Frank Beard is a friendly, down-home sort of guy who makes you feel very comfortable talking with him. Even though he is a member of ZZ Top, a major rock band selling into the millions in records and concert tours, there is no pretentious attitude intruding on his just-folks manner.
In his soft, Texas drawl, he modestly tends to downplay his drumming abilities. This is something that Beard’s fans would vehemently disagree with. His rock-solid drumming provides the foundation from which the band launches some of the best rock to come out of the land of chili and sagebrush.
ZZ Top has been around for 14 years. Hailing from Texas, the cowboy, boogie blues band conquered the Lone Star State before moving on to introduce the rest of the world to their Texas style.
In the early days, audiences expected to hear country/western music when the band, consisting of Dusty Hill on bass, Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, and Beard on drums, would take to the stage in cowboy hats and boots. Now, with their eighth album, Eliminator, gracing the charts and the three-man band playing to packed houses around the country, no one mistakes the hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll of ZZ Top. This is not a power trio, but simply a well-integrated musical unit playing straight-forward, hard-driving music. This is music for the masses. No esoterica, just good, clean rock ‘n’ roll. These guys don’t pull any punches.
Sitting behind his drumset, Beard provides a solid beat for the band. He plays economically with no unnecessary fancy frills. This is not to imply a lack of inventiveness, just that Beard knows what to play and when to play it. He doesn’t get in the way of the music. No one in the band is adopting a rock-hero stance. They play good music for good times. This band respects their fans and is not interested in pretense.
The “Little Ol’ Band From Texas” likes to have fun; the threesome doesn’t like to take themselves too seriously. They are there to entertain and hope that their audiences have as much fun as the band does.
Their lyrics reflect their sense of humor and their off-stage manner is refreshing and a bit off-the-wall. Their laugh-along- with-me attitude is catching.
In 1973, the band hit big with their first platinum selling LP, Tres Hombres. This album included the hit single, “Le Grange. ” This was followed in 1975 by another platinum seller, Fandango, which featured another smash single, “Tush. “
In ’76, the band embarked on their “World Wide Texas Tour” supporting their Tejas album. This tour featured live buffalo and vultures along with cactus, sagebrush, tumbleweeds and other Texas goodies. It was quite an extravaganza, and when the tour was completed, the band disappeared for three years. They reemerged with Deguello which featured, among other things, the debut of Billy, Dusty and Frank as the Lone Wolf Horns.
SA: How did you get started in music? What sparked your interest?
FB: Well, like so many people in the ’60s, the Beatles came along and I saw them on Ed Sullivan. I think I was 13, and I decided that music would be a good way to get some chicks. So, I just took it up.
SA: Did you ever have formal training of any kind?
FB: No. Later, after I’d been playing about ten years, I took lessons for about six months when we had a little time. I went down and took some lessons in Houston, but really, I would say I was just a self-taught musician.
SA: Who would you say influenced you?
FB: In the beginning, the Englishers. You know, all of those guys; probably everybody I’ve ever heard a little bit. I loved listening to Ringo Starr because the things he did fit that music—it wasn’t flashy. Then in the same evening, I’d turn over and listen to Ginger Baker or listen to Jimi Hendrix and his band. But, just everyone. I would say that it seems that I preferred the real tasty licks as opposed to the more flashy stuff.
So, I guess that goes back to originally liking the Beatles. Of course, I played in a band that only did Beatles material. We played in a club for about a year and it was mandatory that everything was precise.
SA: It’s a good thing that you liked the Beatles so much, but didn’t it get a bit boring after a while?
FB: Oh, I really liked it, though. Just producing that music was great, especially when you’re like . . . I think we were 16 at the time and it was really great.
SA: You were still in high school at that point. Was that your first band?
FB: Well, it was my first working band. Of course, I went through a couple that played in the high school talent shows and that kind of stuff, where the guitar players knew how to play “Louie, Louie” and “Wine, Wine, Wine.”
SA: I remember those days well. What did you do after these bands?
FB: Let’s see…when I was 16, I went over to Fort Worth, Texas and there was this sort of strip club. I went over there one night and Dusty Hill and his brother, Rocky, were the featured act there. I walked in and I just flipped. I said, “This is my place.” So, I managed to get a job with them and we formed the American Blues. We had blue hair.
SA: Blue hair?
FB: Oh, yeah. This was in like ’66 and the psychedelic era was just ushering into Texas at the time. So, we dyed our hair blue and we played psychedelic music and stayed working. There were three of these cellar clubs. There was one in Dallas, one in Fort Worth and one in Houston and we’d do the little circuit two weeks at each place. I did that for about maybe a year and a half. I think we worked six hours a night, six nights a week.
