Billy Sheehan is a gracious legend. Our interview at the Frankfurt Musikmesse (Music Fair) is interrupted by eager fans wanting a photo with their idol, and Kitmonsters gets handed a camera several times during our chat.
Billy is off duty that day and hanging out at the Rotosound stand to talk and try out new kit like their re-issued Fuzz Pedal. Later we’re excited to hear a snatch of him playing a non-bass guitar as he has a go with his baseball cap pulled low and trying to be incognito. The following day he is due to do a signing session.
I like doing signings, it helps me put a thumb on the pulse of what’s going on. Everything I own all comes from a fan and I never forget that. I’m always happy to talk.
He has a host of tips for newer bass players - mainly centred on hard work.
Play live as much as you can, learn a million songs. All the great bands were copy bands. The Beatles’ first album had copy tunes. Hendrix played in a show band.
Learn songwriting by copying other people’s songs. The Beatles knew a zillion songs before they ever wrote one. Hunter S. Thompson copied a whole book out by hand to get the feel of writing a book. Every great artist pulls stuff from others. So many bands want to write a song as the first thing they do. They are asking for heartbreak.
Billy is a firm believer in learning your craft.
You have to put your time in. I played for a decade before I ever recorded. There’s the 10,000 hour rule. You have to put it in with any endeavour.
Once upon a time Billy couldn’t afford to buy new strings for every show and had to be extra inventive.
I used to take the old ones off and put them in boiling water with a drop of detergent to clean them.
Now he has a set of signature strings with Rotosound, and is never short. He was thrilled when he was endorsed by them early on in his career.
Rotosound Billy Sheehan Signature Swing Bass Strings
Just the right amount of resistance and surrender that works out perfectly for me
He has not only changed bass playing, he’s also been trying to improve the gear available to players by working closely with engineers on new products.
He designed a pre-amp with Ampeg and told us he is currently working on a pedal with EBS. A new version of his Yamaha Attitude Bass has come out, the LTD 3.
There are some key changes, especially the new neck to body join which is a big deal and patented. Also the body is artificially aged wood which improves the sound. The wood is vibrated so they sound as if they’ve been played for years.
Yamaha Attitude LTD 3 Bass
Billy Sheehan’s signature bass, a mix of power and definition.
Billy also thinks it’s important to be able to talk to engineers on their terms.
If you can’t articulate in their language you can’t get what you want. Take distortion. What is distortion? It can mean many things. Different engineers can create different distortions but they may not all be musically useful. Even if in theory they work.
For amps, Billy chooses Hartke - he particularly likes the founder’s personal touch.
Larry is the person whose name is on the amp and answers for quality control. I don’t want kids going to the store and getting a plonker. I use the LH1000 for the low end and the 5500 for high end – my bass has two outputs.
A powerful blend of tube and solid-state circuitry.
Power, tube or solid-state preamps, and accurate tonal shaping make this a very flexible bass amp head.
He is also hoarding some special pieces of kit - stockpiling Pearce GI and BI preamps! The preamp is a version made for him, modded with an extra gain stage added. He is always stretching designers.
They stopped manufacturing them in the 90s. I have a stash and when they are gone, it’s over. They have tone like nothing else, and I spend a lot of time trying to duplicate it. I push people to make mods.
Billy’s recently started using pedals from boutique stompbox makers Pigtronix - and is endorsing the Philosopher’s Tone.
Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone
Analog compressor/sustainer for clean or dirty tone
He also uses rack-mounted gear when he is playing live.
Usually pro-audio stuff. A compressor, noise reduction, from Ashly Audio in Webster, New York.
He is producing other people now and the big news is that he is reuniting with his old band Talas for a gig in their home town of Buffalo. It’s on July 28th 2012 and it’s FREE!
But it really will just be one gig. No more.
We asked Billy what the key is to his unique sound. For a player who has such specific requirements of his kit, the answer was surprising.
When you reach a certain point, you can play anything and it still sounds the same. In the end it’s your hands. The only thing I touch is the strings, they have a feel to them. They are how I interact with the bass. The Rotosound strings have just the right amount of resistance and surrender that works out perfectly for me.
So what does he make of reality TV shows that try and make new music stars? Unsurprisingly he’s not a fan.
In the end, how many of them have an actual career? And the contracts would be illegal in other forms of business.