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Billy Sheehan: "I never considered I had any natural talent at all. I just had a burning desire to play"

Billy Sheehan: "I love playing. I can sit down for three hours and have a one-man party on the bass"
(Image credit: Future / Olly Curtis)

As the world of bass guitar has evolved, we’ve watched Billy Sheehan ascend to its very zenith - playing without overplaying, touring relentlessly while staying healthier than a bassist half his age, maintaining an unwavering creative output and still being a man that you’d love to sit down and have a beer with. 

That’s a rare combination in our experience; after a 50-year career of playing bass, something usually gets lost, be it health, playing skill, or just personality. But not Sheehan, whose debut appearance on the cover in 1990 we’re celebrating by appointing him as Guest Editor...

Billy, it’s been 30 years since you appeared on the cover of the Premiere Issue of Bass Player magazine. Would you say you’re playing bass differently now to the way you were in 1990?

"I think so. I know more about what I’m doing. A lot of times I would do things, but I wouldn’t really know what it was or how I did it, and I’d have to go back and relearn it, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. But now I’m much more well-versed on what’s happening and what I’m doing and how and why it worked, if it did. I’ve also been tireless in my pursuit of ‘more’ and ‘better’. 

"Not necessarily faster or more notes, but more understanding and playing things better, so that every finger is more precise; everything is where it should be. When there’s slop, it’s good slop. It sounds like it was intended slop as opposed to accidental, unintentional slop!"

I never considered I had any natural talent at all. I just had a burning desire to play

Do you work hard at this process?

"I practice more now than I think I ever did in my life. I get up every morning very early and get right at it, go for a couple of hours. I never considered I had any natural talent at all. I just had a burning desire to play, and I’m a good troubleshooter, so those two things combined. I hear notes and music and I go, ‘There’s notes on my fretboard. Why can’t I play those notes on this fretboard with this instrument?’ And that’s been the challenge, so I shoot for that. 

"That relentless work ethic is the thing I’m most thankful for. I don’t know where I got it or how I got it, but I love music and I love playing. I can sit down for hours and have a one-man party on bass and look up at the clock and go, ‘Geez, I’ve been going for three hours. I had no idea’."

Sons Of Apollo’s new album MMXX has been widely acclaimed. How did it come together?

"Pretty smoothly. I generally did a lot of the bass stuff on my own, because we have financial and geographical restrictions. Generally, I prefer to play in a room with people. We did the first record that way, but sometimes that’s not always possible, and sometimes it’s an advantage to play to what’s already been recorded because you can really put the parts under a microscope."

It’s the modern way to do it.

"To some purists that would be quite an abomination, I imagine, and I understand why they think that. However, it’s a new world now. This is 30 years since the beginning of your magazine. So many things have changed, and the economics of the business and making records has changed quite a bit, so you have to cope with it in order to continue putting out music and in order to continue creating what you want to create. You make an adjustment and it’s perfectly okay."

People sometimes forget how essential your strings are - and they really are. That’s the thing you’re touching, that’s what’s sounding the note

Some of these parts are intimidatingly complex. How much preparation do you need?

"I do my homework extensively. It was also a challenge because I had to figure out what those parts were. I didn’t have anybody there to show me what the fingering was, and there were a lot of fast, low things on the low B-string. Sometimes it’s hard to pick out what that note is, and that was a real challenge. 

"I can’t read music, but I can make notes that I’ll understand, and I can watch my notes go by and say, ‘Okay, I see the chorus is coming up, but it’s different than the last chorus, because at the end of it we go into another thing’, and it will be something written out. It’s almost juvenile, admittedly, but it does work for me. We got it, we figured it out, and we pounded away, and eventually I was very pleased with how it came out."

If you’d had the luxury of all playing together in a room, would your finished bass parts sound any different?

"Probably, but I don’t know if it would necessarily be better or worse. Take to take, it would sound different. If I need to play something exactly, militarily-perfect each time, I can generally rise to the challenge and get it. But I like to do a lot of freeform stuff, so even take to take, it’s going to be a little bit different."

Tell us about your signature Yamahas.

"Well, I have a super long-scale Attitude that they made for me years ago. One of the problems with standard-scale low B-strings is that they flop around quite a bit, so generally I use a giant one, a .120 or .130. Due to physics, it will be tighter, and you have to create higher tension for you to hit that pitch with more mass on the string. 

"So this gave me a real tight low end, which was essential on this record, because I had to really keep those notes fast and sharp, and get them to start and stop super-tight like a keyboard. I have two basses tuned that way, the extra long‑scale and a black Attitude."

You also have two double-necks.

"Yes, where one bass is tuned B E A D. You can play it like you play your normal bass instead of having to get used to a five‑string. I know there’s a lot of guys that have it so well down they don’t ever have to think about it, but initially, when most players pick up a five- or six-string when they’re used to four, there’s a transition period, and I was able to skip that, which was very nice. 

"Many people are kind enough to give me other basses as gifts or at an artist price, and I appreciate that very much, and Yamaha has been very cool with any other basses I might play or have. There’s never been a strict kind of endorsement thing. It’s a very friendly relationship I have with them and I love it very much. A Hipshot D-Tuner is essential on all my basses, too."

I keep pushing. So it hurts a little bit? No pain, no gain. As you get older, things are going to hurt

Across your career you must have seen rock songs tuned lower and lower.

