OK, ZZ Top are not exactly “off the beaten path”; but Lowdown In The Street is both a deep cut and, best I can tell, nobody else has transcribed it properly… so it’s fair game for Stairway.
ZZ Top were also my first real favourite band. This was the Eliminator and Afterburner period; famous for spinning guitars, giant beards, hotrods, and so on. All profoundly un-cool in 1990s suburban Manchester; a time and place where the Haçienda, Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were more orthodox obsessions.
Anyway, this track comes from their 1979 album Degüello, best known for the hit Cheap Sunglasses; well before the synths and furry guitars of their late-80s heyday, closer to their blues-rock roots.
There’s not much I can say here you won’t already have heard. Billy Gibbons’ tone must be among the most written about in all guitardom. Though remember, a big part of Reverend Willy’s Texan charm lies in cultivating a kind of Barnumesque showman persona, fond of tall tales and myth-making. Which is to say: a lot of what’s written could well be pure bullshit.
But then, Degüello isn’t typical of the tones ZZ are best known for. It lies in a transitional mid-ground between the straightforward blues-rock sounds of their early days, and the slicker, thicker sounds of Eliminator and beyond. Either way, you won’t go far wrong with humbuckers and a tube amp with just a little gain.
Most importantly, this isn’t in standard tuning. It’s in open C (CGCGE), which is perhaps best known from some of Soundgarden’s later hits like Pretty Noose
At first I thought it was open G with a capo at the 5th fret, but from watching live recordings that clearly isn’t right. Even so, you might still want to try it in open G (or A). It’s a lot less hassle to tune to, and since Billy never actually uses the low C it sounds virtually the same.
If, like me, you’re a heavy-handed player, you might find it helpful to be careful to use a lighter touch throughout this song. The lower tuning makes it all too easy to push notes out of tune.
A little bit of hybrid picking here: pick that open 4th string with your plectrum, while plucking the 1st string with your ring finger. The rest of it can be done with regular alternate picking.
I find myself wanting to go for bigger voicings on the low C here, but with characteristic restraint Billy keeps things sparse. Note there’s slight palm-muting to give this a bit of a percussive feel:
As with so much of Billy Gibbons’ playing, it’s pretty simple but very effective.