Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Five Questions With... Billy Sheehan

When naming the greatest bass players in rock and roll history, several come immediately to mind... Bootsy Collins, Andy Shernoff, Paul McCartney, Steve Harris, Victor Wooten, Stanley Jordan... And of course Billy Sheehan.

When Billy Sheehan plays bass it sounds more like he is playing lead guitar. He doesn't just provide the standard  thump thump thump that you get with the run of the mill bass player. You also get his signature two handed tapping styles and banjo like finger picking... methods usually reserved for virtuosos. He is a pioneer in the way the bass is played, and is very highly revered in the industry as one of the greatest of all time.

From his website:

Billy Sheehan has changed the way bass guitar is played.... Voted the "Best Rock Bass Player" 5 times in Guitar Player magazines Readers Poll, an honor which placed him in their "Gallery of Greats" (alongside Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee and Eddie Van Halen to name but a few), he has also won readers polls in Germany, Japan, Korea, Italy, and many other countries. On January 27, 1999 Billy's handprints and signature were preserved in cement on the Hollywood Rockwalk at Guitar Center. An honor attributed to those artists who have made a significant contribution to Rock and Roll. In Japan, Billy has won the prestigious "Player Magazine" (Japan's #1 Music mag) Readers Poll for Best Bass Player an unprecedented 14 consecutive times and Burrn! Magazines (Japan's #1 heavy metal mag) Readers Poll 5 times while selling out Budokan arena 3 consecutive nights with his band Mr. Big.

According to everyjoe.com, an online men's entertainment site, Mr. Sheehan is ranked #3 on the Top 10 Bass Guitarists in Metal. While this particular site (compare it to Maxim magazine) might not seem like the ultimate authority for all things music, the author, Scott, has actually compiled a "smart" list. Each bass player that he mentions is listed with a long explanation for his particular choice. However, when he comes to mentioning Billy Sheehan, the name seems to speak for itself...

Billy Sheehan- When he played in the band Mr. Big, they were referring to him. Ok, I just made that up, but it’s Billy Sheehan for Christ’s sake! I really don’t think I need to elaborate.

Mr. Sheehan has played with Stevie Vai, David Lee Roth, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Terry Bozzio, Deep Purple's Glenn Hughes, Tony Mac Alpine, Cozy Powell, and Steve Howe, to name a few. You couldn't listen to the radio during the '80s or '90s without hearing Billy Sheehan play bass in one project or another, and when I saw him in Ames, Iowa around 1986 with David Lee Roth on the Eat 'Em and Smile tour, I was just enamored with seeing Billy Sheehan play bass as I was seeing the colorful former frontman of Van Halen. I called it an all star lineup then... With Steve Vai on guitar and Gregg Bissonette beating the drums, it is one of the greatest lineups of any band in rock and roll history.

1. I read that you had reunited with your band mates from Mr. Big last year and toured Japan... Are you currently on tour, and if so is there plans for a sweep across the U.S.? If not, what ARE you doing these days?

We did a huge tour last year--all over Europe, S.E. Asia, Indonesia, India, and Japan. We are working on a brand new record and will tour the USA next year. Also, I'm working on a new Niacin record and several things of my own and other peoples records. It's a busy time! All good. We had a wonderful time on tour-- no troubles at all, and the places were packed with thousands of smiling faces. It doesn't get much better than that! I'm so thankful for the chance to play as Mr. Big again.

2. This is a loaded question... In 1986 you joined forces with guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Gregg Bissonette in support of the David Lee Roth's new solo band. ( I saw the show in Ames that year) First of all, what was touring with DLR like... Was it fun... Was it exhausting... Was David's ego too much to tolerate at times? And secondly, what was the back stage atmosphere like relative to parties, fun and band camaraderie?

Not loaded at all--ha! Well, maybe WE were sometimes. Actually it was utterly fabulous. We got on great w/ Dave. Dave called me in the summer of '85, making this July my 25th year in LA. He had another guitarist in mind originally, but when that didn't work out, I suggested Steve & thankfully, Dave agreed. Steve & I found Greg, and we made a record. The hanging out, story-telling, beer drinking times were beyond amazing. Dave is still my hero & I cherish the time we all were together. I don't think a day goes by without me getting some email or comment-post about that record (Eat 'Em & Smile).

3. Who was your biggest influence as a young bass player, and who do you respect in the business today?

It's a long list, and by no means complete yet. I'm still learning---it never ends (thankfully!) Paul Samwell-Smith (Yardbirds), Tim Bogert (Vanilla Fudge), Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Entwisle--everybody. And other instrumenalist's/musicians as well. Oscar Peterson, Hendrix (of course), Debussy, Sonny Rollins, Zappa--it goes on forever!

4. How did Niacin come about? It's interesting that someone who played radio-friendly rock and roll could wind up in a rock- jazz fusion instrumental group.... And how did vocalist Glenn Hughes (of Deep Purple fame) come on board in 2000?

Glenn sang on one song "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be" and absolutely killed it. On a recent Glenn vocal on an upcoming record of Sinatra songs (I played bass on them), Glenn sang "I've Got You Under My Skin". It is the best vocal performance I've heard in decades. I got on stage w/ him in Germany recently too. Glenn could be the best vocalist around. Period. Anyway, Niacin started as a way to just blast out with music we loved, not worrying about anything but playing. PLUS-- Dennis Chambers is on drums. The opportunity to play with him has changed my life. He's the best musician I know on any instrument. I've played a LONG time, and I've been through many genres & styles of playing. Some folks only know of my stuff in a certain context, but I love a lot of styles from pop, folk, jazz, metal, prog, punk, and just about all else. Niacin is a conglomeration & mutation of a whole bunch of stuff. Playing live with that band is pretty wild!

5. It is no secret that you are involved with The Church of Scientology. As someone who knows virtually nothing about it, what is it's foundation and what how were you drawn to it?

I was looking for a way to get into my past and deal with it in a way that it could no longer negatively influence me. It worked perfectly and helped me immensely. A description of it would require many hours of typing on my part. I'm always trying to make things better--in my life, with my playing, with the people around me. I believe in free thinking, respect for others and their right to voice their opinions (whatever they are), and an honest, open, respectful discourse about anything. It has been an incredible adventure.

(Bonus Question): What was the very first rock and roll record you ever bought?

It was the single "Eight Miles High" by The Byrds. Still love that 12 string tone! I now have several 12's, including a few "baritone" versions (tuned B,E,A,D, F#, B). Also, a little box called "The JangleBox" that I found does a PERFECT job of replicating that tone.


CVEckian said...

Great interview of a great bassist! Although, I am little miffed not to see John Paul Jones on your list of great bass guitar players. Ever a Zep Head am I, forgive me.

T.Church said...

Heh... Yeah there is no doubt that JPJ belongs on the list. I dropped the ball on that one.