Billy Sheehan Interview—Mr. Big, Winery Dogs, Steve Vai, and More
This interview was originally published in 2014. I remember the buzz going around my fellow Southern Californian musicians — especially bass players — when early tapes of Billy Sheehan started circulating. He’d been playing in a band called Talas for years in our mutual hometown of Buffalo, New York, and his lead bass playing had […]
This interview was originally published in 2014.
I remember the buzz going around my fellow Southern Californian musicians — especially bass players — when early tapes of Billy Sheehan started circulating. He’d been playing in a band called Talas for years in our mutual hometown of Buffalo, New York, and his lead bass playing had started turning heads far and wide. Then David Lee Roth drafted Sheehan and a little known guitarist named Steve Vai to record the 1986 album Eat ‘Em and Smile, and the fun really began.
Since then of course Sheehan has won just about every award and readers’ poll in his category, and has inspired countless players — both bassists and six-stringers — with his incredibly virtuosic and relentlessly energetic bass playing. His recorded legacy, with Roth, with Mr. Big, with Winery Dogs, with Niacin — the list goes on and on — confounds the mind, so filled is it with killer riffs and “how-did-he-do-that” moments.
Yet when the song calls for a simple, driving quarter-note stomp, locking in with a drummer on a solid rock backbeat, or when he needs to lay down a classic Motown-inspired groove, Sheehan has all that handled too. And it’s got everything to do with his unending love of playing, of learning, of growing on his instrument. His reverence for the history of music is evident when he talks too, and, clearly, he brings it in his playing. In between the shredder moments, of course.
As Mr. Big — the band Sheehan founded in 1988 after leaving the Roth organization — releases their latest album, The Stories We Could Tell, and prepares to embark on yet another world tour, Guitar.com spoke with the celebrated bassist at length about his gear, his experiences, his influences.
In this exclusive interview, Sheehan also shares with us his love of classical music and surprising pre-show warm up repertoire, his secrets for keeping his playing at the top of his game, and a very insightful comparison between the four virtuoso guitarists — Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Richie Kotzen, and Tony MacAlpine — with whom he has spent so much time recording, touring, and performing.
Guitar.com: Hey Billy, how are you?
Billy Sheehan: Doing great!
Guitar.com: So you have a new Mr. Big album, The Stories We Could Tell. Are you pretty excited?
Sheehan: Yeah! I dont even know which number of album this is. There’s been a lot of them.
Guitar.com: You are constantly keeping busy aren’t you? With all kinds of different projects.
Sheehan: Yeah, I’m usually involved in the middle of and up to my neck in something, and usually two or three things are going out the same time. So it’s a little bit of juggling required. I feel like I’m in Cirque De Soleil sometime with all the juggling I do.
Guitar.com: With the record out, Mr. Big record is gearing up to do some touring: Europe, Asia.
Sheehan: Yeah, it should be cool. I live to play live and any time I get a chance to is great. Mr. Big has been, of course, an incredible experience for me from the get go, and I’m so glad to be going out again.
Guitar.com: Do you have any idea when you might be hitting the States?
Sheehan: I do not have any info on USA dates right now. I’m the last to know. I never know that stuff. I never know where we’re playing, or when that show is happening; what time it starts, how long it is, who the opening act is, what the parking is. People are surprised sometimes, because people always ask me that stuff and I’m always surprised that they’re asking me because I have no idea.
I’ll get a call or an email or a text, “Who is your opening act?” I have no idea. “What hotel are you in?” I have not a single clue. “What city are you in tomorrow?” I couldn’t possibly know that. I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll be there, wherever it is, but I don’t need to get in the car and navigate there. I deploy my RAM for other purposes as opposed to memorizing things like that. So it’s a funny situation that happens sometimes. It’s always intriguing.
Guitar.com: No that makes perfect sense. Employing your RAM for more important things, absolutely.
Sheehan: Well that’s the advantage of having some people around to take care of stuff like that, because then you can concentrate on what you’d like. And I’m lucky sometimes to have some personnel — not a lot — but I get a few to take care of things as their job and free me to play bass. Which is my primary directive.
Sheehan: I know we’re starting mid-October somewhere, I think in Europe. And then we do some Southeast Asia and we do some Japan and I don’t know what happens after that. But I know things are still being booked, and it’s an ongoing process, so we’ll see.
