Billy Sheehan is to many a living legend having played with his own bands Talas, Light years, Niacin, BX3, and also Mr. Big. He has also been featured on tracks for many major artists around the world over the years. Billy has played it all during his career as a bass player, millions of notes played and millions of records sold…here is a real master of his craft. Let’s put the spotlight on Mr. Billy Sheehan.
BISCUIT: Hi Billy, it’s great to have you talk with me for Bass Musician Magazine my friend. I would like to start by talking about the recent reunion tour with Mr Big. How did that all go for you and the guys?
BILLY: Smooth as silk, it was a real blast. We had a great time and all the shows sold out. The last show in Yokohama was the best of all and we actually filmed the previous one the night before at the Budokan which was great, but Yokohama being the last show of the tour is always something special.
BISCUIT: How long were the sets?
BILLY: Oh, they were about two and a half hours long, and sometimes close to three on some occasions… we pushed real hard out there.
BISCUIT: They Love Mr Big in Japan don’t they…you must have played in some pretty cool arenas over there.
BILLY: Yeah, they like Mr Big a lot, and we were in a lot of ways the biggest western band out there for a long time, and on this tour we played everything from twelve to eighteen hundred seat arena’s, right up to the Osaka dome. I played with a domestic Japanese band out there and that market is about ten times larger than for the western bands that play in Japan. I played on one single and it sold around three million units in one day and the band I played with sold more records than Madonna, and they don’t really play anywhere out side Japan.
BISCUIT: When was the last time you played with Mr Big before the reunion, I believe it was quite a while ago?
BILLY: With Paul Gilbert in the band… it was around 1996 I think and “Hey Man” was the last of the four studio records, and then there was a greatest hit’s album also, where we did a bonus track called “Stay together” which became a really popular track, especially when we performed it live.
BISCUIT: Since those days you have been very busy with various other projects such as Niacin, BX3, and of course the solo records like “Compression” and “Cosmic Troubadour”. Were you pleased with the sales and reviews and the overall success of those projects? And when you embark on your solo efforts, do you feel more musically free, or do you find it just as challenging as working for another artist or band?
BILLY: No rest for the wicked eh, ha ha. With regards to the solo stuff, I don’t look at it that way really, it’s just a different set of ideas. I never feel constricted in anything I do anyway, so even if I am asked to play with someone who insists that my bass parts are exactly what they want, for example Steve Vai, I enjoy doing that very much. When you play with someone who requires you to conform exactly to their idea’s, that is a challenge in it’s self, and I think it should be a part of every musicians makeup to learn how to do that. It’s a discipline that we all need to have ,and when you are working with someone like Steve Vai , he is not going to have you do something that you are not happy with, and his ideas are always very good anyway of course so that makes it kind of easier too. Steve Vai’s music is a very specialised type of thing, and that makes it all a very creative and special.
BISCUIT: I would like to talk to you now about your latest solo album “HOLY COW “, which was released on April 14th this year, if I am not mistaken.
BILLY: Yeah, I believe so, and these days, I look at any album as a “new album” for about two years, as it takes about that long for it to settle in. It’s not the same media that we used to have where people would know about your record within the first couple of days.
BISCUIT: There are fourteen tracks on this new album which in my book makes that a real value for money, especially considering the quality of the tracks within.
BILLY: Yeah, that’s a real bunch, eh. I had all these extra tracks left, and I liked them all and wanted to include them all on the record, but there were a couple that didn’t quite make it. But I will get them out there at some point in the future hopefully.
BISCUIT: How long did it take you to complete “HOLY COW”?
BILLY: In actual fact, start to finish, it was probably only around two months to put it all together, but it was spread out over a long period of time. I wrote the tracks similar to how I did it in the old days when I used to sit down with a cassette player and crank out all the song parts, remember them, and then put all the bits together as songs. It was a little different this time though because I used a built in camera on my Mac, and quick time to record by way of video. So I would sit there with my Mac open and a glass of wine on hand and fool around on the guitar until I came up with a suitable part, and then I would record that guitar part on the video explaining to myself on the video exactly what I meant. So it was like another guy talking to me later on saying … o.k., here’s the chorus and the chord fingering etc. So when it came to laying down the tracks, I had all these little movies telling me what to do and it made it like a kind of band experience.
