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ZZ TOP HONCHO BILLY F GIBB ONS & FRIENDS LOOK AT THE ROOTS OF GUI­TAR MU­SIC AND HOW THE BLUES ENDED UP SHAP­ING EV­ERY­THING…

Total Guitar - - CONTENTS -

Up­stairs in one of Lon­don’s most pres­ti­gious re­hearsal spa­ces, a dis­cus­sion is tak­ing place – dis­sect­ing one of the old­est forms of pop­u­lar mu­sic and its place in the world to­day. Lead­ing the con­ver­sa­tion is ZZ Top founder Billy F Gib­bons, joined by his Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine com­rades Fabrizio Grossi and Kenny Aronoff, along­side the band’s spe­cial guests Serge Simic and the UK’S Kris Bar­ras. To­gether, the five mu­si­cians ex­plore how and why this near­an­cient art­form, even af­ter all these years, still has the abil­ity to make just about any hu­man be­ing feel things that other gen­res sim­ply can’t come close to. Blues power, it seems, is some­thing that will stay in our DNA… What do you feel when you hear the words ‘blues power’? Billy F Gib­bons: “Well, I think those two words go to­gether for sure. There’s some­thing about this thing called blues that con­tin­ues to res­onate. There’s that old say­ing that ev­ery 10 years or so, things come back and get re­dis­cov­ered, but I feel as if the blues has more to it. I think that the genre has an in­ter­na­tional and global ap­peal. It ap­pears very sim­ple on first glance, but when you start dig­ging in deeper you dis­cover there are some real com­plex­i­ties to this art­form. It’s pretty cool when you think about it… this mys­te­ri­ous thing that is hon­estly pow­er­ful. When you go back and lis­ten to what Fred­die King was do­ing purely in­stru­men­tally, it’s in­cred­i­ble. It was the same tran­si­tion when Muddy Wa­ters left his acous­tic and fig­ured out how to plug things in and get the whole elec­tric thing go­ing. It was a big, big change!”

Kris Bar­ras: “I feel like blues mu­sic is very much a feel­ing. It comes from inside. I wouldn’t call my­self a tra­di­tional blues player but

I know that I’m def­i­nitely in­flu­enced by some of the old greats. I think blues power re­lates to the idea of play­ing from the heart and choos­ing cer­tain notes with a spe­cial mean­ing.”

Fabrizio Grossi: “When I think of the words ‘blues power’, I feel like no other kind of mu­sic has ever been able to gen­er­ate so many gen­res and phe­nom­ena. Blues doesn’t have to be 100 per cent in its orig­i­nal form, you don’t have to sound like the god­fa­thers to have taken in­flu­ence from it. When I think how im­por­tant those guys were for ev­ery­thing we hear to­day. I feel like 70 per cent of the mu­sic out there wouldn’t even ex­ist with­out the blues.”

Serge Simic: “Ev­ery­thing from all of our in­flu­ences com­bined will have come out of the blues. It’s still there to­day, all these years later – which is in­cred­i­ble. This genre is still so pow­er­ful.”

It’s as if the blues is some­thing that any hu­man can un­der­stand – re­gard­less of their mu­si­cal or ge­o­graphic back­ground…

Fabrizio: “I think ev­ery­thing about the blues stands to the wider mu­sic world just as much as the mob stands to or­gan­ised crime – mean­ing ev­ery­body knows about it but they don’t re­ally un­der­stand what goes on un­less they’re in it. And once you’re in… you don’t get out! To the blues mu­si­cian, it’s not about play­ing on the coolest night of the week. We will al­ways have the club cir­cuit – there’s a mu­sic mob that never gives up. In ev­ery gui­tar shop I’ve vis­ited, when­ever peo­ple walk in the first thing they play will be blues-based. The ideas are so mar­ried to the gui­tar, there’s a sym­bio­sis there.”

Billy: “I love the idea of the blue note. This thing with all this feel­ing be­hind it. I don’t know if words will ever be ad­e­quate to ex­press it. You know it when you hear it and you know it when you feel it.”

Kris: “There’s a ten­sion and re­lease to the blue note. Be­cause the flat five is not usu­ally in the chords, it ex­tends into the world of jazz and other things.”

Billy: “If you play in ma­jor thirds, it’s all happy. But hit that flat five or mi­nor sev­enth and you will feel it… you will get the shiv­ers.”

Speak­ing of flat fives, there was a time where tri­tones were banned by the church. Thank­fully, times have changed…

Kenny Aronoff: “The re­li­gious peo­ple in most coun­tries would have thrown you in jail for just play­ing a mi­nor third let alone a flat five! It was against the law, even in places like Eng­land. The church wanted all the nicer har­monies and felt like the tri­tone was the devil’s in­ter­val...” Billy: “It still is, ha ha!”