Guitar.com: Yeah. I know, I recently posted an interview I did with Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. And he actually had a very similar comment, like “You know what man, I play the guitar and they take care of the business.”.
Sheehan: Exactly right. Exactly. It’s funny. Most guys I know are like that too. Sometimes people — it used to drive me crazy, but I ignore it now — but I’ll post, “Hey, we’ll be playing in New York City tomorrow night”, and then someone will respond, “When are you playing in Charlotte? When are you playing in Tampa?” and I have to respond to them, “I didn’t choose to play in New York City but someone in New York City booked us there. So if someone in Charlotte books us or someone in Tampa books us — if someone in Roanoke, Virginia, or Seattle, or Toronto, or Columbia, or Argentina books us, we will certainly be there.
And then they take it as a personal affront that we’re not playing in their city out of spite and hatred for their city. And we will say “Why would we not want to play in your city? And meet hundreds of dear friends, get paid for it, and have a night of enjoyable, fun, hot, sweaty rock ‘n’ roll? There’s no reason why I wouldn’t want to do that.” It’s a funny disconnect between people in general and how things work. I’m always trying to bridge that gap as best I can.
Guitar.com: Right. What they think is completely in an artist’s control versus what the reality is.
Sheehan: Yeah absolutely. Somebody will say, “So why don’t you play in Venezuela?” “Well, because we can’t just fly into the airport in Venezuela, take a cab somewhere and play.” There are tax forms, we have to do the immigration things, we’ve got to do all kinds of permits and paperwork.
And to play in Mexico — which is an interesting thing because many Mexican folks come up here and work, and drive, and get licenses, and vote, and collect all kinds of benefits. To play in Mexico, literally, it’s three-quarters-of-an-inch thick of paperwork, just to do a show there in Mexico. And it takes about a month to do it just for us. So it’s an interesting differentiation between the two you know.
People complain when they can’t come into America to work, live, buy property, get benefits, get a driver’s license, get the right to vote — and they complain. But just to go and do a single show in another country it’s about two weeks of hustle for our road crew and management just to make it happen. So it’s an interesting thing.
Guitar.com: Right. I was speaking with Paul about the popularity of Mr. Big, in particular, in Japan. I find it very interesting that Japanese audiences have always embraced American rock, and especially more high energy rock, as well as they do. Do you have any feelings about that?
Sheehan: Well yeah. We worked Japan as hard as we worked any place else. It’s not just the cliche. It fogs the mind of some of bands when they go over there and they think it’s going to be automatic. And they sluff through their set and they know, “They’re gonna love us no matter what.” And they don’t.
So we went to Japan with the idea that, “Geez, they’re watching pretty close. And they’re a pretty articulate and wonderful culture, so let’s give them the absolute best we can.” We’d get there early, we’d stay late, we’d sign every autograph, take every photo. Fans would deposit envelopes with messages to us at the sound boards and we’d get piles and piles of messages. I would answer every single one — by hand — as well as putting a pick inside the envelope and whatever else I happen to be able to give away at that time.
So we worked it really, really hard. And then, the funny thing is people are so surprised that we did well there when in fact we worked — well, we work the same everywhere. We don’t do it any differently any place on Earth. We pretty much treat it the same everywhere. We’ll get fan mail backstage in France, and we would respond to it the same as we would in Japan.
But Japan’s a little different: Inside the envelope they send to you, they also send a return envelope which has postage and their address, and stationary and a pen to make sure to make it convenient. Literally I have a pile of pens in my room after I get done answering, literally, a knee-high pile of fan mail, each tour. So it was a great interchange between us and the fans. We worked really hard, they watch very closely, and it was never automatic for other bands. I know other bands that did much better than us in other areas but they went over to Japan and they never went back again. It just didn’t work at all.
So I guess we just caught them at the right time and the right place and just, you know — it’s like if you meet a young lady at the right place in the right time and she looks at you and you at her, and something happens. That’s kind of the way it was. But in fact there is also more to it in that, the cliche is the thing that gets the most mileage with people, when in fact I get more email from Indonesia than anywhere in the world.
And South America: We just annihilate down there. And in Italy there’s four Mr. Big copy bands that I hear from occasionally that are out playing just Mr. Big songs at live clubs, so the idea that you know, that Japan is the only place… Thailand, we did amazing, the Philippines, they did a petition to make sure Mr. Big would play there on our last tour. They got thousands of signatures that urged us to come to the Philippines. It’s easy to jump to Japan, and think it’s all about Japan.
