We are sad to report the recent passing of legendary Texan, and bassist (in that order) Joseph Michael ‘Dusty’ Hill, bass player for blues legends ZZ Top.
In a career with the same band lasting for over fifty years, Dusty will be remembered by the MTV-viewing public for his prodigious beard, Stetson and sunglasses.
But for bass guitar players, he will be known for his singular bass style, an object lesson for any player looking to learn two valuable lessons for bassists – how to find the pocket, and how to stay in it.
Hill’s bass playing throughout his career, both on stage and in the studio, remained completely without frills. He was never a player who liked to dance up and down the fretboard showing his technical chops to the listening world. Hill understood that the essence of top-line blues playing for a bassist, especially one in a three-piece band, is to find the time with the drummer, lock in, and stay there – something Hill did for the entirely of his career with the Texas blues masters. No-one will ever know just how technically proficient Dusty Hill was as a bass guitarist, because he never played four or five notes when just the one will do. He left the more overt musical dexterity to guitarist Billy Gibbons, Hill was always content to shine with his clear tenor vocals and groove-driven playing. As any bassist knows, playing that simply, and that well, is a good deal harder than Hill ever made it look.
Dusty Hill was born in Texas, and played in a number of local bands with his brother, and future ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard in the mid-1960’s, before joining up with Billy Gibbons and Beard to form ZZ Top in 1969.
Having enjoyed considerable success with a series of blues albums, ZZ Top reached an entirely new and massive world-wide audience with their radio and video-friendly album Eliminator. The band found themselves on heavy rotation on MTV with their hit singles from the album, the videos humorously playing on the band’s conscious absence of ‘image’, apart from the famous beards grown by Gibbons and Hill before the band’s formation, and the ironic absence of a beard worn by the band’s drummer.
Even though his musical technique was firmly rooted in the frills-free age-old adage – play for the song – Hill was an avid collector of bass guitars, having a number of instruments specifically designed and made for him by a variety of luthiers, and experimenting with different combinations of amplifiers throughout his long career.
Unusually for a band that has lasted over fifty years with a single line-up, following the death of a founder member, ZZ Top will carry on.
Dusty Hill officially left the band in July 2021 after injuring his hip, and his place was taken at their next live show by his long-term bass tech Elwood Francis.
Hill expressly requested that after his death, Francis should carry on as the band’s bass player, and at the time of writing, it is advised that the remaining two members of ZZ Top are keen to comply with that wish.
Dusty Hill leaves a considerable musical legacy behind him, with a series of seminal albums from ZZ Top ranging from the early rough-edged Texan bar blues of their first albums, through the highly polished and sophisticated sounds of Eliminator, and beyond. But all have the continual thread of Hill’s simple but always perfect bass playing underpinning everything they did, ensuring that the bottom end of the band’s sound was a rock-solid bed for the music to lie on.
Music Instrument News extends sympathies to all Dusty’s family, friends, and colleagues, past and present, and to the world-wide audience that have enjoyed his music for more than half a century.