Interview:Sonic Architect

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Billy Sheehan: Sonic Architect
Story and Photos by Lisa Sharken



From his earliest days playing with bar bands and throughout his most recent days of sharing the stage with top rock artists such as David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, and Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan has firmly established himself as a rare breed of monster musician, earning his props by astounding his peers and civilians alike with superior technique and uncommon style. By attacking the bass like few others could, Sheehan gained a reputation for manipulating the instrument more like a lead guitarist. If providing a strong, solid foundation isn't enough, Sheehan's personality as a player always shines through in any musical situation. His lightning-fast riffs and unique embellishments topped by well-constructed bass solos often serve as a highlight to any group's performance.


Although he may be best known for his ensemble work, Sheehan began recording his own solo material with the 2001 Favored Nations debut, Compression. For his second disc, Cosmic Troubadour, Sheehan again brought out his arsenal of deep-toned baritone guitars and appropriately-named signature model Yamaha Attitude basses to complement his strong vocals. Beginning this project with a heap of material he had written, Sheehan worked with drummer Ray Luzier to bring his self-recorded demos to life and focus the selection of songs into the solid and potent collection which landed on the album. tracked down the man with the Attitude while touring as a member of Steve Vai's stellar band - a project he genuinely enjoys being a part of. For fans, the opportunity to witness their incredible musical alliance is a genuine treat. Vai and Sheehan really seem to bring out the best in each other as players, and it definitely is translated in their performance.


Sheehan was enthusiastic about discussing his new solo disc and detailing the creative methods he used throughout the writing and recording process. Furthermore, Sheehan offers some valuable advice on the importance of performing in cover bands, which is exactly how he started out. Sheehan explains how the environment a cover band offers serves as an excellent training ground to strengthen one's performance skills, to study the styles and techniques of the greatest musicians and songwriters, as well as to learn how to operate and control your gear. Obviously, nothing better prepares you for work as a musician more than actually playing, so never miss out on any opportunity to better yourself!


Billy Sheehan: Sonic Architect Describe how the material on Cosmic Troubadour came together?


Billy Sheehan: I had traveled and played a lot prior to making this record, and when I'm traveling, I don't have much of a chance to record or write. It kind of just gets stored up inside. So when I came off the road, I had a lot of information to pull from - a lot of big vocabulary and experiences, illuminations, and philosophizing from sitting on all the 12- to 18-hour plane rides. Everything I wrote for this record brand new, like on Compression as well. I didn't dip into anything that was left over from other projects. So it was all fresh - a new point of view, a new sense of chords, new chord voicings and approaches to everything I played, as well as the lyrics. Though I don't necessarily write about road experiences, it was basically just the result of being on the road all over the world and coming back, and the way the experiences affect me in ways that allow me to dig deep into my storytelling or philosophizing, and express it in that way. Has your creative process evolved through the years?


Billy Sheehan: Yes. I had always written songs on guitar only and I never did too much on bass. Normally, when I'm writing a song, I'm going to sing it. So if I'm singing along with my chord playing, it's easier to sing to a guitar than it is singing and playing bass. But for this record, a lot of the instrumental pieces I did, I approached them on a bass. So there isn't always a hard-fast rule that the songs I sing, I write on guitar, and the songs that are instrumental, I do on bass. It's a general guideline of the way that I do things, but it's not always the case because some of the things I had started the basics of on bass, I ended up singing. So it was a real interesting mix of the two processes. So the actual difference between what's going on now and what went on in the past is a bit of an evolvement and an expansion of what I can do on either instrument, keeping in mind whether it's for an instrumental or a vocal track. Since you play all the guitar and bass parts on your solo material, as well as handle the vocals, is there an order in which you typically construct the parts? Do you usually record a scratch vocal along with an instrumental part?


Billy Sheehan: Sometimes I will. But sometimes I just have it in my head what the vocal is going to do. Then I get up to the mic and just go. It's not as meticulously mapped out as it might be with a regular group of people working on a record. Drums are usually laid down to my basic demos that I program myself, and then there's a basic bass track on that, and as the song is developed, maybe some chord changes have been modified so we have to mute out that original bass part. I'll do a scratch guitar on the demos, too. What I do is basically take those demos and build things from there with the real drums on the tracks. And generally, I'll record bass before guitar, but not always. I'll sometimes lay the guitar down first because I approach the two instruments differently. Sometimes I will lay down guitar before the bass, and then fit bass in afterwards, or do it with the drums. So there are general rules that everyone tries to follow when they make a record, but I don't always follow them closely.


