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Billy Gibbons: Havana Meets Houston

Billy Gibbons is known to favor T-style guitars. On his new track “Hombre Sin Nombre,” he used a 1956 Fender Tele for a break that features pinch harmonics and gobs of reverb.
Photo by Gerardo Ortiz

ZZ Top’s guitar wizard honors his childhood roots on Perfectamundo—his first solo record ever—with a mix of Afro-Cuban beats, rumbling Hammond B-3, and plenty of gritty, greasy, growling guitar.

The Gandalf of Texas blues-rock guitar, Billy F. Gibbons, has traded “how, how, how, how” for “cómo, cómo, cómo, cómo” on his first solo album, the surprising and yet entirely Gibbons-esque Perfectamundo. The surprise lies in the lyrics and rhythmic lilt, which are both distinctly Latin and suggest the kind of Afro-Cuban grooves found on Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club or a classic record by mambo king Tito Puente. The “Gibbons” factor lurks in the low-end grit and cosmic grease he smears all over the album’s 11 tracks. It’s these sounds that make Perfectamundo, like many of ZZ Top’s hippest recordings, a trippy journey through the terrain of BFG’s dust, gasoline, and cerveza-infused musical psyche.

Perfectamundo raises questions, the biggest being: Why a solo album after 46 years as the 6-string brujo and primary diviner of one of rock’s coolest and most successful bands?

“The opportunity or raison d’etre presented itself with a probable underlying pre-determined idea,” Gibbons explains. Roughly translated, that means the notion of cutting a solo album was simmering for a while when something happened that brought it to a boil: an invitation for ZZ Top to play the December 2014 Havana International Jazz Festival.

“We thought it appropriate to work up a set to make contextual sense in the midst of Havana,” he continues. “Which catalyzed thinking about Afro-Cuban beats and breaks, and how that relates to what we could do: a little bit blues, a little bit hard rock, and a lot of Straits of Florida feeling. One beat led to another and Perfectamundo started shaping up.”

“I learned that keeping the rhythm up front moved backsides better than anything you can think of. Percussion is paramount!”

The album’s musical roots actually extend back to Gibbons’ childhood in the Houston suburbs. “I admit the ‘stewing’ came from exposure to Latin rhythm through Tito Puente, thanks to my dad, which made jumping into the sessions like riding a bicycle,” he relates.

The guitar giant’s father was Freddie Royal, a bandleader and pianist who fronted regional outfits and did some work for Hollywood, with MGM Studios. “After too much racket hitting a metal garbage can, my dad finally said, ‘If you’re going to continue doing that, you’re going to have to learn to do it right.’” So Royal shipped his 13-year-old son to Manhattan to study with his pal Puente, an absolute master of the timbales—small, shallow, single-headed metal drums that ring with the percussive snap of a rifle.

“I was a know-it-all youngster, but Tito reckoned with my dad and took me under his wing,” Gibbons recalls. “Tito told me to describe what I wanted to do and, well, who doesn’t like to bang on stuff? He then went on to show me all six sides of a box with the directive to learn how to play ’em. That was the great groundbreaker in all things in Latin percussion, and it has stayed on long with me. I learned that keeping the rhythm up front moved backsides better than anything you can think of. Percussion is paramount!”

Billy Gibbons’ Gear

1959 Les Paul Standard “Pearly Gates”
1950s National Reso-Phonic
1956 Fender Telecaster

Magnatone Super-Fifty Nine
Bigtone Studio Plex mkII
1951 Fender Tweed Deluxe

Paul Cochrane Timmy Overdrive
Whitfill DUI Overdrive

Strings and Picks
Dunlop Rev. Willy’s Mexican Lottery nickel strings (.007–.038)
Dunlop Standard Gel picks
Dunlop Rev. Willy’s Mexican Lottery Mo-Jo glass slides

“Perfectamundo” translates roughly as “perfect world” or, less literally, as “everything’s cool.” And everything is way cool on Perfectamundo, starting with the insanely low, grinding chords from Gibbons’ longtime 6-string steady Miss Pearly Gates that kick off the album via a stunning renovation of the Slim Harpo rock precursor “Got Love If You Want It.” Gibbons growls out the lyrics, using over-cranked auto-tune—a flourish borrowed from hip-hop—to add a metallic ring to the already amp-like sound of his voice. And his lead Les Paul tones dial up the same vintage Magnatone-bust-up-plus-overdrive-pedal raunch that made songs like “I Gotsta Get Paid” on ZZ Top’s 2012 release La Futura (their first Top 10 album in nearly two decades) the opening salvo of an ongoing musical renaissance for the trio.