Kenny: “But check this out, even though the tri­tone is the most dev­il­ish in­ter­val of them all, [long-time di­rec­tor of the New York orches­tra] Leonard Bern­stein took that sound and made it one of the most beau­ti­ful songs ever in Maria from West­sidestory. Some­how

“AS SOON AS I HEAR BILLY IT’S LIKE I’M DRIV­ING ON A FREE­WAY IN TEXAS...” FABRIZIO GROSSI

this ge­nius made a beau­ti­ful love melody out of it. I think he was try­ing to say, ‘Hey, this note isn’t as bad as you’d think!’ Maybe he didn’t be­lieve in the devil... maybe he did!”

How hard is it to rein­vent your­self as a blues artist?

Billy: “One of the great­est turn­ing points for me was when Lol­la­palooza came to Orange County. There was a band there called Cy­press Hill who were fa­mous for smoking weed in front of the cops. Sure enough, there they were smoking weed in front of the au­thor­i­ties while 20,000 young white kids ap­plauded. They had three singers fronting the band and one guy hold­ing a DAT recorder, which was all the mu­sic. He stepped on the wire yank­ing it out and ev­ery­thing stopped – you could see the wave of ten­sion spread, ev­ery­one won­der­ing what will hap­pen next. One of them said, ‘Hey, we fucked up!’ and sud­denly ev­ery­body re­laxed. I think if you are able to ac­cept what­ever will hap­pen, it will al­low new ex­pres­sions to come for­ward. You re­move this layer of fear by say­ing you don’t care and just plough­ing through. And some­times that mis­take could be the thing you were look­ing for all along...”

Kenny: “Be­cause, at the end of the day, we will al­ways make them!”

Fabrizio: “Per­son­ally, I don’t think you have to rein­vent the blues, it’s cool just how it is. You get dif­fer­ent takes from dif­fer­ent peo­ple be­cause they are in­di­vid­u­als. It’s an ex­pres­sion of feel­ing, so how one per­son thinks can be miles away from any­one else. As long as you are play­ing with your own heart and soul… that’s all you need. It’s not re­ally about rein­vent­ing your­self as it is putting your own stamp on ev­ery­thing. The early ZZ Top record­ings have a dirt and mean­ness to them while their ap­proach in the 80s was com­pletely dif­fer­ent – but no mat­ter what year it is or pro­duc­tion style it gets, you just know it’s Billy play­ing. As soon as I hear him, it’s like I’m driv­ing on a big free­way some­where in the mid­dle of Texas. He can carry his his­tory and her­itage through the mu­sic, which is some­thing not many peo­ple can do. A lot of peo­ple

can mas­ter pen­ta­ton­ics but to tell their story with­out be­ing too ob­vi­ous about it is quite rare.”

The blues also lends it­self to blend­ing both mi­nor and ma­jor tonal­i­ties…

Billy: “The mi­nor seems to be the bluer. I don’t re­ally know much about tri­tones and what­not, but I’ve al­ways felt the mi­nor side is where the blues lives. I don’t know many blues tunes that are ma­jor-y… it seems to be­long with the sad­der chords and scales.”

Kris: “When you mix mi­nor and ma­jor, it’s like you get an­other blue note. You can play the mi­nor third and bend up to the ma­jor third, which adds to the blues. A lot of gui­tarists get con­fused over this. I’ve walked into loads of bars and heard a dom­i­nant blues where the play­ers stick to mi­nor pen­ta­tonic and don’t re­solve the mi­nor third to ma­jor – which can sound hor­ri­ble. It’s the same as land­ing on a flat five and hold­ing it with no re­lease… with­out the re­solve it can sound bad. I ac­tu­ally think that’s one of the most im­por­tant lessons for blues gui­tarists. Some­one like Billy won’t need to think about it, he can just hear it in his head; most peo­ple can’t.” Billy: “There’s a sub­tle dif­fer­ence when you are in a per­fect triplet shuf­fle, but it can lean to­wards 4/4 too – there’s a rhyth­mic ten­sion from be­ing in be­tween straight and shuf­fle.”

Kenny: “It’s un­be­liev­able how you can go in be­tween both… that just sounds so cool to me. I like the idea of a rhyth­mic blues, some­times a few mem­bers of the band are play­ing more straight and the oth­ers are do­ing a shuf­fle on top.” Billy: “Lis­ten to Jim­mie Vaughan who did this buzz pick­ing rhythm on Frame for the blues… it’s like a drill noise that prob­a­bly isn’t tech­ni­cally in time, but catches your at­ten­tion. Equally, if you are in ma­jor and your key­board player is in mi­nor, you can have a jazz mo­ment. Miles Davis to the res­cue! There are no bad notes, it’s all about how you get out of it.”