BISCUIT: Half a dozen Billy Sheehan’s…Awesome! When you had done all of your parts, I imagine it was great then meeting up with Doug Pinnick and Billy Gibbons and getting them to help you out on the rest of the music and vocals for the record.
BILLY: Oh God yeah, those guys are two of my favourite people in the whole world and they both happen to be from Texas, so we had Texas week in my home here. Doug’s voice is just spectacular, and the song was perfect for him. Doug is a great guy with an amazing voice and he really killed that track. And then when Billy Gibbons came in it was great too. I have been lucky enough to hang with him a bunch of times before and he is just a living legend and a real wonderful guy. I actually got the hammer on technique through watching ZZ Top opening up for Alice Cooper in 1974 I think it was, and it was the first time I ever saw a guy use his right hand on the neck of a guitar, and that guy was of course Billy Gibbons. Billy is a real hero of mine and to have him round my house recording on my album was amazing. He also did other bits between the vocals too. He is a wonderful guy, who is sweet and generous, plus this guy is a walking wardrobe of encyclopaedic knowledge about so many subjects, and a hell of a good guy to hang with. And on the subject of hero’s … I have to mention Tim Bogert of course, who is a real hero of mine on bass and a massive influence on my playing. So I must acknowledge Tim as the guy I stole most of my stuff from, and Tim is a real great guy as well by the way.
BISCUIT: Returning back to the album again Billy, I understand that you did the harmonica parts on the record too, is that right?
BILLY: Yeah, I love the harmonica and I was a big fan of Keith Relf from the Yard birds, I really love his playing. He inspired me right away to try the harmonica, and I loved the Yard birds too.
BISCUIT: You had Paul Gilbert play the solo on the track “Dynamic Exhilarator”… in fact there were two solos on that one, were there not?
BILLY: Yeah…the first one starts and then takes off and climbs and soars and finally explodes, and you think wow, how can he top that on the second one, and then he actually does it… Wow! I went over to Paul’s house and we hung out and that planted the seed for the later Mr Big reunion. It was great getting back together with Paul and we had a real blast. Soon after that he called me and we ended up jamming at one of his shows in L.A. We played some Mr Big stuff and the audience went crazy, then soon after that we got in touch with Eric Martin again and the reunion was on. I am happy and thankful that the solo on “Dynamic Exhilarator” was one of the first steps we made to being able to play together again.
BISCUIT: Personally I love that track, it’s a real Sheehan Monster, and it has real energy and is a fun track too.
BILLY: Ha Ha, yeah…there is a real element of a sense of humour in there. When I wrote the piece, I just thought it would be perfect for Paul because he certainly has a sense of humour about his playing, and he just did the perfect set of solos for that track, and I was really thankful to have him on the record.
BISCUIT: I would like to ask you about a couple of the slower tracks on the album. The first one is “Make it to Another Day” and the second one, “Turning Point”. They show a real gentle relaxed side of your playing, but at the same time I notice the same intensity and love of each and every note that you play. Whether you play very fast, or slow, and melodic, you always manage to get every note across clearly.
BILLY: Absolutely! I think that in a ballad or a slow song, the intensity has a lot of room to come out and every note should be grabbed like your life depended on it. I have tried to do that with all the ballads I have done over the years and I really enjoy playing the laid back stuff. I think there is a real art to it, and it’s a real challenge to really get as much out of your bass with a couple of notes as you can with a thousand… that’s always a cool thing.
BISCUIT: I totally agree with you there, and you seem to have covered all the basses on this album…you have captured the slow and the quick, the smooth, the funk and the rock too. It’s all in there, and I think this new release of yours will be a real “Monster” for sure.
