Interview with Billy Sheehan—Back to Bassics

This interview was originally published in 2010. Billy Sheehan is one of the most celebrated bassists of the past two decades. He first gained a cult following for his phenomenal technique while playing with the band Talas, the bar band he formed in the mid-70s in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. In 1986 he […]

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This interview was originally published in 2010.

Billy Sheehan is one of the most celebrated bassists of the past two decades. He first gained a cult following for his phenomenal technique while playing with the band Talas, the bar band he formed in the mid-70s in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. In 1986 he and a then somewhat unknown Steve Vai were tapped by the King of MTV, David Lee Roth, to form Roth’s first post-Van Halen solo group. The album that came of their collaborative efforts, Eat Em and Smile, and the ensuing worldwide arena tours, were a huge success, and Billy Sheehan became a household name in the rock community.

When the Roth gig ended Sheehan put together a group in which he was more than a mere sideman: Mr. Big. A straight-ahead rock group, the band scored a No. 1 hit with To Be With You, and has enjoyed strong album sales and a dedicated following ever since, particularly in Japan.

But Sheehan’s musical interests go far beyond rock to include jazz fusion and more adventurous prog-rock veins. So, hooking up with keyboardist John Novello and drummer Dennis Chambers in the mid-90s, Sheehan put together Niacin, a hard-hitting, mostly instrumental trio that allows for uninihibited, unrelenting virtuosic explorations.

Ironically, his first solo album, Compression, released in the summer of 2001 on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label, is not overrun by free-form jazz and never-ending bass solos, though fancy fretwork is a mainstay of the disc. But so are strong rock compositions, heavier than Mr. Big, not quite as out-there as Niacin. Very accessible stuff, with strong vocals from Billy, and guest appearances by Vai and drummer Terry Bozzio.

Guitar.com sat down with Sheehan backstage during the recent G3 tour, in which he shared the stage with Steve Vai (not to mention Joe Satriani and John Petrucci). The video interview and lesson we shot with Billy showcases not only his easy-going nature, but also his monstrous talent. Watch and learn.

Guitar.com: Billy, you’ve been extremely busy lately, you’ve got Compression coming out on Favored Nations

Sheehan: Yeah, my first solo record.

Guitar.com: You have a new Mr. Big CD coming out towards the fall

Sheehan: Yes, the new Mr. Big CD is done.

Guitar.com: And you have a new Niacin CD coming out

Sheehan: Yeah, Niacin is coming out.

Guitar.com: And at the Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival in June (2001) you did a Talas reunion show and WNED, the Buffalo PBS station, filmed it for CD and DVD release at some point

Sheehan: Yeah. I haven’t seen the footage, but I think were going to try to put that together, edit it out for a CD or DVD thing. We already did a Talas Reunion CD back in 97, so not to be redundant we may just do this as a DVD project and maybe put some extra stuff on there, anything extra we can throw in.

Guitar.com: The station had a lot of cameras out there, so I imagine there’s a lot of good footage.

Sheehan: Yeah, it came out great. It came out really good. Like I said, I haven’t seen it, but everyone else involved with Talas has and is just freaking out over it, so it was pretty cool. It’s estimated there were from 15-25,000 people there. I guess in a few years it will be 50,000.

Guitar.com: Man, you’re just a busy guy.

Sheehan: It’s actually psychotic busy. I mean after this next run of things, I’m gonna cut back and be a little bit more selective and put more time in between projects because I actually like the challenge of having so much work that I just gotta push, and push, and push, but I’d like to push in some other areas for a little while, and space things out a little bit differently.

Guitar.com: Musical territory or non-musical things?

Sheehan: I just want to work on playing bass and a lot of people might know when you’re doing a record, it isn’t 100 percent playing. Most of it is doing a zillion other things you know and I really want to play you know, and perform, and practice a lot. I’m gonna do a solo bass instrumental record, also. I’m rehabilitating zillions of old ideas. I’m coming up with zillions of new ones, or trying to anyway for that, so I’m going to try to concentrate on that as well, but it’s good to be busy. I mean I’m not complaining don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to be that busy. It’s great.

Guitar.com: What do you do with G3 after the U.S. tour ends?

