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How ZZ Top’s First Album Established An Unbeatable Blues-Rock Blueprint
In Depth

How ZZ Top’s First Album Established An Unbeatable Blues-Rock Blueprint

With a formula that began a serious legacy, ‘ZZ Top’s First Album’ introduced the Texan trio as one of the best blues-rock acts in history.

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Released on 16 January 1971, ZZ Top’s First Album established a blueprint that would serve the trio well for the next 50 years, and make them possibly the most enduring and successful blues-rock band of all time.

Listen to ZZ Top’s First Album here

Funkier than the average blues

What sets ZZ Top apart from other blues/R&B bands – then and now – is fourfold: tunes (they wrote genuinely memorable songs); groove (so much funkier than the average blues band); humour (married to lyrics steeped in the imagery of their beloved Texas home state); and the perfect tone and phrasing of Billy Gibbons’ guitar playing. All are evident on ZZ Top’s First Album.

Rather than relying on overused blues clichés, Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard (ironically, the band member not known for his hirsute appearance) crafted catchy songs with an almost telepathic ability to lock into syncopated riffs delivered with a level of complexity and musicianship rarely seen in blues-rock.

The arrival of a major talent

Central to this was Billy Gibbons’ sublime guitar playing. Whether locking in with Beard and Hill, or soloing over their metronomically tight – yet unbelievably funky – rhythm section, Gibbons’ performance on ZZ Top’s First Album announced the arrival of a major talent. Steeped in the history of blues, but giving it his own modern twist, he has few peers to this day.

Known as Pearly Gates, Gibbons’ legendary 1959 Les Paul, fed through a 100-watt Marshall Plexi amp, powers the album, and some of the sounds he got from his instrument have never been bettered. The record’s second track, Brown Sugar, starts with one of the greatest guitar tones ever committed to tape, while also revealing the band’s ability to turn on a dime (or should that be peso?) without missing a beat or denying that all-important groove.

Elsewhere, the narrative-driven Just Got Back From Baby’s is a lesson in funk-fuelled blues, with some truly awe-inspiring licks Gibbons, while Certified Blues could, in less deft hands, have descended into cliché, but, dripping greasy, Texas cool all over the Delta blues, the group’s multiple riffs and in-the-pocket drumming elevate it to something altogether more enduring.

Honing a formula, creating a legacy

ZZ Top are lucky in that they boast two top-ranking singers. Dusty Hill takes the lead vocal on Goin’ Down To Mexico – no mean feat when you hear him holding down the low end with such power and finesse. Old Man, meanwhile, is the offspring of Texas blues and Southern rock. Built around Gibbons’ perfectly judged lead guitars, gradually coming to the fore as they demand the listener’s attention, it finds ZZ Top pre-empting the signature duelling-guitars sound that Lynyrd Skynyrd would perfect two years later.

As a debut, ZZ Top’s First Album is a bona fide slab of slick and sleazy Southern blues-rock. Rooted in killer grooves, Texas swagger and some of the sweetest, meanest and most tasteful guitar playing ever heard, it found the band honing a formula with which they would create a serious legacy. With it, they established themselves as one of the most enduring groups of all time.

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