So, basically, where I learned how to play was on stage. I had to quit high school and the whole bit. The American Blues disbanded in late ’68 and I did some road work with a few bands. You know, just more or less the ABC circuit as it was called.
FB: This ABC booking agency. We’d play two weeks in Terre Haute, Indiana and two weeks in Green Bay, Wisconsin; different bars. I did that up until the middle of ’69 and kind of got burned out on that. I think we were making $200 apiece per week. I came back to Texas and heard about a guitar player down in Houston. So I loaded up all of my drums and all of my belongings into a Volkswagen and drove down to Houston and met Billy and we formed. There was another bass player at the time. The three of us started ZZ Top. Then that bass player quit and I told Billy, “I’ve worked with this other guy for four or five years and he’s pretty good. Why don’t we call him down,” and so we got Dusty.
SA: How did you come up with the name ZZ Top?
FB: Ah, B. B. King was taken [laughs]. We just wanted a name that sounded like maybe some crusty old blues player. In the beginning, when we put that first record out, we would do a local TV show like in Houston and it was a black show. When we showed up, they were totally floored because they thought that we were a black band.
SA: Was that the first time you had ever recorded?
FB: No. The American Blues did two albums. One was on the Karma label which was a local Dallas label, and one was on Universal; the old UNI label. They’re semi collectors’ items now and I think there are maybe 2,000 or 5,000 of each pressed. They were really localized operations. But, I hear that they’ve been bootlegging some of those now. Somebody’s got a hold of the tapes and is re-releasing them. I’d love to have a copy. I don’t have a copy of either one. They’re called, American Blues Do Their Thing and American Blues Is Here. This was definitely in the psychedelic era.
SA: I read a quote of yours somewhere where you said that you only know three beats.
FB: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve had to live with that. I don’t know why I said that, but basically, it’s true. In the rock ‘n’ roll format, you play your 4/4 beats—which I call the monkey beat—and shuffles, and cut shuffles, and that’s about all that this band ever wants to do. I know other beats. I can play the 5/4 and all of that, but I just don’t get to. [Laughs] I can play “Satin Doll.”
SA: Tell me about the writing process that you go through when the three of you get together.
FB: Well, basically what we do now, and what we’ve done since the formation of the band, is we get together and play, and something will happen. We’ll just start doing this, that or the other thing. It’s the three of us adding ideas and commenting on ideas and forming the tunes.
SA: How do you mike your drums for the studio? They really sound good and clear.
FB: I use Shure SM57’s on all the tom-toms and I top mike them. I use both heads. I put Hydraulic heads on the tops and then I use clear Ambassadors on the bottom head until I get to the floor toms, and then I use Hydraulics on both sides because when you get to the larger heads, you’ve got a lot of displacement and a lot of rattle that’ll occur. So, I’ll use the Hydraulics; kind of dampen everything down and it’ll give this warmer tone than say a coated head or a clear plastic head.
I think I use some Sennheiser 44I’s on the kick drums, and a 421 on the snare. The overheads are just kind of optional; whatever they’ve got—some sort of condenser mic’.
SA: How do you tune your drums for the studio?
FB: Basically, I don’t go for a note. I don’t say this drum is going to be an E or whatever. I try to get the voice of that drum, and if you can do that, then they’ll pretty well fall in line. Then change one just a little bit. Basically, try to get the best voice out of each drum and then come off the bottom head just a little bit so it’ll decay slightly.
SA: Does that philosophy change for live situations?
FB: Well, I use a different set of drums in live situations. The technique is the same. In the studio, I use a drum that’s got a cover on it; some sort of laminate. Live, I’ll just use the wooden drums. I had them painted. I’m signed with Tama drums. I had them make just some raw maple drums and then I sent them off to this guy that makes all of Billy’s guitars and had him paint them up for me. So, they’re a little louder, they’re a little brighter and the wood grain is a little tighter and it makes them louder. Whereas, the ones I use in the studio are more of a composite-type pressed drum and they’re a little warmer sounding.
SA: Are both sets the same sizes?
FB: Yeah, they’re tiny drums. I see so many large drums and power toms, and 26″ bass drums and everything. I’ve just always preferred the smaller drums, so I use an 18″ and a 20″ bass drum and they’re just tiny.
SA: Those 18″ bass drums can sound like cannons.
FB: Oh, they’re quick. You don’t have so much head to move, and they’re easier to tune. That’s one thing, you know, being on the road, a lot of times we don’t get the opportunity to go in and screw with the equipment every day, and they don’t get so out of control. With those big ones, you’ve got so much head and so much air to move and so much displacement that it’s just critical, you know, or they start fuzzing and slopping.
