Billy Sheehan

Big Bottom
Big Bottom

Bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan made his mark in the rock world as a member of Talas. He left the group in 1985 when he was courted by former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth for his solo band – a chops extravaganza that included guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Gregg Bissonette. In ’89 he joined forces with another fretboard wizard, Paul Gilbert, to form Mr. Big, and in ’96, emerged with a new side project, Niacin – a progressive trio featuring renowned jazz drummer Dennis Chambers and keyboardist John Novello.

After years as a prominent team player and respected songwriter, Sheehan recently ventured out on his own and released his very first solo album, Compression, to rave reviews. On it, he not only handles all bass and vocal duties, but demonstrates his talents as a guitar player. The album also includes a guest solo by Steve Vai.

As a gear enthusiast and avid VG reader, Sheehan was stoked to fill us in on his latest accomplishments, including his recent stint in Steve Vai’s band as part of the latest G3 lineup, with Joe Satriani and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. Just after our interview, Sheehan released a statement announcing the he was parting ways with Mr. Big and that the group would disband following a tour of Japan. While fans of Mr. Big were certainly disappointed, this turnabout leaves Sheehan’s door open to opportunity.

Vintage Guitar: Tell us about your experience on the recent G3 tour and how it came about.
Billy Sheehan: It was great. Actually, I had Steve play the solo on my record, and then he wanted to hear the song. When I sent it to him, he liked it a lot and was super enthused about the whole record. At the time, I hadn’t signed with a label. I’d had other offers, but decided to sign with Steve’s label, Favored Nations, which is really great.

So Steve and I talked about maybe doing something again with David Lee Roth; you never say never. Well, one night I went out to see [King’s X bassist] Doug Pinnick on his solo tour. And after the show, I went to the Rainbow Bar & Grill. David Lee Roth was there, and he came over to my table. The place normally closes around 1 or 2 a.m., but we were there until 3:30, talking about all kinds of stuff. We agreed that we had to talk on Monday, when we were both sober and the sun was up. So on Monday, his office made some calls to talk about doing some stuff and see what’s up with everyone from the original band.

It turned out that Gregg Bissonette was booked, and Steve was booked with the G3 summer tour, so none of us were really available, other than myself. When Steve found out I was available, he called and asked if I’d join him on the G3 tour. I thought it was a great idea.

About a month earlier I’d said that I would do anything to do a bus tour of the U.S. I love Japan, and I love playing in foreign countries, but I would love to be playing in the U.S.A. and traveling on a bus night after night, like I did for so many years. Sure enough, it came true. So watch out what you wish for!

Had you seen previous incarnations of the G3 tour?
No, I hadn’t. I know it started with Steve and Joe Satriani, but I hadn’t seen any of the tours prior to playing on it.

Tell us about some of the more memorable gigs on the tour.
There were a lot. Our second show in New York City was amazing – we blew the roof off the place! In Austin, Eric Johnson came up and jammed during the encores, and in Houston, Billy Gibbons – my hero – got up onstage. I’ve always said that I stole hammer-ons and pinch harmonics from Billy Gibbons. I probably got the most mileage out of things I picked up from him, as far as my little technique things go. He’s such a kind and wonderful person, and it was unbelievable getting to play with him. He came up and played guitar on “La Grange” while I sang it. It was definitely a high point in my career!

I’d done “Shaft” with Isaac Hayes, and I sang “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” with Eddie Van Halen once. And now I’ve done “La Grange” with Billy Gibbons. I guess I can quit now!

How is working with Steve different from working with other guitarists?
I love working with Steve. In a way – if I dare say – there are many things that we approach in the same way. We do the same kind of things to warm up, and we have the same concerns before we go on. We were laughing at each other about it because it’s kind of like a parallel universe. I’m not comparing my ability to Steve’s, but we have similar aspects of our pre-show rituals.

But what an easy gig it was! There wasn’t a moment of “drama,” and it was just wonderful. Steve is so easy to get along with as a person, and it was just so much fun. We would focus all of our energy on playing and enjoying it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, musically and personally.

