Billy Gibbons: the man Jimi Hendrix called the “best guitarist” of all time

Aside from a selection of blues purists and perhaps a handful of onlookers who prefer to keep their names out of any popular idea, music fans tend to be in agreement that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist the world has ever seen. Everyone except Hendrix himself, of course. The counterculture poster boy, a bastion of free expression and otherworldly talent, Hendrix never found too much solace in bravado. He was always far more interested in the artistry of playing the guitar than the competition.

When appearing on the Dick Cavett show, the host praised the young man, claiming him to be the finest guitar player of all time. Naturally, a smile broke out across Hendrix’s face as the praise rained down. However, he soon put Cavett right when he replied, “the greatest sitting in this chair, maybe”. It would appear that Hendrix had his own vision of who the best guitar player of all time was.

Before we go any further, there are a few contenders for the title of “best guitarist” in the world, as well as Hendrix’s favourite. Of course, the legendary set of Muddy Waters, Albert King and his namesake, B.B. King, are all up for serious consideration. Naturally, there is also a good argument for Eric Clapton being one of the greats. But there are only two men whom Hendrix had specifically landed praise upon.

The first came during The Mike Douglas Show when Hendrix had become the toast of the town. Douglas asked Hendrix: “What’s it was like to be the best rock guitarist in the world?” Jimi then beautifully responded: “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Rory Gallagher”. For that reason alone, he could easily be considered Jimi’s all-time favourite. However, most believe that the title is reserved for another searing axeman, Billy Gibbons.

The ZZ Top powerhouse has long been undervalued as one of rock and roll’s finest players. Naturally, Gibbons was awestruck when he first met Hendrix. During an interview with Express, Gibbons said: “We hit it off in a rather unexpected manner.” Gibbons goes on to describe what his first encounter was like with Hendrix, “our contract required us to play for 45 minutes, and at that time, the only way we could complete the run was to include two numbers by Jimi Hendrix. Which was kinda chancy, I must say.”

“I remember wrapping up the set, coming off the stage, there was Jimi in the shadows – off to the side with his arms folded. But he was grinning, and as I passed by, he grabbed me and said, ‘I like you. You’ve got a lot of nerve,’” he told Ultimate Classic Rock of their first meeting. Gibbons clearly found himself a mentor on the guitar that he could look for during his career.

“He was a real technical wizard. He was inventing things to do with the Stratocaster guitar,” said Gibbons in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I am confident the designers had no clue would unfold in later years. Jimi had the talent to make that work for him. His technique was very peculiar in that he was playing a right-handed guitar in a left-handed style, upside down. To look at it and try to figure out what he was doing was very daunting”.

Of course, guitarists believing Jimi Hendrix to be one of the greats is nothing new. But, as the clip below would suggest, he believed Gibbons to be the best. “I’ve heard the before,” replies Gibbons when confronted with the idea that Hendrix believed him to be the best around. “We were good friends,” he continues, “very good friends. I still got fond memories of our time together and hope that someday we can ring it out”.

It’s wholly impossible for us to nail down the departed Jimi Hendrix to a definitive answer on who his favourite guitarist of all time was. Chances are, like the rest of us, it would change with every new lick, solo or song. But there’s a good chance that on most occasions, if you asked Hendrix who the best around was, he’d answer “Billy Gibbons”.

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