WHEN Nik Ryan, aka Rev Billy F. Biggums, decided it might be fun to set up as a ZZ Top tribute, he and his bandmates had the musical experience to measure up to the Texan trio.
There was just one thing they lacked to properly impersonate the hirsute Houston hit-makers — guitarist Billy Gibbons’ and bass player Dusty Hill’s trademark beards.
"When we first started, we had the guys from Pirates of The Caribbean fabricate some beards for us," Ryan revealed.
"They were expensive beards — around £300 each, so it wasn’t a small outlay — and I look back it now, because it lives in my cupboard, and go: ‘What were we thinking?’"
It was meeting the real-life Billy Gibbons in Carcassonne in France that eventually persuaded Ryan that it was time to part with his fake beard.
"We realised that if we were going to do this, we really had to commit," he said.
"We started growing them around June 2008, so you are looking at five years work."
Ryan also revealed his secret for cultivating a beard that is long rather than bushy.
"You’ve got to think about sex," he said.
"You don’t have to do it, you just have to think about it apparently. It’s the testosterone that does it. The weird thing is that mine went like Billy’s and Colin’s went like Dusty’s."
Adopting the full ZZ Top look seems to be a bit of a radical image for previously clean shaven musicians — and their wives — to deal with, though.
"It did meet with raised eyebrows," Ryan acknowledged.
"But then it started to grow and now it’s an accepted member of the family. The trade off was that I wasn’t going to change now. I’ve suspended time. Initally the beard makes you look older, which is fine because Billy’s 13 years older than me, but you put on sunglasses and the hat along with the beard, you could be any age."
Ryan first came up with the idea of a tribute act playing ZZ Top’s no-nonsense rock and roll after seeing the US band in 2003 and recruited two suitably talented bandmates — soon to be re-named Dusty Thrills and Frank Weird, after drummer Frank Beard, ironically ZZ Top’s only beardless member.
Ryan, who has his own recording studio and years of live band experience, including working alongside his singer and vocal teacher wife, has even been given the seal of approval by the original ZZ Tops.
"We’ve met Billy now on three separate occasions. He’s been very gracious to us and said we were the closest thing to see worldwide," Ryan said.
"It’s always good to see him and keep up with what’s going on.
"I view him as an artisan more than just a musician. He has various patents out and his latest project is reuniting the Moving Sidewalks, who were his band before ZZ Top and toured with Jimi Hendrix. If we had done something like a Pink Floyd tribute, I don’t think we’d have met as many interesting people as we have in terms of trying to fabricate mic-stand that look like truck exhausts and various other parts of the show."
Aiming for as authentic a ZZ Top experience as possible has seen Ryan’s guitar collection grown considerably over the years with pride of place going to a 1958 Gibson Les Paul bought for him by his wife.
Gibbons is most famously associated with a 1959 version, the famous "Pearly Gates", but getting a ’59 version would just be too close for Ryan.
"That’s a Spinal Tap thing, isn’t it?" he laughed.
"It’s a really nice guitar. I really enjoy playing that."
The collection includes Fender Telecasters and Gretschs, but also recreations of the fuzzy Gibson guitars most famously used by ZZ Top in their video for the single Legs.
The ZZ-Tops version was made especially for the Devon-based tribute act by Axminister Carpets.
As Ryan acknowledged, it does give a whole new meaning to term "playing the Ax."
• The ZZ-Tops appear with Livewire AC/DC in the For Those About to Rock roadshow this evening, Friday 4th October, at Skinandis, Thurso, and tomorrow, Saturday 5th October, at The Ironworks, Inverness.