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.”

Tejas (February 1977)

“I played harmonica on ‘It’s Only Love,’ and there’s a wah-wah on ‘Snappy Kakkie’ that I’ve used in a subtle way. Wah-wah can quickly grate on the nerves if you’re not careful. Beck, Clapton, Page and Hendrix were all fairly tasty. I sat with Hendrix and he showed me a lot of licks—and I can’t do any of them!”

Degüello (August 1979)

“This album marked our leap from London Records to Warner Bros. We attempted to maintain the cornerstone of 12-bar blues, or just blues music period. Of course, we were bombarded at the time by the punk rock movement.

“On Degüello you find the band starting to stretch out a little bit. ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ was the first time we used synthesizers. I think Degüello was the first record we completed after the punk scene was ushered in, and we can gladly tip our hats to the doors they opened. Here was a kick-ass brand of music that was making a statement: ‘To hell with the FM playlist, we’re gonna do it like we wanna do it!’ I think it allowed us to relax to the point where we could use it.”

El Loco (November 1981)

“With El Loco we got pigeonholed with a real strange group of friends. ‘Tube Snake Boogie’ ended up being played more on the punk station here, KROQ [in Los Angeles], than anywhere else. Well, certainly ZZ Top is not a punk band, but it was more of an underground thing.

El Loco had some interesting offerings, like ‘Party on the Patio,’ which doesn’t leave the three-chord progression behind but is definitely a step outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Moog bass lines on ‘Ten Foot Pole’ were another excursion for us.

“Of course, some great disasters have occurred when discretion was not exercised. And fortunately, our producer [Bill Ham] was functioning as an objective observer.”

Eliminator (March 1983)

“We had spent quite a bit of time really getting serious with tempo and composition. The technology of the Eighties and the creative inventiveness of the techno-pop bands from England made working with synthesizers a pretty interesting proposition. We thought, Can a down-and-dirty blues band make sounds with this stuff that will work for its music? That became the backbone of our approach.

“We tried it, and of course we made light use of synthesizers compared to what we did later on Afterburner. And it was mild compared to what Van Halen did with ‘Jump.’ There were moments when we thought, Are we making a mistake? But we didn’t think that too often. Needless to say, the formula was a success.”

Afterburner (October 1985)

“I think we were aware of the success of Eliminator and were spending a little more time inspecting the quality of the compositions and the execution, because it was a seemingly impossible task to top Eliminator. But we certainly didn’t want to feel that we hadn’t done everything to at least give it another one of our best.

“We knew that, for us, we were tiptoeing through sacred ground by venturing out into synthesizer stuff. But Dusty’s approach was, ‘Hell, turn it on and I’ll make a mess of it quickly’ [Hill played the keyboard parts]. I felt the same way: Let’s not pretend to be experts or technicians with this thing. Our point is, we probably do better by not knowing enough about it, and consequently our synthesizer work is not the kind of melodic classical thing that people normally would be afraid of.

“We didn’t even mention keyboards on the album sleeve. I think there was still a point to be proved to ZZ Top loyalists, and they might have been offended. I think we fought the word more than the sound.

“The harshest guitar tone I’ve ever had is on ‘Sleeping Bag.’ My obscenity comes in harmonics rather than grind. I really lean heavily on harmonics, and that started with ‘La Grange.’ It happened by accident. Harmonics are unpredictable, and that makes them fun to use. They’re always in the right key, but when you really catch one sideways, man, it’s way out there!”

Recycler (March 1990)

“We're a band that uses old tricks, new tricks and all points in between. Our attention was shared between the challenges of the studio and the creation of a stage production that would equate with what we were doing behind closed doors.”

Antenna (January 1994)

“To sum up the vibe of Antenna, we started experimenting with all kinds of luxuries, stuff like two- and three-track overdubs of a vocal. It was during the recording of Antenna that we said, ‘We can make these guitar tracks gigantic. What if we gave the same treatment to vocal tracks?’ ”

Rhythmeen (September 1996)

Rhythmeen may stand as the truest test of ZZ Top as a trio. There are no overdubs. That was ‘pure band,’ going in and saying, ‘Okay, we think we know these songs. We’re gonna try and lay ’em down.’

“It’s really a cool record. Prior to that, ZZ Top was actually like a five- or six-piece band, and that was only due to the benefit of multi-tracking. And although we still have that advantage on our side, we wanted a true trio record. Rhythmeen brought us back to the first album and the glory days of Eliminator. It allowed us to do some amazing stuff as a trio. When you’ve got two rhythm guitar parts and a lead vocal going on, and then you get to lay down a lead guitar track on top, you become like a nine-piece band. So with Rhythmeen, we decided we were gonna record these songs as we rehearsed ’em. It took quite a bit of gumption to get to that point.

“The title of the album could basically be interpreted from the words ‘mean rhythm.’ And that was really the cornerstone of a true ZZ Top record.”

XXX (September 1999)

“It was like, ‘Okay, this feels good. We can still be a blues band and we can stand as a trio. It’s just gonna require a little extra practice before we walk into the studio.’

“And of course Jeff Beck sings in conjunction with me on the chorus of a song called ‘Hey Mr. Millionaire.’ The invitation arrived to sing on his record, but unfortunately I was way off in Europe and unable to make his deadline. I called him from overseas and he said he was out with B.B. King, and I was cringing that we were not able to see one of the greatest combination shows ever. As over-the-top and as world-renowned as he is, B.B. King remains a very gentle, down-toearth guy. He will be the first one to tell you, ‘Man, I still love playing guitar.’ ”

Mescalero (April 2003)

“Like so many of our records, Mescalero started with a trip to the Mexican border. This particular trip found us sampling the mysterious virtues of mescal, which is the dangerous cousin to tequila. All of this is tied in with the Mescalero Indian tribe. That’s the colorful and humble beginning of this outing.

“We started out saying, ‘No holds barred. We’ll do whatever we think will work for ZZ Top.’ And then we’re scratching our heads, going, ‘Well, what is ZZ Top?’ At this point, it’s safe to say we don’t really know. We’ve still got a cornerstone; we’ve still got a benchmark of 12-bar blues. After that, anything goes.”

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