Join Billy Gibbons on a fabulous odyssey across the globe in search of guitars wild, weird and wonderful.
Super Bowl Sunday, 1997. I am about to settle into my favorite La-Z-Boy to watch the game when, to my annoyance, the phone rings. Much to my surprise, on the line is none other than Billy F. Gibbons, frontman for the acclaimed Texas trio ZZ Top. The band is scheduled to appear at the half-time show, and all the excitement and hoopla has apparently given Gibbons a case of guitar fever.
“We’re goin’ on a guitar safari. Wanna join?” asks the great bearded one.
“Does a ’53 Les Paul have a Goldtop finish?” I reply.
“Good. ZZ Top’s Rhythmeen tour is picking up in Eastern Europe in a few days. Meet me in Moscow. Thursday. High noon.”
“Wait,” I plead. “What are we hunting?”
“Exotic breeds. Endangered beasts. The works.”
A few days later, in the aftermath of the Green Bay Packers’ great victory, I find myself on the red-eye rocket to Russia. Stepping out of the plane, I scan the airport waiting room for Gibbons, but not a single pair of Ray Bans is to be seen. Suddenly, a sultry young woman in a leopard-skin jacket catches my attention. She is holding a sign reading, “ ’59 ’Burst, Cheap.” This has to be my liaison.
The lady leads me to a Mercedes limo and opens the door. “My name is Corinna,” she coos in a voice as sweet as Clapton’s Cream-era woman tone. As I settle into the handsomely upholstered back seat, she reaches over and hands me a pamphlet entitled “Gibbonics—The Official Language of Guitar Connoisseurs.” “You’ll be needing this as well,” she says, slipping me an envelope filled with money from various countries— dollars, yen, marks and rubles.
A few minutes later we pull up in front of Boris Kaganov’s Axe Shack. Hopping out of the Mercedes, I spy a gnarly, Russian-made sonic surfboard in the shack’s window—burnt-cheese- ocher finish, clamp-mount pickup arrangement and non-innerplanetary connecting jacks. “Isn’t she fine?” says a familiar baritone voice. I turn around and there stands Billy F. Gibbons in the flesh, his beard flapping in the frozen wind.
“The girl or the guitar?” I retort. “Both are first class.” I kiss my fingers for emphasis.
“Oh dude, these guitars are out there!” says Gibbons. “They sound, well—Russian. Of course, there’s tons of them around here. Step inside. Let’s take a look around.”
As we set foot inside the shop, we’re met by Comrade Kaganov himself, who leads us to a backroom overstocked with sundry Communist-era oddities: Glasnostcasters, Telesputniks and the like. Gibbons and I settle into two huge, overstuffed chairs.
“You know, the real reason I’m here is to talk to you about ‘guitar madness,’ ” I say.
“I’ll gladly respond to any inquiry about my particular fave-rave six-string thangs,” says Gibbons.
With that word of encouragement, we are on our way. A wild, bumpy ride, for sure.
GUITAR WORLD What got you started on your quest for guitars?
BILLY F. GIBBONS Let’s start at the beginning. It was the sound of blues music that we heard in the mid Sixties that really centered our interest. When I speak of blues from this period, it was not only American blues artists but the British interpreters as well. That draws us to one of the most recognizable icons of Sixties British blues: the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album [Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, released in 1965], with Eric Clapton on guitar and the famous photograph on the back cover showing Clapton playing a sunburst Les Paul and a Marshall amplifier.
At the time, I had been playing Fender Esquires, Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Stratocasters. It was mostly a single-coil Fender game. The Les Paul was less than popular then. We suspected that doublehumbucking pickups were the source of that Clapton sound. A friend of mine called and said, “I’ve got an instrument with two humbucking pickups.” It turned out to be a Flying V. That was our first entry into the humbucking world.
GW Shortly thereafter you found Pearly Gates [Gibbons’ ’59 sunburst Les Paul Standard] and, as they say, the rest is history.
GW Having found the perfect guitar, why did you continue to acquire them?
GIBBONS Pearly has such an unmistakable character that we felt it was necessary to find another instrument with a similar sound to use as a spare guitar. We accumulated dozens of guitars, but nothing quite matched her. But instead of tossing these other acquisitions away, they kept accumulating. It’s an ongoing saga that never ends.
GW What kind of guitars did you accumulate?
GIBBONS Just about anything that had these famous humbucking pickups. You had these oddball, pointy things like the Flying “V” and the Explorer. Those, too, had great sound. They came from 1958 and had taller and skinnier fret wire and a little bit different feel. Then we started finding things like the [GibsonES-5 Switchmaster with not one, not two, but three humbuckers and a toggle switch with a setting that says “All.” That’s when it started getting really whacked.
