You know this song. You know this riff. If heaven were a biker bar this song would never end. This song represents all that is awesome and badass in the world and I’m going to teach you how to play it.
ZZ Top recorded La Grange for their 1973 release Tres Hombres. It was produced by their manager Billy Ham (I cannot think of a more fitting name for the manager/producer of ZZ Top) and mixed by the legendary Terry Manning. A lot of controversy surrounds this tune. The riff is based off a stock blues rhythmic figure that has been used since the early days of Texas blues; most famously by John Lee Hooker and Slim Harpo. Due to La Grange’s financial triumph in the realm of sync licensing (placement of music in television and film) people came out of the woodworks to get a piece of the pie. Ultimately a judge ruled that “Boogie Chillen” (the song that La Grange was said to be most closely based upon) was public domain.
Billy Gibbons played a 1955 USA Stratocaster with a stop tailpiece through a Marshall Super Lead 100 equipped with glorious Celestion greenbacks to get his amazing tone on this rock classic. Knowing the gear is nice, but on the real key to nailing Gibbon’s tone is with the right technique. Hybrid picking, whiplash slides, crisp rakes, subtle vibrato, artificial harmonics, and dramatic bending is what this song is all about. In the accompanying video I’m playing a Warmoth Stratocaster into a Fender Blues Jr.
The riff sits on an open A5 chord. Grab a pick with your thumb and index finger and place the middle and ring fingers of your picking hand on 4th and 3rd strings. Alternate between using your pick to lightly thud* the open A on the 5th string and using your middle and ring fingers to pluck the E and A on the 4th and 3rd strings. After six times of this alternation turn it around with a light thud on the open A, followed by placing the pinky of your fret hand on the G (5th fret) on the 4th string and plucking it with the middle finger of your picking hand. Keep the groove with another light thud on the open A of the 5th string and place the pinky of your fret hand on the C (5th fret) of the 3rd string and pluck it with the ring finger of your picking hand. Lightly thud the open A once more and pluck the C on the 3rd string once again, and bend the note up a ¼ step before pulling off to the A (2nd fret) of the 3rd string. Your fret hand should be holding the open A5 throughout this sequence. Repeat this sequence twice more before going to the 2nd part of the intro.
The only difference here is the turnaround. Instead of the hybrid picking involving the 3rd and 4th strings, we’ll focus on the 5th string. Pick the open A on the 5th string, place the middle finger of your fret hand on the C (3rd fret) of the 5th string and quickly pull off to the open A. Almost immediately after the A sounds, immediately hammer on your pinky to the D (5th fret) of the 5th string and immediately pull off. Continue this sequence up until the drum fill before the verse.
*- I like to turn my pick sideways for the intro, the result is a subtle attack that’s perfect for this tune.
During the drum fill, crank the volume and get ready to rock!!! There are many ways to play the main riff, but only two stick out to me. Both involve hitting the open A on the downbeat and the whole A5 on the upbeat, the difference is on the turnaround. The first method is to grab a C5 with the root on the 5th string while keeping the open A on the 5th string and hammering on/pulling off the 5th string root and proceeding to do the same on the D5 a whole step higher. This is great for the beginning of the verse before the vocals take a bigger role in the song because its loud and in your face. However the last thing we want to do is step on our vocalists, they don’t take very kindly to that kind of thing. Once the vocals come around, I like to hold the A5 and hammer on/pull off the C and D on the 5th string during the turnarounds. Next thing you know, its time to modulate to C for the solo! Mmhmhmhm….
This solo is classic Gibbons. It amazes me how he’s able to be so smooth, yet so crunchy. Musically, this solo is all about the interaction of G, Eb, and Bb in relation to C (the tonic). In the first part of this 32 bar solo, Gibbons uses abrupt legato moves to bounce from G to Eb, back to G and finally to C. Gibbons really puts his mark on the tune with his signature slides, you can barely hear the origin of the move as he whips his fingers up and down the strings. Towards the end of the solo he uses hybrid picking and open phrasing while alternating between G and Bb before finally resolving to C. The repetition of the hybrid picking phrase creates tension while sounding in the style, making the resolution surprisingly relieving before heading into the turnaround.
Pretty basic turnaround. Hold the A on the 1st string while moving chromatically downwards from G to F on the 4th string and alternate (hybrid picking highly recommended here!) and cap it of by hitting an open A on the 5th string, hitting the same A once more followed by hammering on the 3rd and 4th frets of the 5th string and sticking a full A5 in the open A position. Rinse and repeat (I like to move it up one octave for the second go-around).
In A this time, features a lot of pinch harmonics (which I am not the best at). I like to improvise a little over this part. Stick with your blues variations to stay in the style (though you can play Dorian or Aeolian if you really feel like it….for the love of God do not noodle with Phrygian) and build your solo wisely.