I know after a while there was point, like in the late-’90s where it kind of drove me crazy because I would meet one of my friends out and about in L.A, “Hey how are you doing?”, “Hey, pretty good. Did you just get back from Japan?” I go, “No, why?” “Oh were you in Japan?” “No, I wasn’t in Japan, I was on tour.” “Oh in Japan?” “No, I wasn’t there, I was in France” “Oh are you going to Japan now?” “No, I’m not going to Japan now.”
It was kind of Japan, Japan, Japan, Japan. I was like, “Woah, hold on everybody, there is a big world out there.” But we love our fans in Japan. They’ve been incredible to us, as have the ones in Germany, and Scandinavia, and Russia. But we’re lucky to have this kind of relationship with anybody, and to have it with a culture like that — it’s quite inspiring and it’s a beautiful thing. And we gone over there to help them when we can, with the earthquake thing and the situations that they had there, as we have in other places when we can. We’re really pleased with the fact that we have that kind of relationship.
Guitar.com: OK, I’ll stop bugging you about Japan.
Guitar.com: So with the new record I know, I actually talked with [Mr. Big vocalist] Eric in June — I think you guys were just doing the recording in June right?
Sheehan: Yeah I think so, that sounds like the proper timing.
Guitar.com: It came together pretty quick, didn’t it?
Sheehan: Yeah. I ’ve never been one to be in a situation with Mr. Big or anyone else where writing was a long, involved, arduous labor. You know we can pretty much get together in a room with musicians and, you know, bang a few songs out pretty quickly. With Mr. Big we know each other very well so it’s a little bit easier process, ’cause we kind of know — I know how Eric is gonna sing and Paul is gonna play guitar — so it’s like, when I think of something, I think of it framed from that point of view. So that makes things a little easier because you know exactly what you’re working with.
So for us it wasn’t a difficult thing, you know, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t take it with a lot of seriousness. Seriousness in one respect, fun, lightness and comedy in the other. But in general, with Mr. Big, things move along pretty nicely and it’s pretty easier for us to get things together. Thankfully the other three members are extremely talented and so that makes life easier in that respect. And we all do have a real common bond within the band in many ways, so it’s easier for it to get things moving.
So the writing: As it began, we started coming up with things pretty quick. Usually in the first day we’ll get three or four ideas. By four or five days we’ll have 10, 12, 14 ideas. We’re usually going to record with about 18 or 20 foundations and whittle them down to 14 songs, and see how many of those end up on the record. It’s a process we’ve been through many times.
Guitar.com: So, right from the start you guys just get together and start jamming and seeing what kind of ideas flow?
Sheehan: Sure. Sit down and have a guitar and go “Hey, what about this, or this?” “Hey I got a little bass line thing here, Paul, what would you do if I did this?” “Oh, I’d play these chords.” And usually “blah, blah” lyrics, you know, that’s a common way to write. And then you fill in the “blahs” with actual words.
It’s a pretty easy process. I know we’ve done a lot of camps and clinics and seminars, and stuff like that. It would be interesting to do a clinic on songwriting, and have, as a basis: “All four of us will stand up here and write a song from nothing and you can see how the process works.”
Because a lot of people think it’s pretty mysterious, and crazy, and difficult, and would require all these unknown aspects, when in fact you just kind of hash out ideas. “I got a word, I got a phrase, I got a title, I got a little melody. I got a drum beat, the bass line, the guitar chord, you know.” It eventually falls together.
Guitar.com: Do you have a home studio? Do you lay down tracks at home?
Sheehan: Sure. I work in here now and I’m producing a young lady out of New York City and I’ve done my three solo records and dozens of tracks for other artists, that I have laid the bass down for. It’s just a simple little thing, a small room, pretty easy, Macintosh recording stuff. But the good thing about the digital recording revolution is it’s as good technically as any recording facility anywhere because it’s basically the same software that is used to make records everywhere. So it’s kind of a great equalizer, I think, when the digital recording revolution really took off and hard disc recording came of age.
Guitar.com: Are you using Logic, or another recording software system?
Sheehan: Yeah, I use Logic. I have used Pro Tools and Cubase in the past but I kind of defaulted back to Logic. And all of the programs talk to each other now. In the beginning none of them did at all. And it was a real pain to do it on one program, and you couldn’t do it on the other. But the things are quite… there’s a lot of communication between programs now.
