Gibbons: New Details on Pesos, 7s and…Amps?

July 6, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

gibbons_billy_moderne_09Uses Marshall Valvestates on Tour?!

Yes, that’s right, Marshall Valvestates – if you can believe it. That’s what the Rev. BFG said (sort of…more below), among other things, in a recent audio interview on Highlights of that interview are below. Hats off to Joe Bosso, who conducted the interview, for asking a few gear-related questions and actually getting some new gear-related details.

Let’s start with the doozy, that Billy “uses” Marshall Valvestate (solid state) amps on tour. “Uses” is in quotes for two reasons: 1) Billy is the type of guitar-slinger that doesn’t exactly shoot straight and get right to the point when it comes to his tone secrets (they being hard-won secrets); and 2) Billy never actually says outright in the interview that he does use Marshall Valvestates.

BUT to the question “What is your amp setup?” here’s what he says (he uses the royal “we”):

“The amplifier setting [setup] has not changed significantly since we started this crazy outing [not clear whether this refers to the start of ZZ Top or of the current tour, but it seems like the former]. The backbone has been reliant upon the great work from Marshall. We’re still banking on Marshalls for their great sound.

“They issued their solid-state version – it was the first entry into the field that left the vacuum tubes on the bench, but knowing the keen ear and the keen sense for great tone, Marshall came up with a solid-state unit they called the Valvestate, which I guess was their play on words – here’s a solid-state device with a valve-like tone. They’re so loud and so robust but they’re so roadworthy that we’ve managed to keep them going all along.

“The problem was the general public didn’t quite like the idea of Marshall leaving the vacuum tube behind, so [Marshall] didn’t make many of them [Valvestates]. They’re quite rare.”

And that was it. No follow-up questions, no clarification. So to recap, Billy says he likes Marshall tone, then goes on about the Valvestate but never actually says in direct point-A-to-point-B English that he uses Valvestate amps on tour – or maybe he did and I’m overthinking this. Up to you to decide.

[And c’mon Joe Bosso – doesn’t that beg a follow-up question?!]

As far as Valvestates being rare, I have to confess I’m no expert on them – but judging by eBay and Craigslist there’s no shortage of them. Maybe Billy was thinking of a specific model? Or is this another case of BFG obsequiousness?

Update: Several people have said that Billy powers his Marshall JMP-1 preamp with a Valvestate power amp. Makes sense. Also makes sense that Billy wouldn’t just come out with a description of the rig. Too direct!

Anyhow, here are the tone-related highlights of the rest of the interview.

Has Used Peso Picks, But Not Just Any Peso

Billy said he’s “been “known” to use a Peso as a pick, which again doesn’t necessarily mean he uses them now or all the time. Then he goes on to say:

“The Peso minted back in the ’50s, they had a distinctive weight. The alloy was really conducive to creating a good sound. They were also large enough where they could be shaped into a more traditional-looking guitar pick form.

“…the US quarter…has a distinctively serrated edge [which] tends to saw through the string and create breakage. The Peso has an unserrated edge.

“I still use them. I have a guy in Mexico who makes it a point to scare [the old ones] up whenever can find them.”

He Really Does Use 7-Gauge Strings

The interviewer asks about Billy using light strings, and mentions 8s. Billy says:

“I used to use 8s, now I’m down to 7s.

“When we started out, we thought the way to get a bluesy sound was to use the heaviest strings our fingers could possibly attempt to tame. But one afternoon backstage – it was early, early in the game; I was probably about 20, 21 – we had a spot on a blues show. BB King was part of the lineup. He spotted my guitar in the corner and said, ‘Let me have  strum.’ He picked it up, played a few notes, looked at me kind of quizzically and said, ‘The strings are a little heavy, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘Well, BB, isn’t that the way to get [good bluesy tone]?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll do you a favor. They’ve got a thing called light gauge – why are you working so hard?’

“At that moment I was able to lay my burden down, and never looked back. At the time I used 8s through 40, then [through his] association with GHS…one of their machinists took our challenge to create 7s. After some tinkering, we successfully created 7s…. They play great.”

Asked whether he breaks strings quite a bit, Billy said:

“I don’t break strings. [The 7s] have some resiliency just due to the nature of these guys that know how to create a great alloy. [The strings] have a stretchy quality that actually helps to eliminate a lot of string breakage. It’s actually rather phenomenal.”


> He said the Gibson Pearly Gates (the name of his Les Paul) tribute guitar will be out this month (July). He’s using one on tour with Aerosmith. About the guitars he said: “I will say that in today’s highly debated contest – does anyone make a playable instrument that wasn’t made in the ’50s – Gibson spared no time or energy pulling out measuring devices, photographs, angles, all the correct curves. It’s splendid. It’s going to be a great, great instrument.”

> He also has a Gibson Moderne, or what may be a Moderne prototype, on tour. He said: “…what we think is a Moderne [is] in the lineup during the show. It has created quite a stir. I’ve been bombarded w/ questions: is it real, could it be the one. There’s such a mystique surrounding what little is known about this guitar.”

> He talked about a new Fender Custom Shop Esquire, which sounds cool but I couldn’t find a pic of it. Billy said: “We worked closely with the folks at Fender. They knew I had a fixation for the Fender Esquire because of its simplicity. They said, ‘We won’t disturb the simple quotient, but we will try something that’s visually appealing – and brother, they went over the top. This thing is insane. It plays like melted butter and sounds great. Once again here’s an example of guys who are doing it in contemporary times, and doing it quite nicely, brother.” He added that on stage, the guitar’s “frequency really jumps out at 400-500K. I don’t know if it’s the pickup or body, but we’ll get to [the bottom of] it sooner or later.” In case there was a shred of doubt remaining, there’s a guy who knows tone!

> He said some of the guitar players he likes now include Joe Bonamassa, Monte Montgomery (“he’s finally getting his due – he’s a stellar player”), David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas from Los Lobos, and the The Black Keys, who just “do it right.” He added that ZZ Top might collaborate with The Black Keys on ZZ’s new album as both bands share the same producer (Rick Rubin).

Category: Billy Gibbons, Gibson, Joe Bonamassa, Les Paul, Los Lobos, Marshall

Comments (4)

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  1. Neal says:

    I'm sure you know this but there is a preamp tube still in the valvestate amps, although it sounds like Billly is just using the power amp portion. To quote the Marshall website: "To add even more fire power to an already lethal drive circuit, the boost channel pre-amp in all Valvestate amps over 20 Watts is loaded with a single ECC83 (12AX7) valve. " I've got the vs65r combo but I'm surprised that is passes muster with the Rev. I'm not happy with it…

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