If you’re going to devote your life to a tribute act, then wise up, follow Nick Ryan’s example, and pick a guy with great taste in guitars – and face furniture. Lars Mullen uncovers a little piece of Texas…
Nick Ryan is steeped from head to toe in the music and the image of ZZ Top and their legendary guitarist Billy Gibbons. ‘Hearing the El Loco album back in 1981 was my first-ever experience of them,’ he begins. ‘I was instantly in awe of that little ol’ band from Texas… such an incredibly powerful blues trio. On top of that, Billy Gibbons, aka The Reverend Willy G, had this amazingly gritty guitar sound. I loved the concept and everything that went with it… Texas, hot pepper sauce and barbecued ribs!
‘I’d been playing for quite a while, and was teaching myself blues from a flexi-disc that came with one of BB King’s books. Power trios have always done it for me – Hendrix and Cream, for example – but when I finally went to see ZZ Top live in 2003, I realised just how good they really were. By this time I was past the “I wanna be a rock star” time of life, so I decided that Texas boogie blues was the sort of music I was put on this planet for.
‘Soon afterwards I was on holiday in New Orleans, and I caught a coin which was thrown from one of the floats. It was a fortune coin, and on the coin it said “Around the world with music”. That just said it all, and as soon as I got home I started to put a ZZ Top band together.
‘We did our first gig in 2007, billed as The ZZ Tops. Since then, it’s really been non-stop. We’ve put so much into the show, keeping the identity and the whole sound as close as possible to the real thing. We have chrome truck exhaust pipe mic stands, spinning guitars, and all the sparkly costumes and hats that they’ve used on stage throughout the decades.
Nick’s number one – a ’58 VOS reissue dubbed Kurly Gates
‘We originally had fake beards made by the guy who made them for the cast of Pirates Of The Caribbean, but after introducing myself as The Reverend Billy Bigguns to Billy Gibbons for the first time in France in 2008, we realised that this band was going to be a way of life, and real chin whiskers were called for! So myself and Dusty Thrills our bass player decided to go all the way and grow our own beards. You just don’t know what you are going to get or how it will turn out, but we were lucky… I have a foot-long beard that looks pretty close to Billy’s.
‘When I met Billy I knew he had a business card that said he was a friend of Eric Clapton’s, so I asked him for permission to have one saying “Billy Bigguns, friend of Billy F Gibbons”, and he replied in his low Texas drawl “Billy Bigguns…you may.” That was the start of a really good friendship, and we keep in touch regularly. I was really taken aback when he said The ZZ Tops were the closest thing he’s seen to ZZ Top worldwide.’
But we’re here to talk about guitars. Take it away Nick, or rather Billy Bigguns…
‘Well, I’ve always been into guitars, and this band feeds my wacky bent – I just adore off-the-wall instruments. It’s a challenge to have custom guitars built as authentically as we can, although of course they’re on a different level to Billy’s originals, which were built by John Bolin in the USA.
Left, custom Gretsch Billy-Bo guitar in black; right, Gretsch Billy-Bo #1 with rewound bridge pickup
‘It’s some of the finer details that contribute to the sound; some of the necks on Billy’s Les Pauls are chambered as well as the bodies, and he uses very light strings, often starting with a .007″ gauge. I’ve tried them that light on several occasions, but the tuning can be a little unpredictable. I think my best description and initial response was “wet rope below sea level”. Not always having a crew to look after a bunch of unstable guitars proved pretty stressful, so I’ve reverted back to 10’s.
‘Then, of course, there’s Billy’s legendary Pearly Gates Les Paul. I couldn’t afford a ’59 with such angelic qualities, but my Kurly Gates, a 2011 Gibson ’58 VOS reissue, is a super substitute. This was a birthday present from my wife… who has curly hair.
‘I loved this guitar from day one, and since then I’ve bought two more identical models from Manson’s Guitar Shop in Exeter, close to where we are based. You see, there’s an uncanny connection to Texas here… I mean, they have the Rio Bravo river which separates them from Mexico, where they have the taco. Devon has the famous cream tea, with the River Tamar that separates us from Cornwall… where they have great pasties!
‘I’ve fitted Kurly Gates with humbuckers built by the Norwegian company Cream T, who have just launched the Billy Gibbons Banger models. These are hand-built pickups by Thomas Nilsen; he actually winds the bobbins round Norwegian wood, which gives the amps a really beefy bark.
‘I have five Les Pauls, four of which I use on stage, and they’re all fitted out with Cream T humbuckers. The Standard with the Hellraiser logo has been seen all over the world, but it’s now retired and stays here in Reverend Willy’s Cantina, which is our clubhouse where we have all the memorabilia right down to various species of cactus found in the American South West, along with the optional poker set, tequila, and hot pepper sauce. These are the very finest ingredients for growing a beard. They’ve certainly helped me.