How would you describe your own style and tone? What are the most essential elements?
It’s hard for me to describe myself. I know I’m very aggressive and that when I’m playing, I basically fly off the handle. When I’m offstage, I pay attention to a lot of details. But onstage, I try to forget all those details and just fly.

It’s important to me as a bass player to really lock in with what’s going on with the drums. That’s why I think I’ve gotten away with being a more “notey” bass player than others – because drums are everything to me. I watch the drummer. I breathe in with the drummer, I breathe out with the drummer. When he moves, I move. So if I’m playing a lot of notes and I’m still locked in time, it doesn’t sound like a mess.

I was fortunate enough to do a project with Dennis Chambers in Niacin, and working with him is like getting a PhD in timing. In Steve’s band, we used Virgil Donati on drums. I’d heard of Virgil, but I never heard him play. He is an amazing player and he just killed everybody. But unlike a lot of guys who can blaze, he is locked in the time. He’ll take departures, but he always comes back in time and on time. That’s so essential to me as a bass player.

I’ve been really fortunate to work with so many great drummers, like Gregg, Dennis, Mike Portnoy, and Terry Bozzio; they’ve really helped my playing a lot. Virgil helped me to lock into the time of those pieces because he had such a great handle on his instrument that it added a whole freedom to the entire band.

Describe the live rig you used on G3.
As always, I used my Yamaha Attitude bass, which has been my mainstay since it came out in ’89 or ’90. It’s just a beefy, manly, kick-ass bass, and Yamaha did a great job on it. I also use two Nady wireless systems because I have outputs from the high and low pickups to separate amps.

For amplification, I used two Ampeg SVT-4 Pros with a Pierce preamp and SVT 8×10 cabs. Effects are an Eventide Eclipse in my rack, which was sent to me to try out on this tour. I used to use an old Eventide H10 harmonizer with Talas, David Lee Roth, and Mr. Big, but the Eclipse does all those old harmonizer tricks, plus a zillion new ones – and it’s only a half-rack space. But compression is my main effect – which, oddly enough, is the name of my new solo record! How’s that for a plug?

How are your basses set up?
I use Snarling Dogs strings. I’d worked with Charlie Stringer to develop a line of strings that would duplicate the feel of the Rotosound strings I used for years, but would be more consistent in quality and tone. I use .043, .055, .085, .115, which is the Hell-Billys set. There are also Really-Billys, which are lighter, and Barely-Billys, which are the lightest.

The way I have my bass set up, when I drop the Hipshot D-Tuner to a low D, the string intonation is perfect up and down the neck. You don’t have to worry about it pulling sharp or dropping flat. The action is set kind of medium-low. There’s a little bit of buzz and grind to it, but when I bend the G string up at the seventh fret, it doesn’t bottom out. It’s optimized. If it’s set up too low, it bottoms out. I really play much harder live, so if the action is too low, it can bottom out.

Tell us about your bass collection.
I’ve accumulated a number of things, but I don’t actually own a lot of collectibles. I have a great Epiphone Rivoli bass – the same model that Paul Samwell-Smith held on the cover of Having A Rave-Up With The Yardbirds, which is one of the most important records of my life. He’s one of the best and most unsung bass players of all times. The Yardbirds hatched Page, Beck, and Clapton, but everyone forgot how great Paul Samwell-Smith was, and he was blazing right along with them. Yamaha got it for me as a birthday gift a few years ago. I put black nylon tape-wound strings on it so it would be all authentic. It’s pretty cool.

I was looking for a Höfner Beatle Bass, just because I have to have one. Paul McCartney had one and that’s what started most everything in pop music today. When I was in England, I figured I’d probably be able to get one fairly cheap, but no such luck. They were going for a lot of money. I went into the Bass Centre in London and hanging on the wall was a different Höfner Bass – I think it’s a Senator model. It was 150, which is a little over $275. So I bought it. It’s a great bass and sounds exactly like the violin-shaped model. It’s got the same kind of tone, the same pickups, and control panel on it, but it’s just a little bit different in the body shape.

I also have an old Hagstrom that a friend found on the internet. The first bass I ever owned was a two-pickup Hagstrom with a plastic top. I don’t know the model, but they came in several colors. The one he found was black, but my original was lavender. Then sure enough, he found a lavender one, so I bought it just for nostalgia’s sake.

