Big Bottoms: Billy Sheehan
There is perhaps no greater ambassador for heavy metal bass guitar than Billy Sheehan. Of course he boasts an impressive discography accompanying some of rock’s greatest, but it’s his outspoken advocacy of the bass guitar and front-of-stage performances that make Billy so strongly associated with great bass playing.
Billy has been dispensing sage advice and teaching valuable lessons to rock musicians for decades. Billy is important to bassists because he’s a trailblazer. There are too many examples to name of musicians who have exceeded the expectations of their instrument and, most importantly, brought like-minded players along with them. Billy is one such musician.
Billy caught up with “Big Bottoms” a few days following Winery Dogs’ New York and New Jersey shows this summer to talk about his instrument, his goals, his playing with David Lee Roth and the genesis of his great new project, Winery Dogs, which combines shredding with songwriting and classic grooves.
Was this Winery Dogs album an easy one to make?
Absolutely. It was a breeze. When things fall together naturally and they work, the songs take on a life of their own. I know a lot of great artists and great writers who have asked, “How did you do that?” And I go, “I don’t know; it just kind of happened! (Laughs) We really didn’t do much of anything. We were just in a room. Those guys did that. I came up with this. Next thing you know, the song is there!” That’s how it happened.
To me that’s a good indicator that we’re on the right path, that we don’t have to belabor through it and microscopically dissect it atom by atom and figure out what goes where and how.
I know guys in different fields of the arts where they come in like a photographer. They sit there and they get the light meters and they move stuff around and they’ve got different cameras, shutter speeds and lenses and lights—all kinds of crazy shit.
Other guys walk in, they walk around the room, they look for a moment, hold the camera up, *snap* unbelievable. That’s kind of the way I’d like to parallel our music. If you know your stuff enough to walk in, figure out what you’ve got, what you can do with it and you go home. Done deal. That’s kind of how the record went.
Did you all come in with riffs and parts and put them together or was it mostly written in a jam room?
Mostly in the jam room, but there were some things that were brought in. Richie had some pieces of music that were really great but needed to be modified for us to play. By that I mean, let Mike do his thing, let me do my thing. Richie coming in with the body of the song is great.
I wouldn’t want to dictate to Mike how the drums should go nor would I want to tell Richie how to sing it. Richie is a grandmaster of his craft and so is Mike. “You guys do what you think is right for this and then, there you go.”
I trust Mike will come up with the right part, that’s his job and he’s done it a lot with a lot of bands. It makes it quite easy.
You have such an extensive catalogue. Is there one album or project in particular in which you found it difficult to record or create new music?
Yeah, there have been some tough hustles. The Skyscraper record with David Lee Roth was tough. It was an emotional change in the wind. Eat ‘em and Smile was great and fun and cool, we had a riot. Skyscraper was one where they scraped and dissected every input in a 60-input console. Every minute and every measure had to be perfect. Every bar was under scrutiny. And it sucked and squeezed the life and soul out of all the music completely. It was a really difficult record for me and I left right after that record.
There have been other situations where people make it difficult. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to make a record—there are no rules when it comes to making music—you can go through every measure and have everything orchestrated and scripted. Sometimes that works great. It’s not my thing personally. I prefer to get in there and let it fly.
Skyscraper record was not one of those records. We went in and recorded each part individually, without the other guys there. We didn’t play together in a room or jam at all on the record. I just heard a snippet of one of the songs the other night during a radio interview. It just brought back instant memories of the drudgery and hard labor that went into creating that record. In the end, I didn’t like what we got out of it at all. But a lot of people love that record, so who am I to judge?
Education has been a big part of how my awareness of you developed. You’ve got instructional DVDs and there tons of videos on YouTube of you dispensing advice. I’m curious, since you’re such a traditional rock and roll guys, did you have teachers in the beginning?
No, I learned bass by the seat of my pants. I had a record and a bass. I heard the notes on the record and had to find them on the bass and then play them together. In a way, it’s the greatest way to learn. As much as I like giving advice and helping my fellow musicians, I always do so with the caveat of “You know, if you figured this shit out on your own, you will own it like you own nothing else.”
