TOP MAN
Bass Player|October 2021
When ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill left us on July 27, he left a legacy like few others. Jamie Blaine pays tribute, and we revisit words of wisdom from Hill himself
Dusty Hill

I grew up down Texas way, working summers at my father’s sawmill, and scraping together minimum wage to buy a beat-up SG bass. The fretboard pyrotechnics of Sheehan and Lee were beyond my reach, but inspiration came slithering across the yard one scorching afternoon through the screen door of a nearby rib shack.

As I unloaded lumber from a boxcar, the bluesman growled about gold tooth displays and beauticians at the wheel of his V8 Ford, the backbeat matching the loping rhythm of our sawmill’s conveyor chain. Heat waves shimmied on the tracks as epiphany struck from the percolating bass, laying a muddy groove wide as the West Texas plains, with a mind-blowing breakdown at the end that was both bad and nationwide.

The band, of course, was ZZ Top—but copping bassist Dusty Hill’s parts proved to be a different kind of tricky. I dug into their back catalog, discovering that his approach wasn’t so much a matter of technique as attitude. He owned the pocket and dug that trench deep, paving a foundation with gusto and restraint, stuttering licks in empty spaces and a funky syncopation engineered to make backsides move. There was plenty of flash and wit in ZZ’s clothes and stage shows, but the Top’s bottom end was all business.

Joseph Michael ‘Dusty’ Hill was born on May 19, 1949, playing the cello in school band and picking up bass at the age of 13, when his older brother Rocky started a combo called The Warlocks.

“I kind of learned how to play on stage,” Hill told For Bass Players Only in 2016. “Embarrassment is a great motivator. If you don’t play well, standing up there with the lights on, it really stands out, so it behooves you to get your shit up pretty quick.”

Alongside drummer Frank Beard, Hill honed his chops with Dallas garage rockers American Blues and the Cellar Dwellers before teaming up with a 20-year-old Houston guitar wizard named Billy F. Gibbons to form ZZ Top.

Early inspiration came from Charles Mingus and Jack Bruce, before the bassist stripped his lines to the purest essence and the “little ol’ band from Texas” hit big in 1975 with Hill’s raucous vocal on their first Top 40 hit, ‘Tush’, a 12-bar howling blues with Dusty locked on Beard’s snare and offering nothing more extravagant than the occasional walk.

Under the guidance of manager Bill Ham, ZZ Top engaged on a world tour that featured ‘The Dust’ decked out in Nudie suits and 10-gallon hats while throttling his Tele bass on a tilted stage the shape of Texas. Vultures, rattlesnakes, and longhorn steers roamed the platform as the band performed electrified, Southern-fried favorites like ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ and ‘Blue Jean Blues’.

The Worldwide Texas Tour was so insane that the band went on hiatus after coming off the road. Beard hit rehab before heading to Jamaica; Gibbons left for London; and Hill got a work shirt with ‘Joe’ on the pocket and took a job at the Fort Worth airport.

“I didn’t want people to think I was full of myself,” he told Ultimate Classic Rock in 2019. “But the main thing is that I didn’t want to start feeling full of myself.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BASS PLAYERView All

The Omnific – Wizards of Oz

The Australian trio The Omnific make music like no other band—with two bassists, a drummer, and a whole lot of genius. We meet Matt Fack and Toby Peterson-Stewart

5 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

TRIUMPHANT

Jamie Lee Cussigh of Triumph Of Death on learning to trust her instincts about bass

1 min read
Bass Player
October 2021

TOP MAN

When ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill left us on July 27, he left a legacy like few others. Jamie Blaine pays tribute, and we revisit words of wisdom from Hill himself

8 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

PLAY SAFE

Anna Achimowicz is a bassist, physiotherapist and health professional. We ask her how to do what we do without injury

4 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

TAYLOR MADE

A new book on Duran Duran’s Rio album highlights the role of bassist John Taylor, a hero in our community. Author Annie Zaleski digs deep into the pleasure groove

5 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

RAISING HELL

Who wouldn’t cherish a signature bass as luscious as this one? Dan Firth of Cradle Of Filth talks through his new acquisition...

3 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

IN THE Groove

GIOVANNI BOTTESINI, DOUBLE BASS CONCERTOS (DYNAMIC, 1997)

2 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

LONDON BASS DISPLAY

Clash bassist Paul Simonon’s smashed Fender is now on permanent view

1 min read
Bass Player
October 2021

I WAS THERE!

A historic moment in bass world—recalled by those who were there to see it

2 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021

HIP SHOT

Canadian stalwarts The Tragically Hip return with an album of nostalgic songs: Bassist Gord Sinclair explains why

6 mins read
Bass Player
October 2021
RELATED STORIES

BLACK WIDOW

This 2016 Chevy Silverado is a Dream Come True for Hector Marmolejo

3 mins read
Street Trucks
October 2021

WANNABE COWBOYS RIDE THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE

It was our first visit to the U.S. While indulging in stale airline snacks in cattle class on our way to Texas from South Africa, we had a good laugh about all the contradicting and varied opinions of the U.S. we’d heard.

8 mins read
Adventure Motorcycle (ADVMoto)
September - October 2021

HOW SMALL COMPANIES CAN GET BIG PR

Think you’re too small to get press coverage? You’re just not selling yourself properly

2 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Fall - Winter 2021

Just Keep Livin'

In the new year, Matthew McConaughey is looking beyond the pandemic—and movies—toward a much bigger picture. Could politics be his next frame?

8 mins read
Men's Journal
January - February 2021

SCALY SUPPER

An Overview of Hunting Reptiles for Survival

8 mins read
OFFGRID
Issue 45

SHATTERED HIP CRIPPLES TRAGIC TANYA TUCKER!

Fight to walk after surgery

2 mins read
Globe
August 16, 2021

A Man and His Wall

When Donald Trump called for a big, beautiful wall, a guy from North Dakota named Tommy Fisher spent millions to build a 3-mile stretch along the Rio Grande. All Fisher needs now is for someone to buy it back

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
July 26, 2021

Estebanico's America

The story of Africans on this continent is longer and more varied than the version I was taught in school.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

America's Friendlist Summits

Some high points require expert skill, a bit of luck, and probably some suffering. Not these. Here are 15 peaks—high on views, low on effort—that don’t play hard to get.

10+ mins read
Backpacker
May - June 2021

Austin, Reluctant Boomtown

Residents fear that the wave of tech workers arriving will turn the city into San Francisco

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
April 12, 2021