Perusing the internet in search of “tone secrets” will invariably send you down a pickup, pedal, and paraphernalia rabbit hole filled with “experts” weighing in on what they think they saw in one photo from one recording session that is the key to unlocking the secret of a certain player’s peerless sound. Whether it’s that boutique fuzz, or the imported tubes, or the thickness of the pick, discerning players will take anything into account in an effort to mimic their idols.
And this entire argument repeats itself more often with one man above all; the legendary Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Stoking the fire
It’s well known that the Reverend Willy G. likes to perpetuate his own mythos with tales of Mexican Peso picking, the perfect glue binding his storied 1959 Les Paul, and trading rare and vintage car parts for equally rare and vintage amplifiers. But what makes Billy Gibbons sound like Billy Gibbons? Well, obviously, Billy makes Billy sound like Billy — that is to say, the tone is in the fingers. But as always, gear plays a part as well.
Much debate has been centered around his amplifiers, guitars, and pickups, but to sound like Billy, you have to play like Billy, and that starts with the strings.
Get light to get heavy
One would think that the thick, oozing sound emanating from that little ol’ band from Texas could only be achieved using big guitars, big amplifiers, big pickups, and of course, big strings. Well, you would be wrong.
ZZ Top’s nuanced vibrato is the first key to unlocking the tone secrets of Billy Gibbons, a man who looks to be effortlessly meandering through riffs and licks that would take some of us years to conquer. You notice, in observing the master at work, that he is barely breaking a sweat with his ever-talented left hand, but still rendering incredibly articulate and emotional bits of music, full of inventive bends and hammer-ons. After delving further into his self-appropriated legend, you learn the key: The Holy One has had custom gauged strings made for himself.
Whereas your average Gibson will run a set of .010 to .046, and your run-of-the-mill Fender will start with .09’s, Billy Gibbons needed .007’s.
You read that correctly. .007’s. The man responsible for the grittiest, grimiest blues riffs of our modern era wrote them all while playing strings custom made to be lighter than anything on the market:
.007 – .009 – .011 – .020w – .030 – .038
So, if you’re on the quest for that elusive ZZ Top tone, put down the Gruhn Guitars catalog and pick up some lighter strings. Admittedly, .007s might be a bit light for the average player, but try taking a step down from .010s to .009s, or .009s to .008s — you never know where the wire will take you.