Billy Gibbons is an exceptional guitarist, whose impact on the blues has been profound. Discover the gear that he uses to craft his signature Texas tone.
Truthfully, the first time I heard ZZ Top I didn’t really want to sound like Billy Gibbons. My introduction to the band was as a teenager, watching a compilation of the MTV videos they had put together for their best selling album Eliminator. I had only recently started playing the guitar, and at that time was taking both myself and my musical endeavours very seriously. So I wasn’t drawn in by the furry guitars, long beards or comical dancing.
Although I enjoyed the songs, I dismissed them. I mistakenly thought that ZZ Top offered nothing more than catchy choruses and funny gimmicks and I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the quality of Gibbons’ guitar playing.
Thankfully, I have since come to my senses.
As I have matured and listened to more ZZ Top, I have realised that no amount of furry guitars or novelty dances can detract from the quality of the musicianship in the band. Billy Gibbons is an exceptional guitarist, and his impact on the blues has been profound. Throughout his career he has brought the blues to a mainstream audience. Eliminator alone sold over 10 million copies in the U.S.
In addition, along with Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins, Gibbons has played a key role in defining the sound of ‘Texas Blues’. He is an amazing guitarist and has a killer tone that has long been the subject of scrutiny in guitar magazines and on forums. And that’s what we’ll be looking at today – the gear that Billy Gibbons used and continues to use to craft his signature Texas tones.
Some opening thoughts…
It is not easy to sound like Billy Gibbons. ZZ Top have been performing for over 50 years, and have released 15 studio albums. During that time, Gibbons has experimented with a huge variety of different tones and effects, and ZZ Top’s material has ranged from soft, synth-laden 80s pop rock to fuzz laden hard rock.
In more recent years, Gibbons and his bandmates have favoured a heavier sound. This was illustrated on La Futura – their most recent studio album. In particular, Gibbons has adopted a much heavier tone and uses fuzz as a key part of his sound. As a result, a lot of the material online and the ‘Rig Rundowns’ that look at Gibbons’ setup, focus on this aspect of his rig.
Although I will cover aspects of Gibbons’ heavy fuzz sound here, it will not be may focus. In my opinion, the quintessential Billy Gibbons tone is that which you hear on the early ZZ Top albums – Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres and Fandango! It is also the tone you hear on Eliminator. For although the band took a different musical direction on that album, the core guitar sound remains relatively unchanged.
As such, in my opinion the heavy fuzz sound of recent albums represents a shift away from the classic Gibbons tone. Not only that, but it is a less versatile tone. And so here I will be focusing on how to recreate Billy Gibbons’ signature tones from ZZ Top’s early albums. So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Billy Gibbons.
Miss Pearly Gates
Over the course of his career, Gibbons has played a huge range of different guitars. These include Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, a Gibson SG, a Gibson Explorer, various different Gretsch guitars, as well as custom made John Bolin Broadcasters, amongst countless others. In his own personal collection, it is estimated that Gibbons owns over 450 guitars!
However, of all of the different instruments that Gibbons has played, there is one guitar that defines both his tone and his image. Known affectionately as ‘Miss Pearly Gates’ (or ‘Pearly Gates’ for short), this is Gibbons’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul.
So the story goes, Gibbons had been looking for a Les Paul after seeing Eric Clapton holding one on the back of the 1966 John Mayall Blues Breakers album. He didn’t have much luck in finding one, until he heard that there was a local rancher trying to sell one.
Around the same time, Gibbons leant his car to a girlfriend who used it to drive from Houston to California for a film audition. She got the part, and Gibbons and his friends nicknamed the car Pearly Gates, joking that it had divine powers. His girlfriend sold the car, and sent Gibbons a $250 cheque. Gibbons went and bought the Les Paul on the day the cheque arrived. And from that point onwards, the guitar was known as Pearly Gates.
1959 is widely considered to be the year that Gibson produced its best guitars. Pearly Gates is still in its original condition and having been played by Gibbons for so long, is now one of the most desirable Les Pauls ever made. Gibbons was actually offered $5 million for the guitar, but refused to sell it. In more recent years, he has also stopped playing the guitar live. Instead, he plays a Gibson Custom Shop replica of the original Pearly Gates (more on this below).