SA: Yeah, I had a 24″ that did that. I had an 18″ floor tom that sounded so good and the bass drum sounded sick next to it. That’s when I decided that, for me, smaller was better. Especially since I’m only 5’5″.
FB: Well, see I’m only 5’7″ and that works well for me, too. At least maybe the audience has a shot at seeing me. All of our publicity people have been on me ever since we’ve been together that, “Frank, we can never see you back there. You disappear behind them drums.”
SA: Just get those big overhead mirrors.
FB: But, I never get hit with anything either.
SA: That’s true. It’s safe back there.
FB: I got my little barricade and I’ve got my own little world built.
SA: In the studio, how close does your drum sound come to what you hear in your head?
FB: Well, it’s never exactly what I hear in my head. I’ve got in my house row a 16-track recording studio. I’ve got the set of drums that I take to the studio set up, and I’m all the time messing with it and all the time trying this and that and the other. I’m intrigued by these new things, like the snare sound that The Cars get, which is totally electronic. You know, I believe that there’s not hardly any of the drum left in there. He’s just keying some white noise in. I’m just doing this, that and the other and trying to come up with something that’s fine. I’ve been doing a lot of work with gates lately; noise gates and keying different things and with Kepexes and stuff. But, it changes. I’ll think that I have the definitive tones for an album, and find out that I don’t.
SA: The home studio definitely will help by giving you the time to explore. I see that you’re open minded as far as effects go.
FB: Oh, yeah. I like to try all effects. I don’t like an “effected” sound; I like a subliminally “effected” sound. Like I was mentioning, The Cars’ snare sound—I like that crisp high end, but I would like a lot less of it; you know, more of the real snare drum and just a little bit of that sound that you almost don’t even hear, but it would give it that top edge.
Are you familiar with the Linn drum machine?
SA: Oh, yes.
FB: Well, I’m waiting on them to send me one because on the road we had one of those drum machines with just horrible tones, but it was fun to play with at night in the room. So, I’m real anxious to get that Linn and see what it sounds like.
SA: While we’re on the subject of equipment, we should go over yours. What size drums you use, etc.
FB: Okay, like I say, I’m signed to Tama now. I’ve played every set of drums there is throughout the years, and I’ve talked with different companies. They’d say, “Come on, we’ll give you two sets of drums and blah, blah, blah.” But, Ken Hoshino from Tama came to Houston when we were doing a show there and I’d been talking to him on the phone. I’d been playing Tama drums for about a year and what I’d been doing was grabbing the 14″ floor tom and cut ting it in half and making an 8″ deep snare drum.
So, Ken shows up and he opens up a box and it’s this beautiful rosewood 8 1/2″ deep snare drum. I said, “Well, let me try that!” I tried it on stage and came back after the show and said, “Man, that’s great.” And he said, “It’s yours.” So, I ended up signing a contract with him. Most of the stuff I play is pretty well straight production-line drums. There’s the 18″ bass drum I think they have to specially make, but then I’ve got a 20″ bass drum. I’ve got the 8 1/2″ deep snare drum which is a rosewood snare. Then, rack toms—they go from a 6″, to an 8″, a 10″, a 12″ a 13″ and a 14″, and then a 14″ and a 16″ floor tom. And then I have a second 16″ floor tom that I set on the other side and I only play on “Tube Snake Boogie,” because I’ve got it tuned so low it won’t play anything else. It sounds like a huge inner tube.
SA: I like fun sounds like that that are a little off-the-wall. A friend of mine has an old 15″ marching snare drum that sounds almost like a synthesizer.
FB: Really. You know, the old drum sometimes is the best one.
SA: Definitely. Do you use the Hydraulic heads on all of your drums?
FB: Everything but the snare.
SA: Is that true in live situations as well as the studio?
FB: Yeah. I use it totally. Like I say, it’s a warmer, more in-control top sound. It’s not near as percussive and I just prefer that type of mellow tone.
SA: What about pedals?
FB: When I signed with Tama, I’d always played a Ludwig Speed King. My first pedal was a Speed King and I loved them. I told Ken, “I’ll play the drums, but I can’t give up Speed King pedals.” He said, “No problem, but here, we just got the Camco pedal. Try these.” I tried them and I liked them. I’d like to make some sort of mutant between the two. I like the chain drive a lot. I’d just like to see it have a compressed spring action instead of a pulling spring. You know, take the best of both worlds and grab the compressed spring off the Speed King and the chain drive off the Camco. It probably would be terrible. I’ve had some terrible ideas in my time [laughs].
