Billy Zoom's Jet Set

SummerNAMM ‘08: The Billy Zoom Interview and Jet Demo

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For those who don't want to read the story, quicklinks to the audio (links repeated later in context if you have the time):

Billy plays.
Billy talks.


Production note: If you come to this thread from the Dateline Nashville: SummerNAMM '08 thread in Miscellaneous Rumbles, it should follow the "Zoom Zoom" post on page 3, featuring pics of the BZ Silver Jet.

If you came to this thread via some other route, you might want to check out the complete NAMM coverage over there.


The plot so far.
It's Saturday at NAMM, June 2008 in Nashville. The Billy Zoom Tribute Silver Jet is being officially unveiled and introduced to the world, and not only is Billy there - but thanks to the GDP, so are you.

Billy was around the booth informally off and on both Friday and Saturday, but he was scheduled for several one-hour meet-greet-and-autograph sessions on Saturday. The guitar drew steady attention, and the meet-n-greets were popular as well.

I was scheduled for an exclusive GDP interview about mid-afternoon, before his final signing session.

But first, a few pics of the guitar itself. (For more, check out the main NAMM thread.)

How about the man himself?


Signing for show-goers at the meet-n-greet desk outside Gretschland.


And signing the exclusive posters going to alert GDPers who responded on Saturday.

Alert readers of the main thread will know that John and Catherine Sebastian, Felix Cavalieri, and singer-songwriter Henry Gross appeared in the booth about mid-afternoon, just before Billy and I were scheduled to talk. That's Henry behind Billy trying out a few Gretschs off the wall.

Then it was time to get serious with Billy – who famously can look very serious indeed.
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Billy plays the BZ Jet.

Conditions were not ideal for a thorough guitar demo: there was a lot of activity in the booth, many conversations were ongoing, and Billy's too much the gentleman to crank up and make rude.

(At one point after hearing the guitar clean for a bit, I asked if he'd want to plug into a 5222 and crank it up X-wise. He demurred, saying that would be annoying and inappropriate.)

He came into the demo cold, the guitar had a generic as-shipped setup and had been much played for two days at NAMM, to the detriment of tuning and tuning stability. We hooked up through the Gretsch Variety without much opportunity to really dial it in.

I set the Edirol recorder on the floor near the amp (you'll hear some digital distortion near the beginning of the clip, before I got the level right); Billy perched on a stool and began putting the guitar through its paces – at little more than conversational level.

I was casually asking questions as he played, which, along with the other activity in the room, had to have been distracting (and my apologies to Billy).


Because the recorder was on the floor, our voices are as unintelligible as everyone else's. So, for the record, the conversation before Billy played:

GDP: The pickups look pretty low on there. Is that where yours are set?
BZ: (after looking) Mine are higher.
GDP: Is the setup about right?
BZ: Um, about like any new guitar - needs a little tweaking for me.

Then, about 28 seconds of country blues & rockabilly warmup before I ask about tone control and he demos the function of the pot from :28 to :45 or so with more blue country pickin' on all three pickup settings.

GDP: Is the tone control the same as the standard Jet?
BZ: No, I put a .01 cap in there. Anything more subtle and you couldn't find the right spot.
GDP: Does it have smoother response than the pots on the others?
BZ: Well, the others have bigger caps, so they're more sudden.

When I asked about his home playing regimen, he took a tasty jazz-flavored turn as he answered:

GDP: When you're home, playing for your own entertainment, what do you play?
BZ: The only guitar I keep out around the house is an old Yamaha FG-180. Because of the kids, you know.
GDP: Well, I mean, what kind of music? Do you rehearse for gigs, or play rockabilly or jazz, or work on technique?
BZ: No, I just play anything, nothing particular. I play for the kids mostly.
GDP: For your two-year-old twins.
BZ: Yep.


The audio: Zoom on Zoom!

About this time, a show-goer came up and started asking us questions about the coil cord, the guitar, Billy, and his band, which seemed to rein in the stream of jazz consciousness – and while answering the questions, Billy fingerpicked some more 'billy and we regrouped for more questions.


I picked up the recorder and held it for the interview. Billy continued to play, obviously warmed up; that's him you hear as we talk.

Click for the Zoomerview.

And some visuals to go with it:


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I read an account on Billy's own website by an interviewer who had heard that BZ was a hard case to interview – but when he met him, instead found him thoughtful, articulate, and fair.

I found the same thing.

It's clearly dangerous to speculate about a guy right in his own forum online, but my sense is that BZ is by habit private, somewhat reserved, and pretty self-contained. I got the feeling that he may sometimes be ambivalent about such celebrity as he has, and about being Billy Zoom the Rocker.

From the music he played to demo his guitar, it's clear (if it hadn't been before) that his roots run deep in traditional forms of American pop music, and that punk – while it brought him to a wider public – is not all he's about.