Guitar.com: What are some of your favorite plug-ins right now?
Sheehan: I’m not so much a plug-in guy, I usually leave that up to the engineer. I have my hardware stuff, I have a couple of Distressor compressors. I’ve got the Avalon 737 mic-pre, EQ/compression which I use for a lot of things — bass and vocals. It’s a beautiful device. I’ve got a bunch of the little custom pre-amps and specialized little compressors here and there for input.
Actually, last night I just bought the API channel strip, the Neve channel strip and the SSL channel strip for my UAD Apollo Quadcore interface because we’re gonna be mixing soon and I want to have those channel strips available.
Again, like at the beginning of the conversation, I hire somebody to come in and do engineering for me because to play and engineer at the same time — I know guys do that all the time, and that’s great — but I kind of like it to just play and have someone else start and stop the machine and do what they need to do.
I just find it’s a little bit easier for me and generally I’m very fortunate to have the kind of situation where I can, you know, I can pay a guy a couple of hundred bucks to come in and punch me through a couple of tracks or something like that. So makes it is easier for me.
Guitar.com: Do you record your bass parts with microphone, direct, or both?
Sheehan: A combination of both. I’ve got amps in the room next to me miked up. I also have direct, if I don’t feel like running that way. I can do direct to the Apollo and into a direct input. I’ve been using my EBS pedal on a couple of direct things and it sounded great so I’m pleased with that.
But generally my low end, I’ll run that through the Avalon, which is a spectacular piece of gear, and gets a deep, smooth, beautiful, perfect sine-wavy low end, and it’s really nice.
Guitar.com: And so what is the amp that you have miked up?
Sheehan: I’ve got my typical stage set-up: The Hartke single-15 cabinet, a four-10 cabinet — four-10’s for highs, 15 for lows. I’ve got the same amps: the HH 5500 for highs and LH 1000 for lows, some front-end there. I’ve got my Pearce pre-amps and Ashly compressors there. I also A/B switch it over to my live set-up which I use the EBS multicomp pedal-wise now. I don’t take the Pearce out with me anymore. There’s a couple of variations there.
Guitar.com: So this stuff is mostly just set up all the time though, right?
Guitar.com: So whenever you want to lay down a track…
Sheehan: It gets to collect dust when I’m on tour. I come home, dust it off and fire it up again.
Guitar.com: So when you head out on tour these days, do you bring additional basses with you? Or do you pretty much just stick with one or two?
Sheehan: I take two; one for backup. Most dates are fly-in now and I really don’t like to fly a lot of gear because it’s precarious and dangerous and so I usually have two basses that I carry on — both of them, I give one to a crew member and I carry one. Therefore I know at least when I’ve gotten there I’ve got my bass. When all else fails at least I have that. So, the fly-in thing is the worst aspect of everything I know of in the biz right now: having to deal with airlines and flying. It’s just an ugly, horrible, terrible thing and it’s the only — the only downside to touring, in my humble opinion, is the fact that you have to get on an airplane. It’s just always a grueling, ugly, stinky experience.
Guitar.com: Right. It didn’t always used to be that way did it?
Sheehan: There was a time when it was nice, I guess. To my knowledge it’s pretty horrifying. But you know, you gotta do what you got to do, and once we get there it’s great. Usually in Europe we get really great tour busses and so once we’re off the plane, and on the bus, I could do that for years. I could stay out for an eternity, I could tour from now until touring no longer existed. It’s no problem at all. But having to fly is so horrible.
It’s funny: When we’re travelling on a tour bus and we have to go on — sometimes in Europe we have to do an eighteen hour or twenty-two hour drive to get from one part of the continent to another for a gig. And some guys opt to fly — get dropped off, get in an airport and fly. And I always say, “Hey, let’s stay on the bus! We got a whole thing full of wine, we got all kinds of food, we’re hanging, we got all the amenities you could ever want, and it’s great and smooth and easy, and there’s no luggage, and there’s no security, and there’s no line, there’s no lunacy.”
And then every time I meet up with the other guys twenty-two hours later, refreshed and partied out and having a great time, we hear their horror story of what they went through for that one hour flight they had to do. And it’s always sort of hilarious to hear that.
Guitar.com: Yeah, you know I, as I told you in an email I grew up in Buffalo?
