ZZen and the Kung Fu Masters of Rock
Dang! I was lucky enough to catch that little ol’ band from Texas at New York City’s Beacon Theatre a couple weeks ago, and wow, what a show. The guys were just…cool, and the sound – I hope the sound guy got a case of beer that night. Just freakin’ great, which helped make the show over-the-top good.
Every instrument (including vocals) was clear, powerful and loud, but not too loud.
Don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve heard a show with really great sound, but man does it make a difference. I had no idea – seriously, no idea. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard sound that good before, and I sort of pity the next band I see. Maybe it was the Beacon, maybe it was the fact that we were dead center about 20 feet above the stage, but I’m betting it was an experienced sound crew.
Anyhow, as you might expect BFG, Dusty and Frank didn’t jump around on stage, but they didn’t have to. If anything, that might actually have detracted from the show, which was like a lesson in Zen: minimal movement + a light touch = incredibly tasty and funky + maximum TONE.
They’re like those Kung Fu masters. Not the black-belts who are all fists and kicks. The real masters, the guys who barely move yet are always in the right place at the right time. That’s ZZ Top. They’ve learned their lessons well enough that just about every move is as subtle as possible and filled with musical purpose.
That was true for Frank too – which I mention because drummers typically are one big ball of movement. My son, who was with me, is a drummer and kept saying, “Dad, he’s barely moving!” Yes, grasshopper. The drums sounded so good that two songs in my son was already mentally shopping for Frank’s drum kit.
At times Billy was so relaxed, I wasn’t believe my eyes and ears – my brain was wondering whether someone was playing his parts off-stage! Stupid, I know, but the Zen thing….
No surprise here: Billy’s sound was F-ing GREAT. Big, full, lots of headroom, lots of “clear” crunch (great string-to-string clarity), cleaned up well with the guitar volume knob, ballsy and even more balls when Billy trotted out the Gibson Moderne and Futura: He mostly used his intermediate-sized gold/pink Billy-Bo-ish guitar with the TV Jones Powertron pickup, which sounded stellar.
And all thee guitars (presumably) had 7-gauge strings!
I was just stunned. The recent Texas DVD did zero justice to that tone – and, for that matter, the band.
Naturally, I immediately got bad GAS for that tone. I had to know how Billy got it. I am painfully aware that he has more mojo, soul and just plain cool in those fingers of his than I ever will, but I thought that…you know, get the gear and try to cop those tones!
First step was tracking down the gear. And since Billy is an elusive mofo, and owns enough gear for about 1,000 bands, it wasn’t easy – but it’s not supposed to be. While certain details will always remain a secret of Billy and his tech, others are out there. And it seems that more than a few people know the basics. Here’s all the detail I could find. Many thanks to the folks at thegearpage.net and my buddy Sean, who as it happens was at the same show with his son (don’t we sound frickin’ old).
Billy’s Road Gear
The following “road gear” compilation makes use of five main sources:
> The “Holiday 20008” issue of Guitar Player that showed pics of various road rigs, including Billy’s 1996 Rhythmeen tour rack.
> The book “Gear Secrets of the Guitar Legends” (Backbeat Books, 2003).
> Various posts on thegearpage.net.
> A pic on Monster Cable’s website, monstercable.com.
> Various photos and tidbits hunted down with the aid of Google.
As you will see, the rig is pretty much the same from year to year, excepting any special sauce (e.g., stompboxes) which apparently remain trade secrets: the chained Expandoras and chained Foxx Tone Machines are just for show. But the “meat” and “main trick” of the rig remains solid year to year (I think!). So here it is:
Marshall JMP-1 preamp (x2)
This is a staple.
Marshall Power Amps
These can vary a bit but for a while now they have been Marshalls, usually solid-state Valvestate 120/120s, shown in two pics (no longer in production). The 1996 pic shows tube-powered Marshall 9800s (x2). Billy has sung the praises of Valvestate amps, and in an older post I initially misinterpreted that as him liking more than just Valvestate power amps – who knows.
DigiTech Mono 28 EQs (x2)
These are staples and are responsible for the main trick, which is using the EQ settings to mimic the tone of his No. 1 Les Paul, Pearly Gates. Here’s what the Guitar Secrets book says about it: “To achieve as fat a tone as Pearly with his other guitars, Gibbons turns to a Gold Lune Frequency Analyzer and two DigiTech Mono 28 programmable EQs. Several years ago, he recorded the Pearly Gates guitar and then compared its sonic characteristics to those of his stage guitars. The DigiTech EQ was then used to adjust the tone of each instrument to make them sound like Pearly. The settings of each guitar are stored individually so that they can be recalled instantly during the live show. “You have to take advantage of the upper levels of sophistication that modern gear can provide,” Gibbons explains.
Roland/BOSS SE-70s (x2)
This is a multi-effects unit, also a staple of Billy’s rig. Not sure what it’s there for, but apparently this unit can do some Eventide Harmonizer-type things.
Although many people have seen Crate cabs and combos at various times on stage, the one thing that you have to keep in mind is that ZZ Top’s stage volume is very low. So Billy and Dusty are not cranking through a backline of 4x12s (I am presuming here).
Here is what the Guitar Secrets book says about speakers: “Six custom-built Creme 4×12 cabinets loaded with 100-watt Celestion speakers; Demeter isolation box with a 16-ohm, 100-watt Celestion speaker.”
And: “Both Gibbbons and Dusty Hill play through the same type of cabinets and their setups are crosswired on stage so that they each have one cabinet on the other side of the stage. That allows them to monitor each other and to hear themselves when standing anywhere on stage. Neither Gibbons nor Hill uses a monitor wedge in front, so they rely on the sage sound and the house sound system to hear themselves, just as they did in clubs 30 years ago.”
In other words, the cabinets substitute for monitors. The signal the audience hears goes to a Demeter isolation box, then to the board, then out over the PA. Note that a 100-watt speaker means far less speaker breakup than lower-watt speakers, meaning Billy is getting his distorted tone from his rig alone.
Billy has also allegedly used Tone Tubby speakers, Eminence speakers and probably others. Makes sense: He’s a gear nut!
> Some people have commented that they have seen or heard Billy using a combo amp of some sort (old Fender, new Fender, Marshall tube, Marshall solid state, Crate V-50, etc.) here and there, and no doubt he has but I’m willing to bet only for convenience. In other words, I’m assuming he’s not going to want to drag his full-blown rig with him to do one tune on a TV show or whatever. Also bear in mind that like his fellow tone kings, Billy can make jaw-dropping sounds come out of a ukulele plugged into a potato chip.
> Monstercable.com said this on its website: “As seen in the photo to the right, Billy Gibbons’ rig is powered by Monster Power PRO 2500 Power Center Clean Power technology for AC line power that’s completely free of noise, pops, RF and electro-magnetic interference. ZZ Top also uses Monster Instrument Cable and other Monster Cable products to keep their sound at its peak, on tour and in-studio.”
> You may ask why Billy, a man of many luscious amps, would take such “pedestrian” gear on the road. I’m sure the answer is consistency and reliability.
> Billy quote: “At the heart of almost everything we’ve done, however, is Pearly Gates run through either a Marshall or an old Fender. That simple-but-deadly combination is still tough to beat.”
> Frank Beard should be in the Guinness Book for being the only human to smoke a pack of cigarettes and drink a case of Tab in less than an hour! Or for having the world’s toughest gut!
> Here’s the only vid I could find of ZZ Top at the Beacon, Sept. 18, 2009. “Got me a pocket full of change….”