ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons preaches the gospel of cars and guitars
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of that little ol’ band from Texas, ZZ Top’s front man and guitarist has published a newly updated edition of Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead, co-written by Tom Vickers, with photography by David Perry. Rock music and cars have been associated since the very beginning—Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 was first recorded in 1951—but few rockers have been more closely associated with hot cars than Gibbons and his bandmates. His Eliminator hot rod starred in three of the group’s music videos at a time when MTV was a growing cultural influence, making that red ’33 Ford coupe a pop-culture icon.
Gibbons isn’t just any gearhead, though; he’s a rock ’n’ roll gearhead. One of the world’s finest blues-rock musicians, he’s also a knowledgeable curator of one of the world’s great and eclectic guitar collections, ranging from “Pearly Gates,” his irreplaceable ’59 Les Paul “Burst,” to a rusty resonating National dobro, not to mention guitars custom-made exclusively for Gibbons. A deeply invested student of the blues, Gibbons owns the custom guitar “Muddywood,” made from the timbers of the cabin in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where blues giant Muddy Waters lived. He even has custom guitars made to match his custom cars.
The newly updated book is divided into three parts: “The Life,” “The Cars,” and “The Guitars,” which are pretty self-explanatory. Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead is a musical biography of Gibbons and ZZ Top, incorporating many rare archival photos and artifacts; the background to fifteen of Gibbons’ custom cars, trucks and motorcycles; and scores of guitars, going back to his first axe, a Gibson Melody Maker he got for Christmas in 1963. By the way, he also still has the first car he owned, a “stripper” 1964 Dodge Dart with an unkillable slant-six.
The author of Jesus Just Left Chicago and an ordained minister who has officiated in least a half dozen weddings, The Reverend Willy G. graciously offered to answer a few gearhead-related questions for Hagerty.com. Just how many of you have a 40-foot-long daily driver?
What’s the first car you remember? What sticks out in your memory about it?
It is “cars,” plural … [My] recollection of the first cars harkens back from days of the earliest times. Then again, speaking of the first car that sticks out in memory, I have a strong and vivid late-night memory pulling up behind a chopped ’49 Merc as I stood at age 5, standing in the front seat looking through the windscreen, wide-eyed and knowing that was the way to go. It was badass before the term was even thought of. The six-volt left-turn blinker was double-percolating from a converted to 12 volt electrical and that very nervous lamping made an everlasting impact. This was a car … a statement to be reckoned with.
What’s the first car that made an impression on you, something that inspired you to be a gearhead?
The inspiration and fascination with car culture was heralded along with the presence of Bob Larivee’s Autorama, which unfolded each Thanksgiving weekend. All the custom guys and hot-rod-heads were cooking up inspiration from the beginning. Barris, Jefferies, Winfield, Bailon, Watson, all of ’em. Just killer-diller.
What was the first car that you owned?
The fascinating Dodge Dart from 1964. Stripped down to nothin’ but bare bones. Three on the tree and a heater.
No. Nothin’ but the infamous slant-six which took the car to places where Jeeps fear to tread. Couldn’t kill it. Still have it.
The first car you bought or built after success with ZZ Top? Do you still have it?
Got all of ’em! Keep in mind, it seems the bonus of ownership is gettin’ ’em out on the asphalt and runnin’ hard. They’re made for enjoyment, so get ’em out and stomp on it.
What’s your holy grail car, something you’d love to own but might never get the chance?
Again, there’s quite a full field […] I say, go get ’em all!
What’s your daily driver? Why this as a daily driver?
I believe it’s called a “Tour Bus.” I’m nearly riveted to the passenger seat of the rolling coach as ZZ Top makes way down the wide roads. My buddy, Jesse Adams from Roadhouse Transportation down in Texas, is constantly designing the next 40-foot highway cruiser along with a hot rod sketch to tantalize the after-hours brainstorming sessions.
Favorite car in your collection? Favorite car in general?
Certainly—it’s no secret—the Eliminator coupe and, of course, CadZZilla rate tops on our fave-rave scale. We’re always ready to embrace what next rolls off the Cadillac assembly line. Slam ’em down in the weeds and we’ll be satisfied.
You like hot rods. Any interest in sports cars or exotics?
Oh, yes! We were recently treated to a visit with Lord Charles March at the famed UK gathering known as The Goodwood Festival of Speed. CadZZilla made the grade having taken to the speed lane with sparks-flying energy. The bonus of the event allowed us to steer CadZZilla onto the tarmac alongside Jeff Beck and his ’32 five-window coupe and Jimmie Vaughan and his notorious green ’61 Cad. We all were surrounded with waves of everything sporty and exotic under the sun. It was all there. We truly enjoyed it throughout.
Would you consider owning a Tesla or some other electric vehicle?
You mean a coal-burner? Yeah, man. The battery-powered pieces are coming’ on strong. Elon Musk is on it!
What’s the fastest car that you’ve driven?
The first McLaren F1 road car, designed by my friend, Gordon Murray. Mercy! What a ride. Still holds a sweet spot in the go-fast category. Nasty fast, that one!
Do you have one that got away, a car that you regret selling?
We would best stand alongside our league of car-loving pals, always on the watch for that one that “won’t get away.” Which, in itself, is most likely an ongoing, everlasting quest. Gotta love it.
You play a Gibson Explorer. Did you ever meet Ray Dietrich, the classic car designer who was commissioned by Ted McCarty to design the Explorer?
We actually were given scans of the original Explorer blueprints which also included the “Flying V” as well as the elusive “Modern.” When dissected, all three of those rare designs smack of the glory days of the ’50’s classic theme in design, both cars and guitars. Totally cool.
Jeff Beck is another guitarist gearhead. I understand that Jeff actually builds his own hot rods. Do you ever work on your own cars?
Jimmy Shine, who I tend to place up in the lofty regions of total hot rod and custom car excursions, is where we like to hang. The Jimmy Shine Speed Shop in southern California is really on top of the game. Jimmy will, on occasion, allow me to pick up a wrench while the welding torch remains mostly out of the question. Then it’s back to the dagger-striper pinstriping brush to lay one-shot lines and let the panel beating take charge out back.
Have you ever attended the Detroit Autorama or considered showing one of your customs there?
Yes! The Detroit Autorama is an annual fixture attending the event with GM’s noted car designer Mr. Larry Erickson and Jack Chisenhall from Vintage Air down in San Antonio. Larry answered the challenge from Jack and I by creating the vision of possibility with a restyled ’48 Sedanette custom, which became CadZZilla, right off the design desk in Warren, Michigan.
How many cars do you currently own?
You mean, running? [He laughs.]
If you could have just one car, one guitar, and one amp what would they be?
Easy! “Pearly Gates,” the famed ’59 Gibson Les Paul ’Burst. One fine Spanish electric guitar. Hook it up to a new Magnatone, Marshall, or Fender and tuck it all into the trunk of a go-fast machine. Gotta get to the gig on time!
What’s your next car or car project?
Jimmy Shine is putting the crowning touches on our bad little sister to the Eliminator coupe. She’s a radical, Bonneville-chopped, ’34 Ford three-window coupe. Initially a vision from hot-rodder extraordinaire Rudy Rodriguez, she’s taking shape as another wild ride ready to hit the pavement. It’s being dubbed as BFG’s “Whiskey Runner.” Get ready. Let’s rock!