I just got a ’68 Tele bass from a friend in Buffalo (New York). All of necks on my old P-Basses were Tele necks, which are just big baseball bats. I don’t know what Fender did that year, but the neck is a giant and I really like the mass. All the necks on my Yamaha Attitude basses are modeled after the ’68 Tele bass neck. Some people are afraid of them because it’s so big!

How has your approach to playing bass evolved since your early days with Talas?
Well, most of my playing evolved in Talas. It came from playing in a copy band – playing five or six nights a week, three sets a night. We played all copy tunes until we managed to sneak in a few of our own originals.

When I was playing with a three-piece band – since there was just one guitar player and no keyboard – I had to do all these extra things on my bass without losing the low-end. That’s how my amp setup evolved, where I could have a low-end pickup and a high-end pickup, so that at any given time, if I did some fancy stuff, I wouldn’t lose the low frequencies.

We’d do songs like “Carry On Wayward Son,” “White Punks On Dope,” “21st Century Schizoid Man” or “Burn” – all these songs that required quite a bit of instrumentation. But we managed to fake our way through them with me playing some of the keyboards or guitar parts on bass, while still locking in with the drummer and trying to hold down a foundation for the guitar player, too.

It was quite a challenge, but it was either do it like that or to get another guy in the band and then have to split our money four ways! A hundred dollars split three ways is $33 and change each, where a four-way split is only $25 each. So we opted to stick with the three-piece lineup, which required me to do extra stuff on bass, and to sing.

But playing in a copy band and having to learn all those parts was one of the most important things I ever did. The Beatles were a copy band, and so were Van Halen and Oasis. Hendrix even played in a show band, doing other peoples’ music. It just makes good sense to get up there and play tunes to get used to the stage and learn how to put a verse together with a chorus, learn how to sing, how to deal with the crowd and how to date the waitresses – all the things you need to know that are important in a band…

As I found out later, those years in Talas were super important. If you start in a band that does all originals, and you’re a huge sensation and you’re artistically satisfied, then God bless you! But I really needed to play in a copy band to get my feet on the stage and learn how to do all of that stuff first. Playing covers really helps hone your chops as a player, performer, and as a songwriter, too.

How has your songwriting style evolved?
Well, I try to write music that does the same things to me emotionally as the music that I love. My tastes in music are all over the map, genre-wise. Some of my favorite stuff is early Bowie, early Genesis with Peter Gabriel, or Hendrix, where the lyrics had some meaning other than “Baby, I love you” or “You broke my heart.” I like music where there’s something deeper. When I write, I try to keep in mind that a song doesn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator… It can actually get a bit heady and intellectual.

Are your playing influences different from your influences as a writer?
Yes. I think my writing influences are based more on song-oriented bands, whereas my playing is stolen from everybody. I’ve stolen from the best – Bach and Brandenburg concertos, Oscar Peterson’s piano playing, Chopin etudes, Sonny Rollins’ bebop tenor sax lines, Robert Fripp’s guitar playing. In a song, I wouldn’t necessarily use any Sonny Rollins influences, but in a way I think that it does affect you when you learn that stuff, and love it.

I think all musicians should be exposed to quality music of many genres. Somewhere in the mix in your songwriting, there’s a taste of something that you may not even recognize yourself, and no one who hears it may ever recognize exactly where it came from. But just being aware of having that type of music alive in your soul does reflect on the quality of your final product.

Which musicians influenced you most in terms of style?
Actually, what I looked for was just notes – who was playing what combinations of notes and in what manner they were doing it. Was it a string of bebop notes, an Oscar Peterson piano line, or whatever? I didn’t necessarily look at musical lines for bass only, although they might be played on the bass by a bass player. I’d look for strings of notes, and observe the way they were put together and what would happen to me as a listener when I heard them.

Just by stringing a couple of notes together, you can create any emotion. Rather than to look for just bass lines and only listen to bass players, I looked to a lot of different instruments and ways of stringing notes together. Learning a cello solo from a Brandenburg concerto was very good for me and my ears in learning to move around on the neck. Learning a standard tune like “Misty” or “Moon River,” and learning the jazz voicings of the chords was also very helpful. It just helped my ear and my sensibility of what notes were on the neck. I was looking at ways of putting notes together.