Left an ASM custom replica; right, Gibson LP standard with ‘Hellraiser’ sticker
‘The Cantina is also used for small rehearsals and fingerpicking blues, so small amps are the order of the day. This little 15W Fender Champion sizzles with this fully-functional rack of five Tone Talisman fuzzboxes known as the Lap Dog Of Distortion… way over the top.
‘The next two Les Pauls are a little unusual. This Edwards model is really light and full of mojo, and so is the one I had built for me by the UK-based company ASM. I asked for maple top and a chambered mahogany body, which I’m sure contributes to Billy’s sound. This is a great sounding guitar; it’s got less wood inside but ironically it’s the woodiest sounding out of all my guitars.’
Luckily for Mr Bigguns, Mr Gibbons has some cool guitars to replicate. ‘The Gretsch G6199 Jupiter Thunderbird, now dubbed the Billy-Bo, was designed in 1959 by Bo Diddley himself. Some say he invented rock’n’roll, but he certainly was ahead of his time with guitars, and he designed quite a few futuristic body shapes.
Fender Aerodyne Jazz Bass and customised Road Worn Tele
‘The Billy-Bo was one of three different models built by Gretsch, and the original was eventually given as a gift from Bo to Billy, who used it on the road for a while. But he didn’t want to risk the consequences, so the two artists joined forces to create the reproduction model. It’s such a cool guitar, with a chambered mahogany body, one-piece mahogany neck and a really thin laminate maple top.
‘I have two which are finished in Firebird Red. The first one still has the original TV Jones Power’Tron Plus pickup at the neck, but I had the bridge unit rewound by Cream T.
‘This was the first Billy-Bo that ever came into the UK – it was part of a batch that were on tour around Europe, billed as An Evening Of Gretsch Guitars. I showed up early on the night, had a spank on it, laid down some green, and did the deal. Then they said I couldn’t have it until the Gretsch tour finished in about nine weeks’ time! It did in fact take a bit longer… but they did send me Bo Diddley’s signature on a postcard, which helped to make up for it.
A ’72 Telecaster Custom and a Road Worn Tele Deluxe
‘The other red one is a later model from around 2007, but with an identical spec. I also have a black one, my own custom-built Billy Bigguns version, fitted with a Bigsby.
‘I wanted a matching bass for home recording so I picked up this Fender Aerodyne Jazz Bass which I thought looked the part, finished in black with matching headstock, bound body and loaded with a Precision/Jazz pickup combination. Since I got this one Dusty Thrills became so jealous that we had to find another one for him, right down to the crazy cowboy logo from the Antenna album.
‘My cream Fender Road Worn Tele with the longhorn steer badge and Lucky Strike in the neck pickup cavity is a take on one of Billy’s Teles which he calls The Super Model, again built by John Bolin. There have been other smoking consumables in there – purely for the vibe, of course! – but as we’re constantly travelling in Europe, this is not wise. I really enjoy playing this guitar. It has all the voodoo of the original, and the maple fingerboard gives a really cutting sound. I’m a Telecaster fan… the design’s never been beaten.
‘I have another Road Worn Fender, a Tele Deluxe with the Wide Range humbuckers, which really add a new sonic dimension which is quite essential for what we do. It looks the part as well, as the black finish on the alder body and the maple neck and fingerboard have all been put through Fender’s aging process.
Gibson Melody Maker and Fender Custom Shop ’63 Tele
‘I’m not that fussed about fingerboard woods… maple certainly has that toppy edge, but it’s nice to have a variation, My ’72 Telecaster Custom has a rosewood board and the best of both worlds with the beefy bark of a single coil at the bridge and the warmth of a humbucker at the neck. This one seems to record exceptionally well.
‘One evening after a multi-band gig somewhere in deepest Belgium we were passing away the small hours in the hotel bar with the rest of the bands when our drummer, Frank’s Weird, said “There’s a guy at the bar who wants to talk guitars with you, and he says he played with Billy Gibbons. He’s over there, wearing a funny shirt.” It turned out to be Steve Cropper, who is synonymous with Telecasters! We talked till sun-up about every aspect of the Tele – so much so that I bought this white 2006 Relic Tele in homage to him.’
Not all Billy Bigguns’ guitars are completely ‘out there’, and next up is a pretty straightforward Gibson Melody Maker.
‘Well, a Melody Maker was in fact Billy’s first electric guitar – he was given one in 1963, along with a Fender Champ. So it just seemed to make sense to have this one in the collection, and at the same time I could own a really great workhorse guitar. I found this one in Holland when we stopped to pick up some dodgy Dutch tequila after playing at a festival in Leeuwarden. Right opposite the liquor store was a pawnshop with this guitar in the window, and I bought it without trying it, along with a box of curly cigars. I’ve used this live on several occasions… they’re such under-rated guitars. Billy of course owns one with “Mojo Maker” on the top.
