Billy F. Gibbons, the lead guitarist of the Texas trio ZZ Top, prefers to sleep on the floor when he stays in a hotel. Before he dozes off, he listens on his laptop to old radio programs, such as “The Saint” or “The Whistler.” “These antiquated sounds can pull me out of my head,” Gibbons explained the other afternoon, while catching his breath, as he put it, in a dark corner of the bar at the Rihga Royal hotel, in midtown.
Gibbons drinks beer through a straw, to keep the suds from getting in his beard, a double-barrelled two-footer that, along with a pair of Ray-Bans and an African cap that resembles a full head of stubby dreadlocks, leaves little room for evidence of a face. As a prop—one of rock’s least dispensable—the beard also obscures the presence of a fairly keen mind, which instead must reveal itself in ornate remarks about souped-up automobiles, vintage guitars, and life on the road: his pillars of wisdom. For example, here is his answer to the question “Who was that?” after he’d talked for a while on his cell phone: “Elwood Francis, our guitar technician, took a brief absence from the tour in order to escort his wife to China, where they successfully adopted a baby girl named Joshi. In his absence, his post was attended by a talented technician named Sammy Sanchez, who introduced me to a guitar called the Turbo Diddly, which is made from an old wooden cigar box. It has what you call a resonator, and it sounds like a bad recording from 1949. The guy who makes it, Kurt Schoen, is a pilot for UPS.”
Gibbons collects and customizes cars and guitars. He and his mates in ZZ Top, Dusty Hill (who has a beard, too) and Frank Beard (who does not), share an obsession with gear, as they call it, which Gibbons has chronicled in a new picture book called “Rock + Roll Gearhead.” He was in town, after two gigs with the band, to promote it. “It’s been a pretty packed day, dude,” he said.
Gibbons had an appointment to videotape a guitar lesson for a music magazine. He had decided, however, that it could wait. “It is not to my liking, per se,” he said. A straw apparently helps beer go down quick. Gibbons made frequent trips to the bathroom, trotting through the bar, a slight figure with a little paunch, leaving double takes in his wake. A TV was showing footage of a tornado. Once, in Kentucky, Gibbons recalled, “a tornado preceded our arrival and passed us by. It so happened that there was a bra-and-panty factory in town, and the tornado tore it up. We were greeted by the sight of bras and panties hanging from trees for five miles.”
Gibbons wanted to see an early Leo Fender Telecaster prototype known as No. 0009, which Dan Courtenay, the owner of Chelsea Guitars, on West Twenty-third Street, had in his shop. He summoned his entourage—his tour manager and his fiancée, Gilligan Stillwater—and they pushed off from the Rihga in a town car driven by a man with a long waxed mustache. Stillwater, who had known Gibbons for twenty years and had decided finally to marry him, because, she said, “I got tired and slowed down,” was amazed to see a woman riding a bicycle, wearing a dress but no helmet. “That’s New York, Miss Gilligan,” the driver said.
Gibbons strode into the guitar shop like a brigadier general. Dan Courtenay dug out various old underappreciated models. “Too much fun in here, bro,” Gibbons said. Finally, Courtenay brought out the old Fender. “Number nine,” Gibbons said, with feeling. He and Courtenay admired how the bobbin for the second pickup had been cut with a carpet knife. The paint on the body, metallic and red, was car paint, possibly from a Studebaker plant. This confluence pleased Gibbons. He gathered everyone for a series of photographs, with him at the center, holding No. 0009.
Gibbons decided to make a pit stop, before getting back in the car. He ran into El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant. Passing the bar on his way to the bathroom, it occurred to him that he might like another beer. The bartender opened a Corona, and then asked that Gibbons remove his hat.
Gibbons said, “Es mi pelo”—my hair. A joke, more or less. The bartender shrugged, took away the beer, and said, “Sorry, no service.”
Gibbons let it go. Out on the street, a semicircle of paparazzi had formed.
“Take off your shades, man!” one called out.
“No way, that’s his trademark,” another replied.
Gibbons kept the sunglasses on.