Interview: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach
The two guitarists discuss the history of the blues and its enduring power in the 21st century.
One of the things you both appreciate in classic blues artists like Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins is their expressionism—the idea of changing and moving on to new ideas when you feel it in the music, not because it’s dictated by form.
GIBBONS: It’s become acceptable to address that which is emanating from a spiritual and soulful spot within—something that doesn’t necessarily have a requirement to be perfectly boxed in forms of 12 bars or 16 bars—like a math problem.
AUERBACH: When did that happen? Did British blues do that?
GIBBONS: Well, yeah.
AUERBACH: Did you like British blues? You know, like the John Mayalls and the Peter Greens?
GIBBONS: Yeah. The British have a tendency to take whatever subject they plow into down to the genetics, and blues was no exception. But they were getting blues records much, much later, when the art form itself here in the United States ran the risk of being abandoned. Then the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, a lot of these groups—especially John Mayall, who was the leading exponent of hardcore electric blues experimentation—made it so appealing and repopularized the art form. I call it the Great Salvation. They are to be credited for the salvation of this art form that was nearly extinct.
AUERBACH: I could never get into British blues. I don’t know why. I grew up listening to Memphis recordings and Texas stuff, and then I couldn’t understand the British approach. I just didn’t get it.
But didn’t you come up playing bluegrass, which requires so much precision?
AUERBACH: Bluegrass was more about the harmonies for me, and vocal group stuff, like the Stanley Brothers. It’s about songs. And bluegrass is soul music—white soul music.
GIBBONS: Ah… the Stanley Brothers. That harmony work was so perfect. When you analyze the complexity of where the melody would go, and to have three guys intuitively able to follow, it’s just…beautiful.
You guys not only have musical tastes in common, you have a shared interest in a certain kind of guitar tone. You’re always looking for dirt. Where does that come from?
AUERBACH: It was listening to these records and I’d think, How did Elmore James get his guitar to sound like that? You couldn’t go to Guitar Center and plug into an amp and get that sound. I had to dig for it. It’s hard to say, but still to this day, I listen to some of those old 45s and just can’t believe the sounds they got. And they were using weird shit. Little Walter was using that weird Danelectro amp with six eight-inch speakers. Electric music wasn’t defined yet. Companies were making weird stuff, and those guys were taking advantage of it.
GIBBONS: It’s no secret that, even then, Fender and Gibson kind of led the pack as far as high-quality instruments, and after them you’ve got what maybe even then would be considered lesser instruments, only because they were more affordable. And those are the instruments that were largely present on vintage blues records, making these sounds that are so appealing. I mean, they’re magnetic.
In 1950, the biggest amp you could get was no bigger than a tabletop radio. Imagine trying to be heard in a joint with people screamin’ and shufflin’ their feet and bottles breakin’. You had to take that amp and turn it up all the way. When you’d get up past that “acceptable” point, you’d get into the land of distortion, which is where it really gets groovy. And I don’t think it was intentional. I think they just wanted to be heard.
Getting back to the idea of performances coming from a soulful place within: do you think that happens much in contemporary music?
GIBBONS: You don’t see it as often because the more popular outlets, like TV, are designed to be predictable. That’s to say, it’s easier to see a soulless…no, it’s easier to see something that may lack what you are describing, but I feel there are probably more soulful performers under the radar.
AUERBACH: With record labels getting smaller, record sales going way down, local record shops closing up, it’s harder for people to find the stuff that’s under the radar but still as easy for people to find all the big pop stuff. That stuff’s not for transcendence; it’s kid stuff. It’s for people who buy one or two CDs a year. Music is not their thing.
The internet makes finding interesting music and soulful music easier, but you have to search for it. I have a buddy who used to own a magazine in California who’s the first guy who told me about YouTube. He said, “You’ve got to check this out. It’s gonna be really big.” He sent me a link to a video by Parliament-Funkadelic playing at a Boston television station in 1969, and they were going bananas. It was insane. I’d never seen that footage before, and it was the coolest shit ever. YouTube is amazing for a guy who used to have to go to the public library and have them search for shit for me, and half the time they’d never find it.
GIBBONS: Because of the overwhelming amount of stuff that’s out there on YouTube, the real challenge is just sifting through to something where you’re bonused by the discovery. How about [blues and gospel legend] Sister Rosetta Tharp?
AUERBACH: She was a monster…on a white SG with triple pickups. [Gibbons picks up his phone and plays a video of Tharp’s performance of “Up Above My Head,” which includes a burning solo on that SG. Auerbach responds with a clip of black South African guitarist Hannes Coetzee playing acoustic slide guitar—and beautifully—with a spoon held in his teeth. Gibbons laughs.]
GIBBONS: There’s an example of “You can’t do that.” “But I am!” [laughs] Bonused!
Do each of you have a favorite guitar right now?
AUBERBACH: I’ve been playing my white Kent a bunch. We’ve been doing an album in here over the past week and we’ve used that on every song. I bought it in a guitar shop in San Jose. I’ve had it about a year and a half.
GIBBONS: The tremolo arm on that is the sweetest primitive setup. This ain’t rocket science. It’s just a bending piece of metal. Dan told me, “I bought a ’53 Gibson Gold Top and this Kent…”
AUERBACH: At the same shop.
GIBBONS: On the same day. And he said, “I don’t know if I’ve played that Gold Top yet.” There’s a great guitar player here in Nashville, Mike Henderson…
AUERBACH: Oh, I love him. [sings a line from Henderson’s “When I Get Drunk”] “When I get drunk, who’s gonna carry me home…”
GIBBONS: Well, he’s had one guitar and one amp that he’s played as long as I’ve known him, which is a significant amount of time.
There are two premises to aspire to. Number one: learn to play what you want to hear. And two: know what you want to hear and then go after it. If that’s the platform you’re playing from, it doesn’t matter what you’re playing.
In this business, I know it’s popular to have the most valuable or most esoteric guitars. And there’s a lot of stuff out there. Just about the time you think you’ve seen it all, go to one of these guitar gatherings and somebody pops up with the mystery amp or guitar. But it comes back to familiarity. I mean, who would think that if you take a Kent—an early low-tier budget guitar—and start banging on it, oh yeah, you got the goods?
The harmonica player Shaky Walter Horton [a.k.a. Big Walter] took a job as a cab dispatcher up in Chicago—not because he needed that gig or wanted to become a cab dispatcher; he wanted the microphone. After about two weeks, they said, “Okay, this guy’s good.” Then he got wire cutters, cut the mic and split. And that was it.
AUBERBACH: The thing I’ve learned about guitars and amps is that it’s fun to collect them. I love that stuff. But it doesn’t matter one bit what instrument you play. Lightnin’ Hopkins could pick up anything and still sound like Lightnin’ Hopkins. Usually when you fall in love with a guitar it’s because it’s lightweight, it sits nice when you put it on, the headstock doesn’t weigh it down. Sometimes it’s even more about comfort and whether it feels like it could be an extension of your body than about sound.
GIBBONS: In closing, Dan and I could warrant this: get one of each guitar you love, and then turn them up loud.
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