BILLY SHEEHAN IS ONE OF HISTORY’S MOST INFLUENTIAL electric bassists. With stunning virtuosity, he brings a guitar hero’s flash and flair to the instrument, exploring countless new techniques in his work with Talas, David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, Mr. Big, and Niacin. Yet Sheehan never loses touch with the bass’ foundational rhythm section role. His playing is a savvy blend of fretboard wizardry and good old-fashioned groove.
Sheehan has inspired countless young musicians as both a player and an instrument designer. He started modifying his basses as a teen in the 1970s, improving their stability, versatility, and playability. That tireless experimentation was incorporated into his first signature model, Yamaha’s Attitude bass. Some three decades later, Sheehan’s design has been further refined with the recent Attitude 3 model.

These days Sheehan’s main music project is Winery Dogs, a trio with guitarist Richie Kotzen and longtime Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. We caught up with Billy during a break in the band’s tour supporting their latest album, Hot Streak.

Tell us about your latest project with Richie Kotzen and Mike Portnoy.

I like playing in three-piece bands. Everything’s easier. There’s more air, more open space. The little things you do are much more noticeable. You can tell what the other guys are doing, so the interplay works more effectively. I just in with our drummer, Mike Portnoy, laying a foundation for Richie to do his thing. Plus, Richie’s a fingerstyle player now — he’s not using a pick. I play with my fingers as well, so there’s a lot of moves we do that link up nicely. It’s been a real joy.
Some of your recent material is slow and heavy. But even when you lay down simple root notes, you surround them with interesting details: — little ornaments, smears, and slides.

I listened to so many great records when I was young, and hearing that little sparkle — some ornamentation, a little squeak, a click, or a pop — would always draw me in. So I’ve adopted those cool little details that add color, texture, and spice. Nowadays a lot of people have the instinct to clean all that stuff out in production, but I always say, “No, leave it! It’s a cool part of the music.”

It’s hard to believe it’s been 28 years since the first Attitude bass.

We’re on Version 3 now, which I’ve used a lot while touring with Mr. Big and Winery Dogs. It’s really a great bass, and I don’t just say that because it’s mine. It just does a lot of stuff! I like the fact that my bass is being used by players of all kinds of genres, from slap/funk to country to metal. Between the two pickups, it’s got three distinct tonalities right out of the box. One of the most important features is the rock-solid neck-to-body joint. [The bass uses an innovative five-bolt neck/body joint.] When you tighten that connection, suddenly the bass comes alive. I’d try to get that result in the old days. I’d lay my bass on the floor, stand on it with a huge screwdriver, and really torque those screws down. Then I’d pound shims in along the edges of the neck where it meets the body so it wouldn’t shift side to side — and it would still shift. But the Yamaha neck doesn’t move at all. It’s rock-solid.

Have you ever battled playing-related pain?

I had problems with my wrists in the early days. I’d wrap them tightly with wristbands and apply hot water bottles after the show. It was tough until the early ‘90s, but then I switched to a low-carb diet, and the pain just disappeared. I’m not a doctor, and the low-carb thing doesn’t solve every problem. But it’s the first thing I recommend for players with joint pain.


What’s coming up for you?

We’re probably going to do a Mr. Big album and tour in 2017, but it’ll be relatively short. As soon as that’s done, I want to get right on Winery Dogs again so I can do more live playing. Playing live has always been my main thing, back to my earliest days playing at clubs in Buffalo, New York. One time back then my band played 21 shows in 21 nights. Another time we played three complete shows in one day. I learned everything I do from performing live. I love it as much now as I ever did. Even more, in fact. Getting up on stage in front of your friends from all around the world and playing a hot, sweaty gig? It’s the greatest sensation in the world.

Are there skills you’re still developing as a bassist?

There sure are — every single day! I got up this morning and practiced four or five brand-new techniques. Right now I’m working on flamenco-style picking with my right hand, using all of my fingers. I love the fact that musical discovery never ends. Every day something new presents itself. That’s what keeps the adventure alive.