Forget the beard and the gimmicky fur-covered guitar: Billy Gibbons can flat-out play.
In fact, the ZZ Top front man is one of the most underrated and underappreciated electric blues guitar players of his generation — Jimi Hendrix once even called him America’s best guitar player.
Well, there’s probably a good argument to try and make that case.
(photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Gibbons got his start in the late ‘60s, forming the band The Moving Sidewalks in his hometown of Houston. The band enjoyed regional success in Texas, recording one album and releasing several singles. Most notably, The Moving Sidewalks opened for legendary rockers like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix during the Texas legs of some of their tours.
That was when Hendrix not only schooled a young Gibbons, but would later identify Gibbons as the nation’s best axeman during a subsequent television interview.
“When we were supporting Jimi, I was sitting in my hotel room one night and practiced a little,” Gibbons told an interviewer from Gibson guitars earlier this year. “Then this dude stuck his head through the door — it was Jimi Hendrix! I felt paralyzed and speechless. He grabbed my guitar, laid down on the floor, looked at the ceiling and played some unbelievable licks, before asking whether I could do stuff like this too — and then he even stepped it up a notch. Afterwards he showed me some tricks. I learned a lot from him.”
In 1969, Gibbons was at a Houston Halloween party when he met two other local musicians, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, who had gained some local prominence in Texas blues rock bands. The trio quickly hit it off and decided to form a band.
Despite a variety of stories over the origin of the band’s name, Gibbons told Gibson guitars that the band’s name came from the trio’s love of blues legend B.B. King — they initially called themselves Z.Z. King.
But, as Gibbons explains, they “realized pretty quickly that it sounded too much like our hero, so we changed it to ZZ Top.”
The band released its first album two years later, giving it the simple name of ZZ Top’s First Album. By 1977, they had released five albums and had charted with the rock tune, “Tush.”
Led by Gibbons’ singing, songwriting and playing, ZZ Top quickly earned converts. Cuts like “Blue Jean Blues” also confirmed Gibbons’ blues roots. His prowess on the guitar had by then earned him the nickname The Reverend Billy G.
In 1977, the band decided to take a break, during which an odd coincidence helped fuel their future success: Gibbons and Hill, unbeknownst to each other, grew full-length beards during the hiatus. It became their most familiar features.
Then, in 1983, they hit the big time. The release of Eliminator led to four hits, including “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin.’” With the help of three Playboy Bunnies and Gibbons’ 1933 Ford Coupe — a regular feature on the album’s videos — ZZ Top also made it big on MTV.
While not enjoying the same success since, ZZ Top has not stopped recording and continues to tour. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, with Gibbons firmly established as one of the nation’s most prominent guitar players.
He has also gone on to several side projects, including work with Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell, Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and B.B. King — the legend who inspired him in the first place.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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