Photo by John Gilhooley
Standing onstage at Boston’s
Paradise Rock Club, 64-year-old
Billy Zoom doesn’t look
a day over 40. In his signature wide
stance, he peers out over a sea of
thrashing bodies with the vacant grin
of a joker. Possibly for fear of blinding,
he never once looks down at his sparkling
Silver Jet as he shreds. The entire
club, entranced by X’s beloved punk
rock anthem “Los Angeles,” murmurs
with cult-like enthusiasm, “She had to
leave ... It felt sad, it felt sad, it felt sad.”
Just a few weeks earlier, not far
from L.A., Zoom was in his Orange
County shop, where he’s known in
the industry as a jack-of-all-trades for
his technical work building, repairing,
and modifying tube amps—work he says he prefers to touring.
“I hate that feeling right before I
have to leave,” he says. “I usually
don’t bother to read the itinerary or
anything until a few days before so I
don’t have to think about it.”
Nerves and X aside, this guy earned
his stripes playing with legendary acts
like Gene Vincent, Etta James, and Big
Joe Turner—and in certain circles, he’s
considered among the greatest players
of all time. But some may not know
that he spends the rest of his time tinkering
with tubes in his workshop.
Billy Zoom holds his signature Gretsch Custom Shop Tribute Silver Jet model, which was part of a limited run that is now totally sold out. “Mike McCready
from Pearl Jam got the last one,” Zoom says. Nearby are his special stereo model Silver Jet with TV Jones pickups, as well as a stereo amp he built.
Photo by John Gilhooley
Most people know you as a guitar hero.
How did you get into building and modifying
I started getting into ham radio when I was
much younger. In 1958 I started building
kits and working with radio transmitters. I
was also playing guitar, but I had an acoustic.
In about ’62 I switched to electric and
had to have an amplifier. I started to realize
it was the same kind of stuff. The inside of
an amp made sense to me because I already
knew the radio stuff. I became the local
amp repair guy, and then in the late ’60s I
went to a vocational school for two years to
learn electronics. Basically it was training
to be a color TV technician, but it was a
really good background. It was only the last
semester that was television intense. I went
in knowing I was going to apply the skills
to working with sound. I usually kept the
poor teacher after class for an hour or two
every time, badgering him with questions
and bringing in amps.
And then you opened your first shop
Yeah, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard
and Vista Street in Hollywood. I do a fair
amount of general repair work to anything
with tubes, plus guitars, studio gear, and
then modifications and building my products.
I do it all. It’s kind of a mix.
And you’ve been in business ever since?
Pretty much, except for the years like ’88,
’85, when X was touring constantly and I
moved my shop to my house but was still
working in between tours.
X has been touring regularly again since
How do you go about balancing your
business with touring?
With great difficulty. I’m not here enough.
We’ve been really busy touring this year.
I also moved my shop to a bigger facility
How does it feel leaving your business to
go on tour?
I hate going out. I get nervous about traveling
at the beginning of every tour. “What
did I forget? What didn’t I bring? What am
I gonna need that I’m not gonna have?”
That sort of thing. I have two of everything
and one stays packed. Once we’ve played a
show and I know I didn’t forget anything,
or I know what I forgot, then I’m okay.