Both ZZ Top's music and its riffs seem to be carved in stone from the prehistoric era. Billy Gibbons and his gang eschew flourishes for simple and direct things. They are like a version of Atila's blues rock - where their beards go, the grass doesn't grow back. Be it with Gibbons’ 'Pearly Gates', a Stratocaster, or with the guitar that Bo Diddley gave him, he always knows how to extract the best Texan flavor and produce a raw, primitive and wild sound. Here are some of our favorite riffs from a band that has been sublimely mixing blues with hard rock for over 50 years:
Just Got Paid (1972)
The second song from their second album is the first great classic from their repertoire. Despite having been together since 1969, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard did not find the song on which to build their sound until they recorded Rio Grande Mud in 1972. Just Got Paid has one of the band’s most powerful riffs, leaving aside the boogie of their main influence, John Lee Hooker, to show their more hard rock and powerful side, at the level of the greatest of the genre like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. The song continues to be part of their live act with Gibbons using, on occasion, one of his Erlewine Customs. In time Mastodon would end up performing a remarkable cover version of it.
Waitin' for The Bus (1973)
The song that opened their best album, Tres Hombres, is one of the best of their long career, a riff with which Billy Gibbons proves that he can also be funky. That gives way to a primitive and cavernous blues rock, and as if that were not enough, it leads to another of his most celebrated songs, the great Jesus Has Left Chicago. That's how you start an album in style.
La Grange (1973)
Of course, the most famous song of Tres Hombres, and possibly of their career, is La Grange, in which the trio does with John Lee Hooker what the Rolling Stones did with Chuck Berry, which is a distorted, pissed off, white version of their music. For someone who is one of the owners of one of the most mythical Les Paul’s of all time - his 'Pearly Gates' is from the divine year of 59 - Billy Gibbons takes full advantage of his ‘55 Stratocaster connected to a Marshall Super Lead 100 watt of ‘69.
Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers (1973)
The good thing about ZZ Top is that they don't overthink anything, the Texans may not have invented the wheel but what they do, they do to perfection. Gibbons and company are into pure, hardcore simplicity, as can be seen in this party anthem in which they unleash a storm of fuzz and tones saturated with the simplest, most effective of riffs.
The only song that can compete with La Grange when it comes to being considered the band's definitive song, Tush is one of the band's most successful singles, sneaking into the top 20 on the Billboard and taking the group to new heights of popularity. It closed the remarkable Fandango! with Dusty Hill taking the lead vocals, although it is Gibbons again who steals the spotlight with that characteristic and playful riff; one that Motörhead surely had in mind when they did No Class a few years later.
Heard It On The X (1975)
ZZ Top has always been a live band, as it is there, on stage, where they have always felt more comfortable. That's why it is strange that Fandango! weakest section is on the part recorded live - it is not that it is lazy, it is because the part from the studio, with gems like Tush and Heard It On The X is at the height of Tres Hombres. All you have to do is listen to that funky riff Gibbons has up his sleeve to prove he's an encyclopedia of Texas blues. Although here the other great protagonist is Frank Beard's excellent work with the drumsticks; curiously the only non bearded one in the group...
Cheap sunglasses (1979)
Degüello represented the ‘official establishment’ of the bearded men image with cheap sunglasses, was also the second best work of his career, after Tres Hombres. Cheap Sunglasses has a killer, sexy groove thanks to the riff that opens this song in which they once again demonstrate their excellent sense of humor.
I'm Bad I'm Nationwide (1979)
Possibly my favorite song on Degüello, I'm Bad I'm Nationwide opens with an excellent riff in which Gibbons doubles himself. The song is about one of the guitarist's mentors, in this case Texas bluesman Joey Long, who didn't have a driver's license but always showed up with a new Cadillac driven by his beautiful wife Barbarella. Cars and pretty girls, the two things that typically light the fuse of this band…
Gimme All Your Loving (1983)
If Eliminator is ZZ Top’s best selling album, with more than 10 million copies sold in the USA alone, it is thanks to songs like Gimme All Your Loving, and maybe also to the synthesizers and the famous video. Beyond their flirtations with the New Wave and MTV, in this raw riff there were still the elements that had made this band great. Of course it was not bad that it included the most catchy chorus of their entire career…
Got Me Under Pressure (1983)
Sharp Dressed Man may have been Eliminator's second big hit, but Got Me Under Pressure was even better, as it contained one of the band’s heaviest and most powerful riffs, which is perfect for describing the main character of the lyrics, one of those girls that this band love so much, specifically one who loses her head with cocaine, whips and chains...