Billy Sheehan live in Taiwan
I started playing bass in the 1980s, the heyday of what would later be dubbed
"hair metal." But hairstlyes aside, the 80s was a decade that saw some serious
envelope pushing among guitarists and bass players. A lot of players from those
days have slid into obscurity, but that hasn't been the case for Billy Sheehan.
Besides being one of the most technically gifted players to every approach
the instrument, he has proven himself in a wide array of genres and has enjoyed
both popular success, with Mr. Big and David Lee Roth, and critical acclaim
with his own solo albums and his fusion trio, Niacin. I (WB) conducted
this interview with Billy Sheehan (BS) through a series of emails in April
WB: I'd like to thank you for agreeing to do an interview with
Bassplaying.com. You've had a tremendous influence on the art of bass playing.
And, in many ways, your playing raises the bar for what can be accomplished on
the bass guitar. I'm honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
BS: You are TOO KIND to say that. Thanks. I'm still learning though!
WB: Tell us a little about where you're living now, where you grew up, and
what first attracted you to the bass guitar.
BS: I live in Los Angeles---it's the center of the universe as far as the
entertainment scene goes. I love it here. I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Actually
Kenmore, NY---a suburb of Buffalo. When I started playing in the late '60's,
as a little kid, there were bands all over the place. At night you could here
them practicing. There was a music explosion after the Beatles hit America,
and everyone was into music. No video games, internet, or cell phones! I always
thought the bass was the coolest instrument. Big fat thick strings & huge amps
shaking the whole house. I gravitated towards it instantly.
WB: You've had a huge influence on an entire generation of bass players. Who
are some of the bassists that inspired you when you were starting out?
BS: Ha! I usually make a rule for interviews---no questions about "influences."
I've answered it 650,000,000 times & if they can't think of any questions,
the default question is ALWAYS "Who were your influences". No offense though!
BUT, I always try to answer whats asked of me, so here goes! Ha! Answer:
Anyone & everyone. Mostly (in somewhat chronological order) Paul Samwell Smith,
Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, Tim Bogert, James Jamerson, Glenn Cornick,
Jack Casady, Andy Fraser, Larry Graham, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorious,
Stanley Clarke, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Miroslav Vitous, Mel Schacher,
Pete Cetera, John Wetton, Jim Fielder, Greg Ridley, Felix Pappalardi, Glenn
Hughes, Doug Pinnick, and many, many more....
Guitar Influences: (I play mostly baritone guitar now) Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young,
Rory Gallagher, Robert Fripp, Paul Kossoff, Robin Trower, and many, many more....
Vocal Influences: Tortured animals, people in debilitating pain, wounded crows,
Musical Influences: Everything & anything. Mainly Bowie,
Neil Young, King Crimson, Free, Electronic music, A lot of classical music,
Debussy, Oscar Peterson, not much country--but I do like kd Lang & bluegrass.
Also Indian & Flamenco music, Paco DeLucia, The Gipsy Kings, Accept, Judas Priest,
Motorhead. No rap or R & B, except Snoop Dog & Tricky. Also Imogen Heap,
As I Lay Dying, New Metal, Goth, Original Glam (as in the '70's), Fusion &
Progressive, and New Prog. OK--I admit it. I copied & pasted it from my
MySpace site. Ha! Sorry for
WB: People joke about being "big in Japan." Mr. Big did well in the United
States but had an even longer-running success in Japan. You guys sold out your
farewell tour there. What does it feel like to play crowds like that and to
be so well received overseas?
BS: People generally don't understand the situation. We did well in many places.
Our biggest show was in Brazil. Its just so easy to lump it into the "Big in
Japan" cliche. We sold more records in America & Europe. We treated the shows
"overseas" no differently than anywhere. We did our best shows always, no matter
who we were in front of. It's kind of a back-handed insult to Japan & other
places---implying that they like "sub-standard bands" that aren't big anywhere
else. The "Spinal Tap" thing. It's simply false. Not true.
We had a great run everywhere. I'm very happy about it all. We were BillBoard
magazine #1 for 3 weeks. #1 in 14 countries. MTV #1 for I don't know how long.
I sat in chair number one on the Tonight Show! A dream come true since I was a
little kid. I'm very thankful for it all. "Big in Japan" does not accurately
describe the situation.
WB: You've spent a lot of time and effort to achieve your signature
tone--which has both a clear fundamental and a distorted edge. Is tone
something you still experiment with these days?
BS: Always! I'm a gear-head from WAY back. It's an eternal tweak fest! The
real goal, in the end is to hear the notes the way I hear them when the bass
is unplugged & I'm in a quiet room (Believe it or not!). All the harmonics &
nuances are there. Plugging into an amp changes everything, so I try to find
a way to get everything I know is coming of the bass to come out of the
WB: Five and six string basses are increasingly popular, but the four-string
still seems to be your bass of choice, even in fusion contexts like Niacin.
What is it about the four-string that keeps you coming back to it?
BS: I have a photo of myself, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, Stu Hamm,
Jeff Berlin, & Marcus Miller, all together in NY. We all play 4 string basses.
It was Jaco's, Paul McCartneys, James Jamersons, & countless other players
choice. I just feel at home with it. I don't know of any time ever when
it imited me. Or anyone else.
Billy Sheehan, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Stu Hamm, Jeff Berlin, Victor Wooten giving the 4-string salute in NYC
WB: One of the challenges of pushing the envelope as a rock bassist is finding
a way to be supportive while also carving out a larger space for the bass itself.
