Billy Gibbons – ZZ Top and Beyond

There are few things so undeniably Texas than ZZ Top, the long-running blues-rock band featuring two men with extremely long beards (guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill) and the ironically-named, relatively clean-shaven drummer Frank Beard.  But if one were to select a driving force behind the band’s success, it would have to be Gibbons, who was once suggested to be the next great guitar player, by no less than Jimi Hendrix himself.

William Frederick “Billy” Gibbons was born on December 16, 1949 in Houston, Texas, and grew up in a musical family – his father Frederick was a known concert pianist who worked for MGM Studios.  Gibbons got his first electric guitar as a 13-year-old, and as an art school student in Hollywood, where his father was working, young Billy formed a series of short-lived garage bands.  At 17, Gibbons was back in Texas, where he formed the seminal psychedelic band the Moving Sidewalks, playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals.  Their single “99th Floor” is considered one of the all-time garage rock classics of the 1960s, though its local success in Houston did not translate to a spot on the Billboard charts.

The Moving Sidewalks were history by 1969, when two of their members were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.  That led to the formation of ZZ Top, which started with the trio of Gibbons (again on vocals and lead guitar), Lanier Greig (keyboards) and Dan Mitchell (drums).  Following several lineup changes, the classic three-piece lineup of Gibbons, Hill and Beard was cemented.  Their debut album, simply called ZZ Top’s First Album, was released early in 1971, and generated a #50 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, “(Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree.”

The rest may very well be history, as ZZ Top would become one of the leading American bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, releasing albums such as Tres Hombres (1973, featuring the hit single “La Grange”) and Deguello (1979, featuring “Cheap Sunglasses”).  Messrs. Gibbons, Hill and Beard weren’t shy about telling the world what part of America they came from, as ZZ Top’s ‘70s and ‘80s albums featured several odes to life in the Lone Star State.  It was raw, down-and-dirty blues-rock, not rocket science, and the blue-collar nature of their songs made them among working-class America’s favorite acts.  The 1983 album Eliminator produced “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Legs” and became ZZ Top’s biggest album to date.  Though the use of synthesizers on Eliminator turned off some loyal fans of their back-to-basics sound, it was a move that was generally well-received, as it showed ZZ Top can keep up with the times without sacrificing their roots.

The changing of musical trends naturally led to a decrease in ZZ Top album sales, starting with 1990’s Recycler, but the band itself and their hirsute axeman have remained active up to this day.  Gibbons has collaborated with artists as diverse as industrial rockers Revolting Cocks (featuring Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen), modern-day garage rock supergroup the Raconteurs and the always-innovative Queens of the Stone Age.  His white 1959 Gibson Les Paul, “Miss Pearly Gates”, is one of rock music’s most famous signature guitars.   And he’s even made recurring appearances on Fox TV show Bones and endorsed his own line of barbecue sauces under the BFG brand name.  Underrated as he may be by many, Billy Gibbons is an institution in Texas blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and rightfully so.

What is a 16 bar blues?

Let’s start with the easy bit, what is a 12 bar blues? From here it’s easier to show the difference with a 16 bar blues.

Typically the 12 bar pattern is

1 1 1 1

4 4 1 1

5 4 1 1

If you are wondering what these numbers mean the simplest way to explain is to think of the 8 major tones in music  CDEFGABC, then number them 1234 and so on…the pattern shown relates to the number of bars played using those chords corresponding with those tones.

I’m probably not explaining it very well so let me show you. If we play an 12 bar blues in A, for example, we can number the chords as A1 B2 C3 D4 E5 F6 G7 A8. So now our 12 bar blues pattern comprises 4 bars of A, followed by 2 bars of D followed by 2 bars of A and so on which we can rewrite as

A A A A

D D A A

E D A A

The 16 bar blues is a variation on this pattern. Interestingly there seems to be numerous permutations and possibilities as to how a 16 bar blues pattern can be constructed.

The simplest is to make the first 4 bars into 8 bars like this

1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

4 4 1 1 5 4 1 1

or we can repeat the 9th an 10th bars 3 times like this:

1 1 1 1 4 4 1 1

5 4 5 4 5 4 1 1

or we can repeat them twice like this:

1 1 1 1 4 4 1 1

5 4 5 4 1 1 1 1

or we can do this:

1 1 1 1 4 4 1 1

4 4 1 1 5 5 1 1

and there are more besides those.

Reminds me of something Robben Ford is meant to have said along the lines of ‘if it sounds good, play it!’

Here’s an example of what I think is a 16 bars blues, Blue Jean Blues by Billy Gibbons (of Z Z Top). I’ve got the ZZ Top version elsewhere but it’s a live version. I think the album version is more flattering to Billy and so I am going to include that here