that once I had guitars, I had to get in a car to take them to the nightclub to play them. So having amassed a notable collection of both, we decided to proceed, and what ensued turned out to be a true labor of love. We were digging through the guitar vault and with each guitar case that got opened, out came the six-string and about six extra tall tales to tell with it. Likewise with the cars.

Q. How do you store both?

A. They are warehoused. I have a handy spot next to a recording studio in Houston, Texas. We have a second location for the cars, one in Houston and one in Los Angeles. They’re kind of spread out. The important thing was to keep them high and dry. They’re like babies – they require a lot of attention and a lot of fluids.

Q. Your design for the “Eliminator” Coup became a signature brand for your band in the MTV days.

A. Indeed. We started work on the “Eliminator” Coup in 1976. And five anxious years later, that car reached completion about he time we engaged in this crazy unknown avenue of what we now refer to as music videos … And then shortly thereafter, this was right about the release of (the album) “Eliminator.” MTV was a fledging few months old and it was actually the record company that stimulated our aim in producing a music video. There was no formula to them in those days.

Q. ZZ Top was one if the first U.S. bands that really took hold of the blues. Living in Houston, what kind of impact did that have on the band?

A. The impact of the sound was magnetizing … It was loud and it had kind of a dangerous edge to it. And that was unlike any other music that I had heard at that time. I kind of knew this blues element would certainly remain a player in inspiring us to move in that direction. And it still does today. With the unending expanding range of music styles and different offerings available, I continue to go back to a handful of recordings from that 1949 to 1959 period, which seems to be the era that is most compelling for me personally.

Q. In the book, there are concert posters advertising ZZ Top sharing the bill with blues acts. That would be unheard of even today.

A. Ironically, the first few months when we were together we wound up fronting a brief outing with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. And we functioned as their backup band. We played 30 minutes of our own stuff and stayed on to back ’em up. It was kind of tough going because they showed up expecting us knowing everything they wanted to do. And there was no such thing as a predetermined set list. They just called it out. that was a real learning experience.

Q. With more than 600 guitars, how do you decide what role each one plays?

A. “Pearly Gates,” the ’59 Les Paul Sunburst, which I had luckily stumbled onto … carried with it the sound that created the cornerstone of what we wanted to do. It assisted us in reaching that raw edgy hardness. And in an attempt to find a match to that instrument, we were picking up (guitars), thinking, well maybe this might be the next great guitar. We started noticing that there were interesting characteristics of each and every guitar. Not only did they sound different but, to this day, I found that certain instruments will make you play differently. They don’t change what you want to do, they change in the way you get to do it. Someone said, “Well how can that be? These are machine-made instruments coming off the same assembly line.” But taking into account that each one is from a different part of the tree, the cellulose structure is going to change. Yeah, it’s a piece of mahogany, but it’s different. And the way that they’re constructed, maybe this one has more glue and the neckjoint. Maybe the finishing booth has a guy spring it and he’s talking to his buddy so he gives it tow extra coats of pain. Each insignificant element winds up playing a significant role in how they change. I find that just one more element of fascination.

Q. The book also features the “Muddy Wood,” the guitar you made out of a plant from Muddy Water’s plantation home. It helped raise money for the new Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss.

A. We were living in Memphis at the time. We were holed up in the Ardent recording studio, which was our second home. We had the opportunity to take a trip down the Mississippi with a buddy of mine. Upon our arrival (in Clarksdale), we met (blues museum) director Sid Graves and he was talking to Jim O’Neil, founding editor of Living Blues magazine. They asked, “Do you want to tag along and see the cabin where Muddy Waters was raised?” Their interest was in possibly preserving it. When we arrived … the director took some debris off to the side and said, “Take this. This will be our gift to you for taking the time to visit us out there.” So we put this big piece of wood in the car on the way back to Memphis and wondered what do with this thing. We dropped it off at a buddy’s shop, Pyramid Guitars, and said, “Can you saw this into a single plank and glue it back together and we can cut it out and make a guitar out of it?” Which became the Muddy Wood. Just with a little thoughtful planning and a really dedicated builder, they created this. I thought, man, it would be a nice gesture to create something with such an interesting background. “What’s your guitar made of?” “Muddy Waters’ house.” Once they had completed it, the thing played so nicely and sounded so good, it was once of those rare moments when you’re sitting on the fence thinking, “Do we really want to give this away?” And indeed we did, and it created a stir at the time. There was citywide celebration. It caught on like wildfire. They became well established and firmly placed on the map.

Q. The book also dives into the early days of the band, pre-beards. What led to the look?

A. We took a self-imposed break, initially scheduled as a three-month holiday, which turned into three years. The three of us traveled to some rather exotic and distant lands. Our communication was strictly by telephone. During that time … I guess the word I’m looking for is “laziness.” (laughs). We left the razor blades and home! When we reconvened to commence work for our first record after that lengthy sabbatical, we walked into the room and (bassist) Dusty (Hill) and I had these two fee of chin whiskers. And (drummer) Frank Beard, the man with no beard, he looked at me and he looked at Dusty and he said, “I’m dropping out of this one. I want to go out to the shopping mall.” So the rest was history. We just let it be. Once TV had exposed this new look, we were branded.

Q. Now any man wearing that beard is forever known as having a “ZZ Top” beard.

A. Indeed. Although I’m partial to buying into Dusty’s comment. I said, “Do you think this is some sort of fashion?” He said, “No, ZZ Top has just become immune to fashion.”

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