There’s also a major artery of clave rhythm and charango-influenced piano pulsing through “Got Love If You Want It.” Ditto the album’s two other chestnuts, Texas rockabilly legend Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” and 9-string Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go.” The latter’s smeared in filth, from Gibbons’ tweaked voice to low-octave guitar grunting to his own Hammond B-3 organ, which he uses to punch out a down-low solo that’s phrased like one of his hot mid-tempo single-note guitar leads.

“It’s not a far throw from Houston’s Third Ward to Havana’s scenic seawall once the course is set,” Gibbons says, reflecting on his choice of covers. (Bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown all emerged from Houston’s historic Third Ward district.) “‘Got Love If You Want It’ drew heavily on the built-in cha-cha thing of the original, and Alex Garza’s beating on the bongo and conga stepped it up handily. Then came ‘Treat Her Right’ and ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’—both drastically rearranged to allow the blues and Latin beat to breathe, which rendered the unfamiliar into submission.”

The rest of the album was even more unfamiliar, with Gibbons writing lyrics for the pile-driving title cut, which features vocals from Garza and Gibbons, plus five other tunes in rough-hewn Spanish.

“Writing pop style in a language known only in a passing way presents some compositional challenges,” he concedes. “However, we worked through it and came out with something that’s it’s own unique thing. Rhyming in Español was a revelation. We determined most Latin songs don’t really demand or depend on rhyming so much. The importance lies in telling the story without any ‘spoon and moon.’”

Gibbons slings his newest John Bolin guitar onstage with ZZ Top in March 2015. This T-style is nicknamed the “Peeler,” and is covered with a printed decal made to resemble an instrument that was damaged in a flood. Photo by Frank White

Keeping the stories simple helps, too. Perfectamundo is really high-caliber party music. “Sal y Pimiento” means simply “Salt and Pepper,” and cruises along on a mambo beat punctuated by Gibbons’ trademark lazy bends, descending turnarounds, and some of the sweetest vocalizing he’s done in years. “Hombre Sin Nombre” takes on a spooky vibe akin to Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” Westerns and perks it up with timbales and other Latin filigrees. Plus it includes a fat Tele break replete with pinch harmonics that uses reverb like a high school kid uses his dad’s cologne. Album closer “Q’ Vo” tips its hand with its first words, “la fiesta.” But it’s a chill celebration, as B-3 once again sets the vibe with a slouchy jazz-blues melody that gets picked up by the guitar.

Both instruments then pass the tune back and forth like a bottle of El Jimador. And so it goes, with the digital robot-voice colors of auto-tune, judicious samples, and some stunt editing blending seamlessly with the organic pleasures of Gibbons’ seriously below-the-belt picking. It all keeps Perfectamundo consistently upbeat and grooving: A joy to hear.

Like Stax Records house bandleader Booker T. Jones had his funky group the M.G.’s, Gibbons has his BFG’s, a cross-cultural cast that includes Garza on bass, percussion, and vocals; Martin Guigui on piano and B-3; Mike Flanigin on B-3; Greg Morrow on drums; and percussionists SoZo and Melanie DiLorenzo. In the studio, Cuban-born, New York City-based bandleader Chino Pons also contributed percussion, and longtime ZZ Top engineer Gary Moon added some guitar. But Gibbons’ real secret weapon for the Perfectamundo sessions, which occurred in Houston, Austin, L.A., and Pontevedra, Spain, was Gibbons himself—for his previously unrevealed Latin percussion jones and his Hammond B-3 skills.

“Emerald City Guitars in Seattle set us up with an old National electric solidbody that is the ‘scraunchiest’ sounding thing ever. Talk about mean! Like a lead pipe with bailing wire plugged into
a can of whip-ass.”

