ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill

Some of the most distinctive guitar sounds in the rock canon have come from the hands of Billy Gibbons and his legendary ’59 Les Paul, nicknamed Pearly Gates. A vintage car and guitar collector and authority (see his book Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead), Billy Gibbons’ biggest claim to fame has been as ZZ Top’s guitarist. While always “bad and nationwide,” ZZ Top became tres of the most famous hombres in the world, thanks to their ’80s videos which featured?what else??badass custom cars and guitars.

The sight of Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill doing their choreographed moves, holding matching white Explorers, is an iconic one. Those instruments were made for ZZ Top’s Afterburner Tour by Matthew Klein of the Gibson Custom Shop. Klein worked on many of those now-famous outré guitar finishes that became part of the ZZ Top legend: sheepskin covered guitars, rhinestone-studded guitars (used in Back to the Future Part III and made from two-inch strips of rhinestones provided by Gibbons), and the white Explorers. In 1986, Klein also made “see-through” lattice-work Firebird-style guitars played by the band on the MTV boat party celebrating the unveiling of the refurbished Statue of Liberty. Most of the gutiars Klein made for Gibbons were to replace the originals first provided by Dean, which Gibbons found to be too heavy.

Originally from London of American parents, Klein made his first acoustic guitar in high school woodworking shop?his teacher John Bailey had, literally, written the book he’d used for the template and offered to show him how it was done. At age 17 he left high school and worked at the John Grey Banjos factory. Four years later, Klein applied for a position with George Gruhn at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, and got it, staying on for seven years. His first forays into guitar making were classical and steel-string custom instruments he’d make after-hours in the company shop. “I’ve been building guitars since I was 15, and I’m 51 now,” he says.

In 1985, Klein was introduced to Billy Gibbons through bassist Allen Woody of Gov’t Mule. “I had a couple of concepts where the body was made out of balsa wood and the neck made out of mahogany,” says Klein. “Allen persuaded me to send one to Houston to Lone Wolf Productions [ZZ Top’s people], and it started out from there. Balsa has a lot of acoustic properties. I used hardwood dowels where the screws would go in. Dean guitars [also commissioned by Gibbons] were very heavy so this was a good alternative. My guitars weighed only four-and-a-half pounds.”  Gibbons ordered two Explorer guitars and two Explorer basses; they weighed in at about six pounds a piece.

ZZ Top

Klein also made Gibson versions of the Dean sheepskin guitars?Gibbons sent him the actual sheepskins to use. Everything was handmade by Klein, and he personally oversaw the projects “straight through.” The guitars used Seymour Duncan pickups, a tune-o-matic bridge, and a Gibson stopbar tailpiece and were 24 and 3/4-inch scale neck length. Dusty’s basses featured two DiMarzio bass pickups and Badass bridges. 

Klein has even designed a “convertible Z” guitar and bass?as yet unmade?that would, by means of a lever, convert the Explorer shape so that Billy and Dusty could rock out in time on axes that spelled “ZZ.”

So where are all of these guitars now? “They probably went into his massive collection of hundreds of guitars,” Klein laughs.