You've managed to do that with remarkable consistency. How do you balance
those two roles?
BS: That's how I learned to play. "Soloing" came way later in my life. My
earliest bass hero Joe Hesse, who lived around the corner, had a band & I would
go bother them and try to watch them practice ( I was 10 years old). One day it
was just he and the drummer together, playing the songs they were learning. I
asked Joe "why are you practicing like this?". He said--"As long as the bass
plays a note at the same time the bass drum hits, the band will be solid &
sound tight". So, before I even OWNED a bass, that was my basic understanding.
I watch the drummer like a hawk & lock into him. That's the foundation that I
build from always. Bass note with bass drum. That's 99% of it.
WB: You've really helped define the two-handed tapping approach to bass
playing. That seems an even trickier technique to incorporate into a regular
band setting. Do you have any advice on how to integrate the technique?
BS: Hit it hard. It's got to come off the bass as loud as your plucked notes.
And in time. And you have to et back to that root note foundation FAST before
it falls apart. I see guys playing along, then shift to some hammer-on thingy
& the low end disappears. You got to get back to it quick.
WB: Have you been happy to see something you had a large hand in creating
becoming more of a staple in modern bass playing?
BS: Never thought about it really. I don't know if I had anything to do with
it. If I did, I'm glad & honored.
WB: Tell us about your latest solo album, Cosmic Troubadour (2005).
BS: Working on a follow up to it now. It was a blast to record. Ray Luzier
on drums----he kicked ass totally! I'm very happy with the record.
WB: How does Cosmic Troubadour compare with your debut solo effort,
BS: Using a real drummer for the whole thing made it sound more like a "band"
effort, which I liked. Doing drum programming (except for the songs Terry Bozzio
played on) on Compression was cool though. I'm very much into the digital
WB: Did you record either of your solo albums in your home studio?
BS: Yes. Except for drums. We went to a large studio for that. I couldn't do
that to my neighbors! Ha!
WB: Some players endorse one product today and another next week. But you've
stuck with Yamaha basses, Ampeg amps, and Rotosound strings for years.
Endorsement clearly mean more to you than just lending your name to something
and picking up a check.
BS: Absolutely! The integrity of it is EVERYTHING. It's not about the money at
all. It's about recommending something you believe in for other players. I
would never disrespect my fellow players by saying something was good just to
make a buck.
WB: Your Yamaha "Attitude" bass (ATT LTD II) borrows a lot of design ideas
from "The Wife," the bass you put together yourself from a variety of sources,
which was your main bass for quite a number of years. How happy have you been
with your signature model?
BS: We borrowed all the tweaks I had done to it, as well as much of the
inherent Fender qualities. It's really the only bass I play. I have other
basses I love, but the Yamaha does all the work! I love the bass. I wish Yamaha
would support it more. They are hard to find.
WB: You now have a second signature bass out from Yamaha. This one, the
BEX-BS, is a semi-hollowbody. Can you tell us a bit out it?
BS: It came and it went! It was a good idea, I think, but the company didn't
do much with it. I love that bass. Very unique. It was inspired by the
semi-hollowbody basses like the Epiphone Rivoli & the Gibson EB basses.
There will be a new version of the Attitude out early next year, as well as a
signature BB series bass--similar to y very first Yamaha BB3000. The new
Attitude is very nice. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a production
WB: You currently have two instructional book/DVD combos from Alfred:
Billy Sheehan: Basic Bass and Billy Sheehan: Advanced Bass. Tell us a little
about those and what players can expect from them.
BS: The Basic Bass is for absolute beginners. I think a lot of instructional
videos over-shot the mark with a lot of players. Especially beginners. A lot
of instructional videos were made to showcase a players fancy licks, rather
than actually instruct. I went WAY basic on the first DVD. I really wanted to
make something that would help launch & encourage new players. I've gotten tons
of email about how it has helped many young & old beginners. Glad to hear that.
The Advanced Bass gets into lots of specialized things that I'm often asked
about. I had a few audio engineer's compliment me on my explanation of
compression---so I was glad to hear THAT! Ha! Again, I really want it to be of
help to my fellow players.
WB: People who only know you from David Lee Roth Band or Mr. Big who want to
check out some of your other projects might want to check out Prime Cuts:
Billy Sheehan (2006), a retrospective which highlights you work on the Magna
Carter label and features several Niacin cuts. Do you have any current or
upcoming projects we should know about?
BS: There's always something going on! As I said earlier, I'm working on a
follow-up to Cosmic Troubadour. New Niacin probably soon too. No rest for
WB: What would be your advice to up and coming players who admire the sort of
cutting edge bass playing that continues to define your career?
BS: Play! Get in a band & PLAY. LIVE. That's what it's all about. Learn some
SONGS. Play with a band. Put all your bass stuff to use. That's the true test.
Esoteric & abstract bass licks, runs, & scales aren't necessarily music. You
have to get to the finished product---a satisfied audience. You get there by
performing great music & songs in a way that reaches them. Everything I own
came from someone somewhere buying a CD, T-shirt, or a ticket to a show. I'm
so thankful to them for that. They did it because I gave them something they
felt was worth it. I work hard to do my best for them. The audience is the
final judge of it all. Be amazing and give them a night they won't forget.
That's the best advice I know for my fellow brothers in bass.
Billy Sheehan, practicing what he preaches, live with his signature Yamaha Attitude bass.
WB: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with us. We look
forward to hearing more from you.
BS: Right on! Thank YOU! And by the way---who were your influences?? HA!