In the middle of his live solo “7718(3A17)” on the Talas album Live Speed On Ice, after some tapping and scale-running pyrotechnics, Billy Sheehan cuts the distortion and, still tapping but using chords and all four strings, creates the sound of a small brook in the woods—a real contrast and compliment to his other playing, and to me the best example of what all of his playing sounds like: water music. Even when holding down an eighth-note groove on one note, there’s a fluidity, a sense of flow. This coming in large part from his playing technique, rather than amplifier sound, distorted or not, but also, somehow, the overall way he thinks about music.
Sheehan was initially known as ‘the Eddie Van Halen of the bass,’ and to understand that you’d have to know who Eddie Van Halen was and what he did: as the guitar player for the super group Van Halen, he was innovator of what’s called ‘tapping’—bringing the right hand over to the fretboard and ‘tapping’ a finger (or two) which on an amplified guitar ring just as loud as plucked notes, though without the slight percussive pluck. In addition, once you tap, you can, and usually do, ‘pull off’—in effect sort of plucking the string with the tapping finger to sound a note fingered with the left hand farther down. Using both hands, Van Halen would (and still does) tap out combinations of unusual, and unusual-sounding, patterns. Nowadays, tapping is a fairly standard part of any rock or metal guitarist’s repertoire (even in jazz: Stanley Jordan plays exclusively tapping, chords and solos) but back then, late 70s, when Eddie Van Halen came out with his solo “Eruption” on their first album, the reaction, at least from guitar players, was a little like that of Crispin Glover’s 1950s character McFly from the first Back To The Future movie, when Michael J. Fox puts the Walkman earphones on while he’s sleeping, and plays another Eddie Van Halen solo: shock and awe awakening to sounds thereunto inconceivable.
Which is how people (mostly I mean other bass players, though other musicians and fans, too) reacted when they heard and saw Billy Sheehan. Sheehan, a huge fan of the group Van Halen, took the unusual step to emulate Eddie Van Halen, on the bass. Seems somewhat plausible now that there are thousands of Billy Sheehan emulators out there (including me) but that was a huge step, a huge innovation: up until then, bass solos during rock songs were rare. A bassist soloing sans band was unheard of. As my first bass teacher (who was a guitar player) told me long ago, guitar players don’t like bass players getting up above the twelfth fret: “That’s guitar territory.” That’s still how most guitar players think today.
Sheehan is self-taught, and so developed an odd playing style. Most bass players who play with their fingers—that is, ‘pluck’ the strings with (usually, unless you’re Paul McCartney) the right hand—use the pointing and middle fingers. Sheehan uses the ring finger as well, running scales and doing fills with it and the pointer. The reason, he said in an appearance in a music store in Detroit one time, is because those two fingers are the same length, so it made sense to him to use them instead of bending the hand at the wrist like when using the middle finger. But, oddly, when he’s pumping out a steady thumb-thump-thump bass line, riding the root note, he uses all three, so that in a rhythm that tends to have an even number of eighth or sixteenth notes per measure, he’s playing notes in groups of three, which boggles my mind a little (and I’ve tried it) because that means starting the beginning of each measure with a different finger. I suspect this is partly where the fluid sound comes from. It also allows for fast steady playing, though it’s possible to get two fingers going fast too (à la Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, one of my other heroes and influences).
Sheehan plays his bass unconventionally too. Most bass player pluck the strings either midway between the neck and the bridge, or towards the bridge, and most basses have pickups positioned I those two spots (or, as in the case of the Fender Precision and others, just one pickup in the middle.) Sheehan though tends to play right up by the neck, where the strings are looser and give a thicker sound. Playing there is so important to him that he modifies all his basses, putting the second pick up there, requiring a lot of drilling and rewiring. He plays there for his ‘rhythm’ bass parts, switching to the middle pickup for solos. He also runs two separate outputs from his bass—two different jacks and two different cords—instead of switching between pickups with a switch (like most two-pickup basses are designed) and runs each pickup to a different amplifier, at the same time.