Sheehan: I think we might do a fall thing, in Europe, including some of Asia in like Korea and Hong Kong, then over to Europe where I’m gonna do some shows with Steve also.

Guitar.com: Are you going to then fit in some dates with some of the other projects?

Sheehan: Yeah. Nothing of that will be happening until after probably like the beginning of the year and, as you know, you put out a record and it’s usually anywhere from 90 days or more until it actually starts to show up in the public and in the stores and stuff like that, so unfortunately people are actually not one of the new Mr. Big records are going to be in the stores. It just got finished, so it will be several months. So then once it’s in the stores, you gotta let it sit for a while before you go out and play. So that puts us to around the beginning of the year for that and hopefully I’m gonna put some things together and do some solo touring, too. It would be kind of nice you know. It would be a good challenge, I think.

Guitar.com: You and Steve pulled an old David Lee Roth song out of the closet that you played together, a song that you wrote called Shy Boy.

Sheehan: Yeah, actually an old Talas song. I did that song in Talas. I wrote it, actually after we had done the Van Halen tour, in 1980, with Talas. And then when I joined with Dave he had heard my stuff, so he suggested doing Shy Boy, so it ended up on Eat Em & Smile. And so when I got together with Steve to do this tour, he said, “Hey, how about like the old days how about we open up with Shy Boy?” Because we opened up the Eat Em & Smile tour with Shy Boy and when we played Buffalo, New York, there was a look of complete shock on everyones face that the show opened with Shy Boy, which is the song that they all heard me play in clubs and stuff [with Talas], so it was pretty cool. A little of nostalgia there and Steve and I do a back and forth trade and unison thing, which is pretty cool, so we’re glad to like rehabilitate that and bring it back for a little

Guitar.com: What kinds of other surprises did you guys work out for the G3 tour that you especially enjoyed?

Sheehan: Well, a song called Shaboom, one of Steve’s songs where it’s basically a pretty straight song, but we added this guitar-bass thingy in there that’s kind of difficult. It was kind of a challenge, a tough thing to play, so we worked it out. Actually, we worked it out pretty quickly, so every night it’s like kind of a hairy thing as to kind of pulling it off or not the end part of it so its kind of cool. It keeps us on our toes and, in general, again, playing with Steve I’m real glad to be back working with him. We’ve been friends all these years, and he’s an amazing player, and he’s very successful doing his thing. I’ve been successful doing my thing. I thank God for both of us to be able to play together. It’s very cool and the tour is just a breeze you know. Everybody gets along, it’s a lot of fun, and we’re all laughing and joking, but the show is serious business you know. We want to go out there and do our best, so we’re not fooling around as far as that goes, but we have a lot of fun before and after, as well.

Guitar.com: Tell us about the guys you’re playing with in Steve’s band.

Sheehan: Well, Mike Keneally, of course, is with Steve. He’s an incredible guitarist, and keyboard guy, an amazing guy. He has a brand new solo album out, too. His records are always very eclectic and very interesting stuff. He’s an amazing musician. Dave Weiner is the rhythm guitar player. He’s the new guy that Steve just brought along as trial by fire you know: You wanna play rhythm? Go for it. So he’s in there filling in a couple of the gaps. On drums is Virgil Donati, an Australian gentleman, and he’s an amazing drummer just a blazing, blazing player. He and I work really well together. I’ve really been fortunate to work with a lot of really good drummers Greg Bissonette. I worked with Dennis Chambers in Niacin. He was my hero completely. Steve Smith, Terry Bozzio plays a couple of tracks on my new record, and Virgil on this tour, so it helps my bass playing to play with amazing drummers because that’s the first guy I watched in the band all the time. And Virgil is pretty amazing. And, of course, Steve is pretty blazing in his own right.

Guitar.com: How do you adjust for each of these different drummers styles?

Sheehan: It’s pretty easy because I come from a time where I’ve played a zillion different types of songs. A lot of guys, in more recent years, they did a couple songs and then they did all originals for their whole life. But I played in a copy band for decades and still love playing copy tunes, so it’s kind of my natural style to adapt to something, to change along with what I need to change with. So, as far as drummers go, the biggest change I’ve seen in drummers recently is working with Dennis Chambers, because he treats time differently than any other human being I know. And it was an incredible lesson to learn to work with him. He’s helped my playing so much. Working with him has been just a grand improvement on my playing, my timing, my understanding of how it all works grooves and stuff like that. And Terry Bozzio, on the other hand, hes a completely different package. He treats time differently, as well. And Terry is, again, for every drummer, it’s a kind of lesson on how to approach the music you’re playing, so I guess I’m really lucky to have worked with guys like that.