BILLY: Thanks a lot bro….Yeah. I love a lot of different styles of music and I really encourage people to be like that also, as you should not just dismiss a certain style of music just because it is different. Although it is not particularly my style of playing, I really love a lot of the bass slap players like Stu Hamm, Victor Wooten, and Marcus Miller…those guys are awesome man. I do a little slap in my own way, but every time I hang out with those guys, we have a wonderful time, and that’s fantastic, and we are all great friends. Take Jeff Berlin as well, who is not really a slap player at all, but is a supreme monster player and I don’t know how he does it. So all those guys are very different, but all awesome in their own way.
BISCUIT: Speaking of diversity, I would like to bring you to another one of your new tracks from the album, which I like a lot, and it’s “Sweat on an E string”…now that’s what I really call Drum ‘n’ Bass brother.
BILLY: That one was all done on just one string bro. I learnt a lot of Bach Cello pieces early on just by ear, so I used that technique. Because the Cello was tuned differently, I had to do a lot of moving up and down the neck real fast to get from one part to the other. So “Sweat on an E string” was just an extension of that technique.
BISCUIT: My two particular favourite tracks on the album would have to be “Cell Towers” and “Swimming Underwater”. There are some beautifully smooth sounding and very flowing bass parts on those songs…they are really lovely tracks.
BILLY: Yeah, “Swimming Underwater” was a twelve string piece I did on guitar and I didn’t really ever think about what I was going to do for the bass line at the time. I kind of went free form initially and when all those things were working, I just thought that I would do a repeatable theme and just fill in the blanks. I am glad I didn’t think it through a lot, as I am not really a fan of really calculated arrangements, or playing…same with my writing. I like to let nature take its course, though either way is fine and valid in its own right. I also love playing and writing with my acoustic baritone twelve string which was made for me by Yamaha. It’s a spectacular instrument and I love to write on that one a lot. The “Cell Towers” track was really tough, and I lost a lot of skin from my index finger on that one. I went for it in a big way because when the red light comes on to record, I always push way harder than usual, and I don’t really know why that is, it just kind of happens.
BISCUIT: Recording or live, you always push way hard for me. I wanted to move onto another side of your bass playing life, which is the bass clinics that you do all over the world. What would you say that you enjoy most about doing the clinics?
BILLY: I see it as a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the musical community, and also for those guys to find out a little about what I am doing at the time also. I really preach to people to just get out there and form a band, learn some songs, and just play as much as you can. But that can be a real uphill battle sometimes, I’m telling you. So many guys are skipping the cake and going right for the frosting in terms of their playing. I played in a bar band for a decade before I even thought about writing a song. I think it’s really important to just learn songs and play, and you really have to watch the drummer closely, “the” most important guy for you as a bass player. You can get to all the hammering and tapping later, but boy you have to just play some real bass first bro.
BISCUIT: So start at the front and work your back side off and the rest will follow, eh Billy.
BILLY: Yeah, but also the most important thing is to be able to play in time of course. You have to get people tapping their foot while they are playing that bass, because it’s amazing just how many people can’t do it…they just can’t keep time… really!
BISCUIT: All wise words indeed my friend. So to some that all up, you are saying listen to and learn as many songs as you can from different genres, and just play, play, play, and get the timing right on the nail with the drummer, right?
BILLY: Yeah bro, right on. Don’t worry about that sixty fourth note stuff at the beginning, and besides, there are very few hit records around that have that in there anyway.
BISCUIT: Apart from your particular style of playing, you also have your own unique sound as well, and it’s quite distinctive. So how do you get that “Billy Sheehan” tone?
BILLY: Well, a lot of it was sitting around with the bass and no amp at all. I wanted to be able to hear all the notes clearly. But when I plugged into an amp, that clear sound was sometimes quite hard to get hold of, and I wanted to hear what I hear when I am sitting in a quiet room just with my bass, you know? A little bit of compression helped to make the bass sound the way it did just sitting in my lap. Of course too much is no good, but it’s just trial and error, and it just kind of evolved for me. I never had a particular goal regarding how my bass should sound initially other than that I wanted to hear the notes loudly and clearly. I discovered that it required more mid range. A lot of bass players use a lot of top range and a lot of low end too…. they call it the smiley curve because the graphic EQ looks like a big smiley face. If I had the EQ set that way, I would hear the rumble and the clackety clack, but I couldn’t hear which note it was. So I do almost the reverse, where I pull the high end down and pop a little mid range up there and that helps to get a more “woodier” tone and more harmonic content. And also over the years your hands also start to compensate unknowingly towards getting the sound you want to get. So really any amp or gear that you use will still produce your own sound because the sound ultimately comes from your own hands. I did a recording with Mike Portnoy of Dream Theatre some years ago and he said, man your amps sound just the same as they did when we used to play together before, but I was only playing through a screwed together wooden box with a fifteen inch speaker inside, not really a proper bass cab at all. So it just goes to show that it comes from within the player themselves.