Sheehan likes a distorted sound, just like a rock guitar player—distortion adding sustain (to hold notes longer) as well as a grungy rock sound. The problem with distorting a bass (and I’ve tried it, using a distortion pedal) is that the bottom drops out—you lose the power, the thump, the percussive sound that’s key to bass, and the overall sound of a band. Therefore (again, another innovation) Sheehan uses two different amplifiers and runs them in parallel—one distorted, the other ‘clean,’ so he can have the thump and the sustain at the same time, so that, even, and especially, on regular songs (where he’s in traditional support and non-solo-y mode) his bass sounds ligato, smooth, versus staccato (like say especially bass players who play with a pick). It’s still bass-y and powerful, though tending to be more mid-range-y than most, and there’s still a thump feel, but it can sound more like a low drone than a series of thumps. When he does a solo, just by himself, not with a band or in a song, he’ll switch between the two amplifiers, just distortion for the pyrotechnic Van Halen stuff, but sometimes switching the clean sound.
Developing his sound and style took Sheehan years to develop, lots of practicing by himself, learning songs, and lots of playing live in bands. And that was possible because back then, musicians in the 70s and early 80s could make a living in cover bands—those were the last days of live music being common in all the small clubs and bars all over America, before DJs took over and people could just dance to the original recordings of songs. More than once Sheehan has said in interviews that he played live, all the time. Once 21 nights in a row! At four 50-minute sets a night, that’s a lot of playing, a lot of time to experiment and learn. Sheehan bragged, and I believe him, that he knows every rock song from the 60s and 70s, and that his favorite thing to do in cover bands was to play ‘Stump the Band’: getting an audience member to call out songs, and if they couldn’t play it, they’d buy that person a beer. But usually someone in the band knew the song, which was enough—with good musicians—for the rest of the band to fake their way through. Sheehan kept this tradition, sort of, much later in Mr. Big. In fact, when Sheehan formed Mr. Big, he specifically picked musicians that had all been in cover bands and played ‘in the trenches,’ honing their chops on rock classics. At the end of the night, for the encore, someone in the band would choose a cover song and, unrehearsed, the rest of the band would join in. I saw them do this twice: One night they ended with “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas, vocals spot-on and everything, and another night they did The Who’s “Baba O’Reiley”—Paul Gilbert played the keyboard part on the guitar. Fricking awesome.
If Sheehan has a weakness, it’s one shared by many rock virtuoso musicians: he isn’t that great of a songwriter. The Talas songs are ok, but they’re not Van Halen. Their best song, “The Farandole,” a classical-influenced, medieval dance kind of thing (only metal) is an instrumental, and most rock fans just don’t really care for instrumentals. Musicians do, and that’s the thing: Talas, in good part because of Sheehan, was more of a musicians’ band. But regular folks want something to sing along to. This would be the problem for Sheehan his whole career: his best playing (and the favorites of other musicians) has always been on instrumental songs, while his most popular playing (not that people knew who he was necessarily, but the songs and bands were known) was as a more traditional supportive bassist for David Lee Roth and in Mr. Big.
Because yes, when singer David Lee Roth quit/was kicked out of Van Halen, the first person he called to be part of his solo super group was Sheehan. Sheehan said in that appearance in Detroit that back then he only would have left Talas for Van Halen, but when David Lee Roth called, well, “Close enough.” And, although leaving Talas had to have been a tough decision for Sheehan—it was his baby, he was the band leader—that decision changed his life, both in his popularity and, in the long run, as a bass player. If he’d stayed in Talas, he only ever would have been known as the Eddie Van Halen of bass and probably never achieved rock stardom and international fame. The David Lee Roth band was exactly what he needed, with a guitarist more amazing even than Eddie Van Halen (blaspheme!) in Steve Vai, who could write guitar-oriented rock songs (though Vai too always had problems in writing accessible-to-public songs). And with a charismatic front man who could write great rock lyrics (although, to be fair, about half the songs on that first album are covers, including “Shy Boy” written by Sheehan himself). I saw them on that first tour—headlining stadiums, a first for Sheehan—and they were amazing. Roth, say what you will about him and his lifestyle, was at that time maybe the best rock performer in the world. Not because he had a great voice, but because he was funny, flamboyant, sexy, and could keep a crowd of 15,000 on its feet all night and having fun, without any big stage effects.
Did it last? Nah. Sheehan was diplomatic on why: “Musical differences.” Which is ridiculous, because Van Halen was what he aspired to his whole life. No, I can speculate though: Despite both of their reputations, neither Vai nor Sheehan was ever allowed to do any extended solos with Roth: It was Roth’s show. I think Sheehan was used to being in charge, and being in a band of equals, but I think that was a great lesson, and opportunity for him: He learned how to be a good sideman, and develop himself, and show himself as a bass player in the more traditional role in a rock band. He could lay down a groove, play pumping rock and old-school covers like “Tobacco Road,” and, if needed, come in and do a tapping harmony with Vai really quick (many people/musicians didn’t realize it was both of them—they assumed Vai was using some kind of effect to duplicate notes an octave or two lower!). This was where Sheehan shifted from being just the Eddie Van Halen of bass to being a really good bass player, overall, modeling for me and others that being well-rounded counts more in the long run than being an expert at any one thing.