Sheehan: Yeah, yeah I remember.
Guitar.com: I lived in Southern California for half of my life too. But I remember the old Buffalo airport, and when I was a kid, my dad used to travel a lot and I remember you could just walk right up to the gate of the plane, you know?
Guitar.com: And you know, I remember one time going through the Buffalo airport when I was a teenager with a guitar case, and I used to use baby powder on the neck of my guitar. And I flew into the Buffalo airport from the West Coast and I kind of forgot that I had this great big, baggy full of baby powder…
Sheehan: Oh no. (laughs)
Guitar.com: Man, you should have seen the girl’s eyes — the security girl — when she opened that case!
Sheehan: Oh my god!
Guitar.com: She opened the little compartment in the case and her eyes were just like BOOM, you know. And then I realized what she was thinking and told her, “It’s just baby powder.” It’s one of my best memories of how air travel used to be.
Sheehan: Yeah my dad traveled a lot in the early days too. He worked for Bell Aerospace back in that late-’60’s and he traveled a lot. And it’s funny because he used to come out to California a lot, he was the West Coast representative. And he said you could get anywhere in L.A in 15 minutes because the freeway system was so awesome. But that was before, they quintupled the population here.
Guitar.com: Right. Yeah.
Sheehan: Things were different.
Guitar.com: My dad worked for Bell in the ’60s too, testing rocket engines. He also worked for a place called CalSpan.
Sheehan: I remember that name…
Guitar.com: They did a lot of work for the military, right across the street from airport more or less. They did a lot of work for the military and a lot of NASA stuff and all kinds of things.
Sheehan: Yeah, I have a friend that worked there and he brought me a spent shell that had been fired into a sandpit when they were testing one of the machine guns for the one of the fighter jets. I always remember that.
Guitar.com: Interesting. So, what else is going on with with your other projects? You did the Winery Dog’s album and tour last year. Are you gonna do that again?
Sheehan: Absolutely, yeah, we’re already booked for the Monsters of Rock Cruise next year and we’re already booking festivals for next summer and we’ll be working on the record. I’m actually writing some stuff for it right now, but we’ll all get together to write, probably in December, and through January, and get the record out by Spring or early Summer.
That was a great run, we had a blast on that. You know Mr. Big doesn’t tour that much or in as many places anymore. A lot of the guys are not into the touring mode in their lives and so for me, the Winery Dogs, it was really quite a blessing to have that because I really — I’ve got to play, in order to keep my hands in shape. And that’s what I do, it’s my thing.
So as much as I love Mr. Big, the Winery Dogs is a really great situation to come along. It contains Mike Portnoy, who would play three shows a day every day for the rest of his life, if he could. He’s quite a workhorse, so I’m glad to be hooked up with him. We did a lot of shows.
Guitar.com: Cool. And Richie?
Sheehan: Richie too. We did eight shows in nine days and Richie never blew his voice out.
Sheehan: Pretty good.
Guitar.com: And then what about PSMS, your other project with Tony MacAlpine, Mike Portnoy, and Derek Sherinian?
Sheehan: We just kind of did that as a one-off. It was designed, actually, for a trade show, to do a jam at a trade show, and it extended out from that. I’m not sure what more is gonna happen with that but you never know when it comes up, when everybody’s got free time in their schedule. We’ll see what happens. I also have another band, Niacin, with Dennis Chambers on drums and John Novello on keys. We did some shows with that a couple of months ago. That was a blast. That was cool.
Guitar.com: So will there be a new recording coming from Niacin someday in the future?
Sheehan: I don’t know, probably. Probably.
Guitar.com: It’s a cool position that you are in to be able to juggle these, all these various outlets.
Sheehan: I’m supremely thankful for a situation like this because I really love to play and I’m lucky to play with a lot of great guys who are really great at what they do. And to be surrounded by guys like that always keeps you inspired, always keeps you on your toes, you’re always exposed to new things and new ideas from great innovators and great players.
I’m lucky to play with guys like Dennis Chambers, Steve Vai, with Paul [Gilbert], with Mike and Richie, with the other guys in Mr. Big, and Tony MacAlpine, and Derek Sherinian, and a lot of guys that I work with. And just a lot of guys I jam with around town: like Ray Luzier — I work with him a lot, he’s the drummer for Korn; he played on my solo records. We’ve jammed a lot together. And just to be around guys like that, it’s really keeps things interesting, and on fire, and exciting. It’s a great situation. I’m really thankful that I have a connections to people like that, and to have people that are interested enough to hear it that would warrant me to go out to play that stuff. So it’s all really good.