For many years, a lot of people have accused me of being a guitar player who plays bass. That kind of makes me laugh because I wish I could do on guitar what I can do on bass. But I just can't. I can't play those lines, and I can't play that way on a guitar at all. I can do some linear stuff, but I'm more of a chordal guitar player. So there really is a line of distinction between those two different instruments for me. A very very definite line. How does your approach differ when playing guitar and bass?


Billy Sheehan: I do approach the two instruments differently. For guitar, I use a stone pick made by a company called Real Rock. I think they're in Arkansas and they make great stone picks. I had loved using those old Mind picks that were made of stone, but that company is long out of business and you just can't find them anymore. I was worried because I only had three stone picks left, and sometimes they break when you drop them on a hard surface. I had one that was epoxied back together. I'm so glad that Real Rock came along. Playing with a stone pick gives you a different tone. It's a different sound on the baritone guitar for chordal stuff and 12-string things, which aren't known for being good for playing a lot of lines on linear stuff, but I like to play lines on them anyway because my hands are strong from playing bass.


Click to Enlarge What type of stone are these picks made from?


Billy Sheehan: Usually, it's Brazilian agate. But I have a couple made of petrified wood, and some obsidian ones. But just generally, I need the pick to have a super hard point that glides over the strings in a real interesting way. If you do it in forward motion, for every string it touches, it acts almost like a finger slide because it's such a solid piece, so you get these odd little overtones with each note and it adds a real spectrum of character to all the chords and lines you play. It's real interesting. Most guitar players that try it, love it. But they're too afraid of it.


I use the stone picks for everything, even for strumming, which is kind of an odd thing because that's not linear playing. But for strumming, they have a real interesting feel. Because it's a baritone also and the strings are pretty thick, and a thin pick kind of gets overwhelmed by the mass of the strings. So that stone pick kind of gives you an edge to overwhelm the string with your pick, and it gives you a little bit more command over the instrument. It works out really well for me. How much material did you initially write for this album?


Billy Sheehan: I wrote 60 pieces in the initial folders of all the things I was writing for this. I narrowed that down to about 30-something which we recorded in the studio with Ray Luzier on drums. Then we picked about 15, 16, or 17 favorites and finished those off. There's still some cool stuff which I haven't finished, but I have a thing about leftover music. It comes from the Mr. Big days, when all the guys were going off and doing solo records. I remember when I heard someone's solo record, I immediately recognized a song as a reject Mr. Big song! So I kind of have a thing about reusing songs. If they didn't fly the first time, it probably won't fly the second time. Some things I will give a second chance or maybe rework, but there are some things from that original 30 pieces that I do really like, but we legitimately did not have time to consider. So I may reuse some of them again. But if not, I'll just keep on writing. It's important for writers to just write a lot. It's so easy to just sketch out pieces of music on the computer - lay down your verse and your chorus, and your chord changes, and time signature changes, if needed. It's all easy to program now. So it's easy to make a sketch of a piece of music and just keep going. I'm constantly writing, making notes of lyrics and song ideas. I try to be pretty prolific as a writer because if I originally have 60 pieces of music, then narrow it down to 30, and then that drops down to 15, what you have left is the best of the 60, by default - by nature taking its course. But I think that's an important process and it's important to work on my writing. Is there any one track on the album that stands out as a favorite? Which tracks best exemplify your artistry as both a musician and a writer?


Billy Sheehan: There's a song from the album that we're doing on this tour with Steve Vai. It's called "The Suspense Is Killing Me." We're doing an adaptation of that song where I add Steve on the end because there's no guitar on the original version. I really like the way that came about as a piece - how it builds and how it moves, and how it's structured together musically. "Hope" is another instrumental piece which I really love. It's a beautiful, emotional piece of music. Lyrically, I like "Back In The Day" a lot. It reminds me a lot of early Bowie stuff, and I purposely kind of default to a Bowie-ishness - and I apologize to Ziggy for this! I wish I could sing like him. I just love that guy's voice. What type of rigs were you using to record guitar and bass tracks?


