Frets and fingers with bassist Billy Sheehan
by Todd K Smith

“I'm listening to a lot of flamenco, because the techniques used for flamenco can be adapted to playing bass. Paco DeLucia is probably one of the greatest living masters of the genre, and I look to him often for inspiration.”
~ Billy Sheehan

Sheehan has won Guitar Player Magazine's "Best Rock Bass Player" readers' poll five times for his "lead bass" playing style. Guitar Player has likened his soloing on the four-string instrument to Eddie Van Halen's on the six-string guitar. Sheehan's repertoire includes the use of chording, two-handed tapping and controlled feedback. However, Sheehan is also noted as a steady "true" bassist, fulfilling the traditional supportive role of the electric bass in the rock arena.

Born in Buffalo, NY (1953) the 6’3” bassist has played with some of rocks biggest names including Talas, Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, UFO and Mr. Big. Sheehan's first instrument was an acoustic guitar that he borrowed incessantly from his sister. Legend has it that Sheehan wanted an electric guitar, but his grandmother said: "Over my dead body!" and that there would never be an electric guitar in her house as long as she was alive. She died soon after, and with some of her life insurance money Sheehan bought his first electric guitar. However, Sheehan says that when he saw Tim Bogert of the band Vanilla Fudge using a Fender Precision bass with a maple fingerboard, he switched to the bass.

Sheehan's first electric bass was a Hagstrom FB, which was soon sistered by a Precision bass similar to Tim Bogert's. After acquiring the Precision bass, he removed the frets from the Hagstrom. Over the years, he heavily modified the Precision bass as well, adding a neck pickup and additional support for the bolt-on neck, which Sheehan considers its greatest weakness. The neck pickup was added for what Sheehan referred to as "super deep low end" modeled after Paul Samwell-Smith of the Yardbirds. The EB-O type pickup in the neck and the original split Precision bass pickup each have their own separate output jacks on the bass itself, allowing for control of the tone via the bass. Sheehan also uses two amps to achieve his signature tone (as do Chris Squire of Yes and Doug/Dug Pinnick of King's X), one with full distortion and notch filtering to sound more guitar-like for solos, and one super clean for the low end of the neck pickup. This bass has been retired, but he affectionately refers to it as "The Wife."

Sheehan regularly played "The Wife" until the late 1980s when he began using self-designed Yamaha Attitude basses. These instruments are modeled on his Precision, but feature, in Sheehan's estimation, a number of improvements, including multi bolt-on neck construction style and an aftermarket device called the Hipshot D-tuner on the E-string, which allows him to quickly drop the pitch of the string to D and raise it again.

Sheehan's main bass is a Yamaha Billy Sheehan Attitude 4 string bass with aftermarket blue LEDs and laser pointer, by Sims UK. He is a long time user of the Hipshot Bass D-tuner which allows him to drop the low E to a lower D on his bass' 4th string, all of his signature Yamaha basses have them factory installed. Sheehan whose has been with Yamaha for 14 years defines their relationship. “One of the criteria with Yamaha when we built our bass. I want to be able to walk into a store, pull one off the shelf and it be exactly like the one I am playing. I just thought it would be dishonest to get a fancy-schmancy birds-eye maple, with custom electronics, custom everything, version. Then the kid goes off, spends his hard earned money and he gets the 'cardboard version'. I really wanted it to be exactly what I play." He has worked closely with the team at Yamaha Guitar Development to produce two signature instruments: the Attitude Limited II and the BEX-BS.

Billy Sheehan signature Yamaha basses, patterned after Fender Precision basses, are now in their 10th year of production. Yamaha Attitude basses have gone through various colors, material and other modifications nearly every year since the first ones hit the market in 1991. They are extremely popular and great for tapping methods. It’s your basic 4-string guitar, 2 pickups (one hole and one is a double pickup); drop D mechanism for the E (upper) string.  You can control it and set it so when you push the switch, the E will turn to what ever you like. I has a 2-cable entry, 5 last frets are sunken lower that allow you to stretch the string very easily.

Says Sheehan, “I don’t follow the standard rules of bass playing, and many musicians on many different instruments who became noteworthy for their unique or particular style did the very similar thing. I listened to many different types of instruments and music, and have always tried to look at the bass as an instrument as opposed to only a bass. It was also important for me to have a burning desire to achieve something worthwhile on that instrument, and I devoted many many many hours with little or no compensation to perfecting whatever I could, because I loved it so much.”

Websites: Yamaha, Billy Sheehan