GW I’ve heard rumors that Jimi Hendrix gave you a pink Stratocaster back in those days.
GIBBONS It was just before we formed ZZ Top. Frank Beard [drummer] and Dusty Hill [bassist] were working in Dallas with the American Blues, and my band, the Moving Sidewalks, had been hired to open some shows for Jimi Hendrix. At that time I said, “Here’s the master of the Stratocaster.” That domain really belongs to him. Here was an example of a player who not only developed some skills on chord structure and new chord positionings for rock music but was also really squeezing things out of a simple guitar and amplifier setup that had not been written about in any manual. As far as I know, he was the first exponent of playing a Stratocaster in the “in-between” toggle-switch setting.
At that time, Fender supported what he was doing as an artist. He really didn’t mind playing new, out-of-the-box guitars. Fender was sending out stacks of them; I remember he once got 17 different cartons from them. They were coming fast and furious at him with new guitars, but he had a few oldies and goodies. I acquired the pink one, a late-Fifties Strat, during our time together.
Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted when Corinna bursts into the room. “Mr. Gibbons!” she shouts. “Elwood called on the cellular phone. He’s located a Missing Link guitar!”
“Most excellent,” replies Gibbons. “I’m afraid we’ll have to continue our conversation at a later date. Why don’t we meet up in Halle?”
“In the former East Germany?”
“You got it.”
* * * * *
It’s a grey winter’s day in Halle. The temperature is about 10 below zero, not counting the wind-chill factor. As I make my way to the back entrance of the town’s Konzert Hall, I’m stopped by an armed security guard brandishing a machine gun. Shaking, I flash my credentials, and he nods and points at a concrete door.
Inside, I’m greeted by the sight of Gibbons exhaling a cloud of steam. “Hey,” he says, choking. “I just swallowed a mouthful of Tabasco-ridden soup. It took my breath away. I’m lovin’ it!”
Standing at his side is a tall, thin fellow with a neon-green Sid Vicious haircut. “Meet Mr. Elwood Francis,” says Gibbons. Currently employed as Gibbons’ guitar tech, Francis, explains Gibbons, is his chief conspirator in guitar madness. Francis and Gibbons are co-originators of a new approach to guitar design which advocates the use of “found materials.” Executing designs from their West Coast studio, Slab 7 Studiosa, they plan on unleashing their Pacifiko models on an unsuspecting public soon.
“Welcome to Halle,” says Elwood. “We’ve renamed it ‘Helle.’ ”
“Helleva place they got here,” I deadpan.
“We’re thrashed, brother,” says Gibbons. “This is our fifth gig in a row. It’s so cold and desolate here. But hey, the local folks are trying. They’re making attempts to have a good time. Can’t beat that. We could be on a 10-day run with enthusiasm like this.”
At Gibbons’ prompting, the three of us convene in a tiny backstage room that currently serves as storage for Gibbons’ and Francis’ ever-expanding guitar collections. Guitars and amps are stacked to the ceiling. In a matter of minutes, the Gibbonics is flying fast and furious. (The guitars you are now going to read about are real. Even the names are the same, so protect your wallet.)
* * * * *
GW You’ve had a number of custom guitars built over the years. What was the first?
GIBBONS Donald Summers, the bass player for the Moving Sidewalks, built guitars in his garage. He had some of the first unusual hot-rod guitars. He was a master—Flying V basses and all kinds of modified applications. Not only tastefully done, but functional. From there things really started getting bizarre.
GW Describe some of your famous custom guitars and the ideas behind them.
ELWOOD FRANCIS The stuff from the Scientifico Musico Technographique company down South in Virginia is full-tilt, weird, Bigsby-styled Forties-era design discoveries.
GIBBONS Oh yeah. Most weird. And then there’s the strange work of [luthier] James Trussart: all French-made full customs, made in Paris, inspired by the metal-bodied designs of the 1930’s Nationals, only modified into a sort of Fenderesque hot rod. His new Rust-O-Rama corrosion technique is stunning and just as surprising as, say, the invention of the metal airplane. Sounds as smooth as a Barry White recording.
The new House of JB guitars from the House of JB Customs are also great. All natural-fiber composition and complete recklessness when it comes to observing speed limits. Fine pearl “inlay” for the fashion conscious…as we all are. Call him.
FRANCIS The Delta Blues Museum’s custom “Muddywood” is seeing quite a bit of action on the ZZ Top Continental Safari Rhythmeen tour. A most generous loan and a most inspirational war club.