‘I found these two resonators invaluable, as we often get a radio interview prior to a gig, so we partake in a stripped-down no-nonsense acoustic set featuring songs from the set list which would be virtually impossible to do electrified with all the gear. This Ozark was originally made for a trade show. It weighs a ton with the chrome body, but it has a really nice sustain and howls like a banshee. The black one is a Martin Smith with a wooden body and it sounds surprisingly good for the price. As you can see, I keep a recipe card for hot chilli crab down at the bridge to stop any rattles.’
Left, a Martin Smith Dobro: right, an Ozark with custom rattle-stopper
Next, we move onto a reissue of a guitar so rare that many believe it never existed in production form at all. ‘In 2009, Billy was touring with a Gibson Moderne – the rarest of all Gibson electric guitars, which has never appeared in the Gibson catalogue. It is said that only three originals were ever produced and allegedly he has one, although I think the one he was touring with might have been a John Bolin replica. Well, again, the closest I can get is this version, made in the Far East and imported in the USA. It’s pretty good, in fact… it has a great sound, it’s built really well, and it fits in with my sneaky liking for oddball guitars.
‘Another one in the same vein is this crazy MusicVox Spaceranger, finished in gold sparkle. This is really guitar jewellery worth beholding with all those crazy curves and “cashew nut” headstock… it doesn’t get much more out-there than this!’
A Far Eastern Moderne replica and an insane MusicVox Spaceranger
The job of emulating the sound of a band that has been recording for over 40 years calls for the old, the very new and everything in between. ‘We do need to have amps to cover some of the cleaner guitar sounds,’ Nick expands. ‘My good old Fender DeVille combo sounds wonderful with both the Teles and the Les Pauls. All these increments really contribute to the sound.
‘On the occasion that we have to fly to countries where we can’t take our own backline, we just take pedal power. On those occasions I usually carry a mixture of effects that I know will get me pretty close to the sound I want through just about any amp, and these are the Rothwell Hellbender overdrive and the Rothwell Switchblade distortion. I’ve also used these a lot in
the studio… they’re great pedals. There are two more I take if I need pedals overseas: the legendary Bixonic Expandora – Billy allegedly once chained six of these together for some very fried-up fuzz – and I also take a Pigeon Effects Treble Booster, which will make your preamp bark like a wolf on TNT.’
Matching furry Dean guitar and bass with Spin Strap attachements
Billy Bigguns is eager to crank up his rig and show how he achieves a suitably angry sonic presentation. ‘For live work back here at home I use an identical rig which includes various modified Marshall JMP1 preamps and a DigiTech MEQ-28 graphic EQ,’ he explains. ‘That lot really tears up the place.
‘Billy uses loud overdriven amps, but the guitar is set only on about 4, so he can shut it off really quick. He’s got a great knack of palm muting while allowing the solo notes to soar yet still being in total control of a truckload of overdrive. I use the same picks as him, made from orange racing car windscreen perspex. Every time I see him or Elwood Francis his guitar tech I usually get to replenish my supplies, but because they’re as hard as rock, they don’t seem to wear out.
‘He rarely goes high up the fingerboard, and nor do I. Someone once said to me, “Boy, there’s no bucks to be made above the 12th fret – you just need that groove going to make the chicks shake their tiaras”!
‘No matter what guitar he plays, he can make it sound like Billy Gibbons. If you gave him a tennis racquet and a pretzel for a plectrum, he’d make it sound good. I remember reading about when Billy Sheehan invited him to his house to guest on his album. Apparently his Tele wasn’t happening, but there was a $99 guitar lying around, so he used that and nailed the solos in one take. That guy just oozes bluesy goodness.’
The final items in our Texas showdown are two spectacular replicas of the furry matching guitar and bass made famous in ZZ Top’s Legs video of 1983.
‘Spinning guitars is a surprisingly delicate operation,’ Nick grins. ‘It has to be timed to perfection, and it’s definitely not as easy as it looks. I honestly don’t recommend anyone doing this… and when it comes to performing the full 360-degree spin I really have to watch out for the beard!
‘For the guitar itself I contacted Dean, who very kindly fitted us out with a Z79 six-string to which I’ve fitted a Bare Knuckle Buck Pink Black Dog humbucker. I’ve got a matching bass as well, and so has Dusty Thrills, though his is loaded with a Kent Armstrong pickup.
‘I sent off to Spin Straps in the USA for the rotating fittings, so that was pretty easy. Covering them with sheepskin turned out to be a bit more of a task, though. Luckily we did a deal with Axminster Carpets, who have a sheep farm out on the moors. The rest is history… we just have to be careful when we play in Wales.’
Tags: Home, Private Collection, Vintage
Sadly we must bid adieu to the weird and wonderful world of Billy Bigguns and his cohorts. ‘My guitars are often a talking point at gigs… but not always. On one occasion a guy came up for a chat, and I thought it might be about the sound, the guitars or the beard – but he just looked straight at me in silence for ages and then said, “Man… how’d you get Billy’s nose?”’
For more information on The ZZ Tops visit www.thezztops.com