Two weeks ago, ZZ Top bass player Dusty Hill died at the age of 72.
Hill had been with ZZ Top for 50 years – he made his recording debut with the band on ZZ Top’s First Album in 1971 – and he made a seismic impact on the group’s sound and identity.
As The Guardian’s Michael Hann noted in his obituary, Hill was just as important to the vibe of ZZ Top as frontman Billy Gibbons:
“[Hill’s] high, true tenor was a contrast to Gibbons’ radioactive growl – and his bass tone was every bit as crucial to their sound as Gibbons’ guitar. And, perhaps even more importantly, the pair came as a double act, not just by looking so similar they could be mistaken for one another but also in the perfect, minimalist choreography of their stage show.”
It wasn’t just his tone, though, it was the way he played. Part of Hill’s understated genius in ZZ Top was his complete service of the song. He’s been described as a minimalist player, but I’d call him an intuitive musician, someone who knew when enough was enough and never let their substantial chops get in the way of the bigger picture. Speaking with For Bass Players only back in 2016, he outlined his approach:
“When I started playing in a three-piece, I realized that you have to do the song, not your personal performance, so you have to be tasty with it and enjoy the playing. Writing the song helps a lot; if I’m involved in the writing process, it comes to me. I think one of the best bass players in the world for that is Paul McCartney; he played the perfect part for everything, in every song. Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass — I hate that in a way, but I love that in a way. That’s a compliment. That means you’ve filled in everything and it’s right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”
Ultimately, what made Dusty special was that he was both an integral part in the ZZ Top machine and a true original. Or, as the man himself once put it in his own inimitable way:
“I like to believe that I play bass like Dusty Hill, and that's something nobody else can do as well as me. I'm the best Dusty Hill I know.”
R.I.P Dusty, and thank you for the music?
What are your memories of Dusty Hill? Did you ever see him play with ZZ Top? What impact did he have on your bass playing? As always, share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.