Billy Gibbons - RHYTHMEEN
Funky Death Metal Blues

by Paul Guy

for FUZZ magazine 2/96

© Paul Guy 1996

Right from the African theme of the CD insert to the music, "Rhythmeen" oozes roots blues & soul. Would you say that your roots are mainly blues?

Indeed. As we've often made reference to, the growing-up experience in Texas, even today, is heavy into both blues and forms of country that have disappeared in other parts of the world, but continue to get top-level exposure on radio... It's a peculiar notion that there is time to include contemporary all the way back to what we would consider original recordings, from the thirties... but somehow those influences are still there today, and I guess what we do, what we manage... certainly exemplified on this "Rhythmeen", is directly related to that, that Texas blues kind of origins.

Is there anything in particular you would like to say about the record?

Well. I can stand alongside many other Texas musicians that are hard pressed to comment as to the content of one's Texas plainsmanship, and about the time you think you have an answer then you start really puzzling for some plausible explanation. It is a phenomena that so many delightfully talented guitar players have come to be recognized, and having this peculiar Texas upbringing - there's a joke, "well, there's not much else to do except learn how to play, and play well." So I don't know culturally if that's what Texas wants to be known for, but who's to say!

The whole album has a very fat analog sound, almost like it was recorded on tape, using a lot of saturation. Was it recorded analog?

Indeed. There's a peculiar world that lives, quite possibly in both domains, analog and digital, and it's that wonderfully warm super saturated distorto something and I guess the message is, it doesn't matter how you get there, if you do get there, grab a hold of it and ride it.

Another thing that struck me about "Rhythmeen" was that it sounds like you're using low-tuned guitars on several of the tracks.

Exactly. We managed to dip firstly into the world of D-tuning, which emboldened itself into B, and then it just went off the meter when we hit low A... and everything turned to jelly. Oh man, it was a little challenging, as you can imagine, to wrangle the wires at that loose of a tuning, but I had been inspired from Bark Market - the guitarist, Dave, uses low A tuning quite often, and some of their recordings are just sensational and the warmth that if you can handle the intervals, there's nothing like this crazy low A tuning. In fact Bark Market, they're an American group, they're performing here tomorrow night and unfortunately we'll be on to the next town, but I would recommend checking them out as really a source of inspiration for this crazy low tuning.

When I first listened through the record, I thought, "Wow! Funky death metal blues!"

(Laughs) Yeah!

Is there a death metal influence??

Oh wow - well Bark Market would be a frightfully fit place to begin inspecting these excursions. And yeah, I enjoyed the ease of non-tension at that low tuning, particularly when the blues figures started emerging, and it in some way could be said instrumental in thickening up the sound, particularly when it's just three guys, which is historically known for a spare sound, but we managed our way around that and into the world of that warm place with both guitar and bass tuned down. Now the only problem is figuring out how to get the drummer to loosen the lugs and join us at that low place!

Standard guitar low tuned or baritone?

It was two instruments - it was a Fender Esquire and a Gibson gold top, it was a 55 model with only the stop bridge, and one would suspect that such an unorthodox tuning would require a precision adjustable bridge, but I think once you've gone that far it really becomes a game of fingering skills, because no bridge is designed to go there. So that's how it came about, and this record is about trash and thrash anyway. So we threw caution to the wind and down we went.

I wrote in the record review, There's a suggestion of slightly out of tune guitars which heightens the atmosphere.

Evil, yeah. There was one or two moments that - even the engineer had joined us in no overdubs, lets just go ahead and do this thing. And on repeated listenings it ignited that tension, that evil undertone. It was cool.

What strings in low tuning?

Believe it - we were already strung up light, with 8, 10, 12, 20, 30, 40 - and brother when you take light down to low it was over the top, or under the top, something - it was so wicked. But there again, once you relearned a few little basic positionings, it was like melted butter. It was just crazy.

You can't hit it too hard, though, can you?

Yeah, you gotta restrict that - you gotta refine the touch. One is wise to approach it gingerly.

Do you still use "Pearly Gates"?

Yes. Got a cornerstone instrument that defies description. And we have managed to find ourselves back to letting Pearly show us the way. It's tone for days... it's great playability, one of the magic moments in instrument making.

They're not all like that, are they...

No, man - just, wow.

So it's still your number one.

Yeah. There's quite a few of the various tracks - we even got into - this low tuning did not escape any of the instruments. It got very funny to see the best playing instruments reduced to nightmarish structures because they're just designed for something else. But it did stand to help launch into different things, and you know there's enough good examples of those who have gone before that defy the rules of the manual - Jimi Hendrix was already told that your toggle switch won't go there, but that's where it went.

Do you have any new favourites (guitars)

There are some guitar sounds - and at this point we can only suspect where they originate - but we've been listening to the Chemical Brothers, all the way back to a few favourite blues albums, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, the Jimmy Reed stuff - it never goes away - but there's a great invitation that leaves a very handy space to say, who knows, who goes to that special place where we'll be looking to follow. So I guess it's somewhat humbling to think that just about the time you think you know it all, surprise, surprise. something comes up. You gotta maintain that willingness, that whole thing about - I mean any job, any endeavour worth pursuit, is probably valued by those challenges that pop up. And the best in any field are those that say, yeah, I knew it all - until the next day.

Do you use a very low action on your guitars?

We did - and then that changed with the lower tuning we began experimenting with raising the action position settings, just to allow the strings to clear freely. And there again, speaking of surprises, you may have your dream axe properly set and off into the wild blue yonder of crazy tunings, it renders the best tech setup as virtually useless, and you may find having to start over on that point.

You must have had to loosen the rods...