SA: What kind of sticks do you use?
FB: Right now, I’m using ProMark Hands Hickory. It doesn’t really matter, just some sort of 5A.
SA: And cymbals? Shouldn’t forget cymbals.
FB: Those are Paistes. I started using those as soon as they came out, maybe ten years ago. I use them mainly because they wouldn’t break and I’ve just stayed with them. I don’t think that I would break cymbals like I used to when we were all using a 3S stick and playing psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, using the butt ends and all of that. But, I’ve just always liked them. I started out with the old 602’s. You know, I’ve still got some of those and they’re classic cymbals, especially for the studio.
SA: What sizes do you use?
FB: Well, I like odd numbers. I don’t know why—it’s probably just some sort of thing in my head. But, I seem to feel like the odd numbers sound better than the even, so I like 17s and 19s, as opposed to 18s and 20s.
SA: We should go through the sizes of your ride cymbal and your crashes and all that exact detail.
FB: Ah, right, for the technically minded. Let’s see, I’ve got a 21″ ride. I’ve got two 19″ crashes, a 17″ and a 15″ splash. I’ve got a 20″ pang, or Chinese cymbal; you know, one of those inverted savages. I’ve got a 20″ sizzle cymbal that I use on the hot blue and righteous songs, you know, for the blues numbers, and a cowbell.
These are all 2002’s. I don’t take the 602’s on the road. I use them in the studio and leave them slightly dirty.
SA: On the El Loco album, you played some different instruments on a couple of cuts like “Groovy Little Hippie Pad,” and “Heaven, Hell or Houston.” What did you play on those cuts?
FB: Well, “Groovy Little Hippie Pad,” we built that song up at my house. We started out on the synthesizer. I did the bass drum first. I did the bass drum and the snare clicking. Then I came back and took the bass drum out of it. If you listen with headphones, you can still hear that bass drum in there. It’s this little tiny sound that’s in there. I was trying to get rid of that bass sound because I wanted to go to another one. But, it’s still in there and it kind of adds to the percussion of that song. Then, we took floor toms and laid them down flat on the floor, face down, and I played those with some sticks. Then, we went back and I think I taped a clave across the snare drum. I was beating it with another one.
SA: That’s what that sound is!
FB: Then, we went back and added the tom-toms, and then I think finally the cymbals. So, that song was built piece by piece.
SA: That must have been a lot of work, but fun, too.
FB: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Because the synthesizer is so relent less in its time, you know, I mean it’s just perfect. It’s just a clock going off. We did the whole thing that way. We did the bass and the guitar and added on that way, too. Just a piece at a time. And the tambourine…I forgot the tambourine and the hi-hat. All of it was just layered in there.
Now, we did some strange things with “Heaven, Hell or Houston.” We didn’t know what we were going to do with that. We had this piece of a song, and we didn’t have a bridge for it. So, we just kept the bass drum going and counted off X amount of bars and then went back and decided, “Well, let’s do something exotic.” Up at Ardent [studios] in Memphis, they brought in this box of special percussion instruments and we tried all of them. We were beating on microphone stands, you know. I think we ended up with some temple bells in there and an agogo.
SA: A little bit of everything.
FB: Uh huh, and trying to not play as though you were taught, you know? Playing left handed or something like that to give it a little bit of a rough feel to it so it would sound more native.
SA: Speaking of instruments you play, tell me the story behind the Lone Wolf Horns.
FB: Well, we’d been on this vacation, you know, this three years we took off. And, we came back and started writing some material for the new album. We wrote “Hi Fi Mama,” and we said if ever a song needed horns, it’s this song. We’ve never used any outside help on any of our records. We’ll manage to get through somehow. Like Billy will get down on his knees and play an organ’s foot pedals with his hands or something. We’ve always managed to get what we wanted ourselves. And so, I said, “Let’s go buy some saxes and learn how to play saxes. It can’t be that hard.” So, we did. We went and plopped the money down for three of the finest saxophones made and hired us this musician in Houston that plays saxophone to give us lessons. We each learned the scale and Billy wrote the parts out because he could transpose. The saxophones are tuned and they’re in different keys than a guitar. Then they’re even in different keys from each other. Like Billy’s and mine were the same and Dusty’s was in a different key.
So, we had to figure all that out and Billy’d say, “You blow this and you blow this and I’ll blow this,” and we’d blow these three notes and they’d sound pretty good, so, okay that’s that note. And we just went through and figured it out. I think we each had about 12 notes that we had to play during the whole song. We learned that and then we practiced and practiced. I think we’d spend two hours a day for a month just running the tape of that song and playing our parts with it until we thought we had it and took it into the studio and did it. And it was a gas. Ahh…it was so fine. And, you know, we’re a bit crazy anyway, so we made a whole production out of it. We did a film of us playing. So, whenever we went on the road, we’d lower a screen and the Lone Wolf Horns would walk out and join us for these three songs.
