An Interview with Billy Sheehan

Three press photos of Billy Sheehan from his website. He's holding a signature Yamaha bass in each.


[Editorial note: This interview was originally conducted for and published there in April 2007. I resurrected from the Wayback Machine.]

I started playing bass in the 1980s, the heyday of what would later be dubbed “hair metal.” But hairstyles 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 (Wheat) conducted this interview with Billy Sheehan through a series of emails in April 2007.

The Interview

Wheat: I’d like to thank you for agreeing to do an interview with 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.

Billy Sheehan: You are TOO KIND to say that. Thanks. I’m still learning though!

Wheat: Tell us a little about where you’re living now, where you grew up, and what first attracted you to the bass guitar.

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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, broken trombones.

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 cheating.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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 speakers.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: Have you been happy to see something you had a large hand in creating becoming more of a staple in modern bass playing?

Billy Sheehan: Never thought about it really. I don’t know if I had anything to do with it. If I did, I’m glad & honored.

Wheat: Tell us about your latest solo album, Cosmic Troubadour (2005).

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: How does Cosmic Troubadour compare with your debut solo effort, Compression (2001)?

Billy Sheehan: 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 recording revolution.

Wheat: Did you record either of your solo albums in your home studio?

Billy Sheehan: Yes. Except for drums. We went to a large studio for that. I couldn’t do that to my neighbors! Ha!

Wheat: 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.

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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 model soon.

Wheat: 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.

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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 the wicked!

Wheat: 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?

Billy Sheehan: 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.

Wheat: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with us. We look forward to hearing more from you.

Billy Sheehan: Right on! Thank YOU! And by the way—who were your influences?? HA!

More Interviews

If you enjoyed this interview with Billy Sheehan, you’ll also enjoy my interview with bassist Chuck Rainey.