Billy Gibbons has spent a lifetime playing rock and roll, but still has plenty of surprises up his sleeve. This is a man who started out in Houston’s psychedelic scene with the Moving Sidewalks in 1968, opened for Jimi Hendrix when he was 17, then formed ZZ Top a year later. Since then, he’s played all over the world, worked with some of the greatest musicians, acquired a staggering collection of guitars and cars, and has now released his first solo effort, Perfectamundo. Mr. Gibbons is one of America’s greatest living guitarists, and it seems like he’s just getting warmed up.
Brightest Young Things: I assume, from your father’s work with MGM, you got to meet a lot of musicians and creative-types from an early age. Was there anyone in particular that made you want to start playing music? Can you remember anyone’s performance or playing that made you want to learn?
Billy Gibbons: B.B. King and Elvis Presley — how’s that for a dynamic duo? My mom took my sister and me to see Elvis in concert when was, maybe 5 or 6, and I liked everything about it. The fact that he had a guitar hung around his neck caught my attention and when I was around 7 or 8 my Dad took me to a B.B. King recording session, well, that really did it. Huge and lasting impressions. After all that I pretty much knew playing guitar was something I was going to do because I just had to do it. And I did.
BYT: Obviously, your style of playing comes from guys like Jimmy Reed, but is part of a long line of players, going back to guys like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. These days, the Internet makes it pretty easy to find their music, and learn from the old recordings. You didn’t have the Internet when you first picked up the guitar. How did you learn those old blues licks?
BG: Lightnin’ Hopkins was something of a fixture on the Houston coffee house scene so we were witness to eccentric blues brilliance close up. Then, believe it or not, along came the wave of the English cats like John Mayall, Eric Clapton and the Stones embracing the great American art form – the blues. I probably owe as much to Jeff Beck as I do to Son House with connections to the blues.
BYT: What was the community’s attitude toward music like in post-WWII Tanglewood? Were there other musicians in and around Houston working together to make a cohesive scene?
BG: Yes, there was the unexpected Texas explosion of psychedelia thanks to Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall’s The 13th Floor Elevators, Mayo Thompson’s Red Krayola, James Harrell’s outfit, Lost and Found, along with Endle St. Cloud and perhaps one of the most radical were Wesley Watt’s trio, “Euphoria”. That’s who founded and backgrounded the scene which our band, The Moving Sidewalks fell into before returning to California.
At Brightest Young Things, my friend and editor, Brandon Wetherbee, has a recurring series called “Nightmare Gig,” wherein comedians and musicians recount their worst gig. I’m sure you’ve had a few disasters in your almost 50-year career. Does any gig in particular stand out as a catastrophe?
BG: One springs to mind: one of our very first gigs in a small East Texas town was not well promoted. At least, that was our conclusion. After the band loaded in and the curtain opened, we realized there was exactly one paying customer in the audience. We kind of made the best of it playing through the first set, took a break and bought him a Coke and then went on to perform for the remainder of the night. It wasn’t exactly a catastrophe but it certainly stands as legendary.
BYT: Around 1976, during ZZ Top’s hiatus in between Tejas and Degëllo, you did some traveling in Europe. When you came back, the band’s sound changed pretty dramatically from guitar-driven blues riffs, to a more synthesized sound. It changed even more with El Loco and especially on Eliminator. Was there anything from your trip that that influenced those new sounds?
BG: Specifically, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s foray into some artful excursions into some ethereal electric experiments. There was a lot curious activities emerging in London, Amsterdam, and Berlin back then developing some fiercely fuzzy of synth-like effects way outside the norm which really blew the lid off things. Rattling around with some of the more exotic abstractions of sound goes to show how keeping an open mind can shake the ground we walk on. Perhaps some of the new tech thinking from that point seeped in as a direct cause and effect. Maybe we just like machines.
BYT: As someone who also plays blues, I learned a lot from the playing of musicians who were long dead by the time I heard about them. You’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of acts over the years, including Gary Clark Jr. on your most recent tour with ZZ Top. Is there anyone you wish you could have collaborated with, but never got the chance?
BG: Although ZZ Top did get a chance to play with Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, there’s still that one, single song we just can’t shake… J.B. Hutto’s “Combination Boogie”. One spin of that one and you’ll know why!
BYT: Your guitar arsenal has only grown over the years, and has gained legendary status among collectors. I’m very curious about three guitars that may or may not be in your possession. Is the Gibson Moderne you played on a recent tour indeed a 1950’s-era prototype, and how did you come across it? Did you manage to hang onto the Gibson Melody Maker you got when you were thirteen? Finally, did Jimi Hendrix pass on his pink Fender Stratocaster, and was that the guitar used on “Jesus Just Left Chicago?”
BG: That Gibson Melody Maker is the proverbial “one that got away.” I traded it away to a long-ago girlfriend’s brother, Ronnie Seixas who still has it to this day. We actually got to play it recently and although it’s right around the corner, just down the street, we had to give it back to its rightful owner. The so-called Moderne still makes it on deck as well as the “Jesus” Strat. As the saying goes, “One’s too many and a hundred ain’t enough!”.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZEu3M95Zv0
BYT: In Rock + Roll Gearhead, you have a delicious recipe for guacamole. Do you cook a lot when you’re home, and have you got another recipe to share with our readers? Also, what does a guy who’s played all over the world for the past fifty years eat for breakfast?
BG: That Renegade Guacamole is our signature recipe but how about some ceviche?
Get yourself about a pound of white fish and shrimp. Dice a red onion, squeeze some limes to generate the juice, throw in some orange peel, a few diced tomatoes, a handful of jalapenos, some ripe smashed avocado, and a heap of cilantro. Salt and pepper it well, now! Cube the seafood into a bowl along with the juices and spices and let it marinate (no heat!) for maybe fo’ or five hours. Break out a couple stacks of saltine crackers and dig in. There you go. And that’s great anytime, amigo. Surf’s up!