Joe ‘Dusty’ Hill, born in 1949 in East Texas, is known for three things. Firstly, his rock-solid bass playing, delivered over four decades with his band ZZ Top. Next, his huge beard, only matched by ZZ guitarist Billy Gibbons’ own enormous facial decoration – both of which, trivia fans will be amused to hear, once came close to coming off after Gillette made a (rejected) offer of a million dollars apiece if the ZZ chaps would shave them off on live TV. Finally, Dusty is renowned for his quiet demeanor and reluctance to speak too much – which makes it all the more satisfying that he spoke to us on the eve of release of the first ever ZZ Top DVD, Live In Texas.
The new DVD is great.
Thanks! People have asked us why we haven’t gotten round to doing a DVD before, and I don’t really know the answer, but I’m glad that we did it, and that we shot it in Texas, which was very satisfying for us. We tried to really capture the show.
What basses were you playing?
Bolin make them for me – they’re really close to a Fender Telecaster bass. I may ask for an odd color or a stranger shape here and there, but if you close your eyes it feels like a Tele. There aren’t too many modifications – I move the pickup here and there, because I play with my fingers and I like to play in a certain place and strike the string in a certain way. Sometimes I’ll use a left-handed machine head setup, but the bass is still strung right-handed, so it’s just for the aesthetic.
Is your bass style still evolving after all these years?
I’m always learning – or at least I try to. I like to experiment with tones. I like a pretty trashy sound. With a three-piece band, my job is to fill up any holes that might be there, along with our drummer Frank [famously surnamed Beard, despite his lack of one], so that Billy will have the freedom to do whatever he likes. That’s one of the keys to our playing together.
How did you get into bass in the first place?
I sang before I played the bass, and I had to learn to play while I was singing. My first bass was a Kay. Dude, do you know them? I wasn’t any good… Then I had a Silvertone, which was all I could afford. Then I sat in on bass with this band, but the bass didn’t have a G string for the longest time, and I had to keep it at the low end a lot. It worked out very well for me, because it kept my sound full. I was a big Jack Bruce fan – and still am – and I tried to play like him, but I didn’t play quite as much. I wasn’t quite that busy. As long as I’ve got the low end covered, I’m having a pretty good time.
How do you get your signature overdriven sound?
We monkey around with amps a lot. I leave a lot of that in Billy’s hands. I use a kind of modified Marshall – a souped-up one with a Guvnor on it. Somebody once described my sound to me: they said, ‘Pardon me, but it sounds like farting in a trashcan!’ I took it as a compliment, because I like my sound to be a little on the gritty side.
Do you do five-string basses?
I’ve played five- and eight-string basses, but I don’t really enjoy it – I prefer to stick with four. I don’t like too many guitars in the show, unless I break a string.
Many of ZZ’s 1980s hits featured a synthesized bass playing sixteenths as well as your own eighths. How do you achieve this live?
I strike a note and it plays with me, electronically. It shadows me. In the studio it’s easy to do, of course.
Have you got a large bass collection?
I haven’t counted them recently, but I have a couple of hundred. I have a few at my home, I have some at a gallery which I had built – kind of a mini-museum, if you want, which I don’t show to many people – and of course the band has a place. Then there is yet another place which is more secure. I have a 1952 Tele Precision, a Thunderbird and a few rare instruments – and I have a Kay. It’s not the one I started with, which I lost a long time ago – I just bought one to remind me what it was like.
Who were your influences?
Jack Bruce, Charles Mingus – there’s a real variety of players. I admire Paul McCartney’s playing, which is altogether different to the way I play – but what he does fits so well. I very much admire Nathan East’s bass playing, he’s a good friend of mine and can play anything.
Is there any bass style that you haven’t mastered yet?
I can play whatever, but how well I play it is open to debate!