GIBBONS Yeah, all of our one-off, ZZ Top six-string electric Spanish guitars and basses are outfitted for 24-hour field use. Even the special axes fabricated for MTV videos rip with tone terror. They’re all equipped with some badass monstrous tone generators from Seymour Duncan’s line. The Duncan Antiquities absolutely smoke. Makes all the difference in these rare, off-the-wall customs.
GW What is the most bizarre ax in your lineup?
GIBBONS Certainly one of the most bizarre slabs lately are any of the imports being bootlegged out of India under the name “Givson.” Amazing.
FRANCIS I’ve got my Givson—a lap steel. Only goes to “8.” Must be something to it.
GIBBONS If you can score one of the Givson Esquires in Pyramid Purple, get a half dozen, mixed. What they gonna say in Dallas ’cept, “Play it, brother!”
GW What are your most recent acquisitions?
FRANCIS A pair of Bond, as in James Bond, guitars offered by Gulfcoast Guitars in Florida. We’re looking forward to exploring the extreme on this pair, as not only are they obscure but from England as well. A sure plus. Keith Richards is from England…the coolest. And these sticks have no frets, which means, of course, no wrong notes. Gotta have it!
GIBBONS Gil Southworth [of Southworth Guitars in Bethesda, Maryland] dug up a couple of Melody Makers. They’re fine—not “Givsons,” though, unfortunately. They’re Gibson, around ’62 or ’63. Rich ’burst finish in pure lacquer, extremely rare tortoise guard, hat-box knobs in see-through clear, singlecutaway, factory-installed deluxe machine heads and a fake ’gator-print pressboard case, with handle.
GW Is there some sort of modus operandi to this habit of acquisition?
FRANCIS Search and destroy.
GW Have any particularly strange, cosmic or divine transactions gone down?
GIBBONS Yeah. A transaction did take place at Second-Hand Joe, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Elwood keen-eyed a clap-trap tin shack down a side alley en route to the Jo-burg gig. The signage showed a large painted hand, palm-side outstretched, next to the number “2” and the name Joe with a homemade outline of a Telecaster. Killer find. Six new-in-the-box Gibson ES-295s, all gold with humbuckers and tags, eight left-handed fake Strats from the Philippines, maple neck, new-in-box as well, plus three Gibson anglefront stereo amps, also new-in-the-box. All “new,” from Second-Hand Joe. No straps.
FRANCIS Yeah, I like Joe. He took my dough.
GW What are the rarest and oddest axes in your possession?
GIBBONS Well, the absolute most weird are the HeliumZZ. They, well…almost levitate. They’ve got this inner bladder with a checkvalve loading spigot for force-thrust injection of helium or other gaseous chemicals. The instruments have a thin-skinned body membrane in place of the more traditional wood body. The result remains nearly unmanageable. They’re neck-heavy, the bodies undulate and flex unpredictably, and they have a tendency to want to float away.
GW What one guitar would you consider the Holy Grail?
FRANCIS I believe it’s probably one’s “first” instrument. That’s usually the firestarter. Ain’t nothin’ like that first time.
GIBBONS Most definitely. First time’s the killer. Of course, there’s always, always something around the corner.
GW What’s the best guitar you’ve ever owned?
FRANCIS All of ’em.
GW Describe some of the guitars used for the making of Rhythmeen.
FRANCIS This oughta be good. There’s a bunch, Brougham.
GIBBONS Yeah, the Rhythmeen got mucho. First track cut with Pearly. ’Nuff said. Then, [producer and recording engineers] Mr. Joe Hardy and Mr. G.L. “G-Mane” Moon suggested I slam on my ’55 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups to match the famous photo of Muddy Waters in Chess Studios.
FRANCIS Deluxe diversion.
GIBBONS All right! Yeah, P-90…rear pickup only! Crackin’ into the track “Bang Bang” on the ’55er…serial number 6 0091. Hardtail. Then it was on to a 1956 Fender Esquire, tracks four and five. Barbecued.
FRANCIS The Howlin’ Wolf Silvertone with built-in speaker…make that “Silver Tone,” ’cuz it’s actually a Teisco. It’s the one seen on the Howlin’ Wolf boxed set. Devilish item.
GIBBONS Some Gretsch [Bo Diddley’s 1960 rectangle], some Goldtop and some more Pearly.
FRANCIS Mostly Pearly.
GIBBONS Got to!
FRANCIS Lots of this stuff from Rhythmeen is mysterious-like, because those lowdown, substrata tunings chase the character. [Gibbons tuned several of his guitars down to C for a few songs, with .008 strings, no less.]
GIBBONS No doubt. And Elwood’s specialty tunings truly make the most familiar guitar a stranger! Lowdown in sound town.
GW What are some other equipment finds your fans can check up on?