Guitar.com: You know I’ve actually done interviews in the last three weeks with Tony MacAlpine, Richie Kotzen, and Paul Gilbert.
Sheehan: (laughs) Three of my guitar players.
Guitar.com: Right, so…
Sheehan: I had a photo of me, Richie, Steve Vai, and Paul together after the last NAMM show. It was funny.
Guitar.com: Cool. Are you doing anything with Steve these days?
Sheehan: No, but I’m in touch. Who knows, I’m sure we’ll do something again together. He’s a good friend of mine and we’ve worked on and off forever it seems.
Guitar.com: Right. So, if you were to think about all these four guys that we just mentioned, is there any way that you can differentiate their skills sets?
Sheehan: Quite a bit actually, yeah quite a bit. I can see how the further you get from something, the harder it is to differentiate. Like I remember, you know, Clapton, Page, and Beck — and I know some people had a hard time differentiating it, and I thought to myself, “How could that possibly be? It’s such an obvious difference.”
But you forget that the average ear, when you step back, they don’t really get the nuances of everybody’s playing. With Tony, Richie, Paul, Steve — they’re all very different players in my mind. Different approaches, different sensibilities, different note choice, different tonality. Wildly different, quite frankly.
Different — just their taste and what they like and what they would gravitate towards musically to listen to on a Saturday night. It’s so, so wildly different. It’s an interesting thing and when you play with a lot of different guys like that, it’s a, I don’t necessarily adjust to them but I think there’s some things that I change maybe even subconsciously just to kind of make sure that I’m locked in with what they’re doing or counterpointing in the right way or paralleling in the right way, whichever way I would do it. But it’s easily said that it would be inspiring, that’s for sure. But there’s quite a bit of differentiation with all of them.
Guitar.com: Tell me more….
Sheehan: Tony is like… if you hit a spoon on the side of a glass he will tell you, “A-flat,” and you check it and go, “Jeez, he’s right! It is an A-flat,” you know? And he is just genius musically. He will sit down on the piano and do Liszt and Rachmaninoff — for real, like not picking up a couple parts of it. He’s an actual, real classical pianist, not a guy who will learn a couple of classical thingies, you know, in his spare time. He’s the real deal. And that is supremely impressive to me. And he’ll solo on guitar with his left hand while he’s playing the keyboard with his right, with his double, split mind thing. I’m like, “Tony, get out of here!”
Sheehan: It’s unbelievable. And the soloing is good, and makes sense, and intertwines. It’s mind boggling. It’s just incredible. And he’s hilarious too. All of them are comedians, that’s for sure.
Steve is a Zappa-esque innovator, I think more of a conductor-composer that happens to play guitar. He’s quite a sound-scape, creator of moods and sounds and ideas. And great hands, and just a… He’s pushed himself into a spot that I don’t know if anyone else has gone there really. It’s his own unique thing that’s so obviously Steve Vai the moment you hear it, you instantly know it’s him. And even people that aren’t as conversant with a lot of his music, you easily hear hear him on it. And again a wonderful guy, a comedian.
Paul has just an insatiable thirst and hunger for music, to find some new cool amazing things that he’s never heard before that inspires him to do some whole other new thing that he had never done before. He really has a fire lit under him all the time, and really, pursues it with such vigor and such excitement. He’s always got some… Every time we meet up, “What do you got new?” “Let me show you that.” “Here, I got this thing,” and he will show me some cool versions of how he was doing some blues scales that were just way, way far out, but still bluesy, the last time I saw him. And he loves songwriting and songs and pop music too. So that puts him in a different spot than some guys
And then Richie, his voice is just so great that if he didn’t play guitar at all, he’d still be high on everyone’s list. But now he has decided to play without a pick, which is hilarious. And he really is, he’s just killing with just his fingerpicking. And it’s kind of cool because when I play with him now, since I play with my fingers too, we started having these common things between us — approaches to how your fingers lay against the strings with your right hand. So some of the things mesh together really well.
We’re playing back and forth with each other live and it’s different than how I play with anyone else because some things just — it’s more of a counterpoint than a unison thing. Rather than a call and response, it’s more of a, like we’re working at the same time, I’m going one way, he’s going the other, but somehow in the middle, those notes land together. And it’s a really interesting thing. I love performing with him live too, it’s a blast.
