Billy Sheehan, quite possibly the most technically gifted rock bass player on the planet, has played with dozens of amazing musicians and travelled the world for decades, which means that he has tonnes of useful advice to pass on.
In a recent backstage interview with Scott's Bass Lessons founder Scott Devine, before getting into the details of his insanely evolved tapping and three-finger technique, Sheehan was asked if he’d ever been tempted by the most reviled totem of 1980s musicianship ever, slap bass.
“With slap I could never figure out where those notes were coming from,” said Sheehan. “So I sat down and just came up with a slap riff. When I got done it kind of sounded like slap, but then I’d go see Victor Wooten and just give up!”
So what exactly does he practice? “Sometimes the mechanics,” said Billy. “I need my hands to function as machines, and 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. I still work on it everyday.”
Asked about his tapping technique, Sheehan told BP: “You can string your bass guitar light, put the action low and get it to play as easy as a ukulele, but if you push it too hard with your technique you overwhelm the strings and just crash against the frets. You’ve got to find the right balance.”
“It’s natural for some bassists to play a lot of notes,” he adds. “There are some guys who can play 50 times faster than I can, but they can’t play a groove. If it’s natural for you to play fast and if it sounds OK, cool. If you’re doing it just for the sake of playing fast, you’re chasing the wrong thing. At least 90% of my bass playing is locking up with a drummer, but sometimes you get tagged with a certain thing and it’s hard to shake."
Talking of his ferocious technique, Sheehan once came to wield a cordless power drill on his bass with Mr Big. It all started when guitarist Paul Gilbert taped a plectrum to an electric hand drill, which he then applied to his guitar strings. “In the end we got an endorsement from the Makita power drill company," says Sheehan, who did likewise with his bass. “Our manager called them up, they asked how much we wanted as a fee, and when he replied ‘One million dollars’ they actually agreed. True story.”