Any musician who figures it out on their own and discovers and takes that adventure of figuring it out, there’s a dearth of other stuff that you can’t get from having someone else show you. So I had no formal training, I can’t read music, I don’t know that much about music theory, but I can get four or five musicians in a room, squeeze a song out and get it recorded and have something really nice at the end of the day.
All my information and all my capabilities are all based on practical, actual use and actual application, in order to have the end result of me on a stage performing in front of people. That’s always been my main thing.
Every band I ever put together through the years, as we’re doing it, I’m always thinking the end result is on stage. On stage, is it going to work? We’ll figure it out from there.
Like I said at the beginning of speaking here with you, the final goal of being on stage in front of people is what drove me to discover so much and that’s what led me to this profession.
What aspect of music challenges you most nowadays?
It’s just all a personal and internal challenge for me. I’m just trying to be better. Better doesn’t mean faster or louder. It just means more pleasing—something that’s more exciting. It could be many, many things. All those challenges for me are internal. I have to figure out those things myself.
Other than that, playing in a band and performing, there’s not much of a challenge there as much as just natural joy. The challenge is how much of it can I do and for how long? The answers are hopefully “a lot” and “forever.”
How do you approach a particularly difficult passage?
One piece at a time. Take it a piece at a time and you can figure it out. Then you put all those pieces together in a unified whole.
I learned a difficult viola solo from the Brandenburg Concertos. It was tough and the fingerings were impossible. But piece by piece, slowly, one chunk at a time over a period of time I got it together and was able string all the parts together and perform it beginning to end with lots of mistakes. Then I figured out where the mistakes were, fine tune it, reinforce those. Now I can play the piece, after all of that. I have to be in perfect shape and be totally warmed up, but I can play it now.
If you know that it is possible to do anything, you can figure it out. Bass players come up to me sometimes and they’re very kind and generous. And I always say and mean, “There’s nothing I do that you can’t do.” Whether you want to do it or not is one thing. How much time it’s going to take you to do it is another thing too. I firmly believe that anyone is capable of it. Sometimes it takes intense discipline and personal drive to get through that wall. Some people don’t have that in them, so maybe they can’t. But if they had the discipline to sit there and pound it out for hours and hours, it can be done. Can you string all that together and put it onstage while you’re singing? There’s another challenge. But all those things are well within others’ capabilities and I’ve been doing it for a long, long time.
Was there a point in your career in which you realized you’re pretty good at this?
There was a point where I knew I could play what I needed to play. But I soon abandoned that and looked at all the stuff I couldn’t do and what I wasn’t capable of and what I had trouble with. Fortunately, due to my personality, I never looked at what was accomplished, I only want to look forward at what I need to do.
When you get to the top of one mountain, you could stay there all day. But that’s not going to get you to the top of the next one. I don’t really look back. I’m looking always towards the next hill to climb, which is good because it always keeps you in check and grounded. Humility is a virtue for a reason. Humility comes when you are aware enough of what you don’t know.
There’s a famous saying: “There are two types of people in this world; those who don’t know and those who know they don’t know.” I’m the former rather than the latter. I’ll always be on a quest to achieve more.
What’s your advice for bassists who are trying to write music on bass?
Well, bass is tough to write on because you don’t really have chords. You can—I mean, I play chords on bass and I can apply them. But guitar or piano are probably the most utilized instruments to write with. Piano was for years was the main instrument. Seventy-five years ago it was hard to find a house without a piano. Because it’s chordal, it’s so much easier to spell out what a song is. You’ve got bass lines, melody lines and chords. It’s all there. Same with guitar.
To write on bass is not impossible. Some people are certainly capable of it. I advise bass players to learn either piano or guitar—especially guitar—because it’s good to learn that language. You have to be able to communicate with guitarists. Learn drums too. If you can communicate with the drummer, you know what’s going on there.