The 1959 Gibson Les Paul
Given the key role that Pearly Gates has played in Gibbons’ career, I would recommend going for a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, a ’59 Les Paul replica, or a vintage style Les Paul if you want to recreate the tone of the early ZZ Top albums. Original ’59 Les Pauls in good condition typically cost well over $125,000/£100,000. And although in 2011 the Gibson Custom Shop released 350 replicas of Pearly Gates, such is the build quality and legacy of the guitar, that even second hand versions of this replica cost around $36,000/£30,000 on sites like Reverb. Unsurprisingly then, those options are beyond the reach of most players.
The good news, is that there are a lot of vintage Les Paul reissues and replicas out there in a range of budgets.
In the lower price range, these Les Pauls tend to be Tribute style guitars, or guitars modelled after a specific decade. Then if you go up to the Custom Shop level, you can find guitars that are built to replicate models made in a specific year. This typically requires higher quality, bespoke made parts and manufacturing techniques. And both of these incur extra cost.
So with that in mind, the best option outside of the Custom Shop is to look at Tribute and ’50s style guitars. These are vintage style models that do a great job of recreating the features of a ’59 Les Paul, without the higher price tag.
In the lower price range, I would recommend going for an Epiphone replica.
After Epiphone, I would recommend one of the cheaper Gibson Tribute or Studio models.
Beyond that, if you can stretch to it, then there are some brilliant Gibson Les Paul options.
Finally, if you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment, then there are some beautiful Gibson Custom Shop models.
All of these guitars will help you sound like Billy Gibbons. And with a few further tweaks to your pickups and setup (see below for more details), you can get even closer to those signature Texas tones.
Beyond the ’59 Les Paul
Although Pearly gates is unquestionably the Les Paul with which Gibbons is best associated, if you want to capture the tone of ZZ Top’s early albums, a Gold Top or Gold Top replica would also make a brilliant choice.
Gibbons himself likely owns and plays various different Gold Tops. But in 2012 he teamed up with the Gibson Custom Shop to create a Gold Top replica with a distinctive pinstripe finish.
This is not a typical Les Paul. It has a chambered body and neck, making it much lighter than a typical Les Paul. It is also constructed without a pickup selector. Instead it features 2 volume controls and 1 master tone control.
Gibson only produced a limited run of 300 guitars. But the good news is that you can still buy these guitars second hand on Reverb for the comparatively reasonable price of $5500/£4500. Still not exactly a budget option, but if you are a massive Billy Gibbons fan, then it will do a lot to help you recreate his tones.
Beyond going down this route, there are some great alternatives across a range of budgets:
These models don’t come with the chambered body or neck. As such, they will be heavier and have less of an acoustic resonance to their sound. But before you go out and make any drastic changes to your Les Paul, you can get much closer to Gibbons’ tones by looking at your pickups and making a few simple adjustments to your setup.
If you really want to sound like Billy Gibbons, I would recommend going for a set of his signature pickups. And here there are a few different options from which to choose. The first is to go for a set of the Seymour Duncan ‘Pearly Gates’ Humbuckers. These are designed to emulate the pickups from Pearly Gates. Both of the Billy Gibbons Custom Shop replicas have been fitted with these pickups.
The second and third options are both made by Cream T Pickups. This is a boutique pickup company that have long collaborated with Gibbons. They offer the ‘Whisker Buckers’ and also the ‘BFG Bangers’. The former are designed to perfectly match the output of the pickups in Pearly Gates. The latter – which were designed in collaboration with Gibbons – are the pickups that Gibbons has used over the last 10 years or so.
Whichever set you go for, it is also worth noting that Gibbons very rarely – if ever – uses his neck pickup. In fact more recently his guitar tech has taken to disconnecting the neck pickup on his Les Pauls altogether. I wouldn’t suggest you go to the same extreme, but I would recommend you stick to the bridge pickup when you are trying to sound like Billy Gibbons.
Billy Gibbons is best associated with Marshall amplifiers. Although he has experimented with a whole range of different amps over the years – mostly notably boutique amp brands Magnatone and Bigtone – Marshall is at the core of Gibbons’ tone. As he stated in 2008, when asked what gear had the biggest impact on his tone:
I would say that it was the ’59 Gibson Les Paul, better known now as ‘Pearly Gates’, plugged into a hundred-watt Marshall. [It] designed a sound that still resonates today.