GIBBONS Uh, the Bixonic Expandora pedal—an unmerciful orange squeezer of tone. And ya gotta have the Z.Vex effect pedals. Elegant. They come wrapped in a gas station shop rag! Adds to the effect. Airline Dan at Airline Guitars in Houston, Texas, has created a working model of another Slab 7 Studios design: the Missing Link. Aw, man! No description attempted.
FRANCIS The Roadrunner Supersonic fuzz box. That’s from Roadrunner Guitars in Paris. And it’s just good, old thick fuzz. Hell, get it all.
GW Any advice for the passionate player?
BOTH Distort…then go buy our records, again. [uproarious laughter]
* * * * *
Once again, the conversation is interrupted. Showtime. Gibbons, Hill and Beard take the stage and proceed to rock the East Germans to Halle. Tommorow: Munich.
Ah, Munich—charming mountain outpost of the Bavarian republic and headquarters for Europe’s finest breweries. The air is literally perfumed with the bodacious bouquet of beer. I’ve received instructions to meet Mr. Billy in his hotel room. As I knock on his door, it swings open, and there is Gibbons sitting in a hard-backed chair, talking on the telephone. Strewn across his bed are sundry CDs—Barkmarket, Reef, Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack and a few old Paul Butterfield Blues Band releases.
“Let’s see,” says Gibbons into the mouthpiece. “Pearly Gates. She’s got pedigree, celebrity status, was played at the Super Bowl. How much you think I can get for her?”
“Don’t do it!” I yell, wrestling the receiver from his hand and hanging up.
“That was Sotheby’s,” chuckles Gibbons. “Don’t worry. I just wanted to rattle their cage. I’ve no intention of parting with Pearly.”
I am relieved, to say the least. It’s hard to imagine a ZZ Top album that won’t be graced with Pearly’s presence. And so, we proceed to our final round of questioning.
* * * * *
GW Mr. Billy, what can you tell us of your first guitar—the “first one”—and its effect on you?
GIBBONS The “effect” is the word! Man, Christmas Day, high noon, the unwrapping, and by sundown the full-tilt “slab-slapping”! The “effect” took the electricity from the body to guitar through amplifier and on into atmosphere. There was no turnin’ back as far as the “effect” was concerned. Nor moi.
GW Which of the guitars currently being made are the classics of tomorrow?
GIBBONS I don’t really know, but the tone will tell the tale. The Big T. Anderson outfit of California meticulously manufactures a massively moving machine. So does Gibson. So does Fender. And Len McRae and Hartley [Peavey] have a real hot steam engine crankin’ stuff out of the heart of Mississippi. The real sleepers are the made-in-the-dark specials by players, themselves. Eddie Van Halen’s shop-work applications have enriched the popularity of personalizing an instrument and gone into the production lines with amazing outcome.
GW What is the ugliest guitar you’ve ever beholden? And the most beautiful?
GIBBONS Ah…One and the same. Don Leady from Austin, fronting guitar chores with the Tail Gators, snagged this one uptight. He has a custom-made bolt-together that we saw backstage at “Jimmy’s,” down in New Orleans. Sort of a cryptic “Essence of Jaundice Green” and a purple-and-white swirled-pearl scratch plate. Bass man Keith [Ferguson] referred to it as reminiscent of heartworms and grape jelly. A new contemporary beauty.
GW If you had only $100 to spend on an ax, what would you buy and why?
GIBBONS I’d be willin’ to throw down a “C” on any solidbody outfitted with a rearposition pickup. Don’t even have to work. Grocery sack for a case, some spare change for a couple of Radio Shack leads and a furious fuzz box. Killer combo for your stack of greenbacks.
GW What is the cheapest/most expensive guitar you’ve ever bought?
GIBBONS Cheapest and most expensive? Probably a pair of home-mades picked up at auction. They came through the Sotheby’s tribal sale in Johannesburg. I was fightin’ high bid from some cat that didn’t play, didn’t wanna play, but wanted to “slug it out” in the gallery. He outbid me, but in the end he didn’t have enough pesos to pay the man, so the pieces wound up back on the street. Later that evening I ran into the chap that originally offered the pieces, just wanting to make some spare change. We settled with a figure that doubled the auction bid—a fair trade for the both of us. I got a great couple of style mongers that this guy basically chiseled out of a Korina tree from his bush village. Expensive, yes, but cheap in the end.
GW What developments do you foresee in the electric guitar’s future?
GIBBONS More knobs. Bigger knobs. Bigger tone. And probably much, much louder. There’s a famous saying…well, kinda famous… which goes, “Anyone can rebuild a guitar, but it takes a real man to cut one up.” Long as there’s some thrashin’ goin’ on, we’ll be fine, fine, fine. Chop the broccoli, brother.