BISCUIT: Was the bass your first instrument of choice, or did you try out some others first. And what made you ultimately stick to the low end?
BILLY: The first instrument I tried was a set of drums. A friend of mine had them and I learned how to play a beat… kick, hat, snare, and ride, yeah, I could actually do it. My sister had a folk guitar too, so I would sneak into her room to play that as well. But the guy that I really wanted to emulate was my neighbour Joe who was a bass player and a really great guy, and was my very first bass inspiration really.
BISCUIT: What was the first bass guitar that you owned, and do you still have it? And if not, do you know what happened to that bass?
BILLY: It was a Hagstrom, a double pick up with four little switches and one knob with a plastic top, in a kind of violet/light purple colour. My friend Steve found me a similar one on EBay and so I bought it just to play around. It’s funny when I hold it now because it’s like a toy, a little baby thing. I don’t really know what happened to that original Hagstrom that I had though. Maybe I just lost it along the way or something, I don’t really recall, but it’s a great little bass… real cute.
BISCUIT: What about your first band…can you remember those guys and the music you played?
BILLY: One of the first bands that I got into was a horn band…. yeah, we had a four piece horn section playing stuff like “Chicago” and “Blood Sweat and Tears”, and that was pretty challenging. We also played a few songs with some odd time signature’s too, which was tough, but it all goes towards making you a more rounded player overall.
BISCUIT: Did you teach yourself, learning by ear, or did you have lessons at any point in your early days?
BILLY: I pretty much learned everything by ear alone. I would just get a bunch of different records and work them out. I knew that the notes were on the neck of the bass somewhere, so I just had to find them and figure it all out and how to get from one note to the next…. and to this day I’m still learning all the time.
BISCUIT: It certainly does work out in the end, with a lot of patience, which I have found out for myself over the years. But I am also fascinated by those guys who can sight read anything. What are your thoughts in that area?
BILLY: Well I can tell you that there are two guys that I know who are absolute geniuses when it comes to reading music. The first is Tony MacAlpine, who is a lead guitarist foremost, and the other is Jeff Berlin, a genius on the bass. If you put anything in front of those guys, they can play it…. amazing stuff! And also Jeff’s ear is fantastic too, to the point that if you play him something, he can play it right back at you straight away. And as for Tony, you can hit a glass with a spoon and he will tell you the note, and he will be right… absolutely amazing.
BISCUIT: I bet you have come across quite a few musicians with these great skills during your career over the years, as you have played with so many top musicians from all over the world.
BILLY: Yeah, I have been real lucky. I remember another time when we were working with a drummer named Vinnie Calaiuta. There was myself, Yngwie Malmsteen on lead guitar, and Doug Pinnick on vocals for Van Halen’s “Light up the sky”, and Vinnie had never heard the track before. We played the song once and he went into the other room and cut it there and then…so cool. A similar thing happened with another drummer called Dennis Chambers of Santana, amongst many others. We had this track that just wasn’t working right and in the early hours of the morning we asked Dennis if he would give it a listen and maybe get the drum part nailed for us. Dennis actually got it done in around twenty minutes, and that turned out to be the opening track for the record with Niacin.
BISCUIT: Is there anyone around at the moment on bass who you would consider a force for the future, someone that really stands out for you?
BILLY: I don’t have a whole lot of time to listen to new players, unfortunately, and I am quite sad to admit that. But hopefully there will come a time when I will sit down and do some exploring. Having said that… the young lady playing with Jeff Beck is a wonderful player, and I believe her name is Tal Wilkenfeld, and also another female bass player by the name of Esperanza Spalding who is spectacular. She is a stand up player who sings and plays like a maniac.