Ultimately, I have to play it on the bass, so that’s when the transition comes. I can’t play piano or violin parts on the bass, but I can play bass parts. I’d be in a club in the middle of some solo and I’d play some Bach or Chopin piece as a little segue, and people would freak out, asking how I ever thought of that. I didn’t think of it, I stole it! But on bass, it becomes something completely different.

I think Jaco Pastorius was an excellent example of a bass player who did tend to weave his influence with bebop sax lines. When he applied that to bass, it was a whole different thing. It’s the same thing with drumming skills and knowing about rudiments and how drummers approach things. Knowing stuff like that, and applying that to bass can all be very helpful in your development as a player. It can definitely expand your knowledge and make you a more interesting player.

How has your interpretation of bass tone changed over time? Which players were most influential to you in developing your tone?
I’ve been into the distortion bass sound since very early on. Players like Jack Bruce, Andy Frasier (Free), and Tim Bogert had aggressive bass tones. All those guys are my heroes – Tim probably more than the others, only because I listened to him more.

I remember hearing “Dance To The Music” with Larry Graham’s distorted tone on the little bass solo. At the time, no one had ever heard that, so we all freaked out. “Oh my God! Fuzz on the bass!”

I liked the distorted tone because I liked getting a little aggressive. John Wetton’s tone is a big influence on me, too. Doug Pinnick has that kind of grind. Chris Squire had it, as well, as did John Entwistle.

Because I was in a three-piece band, I tried to keep the low-end together, but I also added to it with that grinding tone on top. I ended up splitting my bass into two amps – using one amp for the screaming tone and one amp for the basic bass.

I’d done a little bit of inadvertent research – I’d read an article by John Paul Jones, who I thought was one of the best bass players and unsung heroes in the world – and he said he split his pickups and went into two different amps. So I knew I wasn’t out of my mind! Then I found out that John Entwistle did the same thing.

The original Alembic basses were set up like that, too, so that there was a separate output for each pickup. And, of course, the Rickenbacker basses came with the input that said “Rik-O-Sound,” which is the same principle.

So here I thought I had invented something, and it turned out that a billion other people thought it up before. When I put my original EB-0 pickup on my P-Bass and ran two outputs into two amps, that was the beginning of that setup for me.

On Compression, you played most of the guitar parts. Had you played much guitar before this?
I actually played guitar and have written music on guitar for as long as I’ve played bass. I hadn’t been performing as a guitarist, but I had always done it on the side.
Had you started on guitar before becoming a bass player?
Kind of, in that I borrowed my sister’s guitar and played some chords on it until I finally had to buy my first bass. But I never really got anywhere on guitar, and bass was the instrument I grew up on, as a player.

But yes, the first thing I owned was a guitar, so that’s true. I wouldn’t say I launched my serious playing on guitar, but I had one before I had a bass.

Back when I played in cover bands, we’d switch back and forth at the end of the night, when we ran out of encore tunes. So I could always play guitar, but it was not my main instrument.

But as a guitar player, I tended to gravitate toward 12-string guitars because there was just so much more to it in terms of sound. To play a chord on a 12-string guitar, it was more like an orchestra.

Do you mean 12-string acoustic or electric?
Acoustic, though I’ve always been a fan of electric 12s – any kind of 12-string. I recently had the opportunity to get a 12-string baritone electric made for me by Yamaha, and it is just spectacular – an orchestra of an instrument. I did almost all the guitar parts on my record on it. It’s a variation of a bajo sexto, only it’s tuned to a low B. It’s just amazing.

So since then, I’ve been tracking down every baritone 12-string I can find. Joe Veillette makes one, and Rick Turner makes a semi-acoustic 12-string baritone I just bought. Alvarez-Yairi makes a six-string acoustic baritone that’s great; I used it on the record, too. I also have a Yamaha electric baritone six-string that I used.