We didn't take it quite that far. It may have proved useful over the long run if by chance the neck fell out of pitch, but the record was captured so quickly inthe studio that these instruments that were actually set up for standard tuning, we just dropped them down, hit it straight away, and that was it.

They didn't really get time to move... a few days later, you would have had a hell!

It might have gotten crazy if we'd extended it.

Any special thing you are really pernickety about with your guitars?

Mmm. The tone is really our focus. It's been a lot easier to let go of the notion that one must play a vintage instrument - however you wish to define that - in favour of a more readily gratifying reward in just picking up whatever it is that's at hand and having developed a personal technique that gives you dominance over an instrument and plus you don't have to spend a gazillion dollars to take charge of some mystery vintage piece ... So going into that tone discussion, there's this peculiar silver fuzzbox called the Bixonic Expandora. I don't think that it would be fair to attempt describing this Rhythmeen recording session without bringing a focus to the Expandora pedal. It's an attractive thing, this shiny little can with the knobs on it. And just sticking that between the guitar and the amp, it really didn't matter what we played. One afternoon we released our gear to be taken to a club, and I actually wound up playing on some unnamed unknown gear. And thanks to the Expandora pedal, it managed to bring us into the tone range that we were targeting. Great piece.

Where do you stand on the vintage/new guitar controversy? You have had a lot of custom guitars built...

Yeah. It's a lively discussion. The question is older better than new, and I think that at a time when the argument was not an argument, older was indeed better, it did stimulate the manufacturers to rethink their methods of production, the quality of what was being made, and it has brought back the truly great - the greatness of the old guitars can be had today. New guitars are being made with attention to detail, sharpness on quality, and that's a good thing, because soon those guitars will be considered old, and then the debate will rage again.

What are you using for amps these days?

Focusing on the Rhythmeen record, we pulled in two matched custom made jobs that had started as Marshalls, and the overhaul was seen to by Guitar Oasis, a shop in Huntington Beach, California, and they stuffed a 1966 (we think) plexifront 100 watt Marshall head into a very early Marshall 2x10 cabinet, and that functioned for the guitar and the bass. We had both guitar and bass running through this matched custom set. And of course with the help of the Expandora and of course Dusty with his strange hands, these bass-pounding paws of his, he doesn't need too much more than just a straight signal from guitar to amp.

Hits it kinda hard, don't he.

Yeah, he's in there. But the Marshall sound was it. We had a big stack of outboard effects, ranging from Peavey's latest invention to some out of production Echoplex, and there was a couple of home made this's and thats in the mix, but we again it would be fair to say that it was unorthodox tunings, crazy pedals. and a couple of custom made Marshalls that put us in the pocket.

There are a lot less studio production tricks (sampled drum sounds etc) on this album than on for example the Eliminator/Afterburner period, did this album take much shorter or longer time to make than those?

Shorter - the recording stretch was a wider range of basic tracks, some cut in Hollywood, some cut at Memphis, we wound up rehearsing down in Houston, Texas, and during that time we entered a studio called John Moran's House of Funk, which is home to all of the upcoming rap guys, and having been raised in Houston, we were delighted to find globally competitive product being recorded in our home town. I don't know that we qualify as interpreters of hiphop and rap, but just being around those guys influenced a lot of what you observed, that kind of opposite of where they come from. They go into full loop city, where we may just employ it as a shadow. But it was a great mix, and I learned quite a bit in a short amount of time. We felt that by keeping the recording calendar with a deadline, it raised the tension level and it also let us stay far clear of getting tempted by overdubs and multitracking.

There are fewer overdubs on this record than just about any other ZZ record I've ever heard.

Indeed. This is really pure trio, there's no rhythm guitar overdubbed to take over when the lead starts, it's just there.

"Vincent Price Blues" - are you a horror movie fan?

Indeed, yeah. Vincent Price Blues got its name from the horrifying chord changes that would normally defy living in a blues context. But Vincent Price said it was all right.

You have a very personal sound and feel - you always get a great groove out of not very many notes. Is this something that you have worked on, or did it just come naturally?

If we may call another reference to before, it would certainly be the minimalist style of Steve Cropper and he of course could be credited as one of the most elegant players. Under close scrutiny he too is a very simple and straigtforward technician. He could probably do as much with one note as you would want, and does. So it's from that that we've tended to attempt a follow.

Can you tell me some of the artists you used to listen to on the "X"?

Yeah. Sure. Let's go back even before Cropper, I suppose Jimmy Reed, the great Muddy Waters records, and in those days it's fair to say that we weren't really sure who was doing what, but these were sounds that were so instrumental in shaping our future pursuits. Bobby Bland's great guitar player Wayne Bennett, who was for years just a mysterious presence, no face, no real identity to draw from. However the sound. And only recently does the visual aspect enter the picture, the advent of videos perhaps could be said now to be part of the creative process, one thinks in terms of sound and visuals. And it's all been based on what has come before, and for us, the names - even Elmore James, Freddie King, who was from Dallas. Frank and Dusty actually did long-standing stints at backing up Lightning Hopkins. So they were a team with instant savvy when we all met. They had done some great work on their own.

Any new artists in particular that have impressed you?

G. Love and Special Sauce - particularly interesting outfit with great blues undertones. A Czechoslovakian guy that grew up doing his interpretation from Chicago and later Tucson, Arizona called Rainer Ptacek. Outfitted a combo called Rainer and Das Combo. And later we became friends, I produced a record on him in 86 which is released on the Demon record label called The Texas Tapes. Still one of my favourite guitar men. And we're holding that secret special place for Jimmy Vaughan to surprise us all. He's ultimately one of our great faves. Good man. And having said that, I guess it's fair to say, thrash on - play the blues.

© Paul Guy 1996

Interview for FUZZ magazine 2/96