The specific amp to which Gibbons is referring, is a Marshall 1968 Super Lead 100W. However, he is also known to have played a Marshall JCM 900 Dual Reverb, Marshall Bluesbreaker and a JTM45, amongst others.
Apart from the 1968 Super Lead 100W, reissue models of all of these amps are still available. And if you are looking in a higher price bracket you can buy the 1968 Super Lead on Reverb for around $4200/£3400.
If you are in search of authenticity then, any of those amps would make a brilliant choice. They would also help you capture a whole range of vintage blues tones. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Gary Moore are just 3 of the countless blues and rock guitarists to use these early Marshalls.
The consideration you have to make here – and it is a fairly significant one – is that these are powerful amps. To get the best out of them, you have to crank the volume. This is what gives you that beautiful, vintage sounding overdrive. So if you are predominantly playing at home, in a studio, or in small venues, I wouldn’t recommend them.
Instead I would recommend opting for a smaller Marshall combo or stack, or buying a smaller amp that is voiced similarly to a Marshall.
If you want to sound like Billy Gibbons but don’t want a big combo or a stack, then there are some brilliant smaller Marshall combos and heads. And the good news is that there are options here across a range of budgets. My top choices are as follows:
Of these combos, there are head versions of the Studio Vintage Plexi, JCM 800 and the Marshall Origin 20W. So if you wanted to build a stack, one of these smaller heads could be a brilliant choice. You could then pair it up with one of Marshall’s smaller vintage style 1×12 or 2×12” cabinets.
If you want Gibbons’ killer tones, but for whatever reason, you don’t want a Marshall amp, then I would recommend an amp with a similar voicing. My top choices here are as follows:
In recent years, Gibbons has actually recorded with the Blackstar Artisan, which he describes as having ‘great sustain and depth’. Blackstar have built a strong reputation for high quality amps that offer great value for money. So if you are conscious about the cost of your rig, a Blackstar amp could be a great option.
At the other end of the spectrum, I would recommend going for a boutique amp from Friedman Amplification. These are brilliant amps that capture a variety of classic blues and rock tones. Although I am not aware of Gibbons having ever gigged or recorded with Friedman amps, he speaks very highly of them. So if you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment in your rig, a Friedman could be a great choice.
When we look at the pedals you need to sound like Billy Gibbons, things start to get a little tricky. Although Gibbons has used innumerable different pedals over the course of his career, there is very little concrete evidence on his specific set up. Gibbons himself rarely speaks on the subject. And most of the information online focuses on the various fuzzes and heavy overdrives that Gibbons now uses to create his heavier tones.
Long story short – it is not easy to figure out the exact set up that Gibbons used during the early ZZ Top days. And in fact it is likely that on albums like Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres, he relied almost solely on his guitar and amp. In more recent years though, pedals have played a larger part in Gibbons’ tone. So, using what little information there is available, we can put together a few options – all of which will help you sound like Billy Gibbons.
Here then I will look at some of the specific pedals Gibbons used, as well as the types of pedal he used at various points. This will help us dial in his early vintage Texas blues tones, as well as some of his more fuzzy and overdriven tones.
The tube driver
During the early 1990s, Billy Gibbons used a Butler Audio Tube Driver pedal. This is a valve overdrive pedal, used by a number of notable guitarists – including Eric Johnson, David Gilmour and Joe Satriani.
Proponents of the Tube Driver swear by the pedal. They claim that it offers an unparalleled quality of tone and versatility. Indeed, Eric Johnson has stated that his famous ‘violin tone’ would be impossible without the Tube Driver.
So if you want to sound like Billy Gibbons, and create a range of beautiful vintage tones, the Tube Driver could make a great addition to your rig. You can buy one directly from Butler Audio for around $300/£245.
Around the same time, Billy Gibbons was also using an Analog Man Beano Boost. A lot of blues guitarists avoid treble booster pedals. They worry that they will make their tone sound sharp and thin. But if you want to sound like Billy Gibbons, adding a treble booster to your rig is a great move.
Treble boosters work very well with Marshalls and other British voiced amps. These amps are typically quite dark sounding. And when you crank them or place an overdrive pedal in front of them, your tone can become unfocused and ‘muddy’. Treble boosters stop this from happening. They tighten the sound up and give it a sizzling top end that sounds amazing.
