Billy Sheehan’s Full- Contact Bass

THE DECISION TO LAUNCH BASS PLAYER as a regular publication came in late 1989, after two test issues—sold in music stores and on newsstands—had been received enthusiastically.
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From The Spring 1990 Premiere Issue

THE DECISION TO LAUNCH BASS PLAYER as a regular publication came in late 1989, after two test issues—sold in music stores and on newsstands—had been received enthusiastically. I had been contributing articles about bassists to Guitar Player for several years and was fortunate to be invited to join BP as its founding editor. Soon after I arrived, I sat down with GP editor Tom Wheeler, who was serving as our editorial director, to talk about who should be on the cover of our premiere issue. Tom had two words of advice: “Billy Sheehan.”

Billy was riding high. He had been voted Best Rock Bassist four times straight in GP’s readers poll, had garnered a ton of publicity for his work with David Lee Roth, and had just hit the road with his new band, Mr. Big. Interviewing him was a lot of fun, and I tried my best to get his energy and humor to come across on the page. The centerpiece of my article was a private lesson in which Billy explained some of the key aspects of his style, including his three-finger plucking, two-handed hammers, and pinch harmonics. He began by talking about the philosophy behind his approach.

“Bass playing involves your whole body. It’s a full-contact sport. All dance music is based on a heavy bass line, and all bass players should think about why that’s true and apply that knowledge to their playing.”

In his decades as a bass player, Billy Sheehan has forged a personal style that’s radically different from conventional rock bass playing. Although he’s the first to admit that he didn’t invent most of the techniques he uses (“Nothing I do is remotely original—it’s just applied differently”), his power, speed, and audacity have forever altered the image of the bass player as the invisible member of the band.

When he talks about getting his whole body involved in playing, Billy speaks from experience. His success is rooted in a technique that he’s developed with hundreds of hours of practicing and thousands of gigs. He’s always searching for new ideas, and everything he discovers has to work onstage, or he discards it. “If it works when you’re running around and tripping over your cord, and if it works when people are grabbing at you and trying to pull you into the audience, then you can really do it.”

Billy’s style is based on strength. You don’t have to lift weights to play like him, but you should develop the muscles you need for getting the most out of your bass. “Guitar strings are like little threads,” Billy chuckles, “but bass strings are like clotheslines. You really have to get some power behind what you do. Some players use super-light strings and real low action. They can hammer-on and sweep pick and do all this fancy stuff. But they can’t play bass. They can’t get down there and grind.”

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