A heinous decision in the ’80s to remix ZZ Top’s classic early tracks didn’t totally diminish Frank Beard’s funky grooves, but it sure was a buzzkill. Fortunately, that call was reversible, and Beard’s beauteous beats were presented in all their gritty glory on a comprehensive 2013 box set. It’s never a bad time to behold the band’s not-so-simple wonders.
It was one thing for ZZ Top to experiment with drum machines, synthesizers, and sequencers in the early ’80s, in an attempt to modernize its swampy boogie-and-blues sound. But it was complete sacrilege when the Little Ol’ Band From Texas took the sheen of its Eliminator (1983) and Afterburner (1985) albums and grafted those tones onto classic early-Top long-players for 1987’s remixed Six Pack collection, which compiled the trio’s first five releases plus 1981’s El Loco. (The records were also reissued individually.) Nothing was worse than hearing Frank Beard’s once dry and punchy drums dripping wet with unnecessary reverb, noise gates, and the like.
Thankfully, ZZ Top began righting this sonic wrong on 2003’s Chrome, Smoke & BBQ box set, where the early tracks appeared in their original form, and then with the 2006 CD reissue of 1973’s Tres Hombres. And last year Tres Hombres was put out in its original form yet again, as part of The Complete Studio Albums 1970–1990 box set.
Most of Beard’s work on Tres Hombres is an exercise in keeping things Tres simple and cinched tight in the pocket. Take “Waitin’ for the Bus.” Beard clamps it down with the simplest of beats: quarter notes on the hi-hat, kick on 1 and 3, and snare on 2 and 4. To lock in deeper with Billy Gibbons’ guitar riff and Dusty Hill’s bass, Beard embellishes the pattern at the end of each measure by slipping in an extra kick hit and hi-hat opening between the 4 and 1. It’s a totally airtight feel. And Beard’s doing all this while lying so far behind the beat that you think he’s stuck in Rio Grande mud.
“Bus” segues into “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” where Beard forms another airtight pocket with Hill and Gibbons for the slow, bluesy sway of the verses. A simple twist on that groove during the guitar solo—opening the hi-hats and bashing out quarter notes—gives the impression that the song is moving forward, when in fact Beard is laying back just a shade further.
While there’s not a moment on the album where Beard isn’t grooving, some of his slinkiest playing comes on “Master of Sparks.” The drummer plays o_ Gibbons’ intro riff with a stutter-step groove that he turns around after the first bar so the snare accents alternately land on the 2, the 4, the “&” of 2, and the “&” of 4. (They fall between ghost strokes, which sound so lovely minus the wetness of the Six Pack remix.) As Gibbons spins his Texas roadhouse tale in the verses with a woozy tremolo guitar floating in the background, Beard keeps the bottom locked down by dancing between the snare and rack tom with his left hand while keeping steady 8th notes on the ride with his right. The cycle repeats throughout the song to hypnotic effect.
Even more hypnotic is the slinky rhythm on “Sheik,” with Beard pumping the kick drum on the upbeat pretty much throughout, for a looped feel that plays nicely with the subtle use of shaker and conga. As far as simple stone grooves go, they don’t come much simpler or stonier than this.
ZZ Top certainly had bigger hits and bigger productions than Tres Hombres, but it’s hard to find an album in the trio’s deep catalog where Beard’s drumming is as integral to the overall mojo as it is here. For anyone unfamiliar with Beard and ZZ Top beyond a handful of hits, this is the place to start. Just be sure you don’t pick up the Six Pack version.
BEYOND THE GROOVIN’ Consistent with Frank Beard’s timekeeping throughout ZZ Top’s forty-four-year (and counting) recording career, it’s all about the groove on Tres Hombres. That’s not to say there’s nothing fancy going down. You ever try to play those rapid-fire triplets that Beard rips off before the guitar solo in “La Grange” and then manage to land smoothly on the 1 and fall effortlessly back into a shuffle, as he does? Not easy, is it? And that little triplet pattern he plays between the snare and hi-hat before the shuffle kicks in the first time is so classy, he’s probably playing it with his pinky aloft.
TO FILL OR NOT TO FILL? Before new wave invaded ZZ Top’s collective membrane, the group’s albums were marked by a profound spaciousness in the mix, and Beard’s magic lay in his gut decisions about when to fill the room between the notes with commentary and when to sit still. Like a Southern-fried Neil Peart, Beard would choose his fills very specifically for each song and repeat them, often with added variations, at the appropriate times throughout the arrangement. Examples abound. The little 16th-note pickup before the upbeat accents that starts “Move Me on Down the Line” is reprised with slight modifications. And on “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” Beard whips out a sweet little snare/open hi-hat combo at 1:18 and repeats it verbatim at 1:46. That’s called pop smarts.
Tres Hombres (1973)
Waitin’ for the Bus • Jesus Just Left Chicago • Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers • Master of Sparks • Hot, Blue and Righteous • Move Me on Down the Line • Precious and Grace • La Grange • Sheik • Have You Heard?
Billy Gibbons: guitar, vocals
Dusty Hill: bass, vocals
Frank Beard: drums
Produced by Bill Ham