My favorite playing by Sheehan is on an album most people have never heard of, Edge of Insanity, by a guitarist most people have never heard of, Tony MacAlpine, who was, is, up there on par with Steve Vai or Paul Gilbert or any of the other great guitarists Sheehan has played with. MacAlpine was part of the Shrapnel Records phenomenon, a small indie label run by Mike Varney, who also featured up-and-coming virtuosos in a column in Guitar Magazine (where Sheehan appeared early on). The Shrapnel guitarists were part of the ‘neo-classical’ phenomenon of the 80s—guitar playing heavily influenced by classical music virtuosos, like Paganini—lots of notes. Again, mostly all instrumental, musicians’ music mostly, though you might have heard of the biggest star to rise from that group, Yngwie J. Malmsteen.
I don’t know how he did it, but Varney got Steve Smith, the drummer from Journey, to play on that first MacAlpine album. A surprising though great choice. I think this was around the time when Journey basically broke up, losing most of its original members. Listening to Journey, although Smith does some tasteful stuff, you wouldn’t expect what happens on Edge of Insanity, though he was also a known jazz drummer. Here though, he’s amazing, all over the place. Sheehan later said, and I agree, “It’s Steve Smith’s best playing ever.” It’s MacAlpine’s too: his later albums never achieved the energy, never had the combo of Sheehan/Smith backing him up.
The amazing thing is, Sheehan came in later, after Smith had recorded the drum parts. He didn’t even bring amplifiers with him, just plugged direct into the sound board of the recording studio, and without much rehearsal (he said that MacAlpine was sitting next to him while recording, calling out the chord changes) he ends up sounding like he was there making eye-contact with Smith, because they sound tight, even doing fills together. The best song on the album, “Agrionia,” a mid-tempo riding-through-the desert-on-a-camel head-bob, with an eerie, and airy, harmonized melody on the guitar(s) has the best part of the whole album when MacAlpine drops out and Smith and Sheehan go into…not quite a solo, but an interlude, grooving on the root note and doing snazzy fills together, before the MacAlpine comes in with a nice melodic solo that’s almost a new melody.
Generally, when an artist I like does or believes in unpleasant things in his or her personal life, I can, like the song says, “keep’em separated,” and just like them for their art. Depends on the artist, and how assholey they act, of course. I still like Slayer and Bob Marley, but boycott Guns & Roses and Ted Nugent. Religious beliefs though tend to make me uneasy, even without the asshole factor. Any musician—or sports figure—that gets too into Christianity (especially to the point of thanking God for their success, rather than, say, themselves for putting all the practice in, or even their parents and friends) (you know, I’m not Christian, but in the ‘God helps those who help themselves’ kind of idea) makes me roll my eyes and move on to someone else. I also have this problem with Billy Sheehan. It’s not that he’s an asshole (the opposite, he’s about the nicest guy in rock) and it’s not even Christianity—it’s that he belongs to a modern-day religion, which shall remain nameless here because they tend to sue and harass anyone who criticizes them, that has some odd beliefs, and odd mythology, which of course they believe to be factually true though, to be fair, most religions do (Mary was a virgin? Really?). Though the beliefs of this group are to my mind even more unbelievable, involving, like, aliens. And if it were just their beliefs, I might be able to handle it, but this group—again, like many religious organizations—seems to have some unethical ways of treating its members behind the scenes, especially children. I understand why Sheehan, and many other creative types, might want to belong to a ‘church,’ or group, or organization: it offers a sense of community. And, like most people in most churches, I don’t think the members really care or think about the organization’s inner beliefs and mythologies too much. Belonging to a place, like in Cheers, “where everybody knows your name,” is enough. Sheehan’s ‘church’ though, offers something more to creatives, especially in the Los Angeles area where they have a lot of money and influence: a network, connections. They can get people gigs and auditions. Hard not to like, and be thankful to, a group that could help you that way. Is that entirely bad? All groups function that way, formally or informally. Allen Ginsberg was the one responsible for getting William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac published.