If you want a treble booster, the Analog Man would be a great choice. But it is worth noting that Gibbons also used the original Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster. This was the first treble booster, and was famously used by both Rory Gallagher and Brian May, amongst others. So if you are looking for a distinctly vintage sound, that would be an amazing choice, Having said that, it is also claimed that in more recent years Gibbons has used a Zvex Super Hard On. If that is true, it would also make a great addition to your setup.
Throughout his career Gibbons has used a wide variety of different overdrive pedals. These include:
- The Browntone Macho Man Overdrive. Gibbons used this in the early 1990s. It is a boutique overdrive pedal with a large range that can go from a slight drive, all the way through to quite a heavy crunch. The pedal is no longer in production, but you can pick one up on Reverb for around $240/£200.
- The Blackstone Mosfet Overdrive. Gibbons has used this more recently for some of his heavier, more overdriven tones. Again this is a boutique pedal, but the good news is that it is still in production. You can order it directly from Blackstone for $225/£185.
- The Bixonic Expandora EXP-2000R. This is another pedal that Gibbons has used for his heavy tones. Reportedly he stacked 6 of these pedals into each other. He set each one up in a slightly different way, to create an unusual and distinctive tone. The Expandora is no longer in production, but you can buy one on Reverb for around $250/£205.
- The Paul Cochrane ‘Timmy’. Again this is a more recent addition to Gibbons’ setup, yet it is not a high gain overdrive pedal. The Timmy is famous for adding grit and warmth to a rig, whilst preserving its fundamental character. So if you are looking for Gibbons’ early tones, this could be a brilliant choice. The original is no longer in production, although you can pick one up second hand for around $260/£210. Alternatively, you can get the MXR Timmy. This was made in collaboration with Paul Cochrane and offers the same great tones at a cheaper price.
Fuzz & Octavia
On some of ZZ Top’s recent albums, Gibbons has experimented a lot with fuzz and octavia effects. In a sense, his love for fuzz isn’t new; the first fuzz he used was a Maestro Fuzz Tone, back in the early days of ZZ Top. But he has definitely taken the fuzz sound up to the next level in recent years.
The Maestro Fuzz Tone was one of the first fuzz pedals ever available, and is no longer in production. Second hand models of these are available, but they are both very rare and very expensive, typically costing around $2000/£1650.
When it comes to Octavia and pitch shifting pedals, Gibbons has used a variety. These include the Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork and various Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octavio pedals, like the JHOC1 and the JHM2. As seems to be the case with most of the pedals Gibbons has used, these are no longer in production. But either the newer released Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octavio Mini or MXR M267 Octavio Fuzz pedal would work well as alternatives.
The other option is to go for Billy Gibbons’ recently released signature ‘Siete Santos’ Octavio Fuzz Pedal. This combines an Octavio Fuzz with a 7 band graphic EQ to further sculpt and refine your sound. So if you like Gibbons’ more overdriven and fuzzy tones, this could make a brilliant addition to your rig.
Pedals to sound like Billy Gibbons
If you really want to sound like Billy Gibbons, I would definitely recommend adding some of the pedals listed above onto your board. Not only will they help you capture Gibbons’ signature tones; they will also help you achieve a variety of vintage blues tones.
Having said that, Gibbons isn’t exactly economical in his choice of pedals. He has a lot of pedals in his setup and almost exclusively uses hand-wired, boutique pedals. So although recreating his board with authenticity will do wonders for your tone, it will also incur quite a bit of expense.
One great alternative that will help you craft a killer tone without spending so much, is to buy an ‘amp in a box’ style pedal. There are a number of these that actually aim to recreate Billy Gibbons’ tone. And any of these could work very well. My first choice would be the La Grange overdrive and boost pedal from Bogner. This is built to recreate the sound of a Marshall ‘Plexi’ amp, and comes with a whole range of tone shaping options.
If you are looking for a new pedal, then something like the Friedman BE-OD Deluxe Dual Overdrive would also be an amazing choice. Conversely, if you are happy to go second hand, then I would recommend the Mythos ‘Chupacabra’ overdrive and fuzz. This is a more specific type of pedal, but it was built to sound like Gibbons on the early ZZ Top records. So if you can track one down, it could make a great addition to your rig.
