Guitar marvel Billy Gibbons talks the blues, ZZ Top and Las Vegas

Billy Gibbons, Vegas style.
Photo: Andrew Stuart / Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

You never quite know where Las Vegas transplant Billy Gibbons might pop up. In the past few years, he’s been spotted at Golden Knights games, sat in with the Jimmie Vaughn Band and, of course, launched a residency at the Venetian with his long-running band ZZ Top.

Earlier this year, Gibbons (calling himself Billy F Gibbons) issued a new solo album, The Big Bad Blues. As the name implies, it’s a gritty collection of blues originals and covers of tunes written by Muddy Waters (“Standing Around Crying,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”) and Bo Diddley (“Crackin’ Up”). Accordingly, Gibbons’ companion Big Bad Blues Tour finds him performing songs from the album and select ZZ Top tracks with a trio that includes guitarist Austin Hanks and ex-Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum.

With his usual mix of dry wit and musical detail, Gibbons answered some questions by email about The Big Bad Blues, why he loves Las Vegas and ZZ Top’s future.

Your new album, The Big Bad Blues, is a rather seamless mix of originals and well-curated blues covers. How did the idea for this album come about? Our good friend John Burk at Concord Records wanted us to come up with an album to follow [2015’s] Perfectamundo, our excursion into Afro-Cuban sounds. He said, “Why not do a blues album?” and our immediate response was, “Perfectamundo!” And the “Who’s on First?” conversation ensued. We immediately took him up on the offer, and back to the studio we went. You just can’t say “no” to the blues!

Bo Diddley looms large on this album, between the cover of “Crackin’ Up” and your take on “Bring It To Jerome,” written by his maraca player Jerome Green. I know Bo also figures prominently in your personal history: You and ZZ Top helped induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you have a reproduction of a guitar he gave you. How has your relationship to Bo’s music changed over the years? Bo remains a huge influence, insofar as he illustrated how to do more with a guitar than just strum the strings. Bo was the consummate innovator. Keenly inspirational from the start. As a sonic stylist and sheriff-of-the-old-West fashionista, he was an original. It’s been suggested Bo wasn’t really from this planet, and it might be the case that Macomb, Mississippi, is a Martian outpost.

I guess we’re more analytical about his work now, and have spent countless hours trying to deconstruct his approach. That was certainly the case attempting to unravel Bo’s menacing recording of “Crackin’ Up”—that was a Rubik’s Cube times 10—but we think we cracked the code to a certain extent. There’s never been anybody like Bo Diddley, which is why we celebrate him whenever and however possible.

Matt Sorum—who I know you’ve played with in the past with Kings of Chaos—is playing drums with you on this current tour. The show is letting him show off a different side to his playing: He’s an expressive drummer who handles a lot of this blues-based material well, with his own flourishes. What makes him such a good drummer for this tour and the material you’re doing? Matt’s got both power and nuance, which is exactly what’s called for. Technically, he’s at the top of his game, and he handles the subtleties in an extraordinary and soulful manner. He always comes up with what’s appropriate while making it seem effortless. What can I say? He’s a total pro.

The band configuration in general for this tour is unique: There are two guitar players—yourself and Austin Hanks—and the two of you are trading off bass duties in an interesting fashion. As a technology lover, tell us about the cutting-edge tech/instruments that you and Austin are using to have the bass [sound]—without having a bass player. Using the Little Thunder pickups, we can select the bottom strings to get a double octave drop, while keeping the normal guitar signal intact. Andy Alt is the inventor, and his crack team of audio scientists from LA have created a special version just for this tour that has some cutting-edge tech. It senses the lowest notes being played and drops ’em right into the bass guitar range. What the audience gets is double the bass, while witnessing the camaraderie directly with our left-handed guitar player, Austin Hanks. Then we add some amplified “dirt” with four stacks on either side of our mighty powerhouse drummer, Matt.

Joe Hardy, who you’ve been working with for over three decades now, co-produced this new record. Why do you work so well together? Joe has been part of our Foam Box Recording team for two decades now, and he’s simply a very intuitive cat. When you think of something, Joe’s immediately on to it and how to achieve the “whatever,” in a sonic sense. He’s a really simpatico technician and musician—a rare combination that makes his efforts for this project all the more appreciated.

You’ve been renovating a house in Vegas—as I understand it, the place where Brigitte Bardot got married in 1966—and plan on moving here full-time. What is it about the city that appeals to you/that you’re drawn to? Are you kidding? I mean, “Vegas, baby” … and all that implies. It’s a great place to have a really good time with virtually no limitations, but also a great place to live thanks to the diversity the city offers. If you can think of it, it’s in Las Vegas—and when you think of Billy F Gibbons, you know he’ll be there, too.

Musically, you’ve had countless memorable Vegas moments—from playing at Slash’s birthday party to sitting in with the Jimmie Vaughan Band to covering “Viva Las Vegas” with ZZ Top live. What makes Vegas such a vibrant, exciting music town? Why do you like playing/performing here? Yes, Vegas has been “the scene of the crime” many times over, and we just love the vibe. Most everybody seems to encourage having a good time because when you’re in Las Vegas, a special mindset presents itself. The lingering question always comes around to, “Why not have fun?” … and, invariably, there just isn’t any reason not to! Just go for it.

Then again, [it] might be a result of all that electrical power coming out of the Hoover Dam or, maybe, some incantation Howard Hughes (a fellow Houstonian, by the way) might have made a while back. Whatever it is, it’s good mojo!

You recorded a version of “Viva Las Vegas” for ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits album in the ’90s. The video, of course, is over the top, but it looks like it was memorable and fun. What do you remember about the experience of working on that video? We rode around the Strip in a fire engine red ’53 Cadillac convertible and met the ghost of Elvis. Isn’t that enough? We shot a lot of it late at night, which really makes no difference in Las Vegas … the crowds were thick, and it was something of a public performance piece except for the poolside scenes— the wedding chapel segment. Although the song was written about 55 years ago, it still describes what’s going on today quite fittingly. Viva!

You’ve collaborated and played with so many people over the decades. Any dream musicians you haven’t been able to link up with yet you’d like to—and, if so, who and why? We’re big fans of ZZ Ward for obvious reasons, so that might be a worthwhile collaboration. We’re fond of Mississippi blues veteran Bobby Rush whose long-ago soul hit “Chicken Heads” grabbed our attention. He put the “onk” in fonky.

ZZ Top’s 50th anniversary is in 2019, which is quite a milestone. Do you have any plans in the works for anything yet—and, if not, would you like to do something? Our plan is to keep on keepin’ on. It’s worked for the past 49 years, so we’ve just got to assume it will work for the next 51.

BILLY F GIBBONS with Seth Loveless. November 16, 7:30 p.m., $39-$69, Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

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  • His new band opens up for one of his original idols, Howard Jones, at the Cannery on July 13.

  • The band will celebrate its new sound with a joint release party with local blues-rock outfit Damaris, July 12 at 172 inside the Rio.

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