Billy Sheehan: Generally, I used the Avalon 737st as a main direct source for either clean guitar or bass. I love the Avalon stuff. I think it's just supreme. It has a spectacular sound and it's one of my favorite pieces of gear that I own. It's a mic pre and instrument pre with EQ and compression. The EQ is as sweet as honey and the compression is as smooth as silk. It's wonderful. So there were some times when I would do a direct recording with my baritone 12-string through that. I remember reading an article about Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and he used to record a lot of the Byrds' 12-string stuff direct through a little compressor. So I tried to follow what he did in that respect. I also am a big fan of the Line 6 Pod stuff and I used a lot of their processors on the guitars and some of it on bass. I have the kidney-shaped models or both kinds, and the rackmount models of both kinds, but they're not the newest rack models. I understand the new XT stuff is really wonderful, so I'm looking forward to checking that out. I also had my Ampeg rig set up in the garage - a split SVT 8x10 cabinet with two four 10s, and then my live rack with Pearce preamps and SVT4 Pros, which I had miked up with an AKG 414 and a Neumann U87. The 8x10 cabinet is split so you can either use it mono where the eight 10s are on, or just go into another jack and use the top four and the bottom four speakers for two different tones. Normally I use two different cabinets with two different amps. Since it's a little bit of a smaller space and you don't need it that loud in the studio, I opted for the split cabinet with the top four and bottom four speakers. I used the U87 on the low and the 414 on the top. So the bassier frequencies got the larger diaphragm. I used the amp with the Bass Pod and the Avalon all kinds of combinations mixed together at various times for getting either a cleaner tone, some ripping distortion things, and tones somewhere in between all that.


For tracking bass parts, I just used my Yamaha Attitude bass on everything. For guitars, I had a custom Yamaha 12-string baritone, which is a custom made semi-hollowbody that's got sort of a late-50s or '70s body style with a phallic-looking front end on it. It just sounds great. I also used a Fender Custom Shop baritone Strat called the Subsonic. They make a Tele and a Strat with an extra long neck that's tuned B to B. It's really cool because it sounds and feels like a Strat, but it's a baritone and it's way down there. I used that for the first solo on "Toss It On The Flames," and for a lot of other parts. The guitar parts were mostly the Subsonic Strat and the Yamaha baritone 12. How are your guitars set up? Are your instruments set up any different for recording than they would be for playing live?


Billy Sheehan: I use everything in the studio in the same manner as I would use it live. I don't necessarily make any adjustments for the studio, mostly because I've been a live player my whole life. I just use the studio to document what's going on live. So I don't make big changes because I want things to feel the way they do live, and then I'm most comfortable with them. The baritones are set up with pretty low action, but whenever guitar players pick up any of my baritones, they are overwhelmed by them because the necks are huge, especially on the custom Yamaha. It's a giant axe, bigger than most basses, and has wide string spacing. It's a beast. It's amazing to strum a chord on that thing though. It's like a whole orchestra going off and it's so inspirational. Actually, one of the reasons I started doing my first solo record, Compression, was when I got my first baritone 12. I just thought that thing would fit my voice, so why not do a record? So the baritone was a very important part of that. It really is an overwhelming giant instrument, and most guitar players don't like them. You've been a loyal Rotosound player for years. What type of strings do you prefer for the baritones?


Billy Sheehan: Mostly adaptations of Rotosound sets. On the Subsonic Strat, I used a custom-gauged set with a .056 on the low B up to a .012 or .013 on the high string. So they're pretty heavy strings, but they're tuned lower, so you get a nice bend to them. They're flopping around a little bit, but they're heavy enough that they're not unusable. It's tuned B, E. A, D, F#, B. On the 12-string, the top three doubled strings are all unwound and all the same gauge, as opposed to having it where the octave string is thinner. Normally you would have a paired set of wound and an unwound string on the third, but I have both unwound on the baritone, and it seems to work out better. The heavier bottom strings are a wound/unwound combination of octave strings. It's an amazing sound and just a monstrous tone. Just play an E chord, which will really be a B chord when you play it on the baritone, and it's just this monstrously huge thing. It's really wonderful.


I remember the first time I ever saw a baritone guitar. Oddly enough, Talas did a whole record at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, which has never been released. We still have it in the can. John Sebastian came up and played guitar on this one ballad, and he brought with him one of Joe Veillette's baritone guitars. Now this must have been back in '81 or '82, I think. So that was my first experience with a baritone guitar, way back then with John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful. He's a very nice guy and I was a big fan of the Lovin' Spoonful when I was growing up.


