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(Credit: Ralph Arvesen)

Music

ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons' favourite guitar players of all time

@TylerGolsen

When you talk to ZZ Top mastermind Billy Gibbons about guitar players, things are inevitably going to turn to the blues. Gibbons had a fair amount of education in psychedelia based on his fondness for players like The 13th Floor Elevators’ Rocky Erickson and Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix famously reciprocated Gibbons’ fandom), but the root of everything Gibbons plays boils down to some of the classic bluesmen of the 20th century.

“I learned from the best,” Gibbons tells MusicRadar. “There’s a secret language to the blues – you need to say it without saying it! There is a mystique in the poetry and in those simple three chords that have been stretched every which way. You take a song from my new record like ‘Mo’ Slower Blues’: it just has one chord that it never leaves! It just stays on the tonic. It doesn’t need to do anything else.”

This combination of technical prowess and economic usage comes from some of Gibbons favourite guitarists. They’re the kind of guys who do more with less, where the feeling and emotion of the playing trumps any guitar theatrics or histrionics. One of the classic examples of this style was from B.B. King, who would often hold notes for maximum impact.

“I was talking to my dear buddy Jimmie Vaughan, who recounted a tale where B.B. King showed up and had his guitar with him,” Gibbons shares. “Jimmie was over the moon, pointing at the spare amp on stage. He took his solo and turned it over to B.B. after which he said he ‘woke up in a daze’. He didn’t think B.B. played more than two notes throughout the solo, but that’s all that was required. Sometimes those spare, skinny moments make the most sense.”

Gibbons saves some room to give Vaughan himself some praise before leaning over to a famous pair of rock players who found major inspiration in the blues, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. “Jimmy Page is one of the greatest. I would invite all of you readers to go check out the nightclub scene from the 1966 movie Blowup, where The Yardbirds are playing. They had Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page at the same time! Listening to the band doing ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’… it’s just ferocious. Both of those guys had tone for days.”

“One time someone quizzed [Beck] on it,” Gibbons continued, “and he said, ‘Oh yeah, once I saw Hubert Sumlin, who never used a pick, and felt I had to chase that one!’ Which leads me to my next choice… Hubert was a very interesting player. The lucky charm of all these people is the legacy that their recordings have left. They’ve allowed us to keep studying these technicians, most of which had the good fortune to make records which allows us to close our eyes today, thinking about what the music means and almost place ourselves in the studio watching it all go down.”

Gibbons goes all over the map from there, giving kudos to everyone from fellow Austin guitarist Eric Johnson to classical legends like Andrés Segovia and Django Reinhardt. Gibbons saves some room on his list for more modern players like Paul ‘The Kid’ Size, Dave Lee Bartel, and Mike Flanigin. Of course, no list would be complete without Hendrix, as Gibbons acknowledges with one of his final picks. All in all, it’s a stacked lineup from someone who knows a thing or two about quality guitar playing.

Watch Gibbons get wine tipsy at Kid Rock’s house while explaining his technique during his appearance Noisey’s Guitar Moves to keep the good times going.

Billy Gibbons favourite guitarists:

  • Jimmy Page
  • Jimmie Vaughan
  • B.B. King
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Jeff Beck
  • Hubert Sumlin
  • Eric Johnson
  • Andrés Segovia
  • Django Reinhardt
  • Paul Size
  • Dave Lee Bartel
  • Mike Flanigan