Moves like organ-style double-stops and slow bends that emulate the sound of a Hammond drawbar have always been part of Gibbons’ guitar approach. And for good reason. “My dad always had a B-3 at home,” he says, “providing the chance to connect with that mysterious thing of pulling out the drawbars, pouncing on the pedals, and making a mighty sound. Can’t think of anything cooler or more ‘down.’ Ask any seasoned B-3-ist and they all agree, ‘There ain’t a bad note in there.’ I’d certainly say the likes of [organ greats] Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, and Brother Jack McDuff all remain inspirational.”

The B-3’s easy way with mountainous subtones may also account for Gibbons’ career-long predilection for low, moaning, grumbling guitar sounds, which he takes to fresh depths on “Perfectamundo” and “Got Love If You Want It” in particular. “Just something about the low end that treats our sonic tastes to some ‘tomatalizing’ tone,” he observes. “Those low sounds are closer to the ground—more rooted.” To achieve a new personal high in low, Gibbons deployed pickup maker Andy Alt’s new A Little Thunder active humbuckers. “It’s an intuitive pickup ready to fit any humbucking-equipped instrument, and drops the low strings down one or two octaves,” he explains.

Gibbons had an arsenal of go-to guitars, amps, and stompboxes for the Perfectamundo sessions. “After the backbeat was laid down, of course, came our fave-rave electric, Pearly Gates, that fine ’burst from ’59, along with a few ancient Fender war clubs brought into view by none other than our pal Nacho Banos,” says Gibbons, referencing the noted Valencia, Spain-based guitar dealer and Fender collector. “To complement the ‘unusual’ of what was going down, we began stompin’ on stompboxes of all ilk and the road was quite exceptional. Particularly with one out of Nashville called Timmy. Certainly not for the timid. There was another sleeper, from Whitfill Guitars over in Kentucky, barking under the name of the DUI. Man, turn out the lights and call the law. Between the two, that’s all she wrote.

YouTube It

Billy Gibbons and the BFG’s first single from Perfectamundo is a caliente redux of Texas rockabilly legend Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.”

“What wrapped it all up conveniently were a couple of new amps, namely Magnatone’s Super Fifty-Nine. Killer. And the totally vintage-sounding Bigtone amp from Valencia. Two 12s, 50 watts, all tube—peanut butter and jelly. Emerald City Guitars in Seattle set us up with an old National electric solidbody that is the ‘scraunchiest’ sounding thing ever. Talk about mean! Like a lead pipe with bailing wire plugged into a can of whip-ass.”

Through the riptide of colorful language, including his use of the royal ‘we,’ and the visual flash that’s long been part of Gibbons’ persona, what’s truly shone like a beacon for nearly a half-century is his creativity and his appetite for evolution—qualities missing from the interior checklist of many roots-based guitarists. At times, (like when ZZ Top began incorporating synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines into their recordings) that has irked segments of his fan base. And yet, as 1983’s Eliminator—a glossy synth-sheened album that sold 25 million copies and made the band superstars—proved, Gibbons’ free-ranging instincts are canny.

“As the saying goes, keeping an open mind liberates boundaries that might be confining—the ones you put around yourself,” he observes. “We figured a way to turn ‘25 Lighters’ by DJ DMD with Fat Pat and Lil’ Keke, a hardcore rap song from deep in that same Houston ghetto where Lightnin’ had been a fixture, into the unexpected blues-rocker titled ‘I Gotsta Get Paid’ from our La Futura album. We did a ‘secret’ version of Dooley Wilson’s Casablanca theme, “As Time Goes By,” on our Mescalero album. It’s not on the label or credits, but it's there. Keeping things a bit off-kilter can expand one’s range widely. These kinds of things ain’t work when the gray matter gets in the groove.

“We always go back to Muddy Waters, who, as we now say, was the ‘early adopter’ of electric guitar. Muddy came from a strictly rural blues background where there simply was no electricity, but when he could, he plugged right in and the world became all the better for Muddy being willing to do something new and, perhaps, untried. One could say, in his time Muddy used electronics with his roots-based background toward something new and exotic. Through something like that, we’re open to anything and everything that can help get things loud and funky. Art is the opposite of stasis. It’s dynamic.”