The secrets behind Billy Zoom's guitar tone on X's Los Angeles

Billy Zoom
(Image credit: Clayton Call/Redferns)

Billy Zoom remains one of the most fascinating figures of the early punk rock scene, mainly because he never truly fit the mold of the typical punk guitarist. 

Inspired by Johnny Ramone, he adopted a similar spread-eagle stance on stage and unleashed a brutal wall of distorted powerchords, but his beatific smile contrasted the de rigueur punk scowl, and his gleaming vintage Gretsch 6129 Silver Jet was downright upscale compared to the pawn shop prizes most punk players preferred. 

Perhaps most unusual of all is that Zoom is an absolute brainiac when it comes to amplifiers. He can design and build amps from the ground up, whereas most of his peers could barely find the power switch.

Original gear

GUITAR: 1955 Gretsch 6129 Silver Jet (bridge pickup), Master Volume: 10, Master Tone: 10, Bridge Volume: 10

AMP: c. Late Sixties/early Seventies Traynor YBA-1 Bass Master head (Input I top, Volume I: 10 Volume II: x, Treble: 10, Bass: 10, Low: 10, High: 10) with custom Zoom 4x10 cabinet with Jensen C10N speakers

STRINGS/TUNING: GHS Nickel Rockers Light .010-.046/Standard

PICK: Fender Medium 346 shape

Even before Zoom joined X, he ran an amp repair shop in Hollywood and sold custom amps long before the boutique craze began, and he still builds custom amps to this day.

On stage during the early days of X, he played through a brownface Fender Custom that he hot-rodded himself, moving on to a hot-rodded Quad Reverb followed by his own custom high-power half stacks and his current 20-watt “cowboy” amp. 

Zoom’s stage amps were far too loud for the studio, so when X recorded their first albums during the early '80s, he borrowed a Traynor YBA-1 Bass Master head from bassist John Doe.

Featuring a circuit based on the tweed Fender 5F6A Bassman (also the basis for the Marshall JTM45), the Traynor YBA-1 is known as the “Canadian plexi”. 

Thanks to their stalwart Hammond transformers and 6CA7 tubes (the American equivalent of the EL34), early YBA-1 amps deliver tight bottom-end crunch, smoothly compressed midrange and crisp treble cut, which was just perfect for Zoom’s punchy power chords and neo-rockabilly riffs.

Like he did with his playing, Zoom opted for a “less is more” approach with his rig, plugging his Silver Jet directly to the amp with all of the controls all of the way up, allowing the aged DeArmond pickups to grind menacingly. 

While many great rock rhythm guitar tracks have been recorded with Gretsch guitars (AC/DC, The Cult, The Who, etc.), Zoom is one of the few players to prefer single-coil DeArmonds over Filter’tron humbuckers.

Get the sound, cheap!

Gretsch G5230T Electromatic Jet with Bigsby

Gretsch G5230T

(Image credit: Future)

TV Jones T-Armond bridge pickup

TV Jones T-Armond bridge pickup

(Image credit: TV Jones)

Traynor YGL1

Traynor YGL1

(Image credit: Future)

Tone tip: Set the Traynor’s mode switch to “Pure” to bypass the tone stack for an aggressive midrange boost.

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.