"Yeah, and I’ve heard guitar players complain about it, that it’s kind of out of range of the song. Now you start getting into controversy, and sadly, musicians really love to go after each other, ‘No, everyone must play it right!’, ‘No, it’s got to be six strings!’... I hate to see that, because I love it all, and whatever you prefer, it’s art. If you want to paint it blue, or if you want to paint it green, you’re still an artist, so everybody calm down! 

"Fortunately we have technology now to reproduce low frequencies like never before. I remember those sub-woofers back in the day, where everything cut off at around 30 or 40 cycles, if you were lucky. Now the sub-sonics are well represented."

You’ve built a signal chain from tried and trusted components.

"I have. I use Rotosound strings from England, of course. People sometimes forget how essential your strings are - and they really are. That’s the thing you’re touching, that’s what’s sounding the note. Of course, it’s surrounded by wood and frets and it goes through electronics and amps, but that string is really the source.

Rotosound has an organic thing to it, and a way that they grab your fingers as you pluck that makes the note really sing. [Rotosound owner] Jason How is a dear friend of mine, he and his wife. I love the company and the people involved in it. That’s my main string for my whole life."

"Also, your first stages of pre-amplification really does a lot for what the end result is, I believe, and with my DiMarzio pickups, there’s no batteries and no electronics. I remember back in the day of having custom preamps built, I’d say, ‘You got a pad on the input?’ They’d go, ‘Oh, no, you’re not going to need a pad’... I’d play a note and the clip light would go on."

You also have a longstanding relationship with EBS.

"Yeah. The other night I showed up to do a jam at one of the Nashville clubs where you just go up, plug in and play - no pedalboards; nothing. But they did have a couple of pedals for the bass players, so I plugged in and it was my pedal [the EBS Ultimate Signature Drive] that was down there. It was going through an amp that I was completely unfamiliar with, so I just clicked the pedal on and it was glorious. 

"It’s so nice to know there’s a pedal version of the tone I need to get, and I get emails from people from all over that have the pedal and it’s serving them very well. I believe Rudy Sarzo was kind enough to say he wouldn’t leave home without it now - so thank you, Rudy."

You’re a pioneer of dual bass outputs.

"That whole parallel path is something that I started when I put the second pickup on the bass, but then my P-Bass started to take a parallel path of clean and distorted mix. It seems to be a very popular thing now, which I’m glad to see, because it really is an effective way to keep your bass note happening, but still get a little bit of grime down there without losing your low frequencies. That’s always been the point, and the EBS people did a wonderful job of creating that."

Tell us about the Line 6 Helix Floor that you use.

"The Helix has been wonderful. Line 6 modeled my actual original Pearce preamp - they still have it, too! I’ve got to get it back from them - and I just went in there, I did some work on it just last week, where we sat down and went through a couple of essential components and some new takes on a few things that they’re going to have in the next build, I believe, and so we’ve got some exciting things happening.

"They’re a great company and so co-operative, and they really want to help their players. Again, there’s another point of contention between people of which platform you want to use - the Fractal or the Kemper or the Helix. They’re all great. I tried them all and I like them all. For me, the Helix lands in the best place, and they did model my actual preamp, so that’s very helpful to me, and so I prefer them."

A lot of guys have got problems with joints, and playing, of course, is a joint-intensive activity, so a low-carb, no-sugar diet has helped me a lot

And the amps are still Hartke?

"Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Hartke’s been just wonderful. We started the whole relationship when my situation with Ampeg ended. Larry Hartke called and said, ‘Whatever you need, I’ll be happy to get for you. Don’t worry about endorsement deals or contracts, just I’ll be happy to take care of that’. As a result, the stuff is rock-solid and I love it very much."

It seems that our role as bass players has changed a little over the last 30 years. Is that how you see it?

"Well, anything is legal. It’s all possibilities and music changes through time. It’s always going to change and will continue to change, and the pendulum will swing one way and back the other and maybe even sideways. Who knows how the pendulum will swing? So it’s okay by me. I like to see innovation and guys doing new things, but also people have the right to love what they love, and if you like playing with a certain tonality, it’s what sounds right to you."

I wish people were always that understanding.

"Yeah, because being musicians we’ve got enough problems without having to listen to that. I’m very lucky to have had a career, and I made good money. I’m not rich, but I’m doing good. I’ve got a nice house and a nice car, and that’s really cool. But now it’s tough, especially for newcomers, to get to that spot, and I feel for them and I want to help them."

What advice can you give us?

"The best advice I can give them is stop going after each other, because what we need to do is write great songs, play them amazingly, and reach as many people as possible. And if we’re spending our time screaming at each other over five- or six-string bass, or which amp is best, or whose tone is best - or whose tone sucks - we’re hurting ourselves."

Playing bass for a few decades is relentless on the body. Is everything holding up?

"Generally, but if it hurts, I just keep going. I keep pushing. So it hurts a little bit? No pain, no gain. As you get older, things are going to hurt."

Sure. I assume that you’re taking care of yourself, though?

"Yeah, generally. I watch what I eat. I’m organic all the time, and there’s no sugar. A lot of guys have got problems with joints, and playing, of course, is a joint-intensive activity, so a low-carb, no-sugar diet has helped me a lot. Back in the '70s and '80s, I had so much trouble with my wrists - excruciating pain- and as you get older, things generally only get worse.

"But I’m cured. My wrists are fine, there’s nothing there anymore, and that came right after I stopped eating sugar and carbs. Beer and wine are carbs too, but you’ve got to live, so sometimes I’ll make an allowance for them. At meals they’ll ask me, ‘Sir, do you want a dessert?’ I’ll go, ‘No, thanks - I’m drinking it!’"

  • Sons Of Apollo's MMXX is out now via Century Media