Since my voice is low, I went with baritone instruments. And the baritone 12 inspired me to write a lot of music. As most people who read your magazine know, you get a great instrument in your hands and it can inspire you to new heights. That’s the cool thing about instruments. It can inspire you to do something that you wouldn’t have done before. This 12-string electric baritone did that for me.

How are they tuned?
B to B, but in standard guitar tuning, so it’s (low to high) B, E, A, D, F#, B. It’s a really long-scale instrument with a very beefy tone.

When you’re writing instrumental parts, are you conscious of creating parts you can play and sing simultaneously, or do you work that out later?
I’ve played and sung live a lot, so I can usually figure that out. I spoke with Geddy Lee about it one time, and he said that he definitely has to practice to make sure he can get all that stuff down. You can’t always be thinking it through while you’re doing it and you don’t always know when you record it whether or not it’s going to translate live. So there’s room for a little bit of creativeness in order to be able to do parts live. There’s always a way to do it, though.

After playing for so many years and having to adapt many songs to live performance, I’ve been able to adapt something so that I can make it sound like it’s supposed to sound.

Did you make demos of the material before going in to track the album?
No. I just kind of came up with the songs, then we put down the instrumental tracks, and I added the vocals.

How did you track the guitars? What type of rig did you use in the studio?
I used the Line 6 POD and the Avalon 737 FP mic preamp for the guitars. Since I really wanted to use my home studio to its fullest extent, rather than adapting old ways, I went with everything direct. I used the Ampeg preamp for my bass and/or the Avalon and/or Bass POD.

So it was a conjunction of all three things and we came up with sounds that I thought were really cool. I love using the real stuff, but sometimes in the real world, logistics and finances bring changes. I was happy to use the amp modeling stuff, but I think that in the future I probably will get an isolation room.

But as it sits, a lot of people were fooled into thinking that it was a room full of Marshalls and SVTs. The Ampeg preamp, the Avalon, and the guitar and Bass PODs were the main input devices, but the Avalon played on almost everything, too, which I think added an incredible “golden ears” quality to everything else. It’s just a spectacular piece of equipment, and I couldn’t live without it!

Were all the basses used on Compression your Yamaha Attitude models?
Yes, but I used one in a slightly different way than I usually have them set up, so it would sound better with the lower tuning of the baritone guitars. I took an Attitude and strung it (low to high) B, E, A, D, instead of E, A, D, G. I played that on everything except for one song.

I think “All Mixed Up” is the only song that has standard-tuned bass. Everything else is tuned B, E, A, D. That was kind of weird – playing my regular four-string tuned B, E, A, D. It was interesting, musically, and added a degree of uniqueness to my playing. It made me move to different spots on the neck and do things I wouldn’t normally have done.

How do your guitar and bass techniques differ?
I play with a pick on guitar – a stone pick, actually. But I don’t really pay much attention to my guitar playing. It’s kind of a seat-of-the-pants type of thing, but I can solo and play a flurry of fast notes.

My main thing is my bass playing, and I can do so much more on bass than I ever can on guitar. I can’t sweep-pick on guitar, but I can sweep-fingerpick on bass with no problem. Guitar is not my main instrument by a long shot, but I can get by.

I will say that it’s way easier to play guitar and sing than to play bass and sing. I’ll testify to that, and so will every singing bass player. In the old days, if I had to play and sing a difficult part on the bass, I’d end up just strumming the bass strings or holding one note down, because plucking with independent fingers is tough while you’re singing. I think it’s harder than playing drums and singing.

How frequently do you practice?
I try to put in about an hour of pain a day, where it’s just work, not music. I try to work on things that I’m really bad at. Like when I’m on the low E string, sometimes my picking hand isn’t as accurate as it is on the A, D, or G, so I’ll just sit on the low E and do that for an hour. I’ll sit with a metronome and try to get it exactly right.

It’s painful, awful, and it doesn’t sound very musical, but it’s what you need to do to get your hands in shape so that when you do decide to actually just play, your hands are in shape and you don’t have to think about technique. There’s an old saying; “When you’re thinking, you’re stinking!”

I practice on guitar a lot, too, and I do all my vocal exercises with guitar, so I can keep my voice in shape, as well.

Photo courtesy of Favored Nations.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s May. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.