SA: That sounds like a lot of hard work. Have you ever had an urge to play some more, now that you’ve picked up a little bit of the saxophone?
FB: Yeah, I’d love to be able to play the saxophone and I still honk on it. I can make some of the world’s ungodliest sounds come out of that thing. But, it’s so frustrating when you’re proficient on one thing and try to start on another that’s so totally different.
We know that if we ever write another song that needs the horns, we’ll go in there and we’ll learn the part. But I don’t think that the real great players of the world have anything to worry about from the Lone Wolf Horns right now.
SA: Do you play any other instruments?
FB: Oh, I play at guitar and play at piano, and that kind of thing, but proficiently, no. You know, just get enough to entertain myself and maybe to find out something.
SA: You were mentioning that you’d taken off three years. What brought that about?
FB: Well, we just got through with the World Wide Texas Tour, and it was such an undertaking that when we got through, we decided we were going to take about six months off. One thing led to another and we just kind of let our hair down and left the country for a while. It just stretched out to be that length of time.
It didn’t start out to be that way, but it ended up working out well for us. Our management was able to negotiate us into a new contract with Warner Brothers from London and we were able to pick up some new influences; pick up some new ideas; get away from and back off from it all for a while and then come back with a new perspective. So, it worked out real nice for us.
SA: Was that hard? Did you get a lot of flack from your management and your record company and all that about taking so much time?
FB: Yeah. They definitely were getting a little antsy about it.
SA: I can imagine. It had to be good, though. That Texas tour was really pretty much of an extravaganza as far as a lot of equipment, a lot of personnel, and a lot of everything. That must have been something.
FB: Uh huh. We like to give back a little bit, you know.
SA: Really. It’s been the three of you for quite a few years. How have you managed to keep it going like that? That’s so unusual, in rock especially.
FB: Well, I don’t know. We seem to have developed a mutual admiration society. You know, I can’t imagine ever playing with anyone else.
SA: It sounds like a very comfortable situation.
FB: Yeah, I really think it just comes down to a little musical respect of each other’s playing. And when we’re off the road, we each go our separate ways pretty much. We have separate influences and separate likes and dislikes. So, we’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls that befall so many bands.
SA: That’s great. Who are some of your favorite drummers?
FB: Oh, I like them all. It’s real hard to say. I mean, how can you rate, say, a country drummer with a rock ‘n’ roll drummer? Because the country drummer, his format only allows for so much. But, he’s in there doing it. I mean, he’s doing exactly what the song calls for. And the jazz drummer, and the rock drummer; they’re all doing it. So, anyone that’s doing it, I appreciate.
I really admire the great studio cats—the Steve Gadds and the Hal Blaines and the Jim Keltners. Those cats that have to change and fit in so well with whatever they’re doing. I really greatly admire them. But, just any drummer that’s doing it, because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be there.
SA: That’s very true. What type of music do you like to listen to?
FB: Oh, I like it all. Ah, I’m not too wild about country and western, but I can listen to Emmylou Harris all day. I like the new wave. I like the rock ‘n’ roll. I like it all.
SA: In the beginning, you had problems with people thinking that you were a country band as opposed to a rock band.
FB: The worst occasion of that was when we opened for the Stones in Hawaii in ’72. We were virtually unknown over there, and the curtain rose and we were standing out there and Billy and Dusty had on boots and cowboy hats and this veil of horror fell over the audience. But, we ripped right into “Thunderbird,” which is a rock ‘n’ roll standard, and changed their minds in about 15 seconds. I think that, now, people know ZZ songs before they hear who it is.
SA: What are your future plans with the band?
FB: Oh, we’re just going to keep on doing more of the same. Hopefully, we can make each album be a little better than the last. Each show a little better than the last. Just keep on doing what we like to do. We really enjoy playing rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe we’ll play a little golf here and there.
SA: Do you ever get involved in any outside projects?
FB: Only things that are partially profitable to me, like I was telling you about in my studio. Just things that would maybe enhance ZZ. That’s a big enough ball of wax for me right there.
SA: Do you have any things that you haven’t had a chance to do yet? Any dreams for something that you’d still like to do?
FB: Oh, I don’t know. We’ve pretty well been able to do just about what we wanted to do all along. It would be nice to have a gold single one of these days. We’ve always been an album band. A gold single would be nice.