Even at 68, Billy Gibbons is still moving fast. Here, the ZZ Top legend discusses how he returned to his roots for his terrific new solo album.
Never let it be said that Billy Gibbons isn’t honest. When Guitar World calls the legendary ZZ Top guitarist on his cell phone and asks him where he is, Gibbons, who is out on tour with the Little Ol’ Band from Texas, readily admits he has no idea. “We were in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and we were pulling up stakes last night but I forgot to ask where we were going,” he admits. “So it’s a bit of a mystery on my end!”
There is at least one thing he’s sure of, however: “I don’t hear the buzz of any slot machines, so I know we’re not in Vegas.”
Of course, anyone who’s been gigging for half a century is allowed a locational lapse here and there. What’s more, Gibbons, now 68, is still moving incredibly fast. Even as he’s out on the road with ZZ Top, he’s gearing up for the release of a new solo album, The Big Bad Blues. The follow-up to his 2015 effort, the Cuban-flavored Perfectamundo, the new album, true to its title, finds Gibbons returning to the sound that has always been at the core of his playing, singing and writing. “It’s a rekindling of our attention on an area from which we came,” he says. “And also where we still live.”
To that end, The Big Bad Blues, in addition to a handful of distortion-drenched deep-in-the-pocket Gibbons originals, finds the guitarist tackling some of his favorite blues tunes from the past, including Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” and two Bo Diddley songs, “Crackin’ Up” and “Bring It to Jerome.” “We were just having a bit of fun,” he acknowledges.
In the following interview, the always-engaging Gibbons talks to GW about the new album, his gear, his favorite current blues player and, curiously, the reason he chooses to sleep on the floor. In a word? “Solidity.”
What led you to do a straightforward blues album?
Well, as you may recall, we had an interesting success with the Cuban-inspired project called Perfectamundo. And that moved the Concord Records president, Mr. John Burk, to step forward and extend the invitation. He said, “I’d like to pick up the option to do another record. How would you feel about doing something blues-related?” And I said, “Well, that’s where we came from. Let’s give it a shot.”
How did you pick the material?
Coincidentally, when Burk was reaching out to us I had returned to our studio down in Texas and I ran into a couple musician pals, namely Greg Morrow, the great drummer from Memphis. And subsequent to that I ran into Matt Sorum, another great drummer. And we started up a jam session, attempting to tackle our favorite blues numbers. And the good news was, Mr. Joe Hardy, the engineer extraordinaire, had the tape machines rolling the whole time. And I guess it was the second or third day where he said, “Hey, why don’t you guys take a listen to some of this stuff you’ve been laying down?” And so we listened and I said, “Wow, the sound is not too far from where we were aiming to go anyway.” And we had a couple Muddy Waters tunes, some Bo Diddley stuff, there were even some Jimmy Reed numbers. That got us started in what we thought was the right direction. And from there I started composing some original material that was also aimed at that bluesy side of things.
What led you to cover the Bo Diddley song “Crackin’ Up”?
That’s one of those songs that’s been covered many times by a number of qualified groups. It unfolded later on in the game because it took the longest time to learn how to play Bo Diddley’s guitar intro. [laughs]
The intro on the original recording is one of those inside-out, upside-down kind of insane compositions. But we were determined to crack the code. So it was an interesting excursion into the unknown.
The Rolling Stones do a great version of “Crackin’ Up” on their Love You Live album. They give it an almost reggae-like feel.
Yeah! That stands out. That’s one of my favorite Stones tracks. They did a bang-up job with it.
You also do “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” on the new album. Of all the Muddy Waters songs to choose from, why that one?
I think we were having a bit of fun. We were kind of “metalizing” blues standards and that one, the tempo is insanely fast. But it has an appeal behind it. We were taken with the way it turned out. We said, “Gee whiz, let’s keep it.” So in addition to all of these original compositions we felt some legitimizing factor was behind including what we thought were some of the favorites of those early jam sessions.
It’s interesting to hear you use the word “metalizing.” One of the things I’ve always noticed about how you approach the blues is that you’re not a traditionalist. Whereas there are some players that try to stick as close to the sound and guitar tones of the originals, you’re not so precious with the material. You do your own thing.
Well, that’s a compliment that I’ll take! We’ve always announced that the closest we can get to the blues is being interpreters. Particularly now, with so many of the originators long gone. So it becomes a challenge of interpretation. But I think another word that has to surround these interpretations is that of “feeling.” If it feels right, then you’re on the right track. And as you point out, we’re certainly not strict traditionalists. It’s more an interpretative stab at the art form.
Do you recall the first blues song that really got you?
Yes. I was about 12 years old, and I had a close friend we called Waltaire. Waltaire Baldwin.
His given name was Walter, but we thought that was too plain. Because even at 12 years old the guy spoke like a poet. So he was not Voltaire, he was Waltaire. [laughs]
Anyway, he had stumbled into the blues quite early on. In fact, he picked up the harmonica and had learned the technique of playing in the cross harp position. He was onto it way, way early. And I remember he found a John Lee Hooker release on Vee-Jay. Of course, it was the classic “Boogie Chillen’.” And that led to… well, if we had two days we could extend the list of blues giants that have impacted me since day one.