BILLY GIBBONS (ZZ TOP) On His New Solo Album: “It’s A Bit Of Serendipity Mixed With A Modicum Of Mojo”

Billy Gibbons
Photo: Blain Clausen

Releasing his second solo album in three years sees ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons in the middle of a creative streak. Mick Burgess caught up with the bearded Texan for the low down on Big Bad Blues and got an expert lesson in the Blues to boot.

Your new solo album The Big Bad Blues, is out very soon. How do you feel ahead of its release?

You said it! It’s all about the ‘feeling’. I got to work with some great players so our idea of digging into the Blues is time well spent. The Blues tradition is appreciated and savored.

BILLY GIBBONS - The Big Bad BluesWhy did you decide to do another solo album rather than a ZZ Top studio album?

John Burk at Concord Records cornered me in their parking lot late one night and made the case for a follow up to Perfectamundo, proposing a Blues-skewed set. That was it! At the same time, a new ZZ Top album continued percolating righteously. A two-for-two punch for sure!

This comes three years after your debut solo album, Perfectamundo. You’d done no solo albums in 45 years until then and now we have a second in three years. Are you on something of a creative surge at the moment?

That’s it! We’re having such a great time writing, recording and touring that it’s kind of morphed into a ride on the ongoing “party train”. One project begets another and another… after that, most of our works are amplified, literally and figuratively.

Whereas Perfectamundo saw you heading into new territory with its Afro-Cuban vibe, The Big Bad Blues is you very much on home turf. Did you always intend to return to your roots with your next record or did it just turn out this way naturally?

There’s rarely been a long-range plan of what we do however, as is often said, “you can’t lose with the Blues” — or is it “Blues or lose”? At any rate, the Blues is definitely biorhythmically-based. We’re doing what comes naturally with this one.

You have a mix of originals and covers on the record. How did you decide which songs to cover? Were these personal favourites musically or did the lyrics resonate with you, too?

Well, unbeknownst to this gang of mischievous mischievers, our engineers were recording the early bits of messing around and when we heard the playback, we thought to nail ‘em down for keeps. They were sounding good. It’s a bit of serendipity mixed with a modicum of mojo. Starting with some warm-up with Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’, ‘Bring It To Jerome’, ‘Standing Around Crying’ and ‘Crackin’ Up’ immediately sprang to mind and we just whipped ‘em into a kind of warm-up exercise.

You’ve covered two by Muddy Waters and two by Bo Diddley. Why two tracks by each of these artists in particular? Had you considered maybe doing songs by four different artists but felt that these songs fit the album better?

As noted, we went with the feeling which, if you think about it, is the best way to embrace the Blues — just let it creep up and hitcha over the head. The two from Bo and Muddy were just so right, we stood down thereafter and got some originals into the mix.

If you were only able to do one song per artist, which other two songs would you have chosen?

‘Evil (Is Going On)’ by Howlin’ Wolf ‘cause it’s downright scary and, maybe, something from Jimi Hendrix, ‘Red House’, ‘Bold As Love’, ‘Gypsy Eyes’ or ‘If 6 Was 9’ might have been good possibilities.

You managed to capture that wonderful original Blues style to perfection. What guitar did you use to bring those Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley classics to life?

A modern day Gretsch Duo Jet model to glom onto Bo and a classic early 50s Gibson Gold Top with the Muddy Waters’ numbers. Crank ‘em up and it gettin’ close.

What about the new songs on the album? Did you approach the writing differently than you do in ZZ Top?

In a way, yes! Writing from the perspective of stepping into uncharted waters required some theorizing what parts would serve well inside the approach. One of the creations, ‘Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’, is from the pen of Gilligan Stillwater, our sweetheart. We’re just assuming she wrote it about me. She did, didn’t she?

How did you pull the band together for this record? Were they a bunch of friends in town who started jamming together or did you call up people you specifically felt were right for the album?

We kind of cast the album as you might a film or TV show. We asked ourselves the question “Who would be right in this role that calls for a certain approach as far as the drums are concerned” so we recruited both Matt Sorum and Greg Morrow. We’ve played the past few New Year’s Eves in Austin as part of an ensemble known as The Jungle Show organized by organ grinder extraordinaire Mike Flanagan who just had to be part of this outing. Joe Hardy is a funk master so he got the bass task and we got left handed Austin Hanks on guitar for sonic symmetry.

You’re a pretty mean Blues harp player yourself. Why did you bring in James Harmon in to add some harp to the album?

James is the real deal. He’s got Mississippi in his mouth and we couldn’t imagine doing a Blues-based project without him.

Did you get to learn a few tricks from him?

He’s pretty nice about sharing some secrets but he does keep some of them close to the vest.

The album has a wonderful organic feel to it. Did you record all together, live in the studio?

Yes, we called it “TSOR” (The Sound Of Real)

Do you hope to play some live shows with your solo band at some point?

There are a whole string of dates with gigs on both coasts and points in between. Hollywood to Houston and New York City are whistle stops along the roadshow map.

You’ve been cited by many guitarists as a major influence on them. Who were those guitarists that originally influenced you?

Gotta start at the beginning: the first recording session I ever attended as a bystander took place when I was 6 or 7 years old. My Dad was a musician and used his connections to get into a session at ACA Recording in Houston with none other than B.B. King! How’s that for a start? Growing up in Houston, we got exposure to Lightnin’ Hopkins whose free form breakdowns were mind altering. And of course, getting to share the stage with Jimi Hendrix was the be all and end all. He was very giving of his time and talent and was more than happy to share some of his techniques which have taken the better part of a lifetime to realize in some meaningful way.

Which of the newer guitarists have caught your eye?

We like Buddy Guy’s young protege Quinn Sullivan who is now in his late teens but has been at it since he was a toddler. He certainly has our attention as well as Buddy’s. One of my current favorites is Bed Edge from an LA punk band called Surprise Vacation. Cat can thrash!

For someone new to the guitar and learning to play, what advice can you give them to get them off to a good start?

Play what you want to hear. That’s it!

For those readers who aren’t too familiar with some of the original Blues artists, who would you recommend they listen to, to get a solid grounding in the Blues?

Wow! Where do you start? I think the way to do this is to grab Muddy Waters’ Anthology, B.B. King’s Live At The Regal and, maybe, Life To Legend by Jimmy Reed. Wait! I left out Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign album. There’s about a thousand more but I do understand you have to start somewhere.

Do you have any plans for any UK shows in the coming months?

We’re all covered up with the current ZZ Tour and immediately hitting the road with The Big Bad Blues show, however….however…. an invitation to appear in the UK would be a treasure. That’s always something special… so color us very interested.

The Big Bad Blues by Billy Gibbons is out on 21st September on Snakefarm Records


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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