Billy Gibbons’ Guitars
By Daniel Brooks
In 1967, an 17 year-old Billy Gibbons went on a short, four city tour through Texas with his band, Moving Sidewalks, in support of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix was impressed with the young guitarist, so much so that, as legend has it, he gave the young Texan the Pink Stratocaster he’d been playing for the past few months and named Gibbons one of the best guitarists in the U.S. Not long after, while Moving Sidewalks was touring in support of the Doors, Gibbons met bassist Dusty Hill and Drummer Frank Beard. The Trio would come together in 1969 to form ZZ Top, one of the most iconic American bands of the rock and roll era.
With a gritty, guitar-driven sound rooted in Hill and Beard’s rock-solid rhythm section and Gibbons’ inimitable virtuosity, a creative approach to Texas Blues that both embodies and transcends the genre, and a pervasive sense of humor, ZZ Top have enjoyed more than forty years of success contributing to the classic rock canon with songs like La Grange, Waitin’ For The Bus, Cheap Sunglasses, I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide, Sharp Dressed Man and many others. At an age where most would consider retirement, that little ol’ band from Texas continues to record and tour, well into the fifth decade of an iconic career.
Ever the lover of music and the gear with which it is made, Billy Gibbons maintains a youthful enthusiasm for guitars with a collection that numbers well over 500 instruments, many of which are one-of-a-kind, custom works of art. While it would be far beyond the scope of this article to even list all of Billy Gibbons’ guitars, much less present all of them with the attention each deserves, here are a few that standout as essential.
The centerpiece of Billy’s collection is, of course, his 1959 Les Paul affectionately named Pearly Gates. He bought it for $250 in 1968 from an ex-guitar player turned rancher. The guitar was in mint condition and Billy has kept it 100% stock. He still has the extra set of strings that came with it, and the love letter from the girlfriend of the original owner. Featured on every ZZ Top record, Gibbons claims Pearly Gates has divine connections and sings with a “God-like voice.” I don’t know about you, but I have yet to even imagine a good reason to argue with the man.
The next significant piece of Billy Gibbons’ collection is the pink Fender Stratocaster given to him by Jimi Hendrix. Now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the guitar is as storied as it is legendary. As a gift from one of his guitar heroes, the Pink Strat was one of Gibbons’ prize possessions until it was stolen sometime in the 1970s. In the long hiatus the band took following their 1976 tour, both Gibbons and Hill grew their now iconic beards as a way to, ironically, maintain their anonymity in public. One night, Gibbons was watching a band in a local bar when he spotted the stolen Pink Strat. After the show, he approached the guitarist and made an offer. His beard let him deal in anonymity without identifying himself or the provenance of the guitar, and for 150 dollars, Billy was reunited with his prized Strat.
With ZZ Top’s success came the rewards. With fond remembrance for his very first guitar, Gibbons commissioned a faithful reproduction of the 1962 Gibson Melody Maker given to him that year on Christmas day. Aside from the Seymour Duncan stacked humbucker, his replica is exactly like the first guitar he ever owned or played, right down to the pinstriping he had etched into the finish on the original. It may or may not be the dream guitar you would buy when you find success, but you probably had a different first guitar than Gibbons.
ZZ Top came to most people’s attention in 1983 with Eliminator, their most successful album to date. In addition to the sequenced synthesizers that added a new dimension to their music and captured a new audience, they played perfectly into the MTV era by upgrading their visual impact with a barrage of soon-to-be iconic imagery: from beards and hats, to videos featuring a tricked out 1933 Ford known as the Eliminator, to performing with matching, white fur covered guitars. Gibbons actually had two different fur guitars: a 1960 Gibson Explorer and a custom Bo Diddley model made by John Bolin to the original Gretsch specifications.
Billy Gibbons’ connection to Bo Diddley doesn’t end with a single, fur-covered guitar. His Billy-Bo guitar has been a stage staple ever since Diddley gave him one of his own originals, designed and built in 1959. Gibbons decided the gift was too rare to risk damage on tour, so he had Gretsch reproduce it, with a few personal modifications.
One of the rarest guitars in his collection, the Gibson Moderne never fails to get the attention of the knowledgeable collector. It was originally designed alongside the Flying V and the Explorer in 1957 to regain some of the market share lost to Fender’s more modern Stratocaster and Telecaster, but it didn’t go into production. The Moderne became something of a mythical design as hypothetical prototypes were believed to have been built but never released. Gibson finally “re-issued” the Moderne for a brief period in 1980 and then again in 2012.
With more than 500 guitars in his collection, it would be impractical, if not impossible, to feature every instrument Billy Gibbons owns. Special attention, however, has to be given to a few features that are unique to many of Billy’s guitars. For one, he is fond of very light guitars and often has them modified by removing wood from under the top for an instrument weighing as little as six or seven pounds. A few of his guitars are even reported to have chambered necks. Of course, this is only possible if one uses light strings. Billy Gibbons uses .007 gauge strings (.007 .009 .011 .020 .030 .038) on all but a few of his guitars, and then only an .008 gauge set of strings on those guitars on which he uses an alternate tuning. If you would like to dig a little deeper into Billy Gibbons’ vast and unusual collection of guitars, check out his book titled Rock + Roll Gearhead. He shares several dozen of his favorites and tells his own story in a delightful celebration of unbridled creativity.