Guitar.com: Back to Steve Vai just for a second: I shot a video interview at his house, a very lengthy production, for Musician.com a few years back, and he told me before he goes out on tour he would practice sixteen hours a day, for a few weeks ahead of time. Did he put you through that? Are you of the nature to do that yourself?
Sheehan: Well I practice as much as I need to, to get up to speed to do what I’m about to do. Sometimes it does require a lot ’cause my hands, unless you’re performing live every night your hands are not up to speed. And when I was playing with Steve, we would do a lot of rehearsal. It wouldn’t be grueling or crazy, but we would do a lot, up to the point where we could do what we needed to do. Depending on the level of player you have, sometimes you need to rehearse a real a lot, and sometimes you just have to go through it once.
I know with some players that I’ve work with in the past, you walk in to rehearsal, you run through the stuff once, and you’re done. Everybody has got it. Everybody did their homework, and everybody knows. Other rehearsals it’s just a grueling mess trying to remember difficult parts and nobody’s got their shit together. It could be anywhere on the scale I guess from low to high.
But I do know that in order for Steve to pull off live what he has as his basis as a player, and what he’s recorded, is quite a physical challenge. And I know backstage I would be warming up and he would be warming up, usually in the same room, and both of us will be in there for hours just hittin’ it, and hittin’ it, and fine tuning, and getting it right, and getting it on time, and making sure your fingers land the way they should, and that it sounds the way it’s supposed to be, and every note is treated like it should be treated — and it could go on forever.
But you know at some point you have to make a cut-off, and this is as good as I have it, and let’s go do it in front of people. But for me, I put hours in almost every single day, no matter what I’m doing. Whether I’m off or on the road. But to me it’s a joy. It’s grueling, painful, sweaty, and hard. But it’s really one of my most favorite times of the day. That’s why I was up early today, I was already downstairs playing for about an hour, playing bass and just getting my hands warmed up and opened up a little bit.
Guitar.com: What did you warm up on this morning?
Sheehan: There’s a pattern that I’ve done for years. A four-stringer: four fingers across four frets on one string, and then the next string, and the next, and the next. So basically you create a little box. It’s four strings across, four frets high, four strings across, up and down. And basically that’s your hand position, unless you move it, those are the notes you cover.
And I come up with every combination humanly possible within that box for my fingers to do everything that they can do, every pattern I can conceive of. And some of them are real tough to do, some of them quite easy. And I just run pattern, pattern, pattern, pattern, pattern.
And I just recently discovered about four or five whole new patterns that are really tough to do and when I do them I suck, and it’s really hard to do it, which makes me so happy because now I found something I can work on. I love to sit down, pick up the bass, find something I can’t do or make a mistake on, and then I’m happy because now I’ve got something to work on.
So I just pound it on those. It’s kind of a reverse of how I’ve been doing it for years. So I pounded and pounded and pounded on it this morning. And initially as I sat down I couldn’t do it and then after about 15 minutes it came around and by half an hour it was actually flowing pretty well.
And that is one of the things that keeps people from becoming a better player, I think. When you first sit down, you can get discouraged because it doesn’t work. And the only way through it is just to keep hammering and pounding until it starts to get good. And that’s the kind of self-discipline that, unfortunately, isn’t prevalent with a lot of players these days.
You really have to blow through, to muscle through a lot of resistance from your fingers and hands and all that to finally get it up to the point where it really works. And I spend a lot of time climbing that mountain and just getting through that initial physiological barrier that your fingers doesn’t just move that way.
But once they do you get it and then you strengthen them up and it works great. And then when you start to really see results after a couple of days, I come up with some new thing that I can barely do at all. I usually try to play it to my iPhone, so I can have a video record of it so if I forget it, I’ll remember it again.
And I’ve got so many iPhone videos where I’m like, “Oops sorry, that wasn’t it, no oop, no, oop, that was wrong, all right there it is… Finally,” just to get it illustrated to myself. And then in about three or four days, its part of my repertoire, part of my vocabulary. Smooth as silk. I have command over it. But it takes a lot to get over that hump sometimes. And I think a lot of younger players, and a lot of newer players don’t always have that kind of discipline.
Guitar.com: So do you start most days out with exercises of this nature?
