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
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
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
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
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