But Sheehan had been such a great influence on me, on my bass playing, and he continues to be involved with other great projects—I just could not ignore him, uneasily deciding to ignore his supposed beliefs and just revel in his awesomeness as a bass player. So was excited to see him part of a new band, exploring a new direction in music, no guitar involved, just bass, drums and keyboards. All amazing players, and no sense of wanting to be commercially viable: they seemed a return to the 70s idea of jazz fusion: some rock influence, and a showing off chops, with solos for bass and drums included in almost every song (Yes!) though also some funkiness and catchy riffs. Still, it was ‘music for musicians,’ and I found myself—now not an active musician—preferring to listen to other kinds of music, with actual lyrics. Also, an odd name for the group: Niacin? But oh: turns out niacin is considered a super supplement by this religious group of Sheehan’s—all members apparently take mass quantities of it. Surprise: all the members of Niacin are members of that ‘church.’ So, oy, that just seemed a little too much. It felt like I was supporting a group of fundamentalist Christian musicians. Or supporting their religious group itself. As William Shatner and Henry Rollins teamed up to say: I can’t get behind that.
Mr. Big is, of course, where Sheehan finally gained success, and recognition, on his terms, with Top 40 hits (“Shine”) and world tours. The band is named after a Free song from the 70s, and I had hoped that their music would be a return to a 70s-style rock. But, they ended up being more of a ‘hair metal’ band, with cheezeball insipid lyrics. Still, they had the chops, which put them way above, say, Poison or Warrant, and they were a band in which all four musicians contributing equally, no one musician dominating, not even Sheehan. Yes, there are some bass solos, but always in the context of songs, and always tasteful. Although I was never the biggest Mr. Big fan, I was happy that Sheehan, and Gilbert, who I also liked in his other project, Racer X, were finally being given their due. They might even have been the last great (big)(stadium) rock band. And it was during this time that Sheehan started getting called The Greatest Bass Player In The World, by fans, musicians and critics.
Mr. Big has had its ups and downs, but last time I checked they were now, still, again, back together, as of 2017. There was some controversy thirteen years ago(ish) about Sheehan getting kicked out (of the band he founded!) due in part to his interest in other projects, including recording and touring with Steve Vai. Which is great pairing, though Vai seems to want to write accessible rock songs that contain positive, uplifting, new-agey kinds of messages, and, surprise, they are kind of forgettable. But, the instrumental songs they do—again and again, music for musicians that I keep thinking regular people might like—some of that is just amazing, like “Freak Show Excess,” which has both chops, intensity, odd time signatures (my personal favorite) and a wee bit of the Frank Zappa sense of humor (Vai was Zappa’s guitarist for a while).
I’m not mentioning all the great little projects Sheehan has played on in the past two decades. Check out his website for a not-even complete list. Most recently Sheehan has joined forces with drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, and guitarist/singer Richie Kotzen, another Shrapnel alum who has played with everyone, from Poison to Stanley Clarke (and plays without a pick! nice!) to form The Winery Dogs. They’re a little heavier than Mr. Big, and maybe what I’d hoped Mr. Big might be, with Kotzen’s vocals Soundgarden-ish, though still a mix of both accessible rockish songs, and licks and riffs galore to please the musician prog-rock snobs (I can say that, I am one). The band toured all through 2016 supporting their second album, Hot Streak. But most recently Sheehan has gotten back together with Mr. Big for another album tour. A busy man.
My hope would be, since it seems to be the trend in publishing lately, that Sheehan will write (or have someone, ahem, ghost write) an autobiography, especially if it were a real tell-all involving his spiritual beliefs. I would find it fascinating, but I belong to those two subsets of weird people who play bass and read books. I also feel too, that we’re approaching the point in pop/rock music where bands, and highly skilled musicians, don’t seem to matter. Just like poets. But to me, musicians like Billy Sheehan are akin to sports stars somehow, that seeing them (and listening to them) is an inspiration to be…. more human. To strive to good at something, everything, both in oneself, and with a group of like-minded people. And that those two things, those two ways of growing, inform, require, each other. In addition to learning from other bassists, he was learning Van Halen licks, and Bach keyboard parts, seeking outside what was expected of him by others, emulating and learning from extremely different artists, bringing what they did back to his own instrument to expand its, and his own, and our, possibilities.
 As Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap said, the ‘J’ is to distinguish him from all the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the world.