Learn a few secrets about how the king of Texas boogie-rock combines attitude with soul.
• Understand how to focus on chord tones in your phrases.
• Learn the subtle art of understated slide guitar.
• Develop a more laid-back feel.
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ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons has been cutting records and touring the world for almost 50 years, and as a result his name and massive beard have become almost synonymous with Texas blues-rock guitar. Gibbons has never been a fast player, nor has he relied on blazing technique to connect with the audience, but if you’re looking for tips and tricks to take your blues playing to the next level, there’s much to learn from the Rev. In the pursuit of scales, arpeggios, and tricky theory, it’s all too easy to lose your connection with phrasing, timing, vibrato, and tone. Gibbons has these essential qualities in spades.
From his Texas blues roots to the disco influence of the ’80s, Gibbons has explored different sounds over the decades. He even dipped his toes into Cuban waters on his recent solo album, Perfectamundo. For this lesson we’ll turn to the absolutely timeless Eliminator. Released in 1983, it has a definite dance edge, thanks to the drums and production, but the riffs are still as blues-rock as they come.
When it comes to getting fat guitar tone, Gibbons goes against conventional wisdom, especially the notion that bigger strings yield bigger tone. His classic recordings feature “Pearly Gates,” a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard set up with rather low action and super-light strings (he favors a .007 1st string). Although gear contributes significantly to tone, Gibbons proves that it’s the hands that ultimately determine your sound.
Let’s check out our basic riff first (Ex. 1). We’re in the key of B minor and playing little dyads against the root note on the 6th string. After the intro we dial it back to allow room for the soloist with some basic power chord ideas. The interesting part is when we drop down to the E chord and then back up to F#7. These chords aren’t found in the key of B natural minor, so while it’s easy to play the chords, soloing over them presents more of a problem—more on that in a moment. For now, get the sound of the progression in your ears.
If you want to test your theory knowledge, the “best” scale choice would be dependant on style. If we assume that Bm is the IIm chord in the key of A, then the correct scale is B Dorian (B–C#–D–E–F#–G#–A). If that were the case, then the E chord is diatonic (IV chord of A) and the notes of B Dorian will fit fine—but you’d want to emphasize E’s 3 (G#). The F#7 chord isn’t found in the key of A, but it’s the V chord in the key of B major. The problem? This presents two options: You can either play F# Mixolydian, which sounds a little out there, or F# Phrygian dominant (root–b2–3–4–5–b6–b7 or F#–G–A#–B–C#–D–E), but that won’t sound bluesy at all.
So we have a bit of a dilemma. The solution is simple, though. Over F#7, simply play F#7. That might appear silly, but the answer lies right there in the chord. Check it out: F#7 comprises F#, A#, C# and E. The notes F#, C#, and E are all in B Dorian, but it lacks A#. So instead of thinking in terms of scales, simply lean on the F#7 arpeggio because it contains the A#. In fact, I’d suggest focusing on A#, which as the chord’s 3 is a defining sound.
Our first solo (Ex. 2) draws on Gibbons’ single-note style. In terms of rhythms, he rarely deviates from simple eighth-note ideas laced with occasional triplets. Our first phrase has held bent notes and is typical vocabulary for any blues-rock player. As the solo progresses, we move into the pinched harmonic technique, which is a big part of Gibbons’ style. He may not have been the first to do it (many credit that to Roy Buchanan), but he emphasized this technique very early in his career. Interestingly, Gibbons was one of the first guys to tap on record too!
If you’re new to the pinch harmonics technique, it’s beyond the scope of this column to teach it in depth, but just try digging into the strings to make them squeal. Billy’s style here isn’t a science, it’s just about getting a whistle. It’s not about getting the exact harmonic you need—or even a full harmonic (a suggestion of a harmonic is fine). Really, it’s all about adding attitude.
To outline the E and F#7 chord, we’re sliding down to the root of the E and jumping up to the b7, then playing the 3. I’m not saying that Gibbons is a jazz player who outlines the changes, but even just picking these notes because they’re in the chord shape is more than enough to give you what you need.
Our next example draws from Gibbons’ love of double-stops. We’re starting out with sixths in Bm, sliding down to the b3 and root. It then slips down a half-step and up again. This is really a chromatic approach, but don’t think of it as anything theoretical because it’s not a substitution—we’re just sliding down and up. We then move from sixths to thirds on the 3rd and 2nd strings.
Our final example (Ex. 4) draws on Billy’s slide playing. Again, not the most advanced slide playing you’re likely to hear, but to the point and bluesy. We start by ringing the 5 and root together before opening up with some simple pentatonic phrasing. Notice how the 9 is an easy note to add to the pentatonic scale, both in terms of shapes and sound.
For the E and F#7 chord, we’re just taking the three adjacent strings on the same fret to play a little triad found in the “A” shape. Again, it’s not sophisticated, but it does outline the chords tightly, which is better than the more common “play the blues scale and hope for the best” approach.