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