Sheehan: Yeah, sometimes. But I always try to do variations to throw a curve into it, so that there is no sameness and no monotony. If I have started out with exercises for a few days, then I’ll start up with just playing, or I’ll grab an acoustic guitar, or a twelve string and I’ll make a left turn so it doesn’t force me into doing the same thing all the time. Or I’ll randomly pick a song out of my iTunes to kind of go over, or play along with, or something that I know really well, and something that I don’t know at all.
I’m just trying to really make a lot of variations on it, so there’s never a sameness to it that will paint you into corner. If you keep on doing the same thing for too long, you become trapped within it. So even stylistically, I’ll play through kind of a loud version of my amp, distorted — it’s quiet generally because the outputs are turned down, but it’s still the same tone you get when you’re really loud with distortion and screaming and all that stuff.
And then I’ll do a day where I run direct, with nothing — just the bass plugged into a pre-amp and my playback speakers in the studio. No compression, no tone, no nothing — and just play like that for a while. And then vary that, and then go somewhere else and try other things. So just by forcing your hands and your ears and your sensibilities into different situations, time after time after time — I just think it builds your vocabulary up and your ability to adapt to all kinds of situations and then when it’s time to improvise, you’ve got all those things at your disposal.
Guitar.com: Right, well that’s great advice especially you know, mixing it up like that and keeping yourself challenged.
Sheehan: Yeah, and that’s why, having played with Steve, and then going back to Mr. Big and playing, and doing a Niacin thing, and really, those are three different worlds of playing. Steve is precise and it’s got to be this way, and Niacin is freeform blues, fusion, jazzy jam. Mr. Big is rock and hard pop and rock. So it’s three different worlds there.
And I’m warming up to the Brandenburg concertos, or some Debussy piece, or something like that (laughs). If you spread it all over the map, eventually, when it all comes down to time to play, you get some unique things you can pull from, and different points of view. I enjoy doing that.
Guitar.com: Classical pieces? Do you put on a classical CD or song and just play along or what?
Sheehan: I learned a bunch of pieces through the years. Way back in the late ’60s, early -’70s, I got “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Martin Galling was the guy’s name. He did seven boxes, three LP’s per box, twenty one records, forty two sides of him on harpsichord.
You’ve got to have an attention span (laughs), and it’s amazing too! It’s unbelievable. And that harpsichord that he used had one note that had a little “boink” on it too, so every time you’d hear it, I’d know it was him it, because I’d hear that little “boink.” It was a real ancient harpsichord, and imperfect. And one note in particular had this little …something must have been touching the string, or the little pick that plucks the string on a harpsichord had a little variation on it. But I always remember I could hear that one little note in there all the time — on all of the records, too.
But I learned so much from just listening to that, allowing it to just take me over. And then after the Bach rhythmic precision, I discovered Ravel and Debussy who were just emotional, more impressionist composers, which was very different than that kind of stiff — if you will , in a good way — Bach stuff.
And so that moved me in different ways there. And then I discovered Stravinsky and a couple of other guys like that, that were just a way out. So really, I was way more more into classical music than jazz when I was a young kid, where most people that are involved in popular music would lean toward jazz, especially guitarists and bass players and drummers.
But I was way more involved in classical music than I was — and my classical collection in my iTunes just dwarfs my jazz collection. And so I learned pieces by Mussorgsky, some Brandenburg concertos. I just learned a viola solo from one of the Brandenburg concertos, which is really rough. And I just piece my way through melodic parts of famous pieces, and things like that. It was always really good hand-ear training, understanding the fretboard. It was great stuff.
Guitar.com: So that’s another part of keeping yourself challenged right?
Guitar.com: Very cool. All right, well hey Billy, I really appreciate your time today…
Sheehan: It’s my pleasure.
Guitar.com: And definitely look forward to seeing you pass through Chicago some time soon.
Sheehan: Yeah, I think that’s one of the places that’s been mentioned to do a show. I saw a string of cities that they’re working on doing shows with Mr. Big, and Chicago was on the list, so I hope so too. I always love playing there.
Guitar.com: Very cool, all right. OK
Sheehan: If we are there, come on down, make yourself known, and I’ll be sure and grab you a beer and we can hang.
Guitar.com: Sounds good man, thank you so much.
Sheehan: Thanks we’ll talk again.
Guitar.com: OK Bill. Thanks.
Sheehan: Take care, bye.