“You could play a one-string bass with a pick and still create amazing music”: Billy Sheehan disputes his reputation as “an overplaying icon of lead bass”

Billy Sheehan from Mr Big performs at Le Bataclan on September 21, 2011 in Paris, France.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When your professional career spans five decades and all the musical fads that period covers, you've played packed-out stadiums, made platinum albums and scored number one singles, what keeps you going? For Billy Sheehan it comes down to one simple thing: his instrument. “The bass guitar is everything to me," he told BP. “You know, everything I own and have is a direct result of people buying my records, or a ticket to my shows – and that all comes from the bass.”

Obviously Sheehan has been known for his incredible fingerstyle and tapping technique since time immemorial (well, 1979), and interviews with him by hacks like us tend to reflect that fact. But before we get into the details of his insanely evolved playing, Sheehan points out that the true focus of any serious musician should really lie elsewhere. 

“I've spent a lot of time improving the mechanics of my hands, but I'm afraid to show bass players because I'm afraid they'll get caught up in it. They forget that the mechanics is nothing: it's just stretching the canvas on the frame and trimming the brushes before you start to paint. That said, I practise more now then I ever have, and it's paying off. I'm noticing improvements in consistency and getting new stuff onto the stage. Playing new stuff in your hotel is easy, it's getting it on stage that counts.”

According to Sheehan, simplicity is just as valid as complexity. “I still sit down and pick a note, say like a low G or F# and just pound out quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes for an hour. That kind of bass playing can become something else entirely when you have the notes totally under your control – and not a lot of players manage that. You don't need to play with three fingers. You could play a one-string bass with a pick and still create amazing music and be just as legitimate a musician as anyone else.”

Although this is true – any bass geek who, like us, has followed Sheehan's career through shred-heavy albums by Talas, Mr Big and Dave Lee Roth will know what we're talking about – isn't much of Sheehan's reputation based on speedy playing? And given that, does he feel pressure to play difficult basslines?

“I play complex parts because I want to, not because I feel pressured to do it. I also love playing simple songs with simple basslines. There’s a book called The Story Of Philosophy, and many philosophers touch on the idea that music is the greatest art form. I really believe that. As musicians we have an amazing tool in our hands, and I'm very pleased that we have it. What music has done for me and to me is amazing, and I hope that I can do that same thing for other people.

“I do like playing challenging stuff, though – and I still practise a lot of stuff that is new to me. One is a fast tapped thing with different intervals, and another is a lot of fingerpicking stuff where l'll take four notes from three strings, almost like a clawhammer style. I sit there with my iPhone and practise moving tapped figures around. I use the phone to film myself doing it, so I don't forget it. That's useful for song ideas too, not just mechanics. I've got hundreds of little videos, some of which are me in my hotel room in my underpants…”

All this shreddy stuff comes at a price, of course, not least the hours of practice time that Sheehan feels compelled to put in. “I still sit down every morning and hit it hard for a couple of hours. The key is to practise creatively. If you're doing things over and over and not getting better, you have to be able to say ‘Hell, this ain't working, so what am I going to do to make it work?’ Proper practice should be disciplined, self-critical and come from a place of introspection. You can always do something better, but that doesn't mean more notes or faster!”

So what exactly does he practise? “Sometimes the mechanics. I need to not be hindered by the physical aspect of bass playing so that I can focus on the music. Like the three-fingered technique. Because so much of our music is two-and four-based, it's hard to play those kinds of grooves and note groupings with three fingers. With two you have this on-off, on-off rhythm, but with three it becomes on-and-off, on-and-off. I practise endlessly, making that smooth and indistinguishable from two fingers. Other times, though, I'll focus purely on the music side of things – interesting chords or progressions.”

When it comes time to play a solo, Sheehan warns that overthinking your choice of notes is to be avoided at all costs. “To be honest I don't think too much. It’s always a little roll of the dice, and sometimes your number comes up, sometimes not. I've played for long enough now to know that the worst case scenario is it'll get a passing grade, but in the best case you get something really magical. I'm from the Hendrix school – I'd rather see someone play 10 mediocre solos and then one amazing one, than the same thing each night.”

Sheehan's bass solos may change, but his gear does not, at least at its core. He's still sporting a variant of the amazing Yamaha Attitude bass that he first revealed to the public 35 years ago. 

“I got my first Attitude in 1988. It's a man's bass! Larry Hartke told me it's the manliest bass he's seen. It's set up really nice: that's half the battle. I have some other basses too. One of them is a Zemaitis: it's beautiful and very expensive, and they were kind enough to make one for me. I also bought a really old Telebass with the single pickup unit. If you know what you're doing, you can take pretty much any bass and make it sound better.”

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.