Guitar.com: We had one of our editors sit down with Dennis Chambers and now granted you can’t do a backstage interview with a drum kit but he picked up a bass

Sheehan: He’s an amazing bass player

Guitar.com: And he explained some things on bass that he does with rhythm, and we were all going, wow!

Sheehan: As a matter of fact, on Saturday, in New York City, I might play on this bass record that Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten are doing. You got all these different bass players playing on it and I actually talked Dennis into playing a bass thing on it, so I can’t wait to hear it, but I got him on video one time in a dressing room in Japan. He picked up my bass and was doing all sorts of amazing stuff that were like perfectly in time, with all this strength you know, and he looked up and saw the video camera and stopped. I was like, Ha ha! I got you.

Guitar.com: Now, I’ve also heard you do plenty of rock solid, keeping the beat kind of playing.

Sheehan: Yeah, it’s how I grew up, basically, initially.

Guitar.com: But, obviously, your soloing skills are very advanced, as well, so how do you draw the line in between? How do you mix them?

Sheehan: It just has to do with song sense. And I’m always very closely in touch, as far as I’m concerned I think anyway with the audience. And if I start to loose them, I go to plan B. If I’m loosing them by just playing rock solid stuff and they’re going, Yeah that’s OK but it’s boring, then I’ll move off it a little bit. But I always try to kind of get a little bit of feedback from the audience. I’ll work with them. Then sometimes instead of rather following their lead, I try to challenge them. I’ll do the opposite and they’ll yell, “Oh, that’s kind of boring,” but I keep staying right on it until you get it and you see why I have to do it like that. So I like the challenge of a live audience: kind of working with them, against them, for them all these different angles to come at them from. And, ultimately, it comes from playing in the bar band days where you had to get the audience back again to the show next week or you wouldn’t make any money. So we were really challenged by that.

When I first started playing bass, the guy that began to show me things, a guy named Joe that lived around the corner from me, I went to his house one time and it was just him and a drummer playing and I go, “Joe where’s the rest of the band?” And he goes, “Well, now, you see bass and drums play together. You see when I play a bass note and he hits the bass drum at the same time,” that’s an important part, and that was before I even owned a bass, so I learned that basic fundamental before I ever even owned a bass. And it’s funny to me now when I do bass clinics that some people don’t know that. How could you not know that? I mean you and the drummer gotta be locked together like that. And I spend a lot of time backtracking in clinics trying to teach a lot of basics that people have bypassed and they run out and they’re doing full sweep picking and fingering and then they play an ensemble with a band and it’s not together. And I remember there was a time, a few years back, where people blamed me for ruining all these bass players. And I understand, so I’m trying to do my part when I do my planning, so I try to pound it into them: drummer, drummer, drummer. Watch the drummer, stay with the drummer, keep your time together, bass, drum, bass, drum, bass, drum. So I’m trying to undo the damage I may have done.

Which is understandable because when a player comes out and he sees some fancy stuff, he wants to instantly when you’re a kid and there’s a cake in front of you, you instantly taste the frosting. You know you don’t go into the cake part of it, you want the frosting right away. So I try to undo that as best as possible by just emphasizing, for newer players or younger players or people that haven’t gotten it yet, that that’s so vitally important. And the only reason I think I’ve gotten away with the fancy stuff, if you will, is because I do play bass, also. And, again, being in a three-piece band for many years, I had to add extra things to double the guitar player, the extra keyboard part, but still be able to hold bass on it at the same time and the only way you can do that is if you’re really locked in with the drums and keep things going like that. I try to balance that by just stepping back and observing whats going on. There are a lot of people that are in this little sphere here and I always try to get out of that. I always try to get bigger than that. Inclusive of the whole room, certainly the whole band, definitely the drummer, and the audience, so that helps me to know when to turn right and when to turn left.

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