BISCUIT: You have definitely got your ear to the ground Billy, they are both fabulous bass players indeed my friend. I am sure they will be pleased to hear your kind words about their efforts in the bass/music world. I would like to ask you just a few more questions if I may, this time on the more private side of your life. For example, when you get any free time, and I realise that it can’t be a lot due to your hectic lifestyle, what kind of things do you like to do to relax, when you don’t have the bass in your hands?
BILLY: As you say, I don’t really get a whole lot of time for stuff outside music, although recently I managed to get around four hundred cassette tapes of mine onto digital and then disc. I found so much material that I forgot I had…it was great hearing that stuff again and I had a blast doing it and was happy I managed to save so much.
BISCUIT: Do you get to watch films, or read books at all?
BILLY: Yeah, I rent things here and there. I recently read this book entitled, “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, which is a story about what the world would be like if mankind suddenly left the earth. There was another book called “Camorra”, the new one about an Italian crime family…interesting stuff. I am also a big Bill Bryson fan too, he is just great and I love him because he just makes me laugh out loud. I nearly got thrown out of a London restaurant once because I couldn’t stop laughing…fantastic stuff. I am also an avid reader of philosophy and language too, and also English as a hobby.
BISCUIT: Do you drive when you are home or spend all your time on busses and planes?
BILLY: Not really. Where I live here in L.A., I am lucky enough to have a place where I can walk to almost everything. So I can go for a week without starting my car, which is great, and I love it because I travel so much. Door to door, from my home to any destination in Europe or Asia is around a 24 hour non stop trip, including the airports and the waiting around etc, and that really takes it’s toll, so I walk as much as I can…. everywhere!
BISCUIT: It’s a wonder that you can actually play when you arrive at your destination bro… Arduous stuff indeed. If you had not become a musician, what career path do you think you would have followed?
BILLY: I was quite a scientist when I was a kid and I was thinking of becoming a microbiologist or a palaeontologist because they are big interests of mine, or perhaps a politician as I am a bit of a political buff. Other than that, my ideal job would be to own a bikini shop on Malibu beach…now that would be a good one!
BISCUIT: My final question for you is this……. If you had to spend a week or two on a desert island, which I’m sure you would enjoy tremendously, what would you take with you, and why?
BILLY: I would probably take a six string acoustic guitar, only because singing and playing on a guitar while hanging out and partying is best done on an acoustic guitar rather than an electric, because if you are hanging out with a bunch of people and having a glass of wine it’s more relaxed and easy that way. With the acoustic I can go through Crosby, Stills and Nash, together with the Beatles and the Stones and Kinks and all that great stuff, and that’s a lot of fun. If I could take a bass with me as well, that would be ideal of course. I would also take a book, something like “War and Peace”, or basically something that would take a long time to read. And maybe to take nothing at all would be cool too, because my ideal place to live would be on a tropical island where it’s very peaceful, and I would definitely love the climate. Another place where I love the climate is in England where everything grows so well, and it is so lush and green. I love England, it’s one of my favourite destinations. And as an American, being in England where the Beatles and so much of the music that I love came from would be wonderful. Also, our language and so much of our culture came from Great Britain as well, so it will always be a special place for me… I love it very much.
BISCUIT: Well maybe the next time you are over here in the U.K. we can hook up and have a wine or a beer in an old English pub my friend.
BILLY: Right on, and get some fish and chips too, eh. Also I have to get some Guinness, and also a little Indian food wouldn’t hurt either.
BISCUIT: You are always welcome bro, you know that. It has been amazing, and a real pleasure talking to you, and I thank you on behalf of all the readers of Bass Musician Magazine, and would like to thank you for being a daily inspiration to myself and so many other bass players around the world. Take care my friend, and I hope to catch up with you again soon.
BILLY: I am glad to hear that bro, thank you very much, that’s very kind of you….thanks a million.
Visit online at www.billysheehan.com