Late last week one of the great rock-n-rollers passed away. Dusty Hill, the bassist and co-vocalist for ZZ Top, died in his sleep. What can one say about that band? For 50 years they provided some of the best music on classic rock radio.
Visually, the band had its forte. Dusty and guitarist Billy Gibbons had those extra-long beards (Texas goatees), which ironically, the band’s drummer Frank Beard didn’t have one. Early in the band’s tenure the boys would wear either Nudie suits or dirty coveralls. From the time the band released its iconic album Eliminator in 1983, Dusty and Billy were often seen with some visually creative and cartoonish guitars and basses on stage and on the popular videos (who can forget the white furry guitars that spun around in the video of “Legs”?). That album (as well as some successful videos on MTV) took ZZ Top from arena rock to pop music realm.
But even before that, it was a band that every fan of rock-n-roll loved. They could fit in with Southern Rock, Hard Rock, Pop Rock, and even some aspects of Punk Rock. It had that Texas sound. And Dusty was a big part of that. His slightly distorted bass guitar sound helped fill out the three-piece situation amazingly on stage.
Live shows were legendary. The band would often bring out farm animals on stage, and the shows would go on for hours. After the 80s success, it became a lot more flashy on stage, but still kept the music close to its Texas blues-rock roots.
Before Eliminator, ZZ Top had some classic rock gems. Think about it: “Tush,” Cheap Sunglasses,” and “La Grange” are continually played on classic rock radio, and has inspired so many to take up the guitar or bass. Dusty’s bass sound on those cuts were raw, heavy, and in-your-face! I always loved that he preferred the Fender Telecaster Bass, which is a bit different from the standard Precision Bass. The Telecaster bass was not contoured, had a Telecaster-style headstock, and was wired with a single-coil pickup, which was centered on the body. It gives a more midrange sound to the bass, which allows for those distorted harmonics without sounding muddy. Perfect for what ZZ Top ways doing as a three-piece band.
Dusty cited Jack Bruce of Cream (another classic three-piece rock band) and Jazz bassist Charles Mingus as influences, and it showed in his playing. He wasn’t content with just thumping on the tonic note, but wasn’t flashy either so that it conflicted with the lead guitar. Just listen to that guitar/bass crawl from E to G on “Tush.” Everyone recognized that as a ZZ Top move, even though it had been done dozens of times before. Dusty had an amzing ear for what his bass playing should do.
In the late 1970s, the band took a haitus, and Dusty actually took a regular job at the Dallas Airport. People would often ask if he was the guy from ZZ Top, and he would deny it. He had some difficulties along the way. In 1984 he accidently shot himself with a small derringer gun. In 2002 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and in 2014, he had an accident in the tour bus, which forced him to bow out of a performance, and the band’s guitar tech Elwood Francis sat in on. Dusty had later told Billy that if something should happen to him, Elwood should take his place. The band is currently planning on continuing with Dusty’s wishes.
I cannot count the number of times that I have strapped on my bass guitar, put on one of my ZZ Top albums, and played bass along with the record. Dusty had a groove that controlled the way the song would go, yet still letting Billy go all out on lead guitar. The “thump” of those fingers on the strings was like a sledgehammer. It was hard, forcing the beat along with Frank’s bass drum. I always found myself bopping my head while soaking in the bass line of “Tush” and “La Grange.” In short, THAT is how a rock bassist should play! If you have any questions, get a copy of 1973’s Tres Hombres, Fandango from 1975, or Deguello from 1979 and pay attention.
Thank you, Dusty, for keeping rock-n-roll in my blood all of these years. Your bass playing will be missed.
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