Top 5 Guitar Solos by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons

You can pretty much etch it in stone that when you hear a ZZ Top song, there’s going to be a moment when Billy Gibbons takes off into a dazzling guitar solo. The band is known for a lot of different things: the signature bearded look, the flashy ‘80s videos, one of the coolest band logos in rock, and their hybrid sound that mixed elements of rock, blues, and funk into a steaming hot Houston stew. But when ZZ Top fans think of the band, it’s likely that Gibbons’ thrilling guitar work comes to mind pretty quickly, as well.

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Gibbons was hardly more than a tyke when the guitar called out to him, as he recalled in an interview with Thrasher. “When I was five, I saw Elvis and I knew I wanted to spank the plank. It just looked like the coolest thing you could possibly do. A few days after my 13th birthday, I got a solid-body electric Gibson. That was the beginning of the beginning.”

Choosing which guitar solos are the best Gibbons has offered in ZZ Top’s long and legendary career is no easy task, but it certainly was a fun one. Here are five stellar solos from Billy Gibbons, listed in chronological order.

1. La Grange” (from Tres Hombres, 1973)

The groove was borrowed from John Lee Hooker on this killer track about a brothel. But Gibbons takes charge in the break with some nimble playing that seems to pick up steam as it goes, all while his bandmates keep things hustling behind him. The solo then morphs into a clever modulation back to the main groove once again. And that doesn’t even mention the chunky chords that propel the song. For good measure, Gibbons adds in some more heat in the song’s elongated run-out, strutting around the track for a couple more minutes just to gild the lily. It’s no wonder that “La Grange” was one of the songs that helped ZZ Top become a national force instead of just a regional one.

2. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” (from Deguello, 1979)

ZZ Top was one of those bands whose music weathered whatever trends the wider scene threw at them. While the rest of the world was going wild with punk and disco, ZZ Top put their heads down and delivered a killer record in Deguello by doing what they do best: churn out hard rock with an undeniable groove. On “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Gibbons comes up with some thrilling techniques to keep his solo humming. He then comes at us from both speakers in the closing moments of the song, like he’s dueling with himself. 

3. “Tube Snake Boogie” (from El Loco, 1981)

El Loco gets a bit overlooked when it comes to the top albums in the ZZ Top catalog, perhaps because it came just prior to their huge MTV days. But it’s the band at their rocking best, especially in this fiery opening track. Frank Beard’s surf-song drums are the first thing that grabs your attention, and then Gibbons growls out some verses about some memorable girls. Then it’s Gibbons’ turn to take over on guitar, which he does with a sprinting break that does indeed boogie its way into our hearts and libidos. Once again, he leaves room for some more soloing at the end of the track…and yet we still want more.

4. “Sharp Dressed Man” (from Eliminator, 1983)

ZZ Top embraced the MTV scene and the era’s production techniques at a time when some of their contemporaries shunned them. Their adaptability helped them to the biggest commercial success of their career. But let’s not forget that they were putting out fantastic singles along the way that would have been successful even without the clips or the sheen. Case in point: “Sharp Dressed Man,” which featured a crunching groove and a relentless four-on-the-floor beat. It also included ample room, in the break and the extended closing section of the track, for Gibbons to absolutely light it up. It now stands as one of the most memorable tracks in their catalog.

5. “Rough Boy” (from Afterburner, 1985)

ZZ Top wasn’t really known for their slow stuff. But it was the ‘80s, after all, when power ballads were all the rage. “Rough Boy” stands out from the other obligatory rock ballads, thanks in part to the shimmering synths of Dusty Hill and Gibbons’ engaging lead vocals. Yet it’s the guitar solos, including an acrobatic one in the break and the elongated tear on which Gibbons embarks at song’s end that seal the deal. Here you get to experience the bluesy side of Gibbons’ work on guitar, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. You can literally feel all the song’s emotions pouring through his fingers.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for CMT

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