By Robert Shaw
ZZ Top front man Billy F. Gibbons is a self-described “Rock + Roll Gearhead,” whose twin passions are guitars and cars, of the vintage, custom, and, well, oddball varieties. His legendary guitar vault is replete with treasures of all kinds, including National Dobros and Tricones from the ‘3os; a 1952 Fender Broadcaster and a hard-tailed ‘55 Stratocaster; a 1955 Gretsch Roundup; a 1958 Gibson Flying V and what may be the only surviving prototype of a Gibson Moderne; a 1959 Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird designed by and made for his hero Bo Diddley and given to Gibbons by the man himself; several fur-covered beasts inspired by Bo Diddley, including a modified 1963 Gibson Explorer with gold-plated hardware and frets that he often plays live during “Legs”; and dozens of instruments designed for stage use in collaboration with Boise, Idaho–based master luthier John Bolin and his House of J.B. team. Gibbons has worked closely with “Mr. Bolin,” as he reverently refers to him, for thirty years, and all of the guitars that he plays on stage are built or modified by Bolin, customized to Billy’s exacting standards. Despite the size of his sound and tone, Gibbons’ touch is light and he likes his guitars that way too, so Bolin chambers the bodies and necks to get things as close to zero gravity as possible. Gibbons typically provides the ideas (one that didn’t work out so well was putting a helium-filled inner tube into a chamber), and Bolin and his team somehow manage to turn them into reality; a recent example is a retro-looking, Tele-style instrument with an iPad Mini built into the body so that it can broadcast a digital imitation of a 1960s psychedelic liquid–projection light show while Gibbons plays.
However, despite the wealth of choices at his disposal, Gibbons does have a favorite guitar. And, unlike B. B. King’s “Lucille,” which was actually a series of Gibson ES-355 variants, or Eric Clapton’s “Blackie,” which was an amalgam of the “best parts” of three 1956 and ‘57 Fender Stratocasters, Billy F. Gibbons’ go-to guitar for more than forty years has been a single, untampered-with 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard that he formally and respectfully calls “Miss Pearly Gates.”
Gibbons owns a host of original and reissued Les Paul Gold Tops and Standards; his guitar tech, Elwood Francis, recalls that when he started working for Gibbons in 1995, he was carrying seven or eight 1959 and ’60 bursts with him on tour. But Gibbons has always maintained that “Pearly” is not simply “a”1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. To be precise, as is Gibbons’ wont, she is the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard—the living, heavily breathing, tonally unmatchable epitome of that rare, highly coveted, and universally venerated guitar species. Gibbons has played Pearly on every album ZZ Top has ever made, and he says that she, run through either a Marshall or an old Fender amp, has been at the heart of almost everything the band has done across the years.
Her serial number, inked on the back of her headstock like all the Les Paul Standards Gibson made between 1958 and 1960, is 9 1171. The company’s records indicate that she is one of 643 LP Standard “bursts” they shipped from Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1959. 63% (404) of these, considered the best of the “bursts,” have been logged in by owners on burstserial.com, a registry of serial numbers, photographs, and other information on surviving Standards with sunburst tops made in that brief golden window of time. Pearly Gates, the Holy Grail of Holy Grails, is among the guitars listed and pictured on the site.
As a teenager, Gibbons, who was born in December 1949, paid close attention not only to old masters like John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Jimmy Reed, but also to the pioneering white electric bluesmen of the day—Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green—all of whom were playing vintage Les Paul Standards. (Clapton’s was a 1960; all the others were ‘59s, and all five have been reissued by Gibson’s Custom Shop). After he observed Clapton playing his LP through a Marshall amp during his short tenure with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, Gibbons knew he had to have one of his own.
Although he has also said that he was eighteen when he acquired his dream guitar, which would mean he found her before ZZ Top came together in 1969, the classic story, told by Gibbons many times with slight variations, centers around a 1930s Packard the band owned in its earliest days. “It served us well, but it was really, really old,” Gibbons told Alex Becker of Gibson in 2009. “One of our girlfriends decided to head to California to try out for a part in a movie. We gave her the Packard as a way to get there. Not only did she arrive, but she got the part. We named the automobile “Pearly Gates” because we thought it must have had divine connections. Renee Thomas—that was her name—sold the car to a collector in California and sent the money to us. Her timing couldn’t have been better. The very day that the money arrived a guy called me up wanting to sell an old guitar, a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul. It was found underneath a bed, by the way, in which her previous owner died. I had to buy the guitar, of course, and I called Renee on the same day to thank her for being so kind. She said that it looks like the Packard went for a good cause and we should name the guitar after the car, Pearly Gates. At the end she said, “Now you can go make divine music.”
Whatever her origins and backstory, Pearly Gates is both a miracle and an enigma, an instrument made of chance and coincidence. Every guitar, even if it is a production line product or even a custom shop model, is different, and the relationship between every guitar and its player is also unique. And, since we are human, opinions vary and change over time and are, ultimately, subjective. Gibbons, who often uses the Royal plural in conversation, explains Pearly Gates this way, “We’ve studied the varying construction techniques used on a wide range of Les Pauls, and Pearly Gates seems simply to have been on the assembly line on the right day at the right time. She was born on one of those fateful days when everything was right. The wood was well balanced, the glue was right, and the electronics were built in perfectly. She was waiting underneath a bed for years, just waiting to burst out of there. And I was the lucky one who was to be her conqueror.”
The mojo and the magic of a particular instrument lie in subtle, probably scientifically unmeasurable differences that haunt all musicians and music lovers. Is it Stradivari’s varnish that makes his violins and cellos so special? The climate in Cremona when he was at work? The intense level of competition among his peers? The shape of his form? The superiority of his craftsmanship? Or is it all of the above and a thousand other tiny details, coincidences, and chance events that cannot be repeated?
Gibson made a scientific attempt to nail down what makes Pearly Gates special in 2009, when the master craftsmen at Gibson Custom created a limited edition reissue based on their examination of the original. Every aspect of Pearly was objectively studied and reproduced with the greatest possible fidelity. 350 were made, and, as Gibson puts it, their craftsmen ”recreated it in excruciating detail —right down to the last scratch and ding.” In fact, Gibbons himself plays a Pearly reissue on tour, though his has been completely hollowed out by John Bolin, who also subbed a Thomas Nelson Cream T special wound pickup in the bridge position, the only pickup Gibbons typically uses, for one of the standard Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbuckers, and changed the headstock logo to read “Gibbons” instead of “Gibson.” In any case, the reissues are very close, but Gibbons still takes the real thing out of her case every time he goes into the studio.
Every guitarist hunts for the perfect instrument, a quest that may or may not ever be realized. For Billy Gibbons, who is a true seeker if ever there was one, Pearly Gates is not only the Holy Grail, but also the Holy Ghost, the paradigm that drives his guitar collecting, which is no less or no more than a ceaseless quest to find another guitar as good or better. He sets out on every tour with a batch of empty cases that he fills as he travels and brings home to test drive. Divine qualities aside, Gibbons is probably closer to the truth when he says he has never been able to find another guitar “that has such raw power.” He knows he is probably tilting at windmills in his search, but the thrill of that chase is one of the things that gets him and every other collector and connoisseur out of bed every day. Hope springs eternal, and, you never know what lies around the bend or, maybe, just maybe, under somebody else’s bed.
Check out our Fall Issue featuring: Paul Gilbert, Chris Henderson from 3 Doors Down, Pickup Maker Dave Stephens, Archtop luthier Steve Grimes and Portland Based M-Tone Guitars.