ZZ Top: From A to ZZ
As ZZ Top ready their 15th studio album, Billy Gibbons looks back on 40 years of classic albums from that little ol' band from Texas.
ZZ Top’s First Album (January 1971)
"It was recorded when we first formed, in 1970, and wrapped up by about March 1970. I had assembled a personal catalog, which fortunately became what we called the band catalog when Dusty [Hill, bass] and Frank [Beard, drums] entered the picture.
“The only thing that kept us going on that first album was the fact that we had the opportunity to release a record on the same label as the Rolling Stones [London Records]. I’m serious—that was it! But we remained true to the core: it was 12-bar blues or bust. The playing was there, the tempo was good, and it’s very bluesy. I listened to it recently for the first time in a while and said, ‘Man, we sure were bluesy.’ It’s a period kind of sound.
“Is ZZ Top a blues band? Well, we’re interpreters of blues bands. The blues that influenced us, and that we were part of, was ushered in by the English guys. I think it would be fair to say that we were subliminally influenced throughout by the Animals, the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Clapton, Beck…maybe a couple more. That’s what got us thinking, Hey, we can hot-rod this stuff and make it really fun to play for ZZ Top. There’s a handful of guys from points around the world that recognized the value of this strain of music that goes all the way back to Africa. And I still dig it.”
Rio Grande Mud (April 1972)
"I was using a lot of Fenders in the studio, but I quit playing them live around ’73. ‘Apologies to Pearly’ was played on a Fender Stratocaster tuned to open E, and ‘Chevrolet’ was a Strat with out-of-phase positioning on the front two pickups.
“ ‘Francine’ was written with a guy who’s dead now, Steve Perron, who was a great writer. He loved the Stones, and that was his tag at the end [“Francine” borrows from the climax of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”]. It was kind of unintentional at the time. It’s not like these sounds haven’t been done before. It just took somebody like ZZ Top to come along and put them in their proper perspective.”
Tres Hombres (July 1973)
“We stretched out and went beyond the boundaries, if you will. And although ‘La Grange’ was our first Top 10 song, it remained well within the reaches of the blues, the confines on which we base the band to this very day.
“That was where I began to use harmonics. My solo playing back then was pretty quick. The funny thing was, I slowed it down later on to make the articulation more apparent and to eliminate any sloppiness. But listening back to these songs, I think the execution was fine. I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of.”
Fandango! (April 1975)
“After the successful release of Tres Hombres, we attempted to keep the records kind of bluesy, but we also allowed the one oddball track here and there—‘Heaven, Hell or Houston’ [El Loco] and even ‘Manic Mechanic’ [Degüello]. Those songs stand on the fringe.
“ ‘Tush’ was on Fandango! We wrote that in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and boy, it was hot and steamy! We were at some rodeo, rehearsing before we played, and we came up with that. It just happened—we wrote it on the spot. Dusty sang it and never changed it. It was fun. I think my slide work in that is some of the best I’ve ever done. I still play that about the same way when we play it live.”