When it comes to rock bass, few players command the instrument with as much finesse and showmanship as Billy Sheehan. Best known for his work with Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, Niacin, and Steve Vai, Sheehan debuted his solo offerings in 2001 with Compression. VG spoke with Sheehan about the creation of his second disc, Cosmic Troubadour, and how he put it together – from writing the material to handling all bass, guitar, and vocal duties.
Vintage Guitar: What inspired Cosmic Troubadour?
Billy Sheehan: I had traveled and played a lot prior to making this record, and when I’m traveling, I don’t have much of a chance to record or write. It just gets stored up inside. So when I came off the road, I had a lot of information to pull from – a lot of experiences, illuminations, and philosophizing from sitting on all the long plane rides. Everything I wrote for this record is brand new, like on Compression. So it was all fresh – a new point of view, a new sense of chords, voicings, and approaches to everything I played, as well as the lyrics. Though I don’t necessarily write about road experiences, it was basically just the result of being on the road all over the world and coming back. The experiences affect me in ways that allow me to dig deep into my storytelling and express it.
Has your writing process changed over time?
Yes. I had always written songs on guitar only and I never did much on bass. Normally, when I’m writing a song, I’m going to sing it. So if I’m singing along with my chord playing, it’s easier to sing to a guitar than to a bass. But for this record, I wrote a lot of the instrumental pieces on bass. So there isn’t always a hard-fast rule that the songs I sing, I write on guitar, and the songs that are instrumental, I do on bass. It’s a general guideline of the way that I do things, but it’s not always the case because some of the things I had started the basics of on bass, I ended up singing. It was a real interesting mix of the two processes. So the actual difference between what’s going on now and what went on in the past is a bit of an evolvement and an expansion of what I can do on either instrument, keeping in mind whether it’s for an instrumental or a vocal track.
How does your approach differ when playing guitar and bass?
For guitar, I use a stone pick made by a company called Real Rock. I loved using those old Mind picks that were made of stone, but that company is long out of business and you can’t find them anymore. I was worried because I only had three stone picks left, and sometimes they break when you drop them on a hard surface. I have one that was epoxied back together. I’m so glad that Real Rock came along. Playing with a stone pick gives you a distinct tone. It’s a different sound on the baritone guitar for chordal stuff and 12-string things, which aren’t known for being good for playing a lot of lines on linear stuff, but I like to play lines on them anyway because my hands are strong from playing bass. I use the stone picks for everything, even strumming. They have a real interesting feel for strumming on the baritone and it gives you a little bit more command over the instrument.
What was used to record guitar and bass tracks?
Generally, I used the Avalon 737st as a main direct source for either clean guitar or bass. It has a spectacular sound and it’s one of my favorite pieces of gear. It’s a mic pre and instrument pre with EQ and compression. The EQ is as sweet as honey and the compression is as smooth as silk. It’s wonderful. There were some times when I would record direct with my baritone 12-string through that. I remember reading an article about Roger McGuinn of the Byrds recording a lot of 12-string stuff direct through a little compressor. So I tried to follow what he did in that respect.
I’m also a big fan of the Line 6 Pod. I used a lot of their processors on the guitars and some of it on bass. I have both the kidney-shaped models and the rackmount models for guitar and bass, but they’re not the newest rack models. I also had my Ampeg rig set up in the garage – a split SVT 8×10 cabinet with two 4x10s, and then my live rack with Pearce preamps and SVT4 Pros, which I had mic’ed up with an AKG 414 and Neumann U87. The 8×10 cabinet is split so you can either use it mono where the eight 10s are on, or just go into another jack and use the top four and the bottom four speakers for two different tones.
Onstage, I use two separate cabinets with two separate amps. Since it’s a little bit of a smaller space and you don’t need it that loud in the studio, I opted for the split cabinet with the top four and bottom four speakers. I used the U87 on the lows and the 414 on the top. So the bassier frequencies got the larger diaphragm. I used the amp with the Bass Pod and the Avalon with all kinds of combinations mixed together at various times for getting either a cleaner tone, some ripping distortion things, and tones somewhere in between all that.
For tracking bass parts, I used my Yamaha Attitude bass on everything. For guitars, I had a custom Yamaha 12-string baritone, which is a custom made semi-hollowbody that’s got sort of a late-’50s or ’70s body style. It just sounds great. I also used a Fender Custom Shop baritone Subsonic Strat. It’s really cool because it sounds and feels like a Strat, but it’s way down there. It’s got an extra long neck that’s tuned B, E, A, D, F#, B. I used that for the first solo on “Toss It On The Flames,” and for a lot of other parts. The guitar parts were mostly done with the Subsonic Strat and the Yamaha baritone 12.
Which songs best exemplify your work as both a musician and a writer?
There’s a song from the album called “The Suspense Is Killing Me” that we’re doing on tour with Steve Vai. We’re doing an adaptation of it because there’s no guitar on the original version. I really like the way that came about as a piece – how it builds and how it moves, and how it’s structured together musically. “Hope” is another instrumental piece which I really love. It’s a beautiful, emotional piece of music. Lyrically, I like “Back In The Day” a lot. It reminds me a lot of early Bowie stuff, and I purposely kind of default to a Bowie-ishness. I wish I could sing like him. I just love that guy’s voice.
Will you do a solo tour?
After the tour with Steve is done, I hope to go out and do some stuff on my own with Ray Luzier, the drummer who played on this record. That’s the plan. It isn’t solidified yet, but I really want to go and pull out some of the old stuff, like some Talas and Roth material. It should be an entertaining night!
Photo: Lisa Sharken.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.