Billy Gibbons’ Pearly Gates

With his immense beard and ever-present dark glasses, Billy Gibbons is instantly recognizable as the lead guitarist from ZZ Top. He is also the lead singer for the blues/rock group and the composer of many ZZ songs. He is known for using a Mexican Peso coin as a pick while playing and is active as a studio musician and solo act when not performing with ZZ Top. Gibbons used a dizzying array of novelty guitars on stage during his career, but there is one instrument that has been featured on every ZZ Top album to date: a 1959 Gibson Les Paul called Pearly Gates. This is the story of that special guitar.

Gibbons grew up the son of a bandleader in Houston, Texas. He says the first memorable musical experience of his life was when his father took him to hear the Mary Kaye Trio play at a club called the Shamrock at the age of five. He remembers jumping on the stage and sitting in the background pounding out percussion parts on any surface he could reach. The band members told his dad, “Man, that boy’s got some rhythm in his blood!”

A couple of years later, Billy was bitten by the rock and roll bug when he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. He was also treated to frequent trips to local Houston clubs by his baby sitter who used to take him and his sister along on her evenings out. He was always impressed when he saw professional musicians performing live.

He received his first electric guitar as a gift from Santa at the age of 13. It was a Gibson Melody Maker and was accompanied under the tree by a small Fender Champ amplifier. The year was 1963, and even though most of Billy’s friends were trying to imitate the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was partial to the sounds of Muddy Waters, Little Richard, and Jimmy Reed. He listened to their records repeatedly and learned many of their solo licks by ear.

As a teenager, Billy played in several groups and often acted as the leader. He earned a reputation as a talented guitarist in the Houston area and landed a record deal in 1968 with his group The Moving Sidewalks. This band was very popular in Texas and was the opening act for such big names as The Doors and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1969, Billy met the two other people who would join him as the members of ZZ Top for the next four decades. Dusty Hill and Frank Beard have been Gibbons’ traveling companions and creative inspiration ever since.

It was near the beginning of the band’s life as a unit that Billy found the guitar of his dreams. He says that he heard Eric Clapton play a ‘59 Les Paul through Marshall amps and knew that was the setup he wanted for himself. He was constantly on the lookout for a good ‘59 and would often get a guitar from a pawnshop, play it all weekend, and return it on Monday.

At that time, ZZ Top had an ancient Packard from the 1930s that the group used on road trips. It was huge and served the band well, but it was very old. They called the car Pearly Gates because they thought it must have heavenly connections. When Renee Thomas, a girlfriend of one of the band mates, got a chance to audition for a movie role in California, the group decided to give her the Packard so she could make the trip. She not only arrived safely, she got the part. So, she sold the Packard and sent the money she received to Gibbons.

As it turned out, the cash arrived at the perfect time. Billy got a phone call from someone who had found an old guitar under a bed and wanted to sell it. It was a ‘59 sunburst Les Paul. Gibbons immediately struck a deal and bought the guitar with the money derived from the sale of the car. When he talked to Renee about it later, she said that it sounded like the Packard had gone for a good cause and that he should name the guitar after the car.

Gibbons fell in love with “Miss Pearly Gates” from the very beginning. He said it was (and is) the most perfect guitar ever created. According to Billy, everything about her was ideal from her perfectly balanced wood body to her precisely built in electronics. He says, “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.” Billy calls Pearly’s tone “God like” and says she can sing like no other guitar on earth.

Through their many years on tour, the ZZ Tops boys have used almost every imaginable type of guitar. These include the shiny white Crazy Cowboy guitar and bass, Fuzzy Explorers covered with fake fur, and a custom-made guitar with an outer body made of rubber so that Gibbons could stick knives into it while on stage. Billy also used a guitar called the Purple Drip that featured a plexiglass top spatter painted in several different shades and then sprayed with many layers of Clear Coat so that it looked wet while it was being played. Billy even had a guitar with a built-in television.

None of these instruments comes close to having the place in Billy’s heart that Miss Pearly Gates enjoys, however. She is the one that Gibbons uses whenever he is in the recording studio and Pearly Gates is often chosen for song writing and jam sessions, as well. Billy says that his passion for guitar collecting has been fueled largely by his favorite ’59. He is constantly on the lookout for another instrument that is as good as his precious Pearly Gates.

Interestingly, Pearly Gates is the only known guitar to have a TV character named after her. On the TV series, Bones, one of the members of the crime-solving team is a young woman called Angela Montenegro. Though she is completely fictional, she is said to be the daughter of Billy Gibbons. In one memorable episode, Angela reveals that her full name is actually Angela Pearly Gates Montenegro, named in honor of her father’s beloved guitar.

In 2009, Gibson Custom released its Billy Gibbons Pearly Gates Limited Edition Les Paul Standard. Gibbons, himself worked with the technicians at Gibson to make sure that the replica models are as much like the original as humanly possible. Only 350 guitars were released. Of these, 250 had the patented Gibson Custom V.O.S finish. Fifty of the instruments were aged by the techs to look exactly like Billy’s Pearly, and fifty more were aged, signed, and played by Gibbons.

The replica guitars were made with strict attention to detail. Their maple tops were selected by hand for the beauty of the wood grain. The finish is a perfect match to the famous faded Heritage Cherry Sunburst of the original. The custom beauties were all made with nickel hardware, Seymore Duncan Pearly Gates Humbuckers, and gold top hat control knobs. They range in price from $11,000 to $25,000.

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