Billy Gibbons is renowned for using extremely light gauge guitar strings. So the story goes, Gibbons used to play heavy gauge strings until B.B. King advised him otherwise. As Gibbons recalls:
BB said to me, ‘Can I play your guitar?… He strummed it a few times and handed it back to me. He looked at me rather quizzically and said, ‘Why you working so hard?…Those strings. You got real heavy, heavy strings.’ I said, ‘Well, isn’t that how to get the heavy, heavy sound?’ He said, ‘No! Don’t be working so hard!’
From that point, Gibbons started to play lighter and lighter strings. He then decided to settle on 0.07 gauge strings, which he has used for the majority of his career. He is pretty unusual in this respect. 0.07 is a very light gauge string, and much lighter than most blues players – who typically play somewhere between 0.09s-0.11s.
Using such light strings won’t directly implicate your tone. But it will have a significant impact on your tone, because it will alter the way you play your guitar. When you are using such light strings, you have to play in a certain way. You need to have a soft touch and a restrained pick attack, because if you don’t, you will constantly be snapping your strings. Apparently Gibbons never breaks his strings, which is truly a testament to his precision and light touch.
If you are looking for authenticity then, you can buy a set of Gibbons’ signature 0.07 gauge strings. Personally I wouldn’t recommend going that light, as I do believe there are benefits of using a slightly thicker string (don’t worry – I’ll save those thoughts for another day!). Gibbons does also have a signature set of 0.08s. So if you want to test your touch and precision, you could give those a try, see how you get on and then drop down to the 0.07s.
Having said that, I don’t think you need to go down that light to sound like Billy Gibbons. I think a 0.09 or even a 0.10 gauge string would also do the job. I would argue that it is more about your pick attack and touch, rather than the gauge string, which is the key factor here.
The final piece of the tonal puzzle is the accessories that Gibbons uses. So the story goes, Gibbons used to play with a Mexican Peso for a pick. Now he uses extra heavy Dunlop gel picks. His guitar tech is convinced that this is not so much about tone, but rather because they glow in the dark…
I would always recommend using a pick that you find comfortable. But if you are looking for a bit of extra bite in your sound, it might be worth experimenting with a metal plectrum. You can buy metal picks like these here, for around the same price as regular plectrums. So try those out and see what they do for your sound. They will definitely help you get closer to the sound Gibbons would have recreated with a Peso.
When it comes to slides – which Gibbons uses on songs like ‘Just Got Paid‘ and ‘Tush‘, I would recommend either going for a porcelain or glass slide. Billy Gibbons actually has a signature ‘Mojo slide’ available in both porcelain and glass. For authenticity, either of those would make a brilliant option, but any porcelain or glass slide will do the trick.
Beyond that, the key factor is comfort. You need to ensure the slide fits properly and that it gives your chosen finger a bit of breathing room. If it’s too snug then you will have difficulty getting it off after playing (because your finger will expand when it warms up). You should also pay attention to the weight. If you want to play fast licks and solos then you don’t want anything too heavy, as the slide will just slow you down. Conversely, you want something with enough weight to press down on the strings.
Try a few different slides out and experiment until you find the one that works for you.
Some closing thoughts…
In the search for tone, it is very easy to get stuck down the rabbit hole. And this is particularly the case with Billy Gibbons. He has used so much gear and changed his set up a lot during his 50 year career. He has experimented with different sounds and totally different styles. Additionally, both Gibbons and his guitar tech seem to have a forensic knowledge and understanding of gear. In every video and rig rundown I have seen, they talk at a deep and technical level, covering everything from speaker cones, to EQ graphs to pickup height. They then close by saying – without any sense of irony at all – ‘so it’s quite a simple set up, really’.
Try not to get caught in this rabbit hole. Focus on the key elements of Gibbons’ rig. Get yourself a Les Paul or Les Paul style guitar and pair it with a Marshall or British voiced amp. Add a few choice pedals and maybe some new pickups, and experiment. See if you like sound, and if not, then you can adopt some of the more niche elements of Gibbons’ setup. As Gibbons once put it so well:
I believe the key is maintaining simplicity. As inviting as it may be to complicate the issue – let’s face it, capturing guitar tones… is a complex ordeal – you should not overcomplicate. Keeping it all simple is actually a great place to fall back to.
And I think that closes this article out. Here is everything you need to sound like Billy Gibbons.
Good luck! And if you have any questions or comments, just pop them in the box below, or send me an email on [email protected] I’m here to help.
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