Kris: “I mean the Hen­drix chord is es­sen­tially that, isn’t it? With that 7sharp9 chord, the sharp9 is like the oc­tave higher from the mi­nor third!” Fabrizio: “I think ev­ery­one can agree if it sounds good, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s tech­ni­cally right or wrong. We were in In­dia last year, play­ing with an in­cred­i­ble gui­tar player who was bril­liant at tra­di­tional blues but also mixed in Eastern scales, odd me­ters and quar­ter tones. I just couldn’t be­lieve how well it fit­ted to­gether, though ob­vi­ously it only works if you know what you’re do­ing. Again, it’s an­other way of inventing rather than rein­vent­ing your­self.”

Billy: “You have to re­mem­ber the guys that were record­ing blues in 1949 or

1950, they were just teenagers. And teenagers are mis­chievous! They were pok­ing at it and clearly hav­ing a blast.”

What ad­vice can you of­fer play­ers who strug­gle to get their heads around turn­arounds?

Billy: “Don’t learn the turn­arounds. Don’t even go there. It goes from the five to the four and back to the one, and then starts over again. Just feel it and play through it. I’ve al­ways found turn­arounds pretty awk­ward.”

Kenny: “It’s al­most more pre­dictable to have a turn­around than it is not to. Then you have guys like Eric Gales who like to sub­sti­tute be­fore they’ve even left the one chord!”

Fabrizio: “But it’s all about how you sneak it in. Just like with any­thing, if you overuse it, then you will lose the ef­fect. Even if you avoid one of the turn­arounds, it can re­ally change the song! Things like that make mu­sic great, you add and sub­tract to your own taste.”

Kris: “I like go­ing back to the five chord when I’m solo­ing. You can spice it up a bit there, throw in some al­tered scale licks or some­thing chro­matic – it gives you some­thing ex­tra to do. I’m a big fan of the Su­per Locrian scale and for the chro­mat­ics, you can take some­thing like a ma­jor triad and move it up a fret again and again. It’s the same with any shape. I had some lessons with Greg Howe, who is more fu­siony, but he taught me about sidestep­ping - talk­ing pen­ta­ton­ics out one fret and then back in key to cre­ate al­tered sounds.”

There’s a del­i­cate art to di­alling in the right amount of over­drive in blues. How do you de­cide what’s right?

Billy: “There is a sweet spot be­tween clean and dis­tor­tion. I don’t know how to de­scribe it, it’s not quite ei­ther and it changes de­pend­ing on what you are play­ing over…”

Serge: “My play­ing is all about the song. It’s not about me or the scales, it’s about be­ing a sol­dier for that song and the emo­tion you give to the crowd. If it needs crunch, sure I will crunch it up. I think Robben Ford is one of the masters of that – he can get a clean sound that will ring out so beau­ti­fully. We had a big jam with him, Wal­ter Trout and all these other play­ers… ev­ery­one had their over­drive ped­als and Robben came out with a clean Tele­caster that sounded fan­tas­tic. He just cut right through.” Fabrizio: “Few play­ers can pos­sess their gui­tar like that. Jeff Beck is like that too… one time I saw him and he used a pick for one song just to get a cer­tain sound. For him, it was not a tool of the trade, but rather an­other way of break­ing the rules. I like the idea of set­ting up the thresh­old for as far as you can go, then di­alling it down and con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing from your gui­tar. One chan­nel can have ev­ery­thing from clean to crunch to dis­tor­tion.”

Billy: “Dy­nam­ics are in­te­gral to the blues. Jeff Beck saw Hu­bert Sum­lin play­ing with his fin­gers and re­alised that was how he wanted to sound. He’s got­ten so good at it; when I was 17 years old and on tour with Jimi Hen­drix, ev­ery night we would get into a mo­tel and he would stay at the end of the hall with his door al­ways open. He’d be in there lis­ten­ing to the first Jeff Beck al­bum with Rod Ste­wart and he asked me, ‘How does Jeff do all of this?’ I told him, ‘Be­lieve me, Jeff is sat in a room right now, lis­ten­ing in­tently to your mu­sic ask­ing him­self how you do what you do!’ It was an eye-opener, see­ing Jimi so blown away by other gui­tar play­ers, as much as they were with him!”

“There are no bad notes, it’s all about how you get out of it...”

billy F gib­bons

talkin’ tur­key Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine dis­cuss the power of the genre with TG

texas spe­cial Billy and fel­low Texan / Su­per­sonic Blues Ma­chine col­lab­o­ra­tor Lance Lopez. Both have con­trib­uted to the band’s two stu­dio al­bums, West Of flush­ing, south of Frisco and Cal­i­for­nisoul

ken­n­yaronoff “I like the idea of a rhyth­mic blues... the ten­sion in be­tween straight and shuf­fle”

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