At one point (not in my interview) he explained to Joe how he'd got his name. I paste it here from the account on his site:

Billy Zoom said:

"I had hair down to my waist and little wire-rimmed glasses, and I decided to change my image. That look wasn't rebellious anymore. All of the people who threw beer cans at me had long hair now; they were rednecks on acid. So I cut my hair real short and bleached it a little bit, and I got really blue contacts. I had this friend named Liz who came over a couple of days after I did that. She just stood there staring at me and said, 'You don't look like you anymore; you don't look like Ty.' And I said, 'Well, who do I look like?' She said, 'You look like your name ought to be Billy Zoom or something!' Then some friends started calling me that, and it just sort of stuck."


At this point in the story, I said to Billy that in X, he had looked like the first guitarist of the 21st century. He gave me a look that didn't suggest he liked that designation. "Like the silver surfer or something," I said. Still the steely-eyed look.

From which I conclude nothing very significant – except that maybe he feels rooted in the traditional styles he plays so organically, and with such elegance and taste. Maybe he's really not about being a 21st Century Schizoid Man.

But that's just a guess.


The BZ Jet is a valuable addition to the modern Gretsch line, and we have Billy's insistence and integrity to thank for it. Many artists would have been happy with quick royalties from a stock model with superficial cosmetic features.

So why did he stick to his insistence on the unique chambering of his model? He didn't need a Jet with a hollow body; he already had one.

I can only think that if his name was going to be on the guitar, he wanted it to have some intrinsic value, to make a functionally unique contribution to the line. He wanted Gretsch to get this right – maybe so other guys would get a shot at a more historically accurate Jet.

We also have Joe Carducci and Mike Lewis to thank for persevering through the long development process, and finally bringing the ZoomJet to fruition. Any of them could have gone the easy way at any point, made the BZ Jet a cosmetic treatment, and called it a day.

I suspect all involved simply responded to how cool it would be to recreate a classic gutiar. It's about being honest to the past, maybe.


Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet Billy, talk with him a bit, and enjoy the lush and involving tone of the BZ Jet – along with the skill, feel, and natural flow of his playing.

Thanks, Billy!

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This post has been moved...

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Thanks Billy, Fred & Dinah, Joe and Tim for the interview!

Billy, is the neck heel on your new sig. model the same shape as your vintage examples?

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Big thanks to Proteus and Billy.

Great interview.

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Thanks for the interview Billy and Proteus. I read it earlier this day but I couldn't post anything due to solar flares.

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Lots and lots of cool guitars....no picks, no straps, no tuner. Maybe next year... BZ

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Thanks again Tim

Great tone from that guitar Billy :cool:

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I think it's fantastic that Gretsch has produced a BZ tribute model, as IMHO, he is probably responisble for the sale of more Silverjet models than any ad or brochure issued by Gretsch!

Having said that, I think it would be great if Gretsch were to issue a non-relic, regular BZ signature model, without all of the distressed features, but rather a RI of the guitar in the condition it would have been in if purchased new, complete with original tuners, switch tip, a Melitta bridge that is NOT screwed in to the body, period Bigsby, and the crowning touch of a Billy Zoom signature pickguard.

I bought my `57 Silverjet RI new, due in large part to my appreciation of BZ and falling in love with the silverjet, a model I first noticed in his hands, and have managed to "relic" it myself through regular gigging over the past decade (time flies!). I can't afford a ltd ed. tribute model, but I WOULD scrape together the $ for a regular BZ signature model with its block inlays and extra-chambered body.I imagine that with the regular playing it would recieve, I could manage to relic the guitar all by myself. I would further argue that there are a LOT of Gretsch fans out there who don't buy relic/tribute models, but would relish the opportunity to buy a regular BZ signature model just on the merit of the ultra chambered body alone, and perhaps the square block inlays.

Anyone at Gretsch listening?! :nice:

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I also kept trying to post yesterday. No luck.

Great interview, very cool sounds. Kind of dying to get one of these. I don't mind relics. Really like the vibe I was picking up on the recordings.

If you don't mind me asking, what's the neck shape?

K

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That is very cool, Billy has been my #1 guitar hero for about 25 years now,in fact I am wearing a Billy Zoom Band T-shirt right now. He still takes time to talk to fans after the rest of X has gone backstage, and he has answered a couple of my nerdy gear geek questions I emailed him over the years. Yep glad he is getting the recognition he deserves, he IS a nice guy.

Rob

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That sound bite of Billie Zoom came through remarkably well on my knock-out English componet Hi Fi which is totally wasted connected to this crappy sound card equipped computer. Parts reminded me of these Chet Atkins LP's I bought in the 60's. You're not going to tell me the pix and sound recordings were done on that iPhone are you? Digby, Down Further Under (New Zealand)

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Digby, you maniac! Bit of a shock seeing you appear in these hallowed halls. We have a number of Aussies here, but I don't know of any other Kiwis...I'm not sure they're allowed.

OK, maybe. As long as they're connected to the music biz, or car freaks.

We have a number of avid car guys - fearless Bax the webmaster is a sports car aficionado and works for a car mag, there's any number of rodders, and Billy Z himself has at least a mild automotive infection.

In the case of the BZ clips, neither pics nor audio are iPhonic. The iPhone takes passable pics, but doesn't record audio (an oversight I wish the Appleers would correct).

Audio in this case came from the Roland/Edirol R-09, a small stereo recording marvel.


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