The late, great Les Paul once said he wanted to create music that was so unique his mother could instantly tell his playing apart from anyone else’s. It’s a goal few guitarists have truly achieved, and one met by perhaps an even smaller number of bassists.
One four-stringer, however, who has always had a super identifiable sound is Billy Sheehan. This is one reason why — from his work spanning Talas, David Lee Roth, and Winery Dogs to Niacin, Steve Vai, and Mr. Big — the Buffalo, New York-bred, L.A.-conquering, Nashville-based bassist has never found himself on the musical unemployment line.
And never is Sheehan’s signature sound more on display than when his bandmates surrender the stage to him and he’s alone under the lights with just his bass.
“Since the early ’70s with Talas and just about every other band I’ve been in, I’ve always done an unaccompanied solo at shows,” says Sheehan, who, in those moments when all the spotlights converge on him, becomes a one-man musical volcano, erupting with three-finger plucked-note volleys, bent-neck distorted divebombs, thundering dual-amp bass themes, sprays of prismatic harmonics, percussive two-hands-on-the-neck runs, and other such “Billy-isms.”
“It began to evolve over time,” says Sheehan of his solo. “Talas would be doing three or four long sets a night, and one night, when I was taking a solo on the song ‘Mr. Big,’ by Free — just as Andy Fraser did on the original track — I said to the other guys, ‘If you want to stop playing and leave the stage, go ahead. I’ll be fine.’ Audiences thought it was cool, and my bandmates liked it, too, because they could take a break, maybe have a beer, and talk to some girls. Soon, I was throwing in a little Bach piece here, maybe a Hendrix thing there, and extending it. There’s a real value to doing something hundreds of times, because you really start to fine tune it and make it musical.”
For Sheehan, who played a dozen or so sold-out arena shows across Asia with Mr. Big this past summer, the big bass solo and, of course, the rest of the band’s set were likely, at these concerts, more poignant than ever. That’s because this tour — which has been dubbed “The Big Finish” and will hit America and Europe early next year — will be the band’s last.
“We wanted to do a real farewell,” says Sheehan, who — ever the in-demand bass player — will also be doing a Fall Europe/Japan tour with the Winery Dogs starting in October. “In other words, we didn’t want to call it a farewell and then come back later because we’re doing good business again. It’s better to end on a high note.
“The most emotional night on this past run,” adds Sheehan, “was our second sold-out night at Budokan, in Tokyo, because we flew in as many of our family members as we could for that show and brought them up on stage. The big surprise was we also brought up [late Mr. Big drummer] Pat Torpey’s family. When they appeared, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Speaking of family, when it comes to gear, if there’s one piece of Sheehan’s rig that has become almost like a family member it’s Sheehan’s signature Attitude bass from Yamaha. There have been different iterations of it over the years (“It has evolved incrementally,” says Sheehan) but there’s always one with Sheehan. In one of the longest running instrument endorsements in music, Sheehan has been playing Attitudes for 33 years and counting. And, like his sound, the instrument — with its unique fret markers and dual output jack — is instantly identifiable.
“The fret markers were [guitar/bass designer] Rich Lasner’s idea, because there are scallops between the frets at the top of the neck, and when you black them out, you get that bullet shape,” says Sheehan. “So Rich said, ‘Why don’t we continue the pattern? For the octave we’ll do one bullet on each side, but then on the lower part of the neck, the markers will switch directions.’ And visually, those orientations make sense, because you don’t really play the low strings up above the 14th or 16th frets that much, but you sure do play those strings on the low frets!
“And regarding those fret markers, Yamaha also did a Winery Dogs version of the bass,” continues Sheehan. “It has a clear, acrylic red body the color of wine, and they altered the bullet shapes to have little necks, making them look like little wine bottles. It came out perfect.”
As for Sheehan’s dual-output jacks, well, they’re not so much for stereo, but for a bi-amped, P.A.-style approach to bass tone. The neck pickup goes out one jack to one amp (“the woofer,” as Sheehan calls it) so that Sheehan is never without the warm, deep tones that conjure his early neck-pickup heroes — players such as Paul Samwell-Smith, Jack Bruce, and Paul McCartney. Meanwhile, the bridge pickup’s signal is sent out the other jack to a separate “tweeter” amp.
“That way, the low end never goes away,” says Sheehan. “It’s always there no matter what distortion or screaming harmonics are happening out of the bridge pickup. And on all the Attitudes there’s a pull/push switch on the volume knob that combines both pickups if you want to go out of just one cable.”
One nice thing about being a Billy Sheehan fan is that if you want to communicate with your hero, there’s a solid chance your message will receive a reply. That’s because, in those rare moments when Sheehan doesn’t have a bass in his hands, he’s probably doing something not all superstar musicians make time for — engaging with his tribe.
“I monitor my social media pretty closely,” says Sheehan, who remembers the pre-internet era when he’d even reply to physical “snail mail” letters. “It’s a gargantuan, herculean task, but I choose to do it myself, just for the integrity of it. I wouldn’t want someone else answering for me. And I wouldn’t want all those questions, inquiries, or comments to go wasted. And I do enjoy it, because it puts my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on. Lately, we’ve seen a lot of comments about Mr. Big coming to Europe, because those shows are on sale already, and everybody is showing photos of their tickets, and sharing how excited they are. We’re excited too.”
Learn more about Billy Sheehan’s long history with Yamaha in this video:
Catch Mr. Big on tour: http://www.mrbigsite.com/