I have one of Joe Veillette's baritones now also. Those guitars are very cool. Joe actually put a different pickup on mine and configured it a little differently for me. It's most smaller than most of my baritones, so when guitar players come over to my house and I want to show them some stuff, I'll let them play the Veillette. But I do love it. It's a great instrument. Did you experiment with any unusual gear while writing or recording?


Billy Sheehan: Not really. I kind of like to force myself to come up with something new on what I have, rather than looking elsewhere. So it's just me, my hands, the strings and frets, and I just try to think of something new. It forces me to have to innovate and dig deep in my bag of tricks - some of which have been lost since the '70s, and some of the things I used to do but don't do anymore. So it's a good opportunity to refresh yourself on what you've done and force yourself to come up with something new. So I'm not so much a fan of making left turns, as far as gear and general procedure goes. I'd rather get it from inside. The gear I used was pretty much all the same, but the Fender Subsonic gave me a different take on the baritone experience because it was something you could play more like a guitar, with string bending and all, whereas the 12-string baritone isn't as string-bending friendly because as you bend those strings they tend to go out of tune with each other. When you're tracking, do you prefer to work in the control room or play in the live room?


Billy Sheehan: I like to sit in the control room and hear the monitors at super quiet levels. It's whisper-quiet in the control room when I'm working. I've been around some producers who monitor and record at ultrahigh volume levels, and the records sound as thin as paper later on because it's just so hard to get a reality on what's going on when you're monitoring that loud. I like to keep things nice and quiet so you can hear everything that's going on. Plus, you don't get ear fatigue, so you can work a lot longer. You really get an idea of what's coming out of those speakers, as opposed to just assaulting your ear drums and never really getting the right perspective. What do you like and dislike most about the studio environment?


Billy Sheehan: I dislike the fact that you're isolated and alone, and there's no interaction with an audience, like there is when it's live. Live is a whole different thing, and I've always been a fan of playing live more than being in the studio. But in the studio, you have an infinity of possibilities, an infinity of choices, and you're limited only by your imagination. So it really is an incredible blank slate to walk in with a paint brush and go at. I'm actually more acclimated to the studio now that I have one in my home. I can actually get in there and chip away, as opposed to when I used to have to go to a commercial studio. What type of software do you use for recording?


Billy Sheehan: I use Steinberg Cubase mostly to write and to record a lot with. On this particular album, my producer was more acclimated to Digital Performer, so we ended up transferring tracks into that because he felt more comfortable with that. I also used Pro Tools, and I've worked on Apple's Logic before, as well. Most of the recording programs are so comparable now. It's just a matter of which one you're most comfortable with. Describe your live bass rig. What are you using on tour with Steve Vai?


Billy Sheehan: It's basically the same set up as I had in the studio, but just a bit bigger. It's two SVT4 Pros. I use half of each one for one cabinet each, and there are two pickups coming off my bass. So each pickup gets its own amp set up. The DiMarzio Will Power, which is the Fender-shaped pickup, is mostly for high frequencies and a clean tone. Then the DiMarzio Model 1, which is the replacement for the Gibson EB0-style pickup in the neck position, is all amp and mostly bass frequencies. I just throw in a bit of compression with an Ashley Audio compressor. Ashley is from Rochester, New York, which is the next city over on the freeway from Buffalo, so I got acclimated to the Ashley stuff way early on, and I still use it and love it to this day. So I have an Ashley Audio compressor added to the marvelous compression that's already in the SVT4 Pro. I'm very impressed with the parameters of the compression built into the unit itself. If I had to do a show and I could only take one amp, I would just grab an SVT4 Pro and I'd be in good shape. So that's pretty cool. I'm glad about that. And the SVT4 Pro also has a lot of ins and outs, and configurability on the back, which makes it real handy for any situation. I have the Pearce preamp upfront on the high amp, and a new Rocktron Hush noise gate for some of the distortion channel. Then I also have an Eventide Eclipse in there, which is a luxury piece of gear. I normally don't take it with me, but I do use it occasionally on high end. I purposely don't put any effects on the low end because you just want super deep lows holding the band together. I'll use a little bit of octave up or octave down. The Eclipse has got preset for "Brown Sound," which I've modified and call it "Browner." It's kind of a thickening of a tonality with some special effect that will give it a warm flange or a little chorus, or something like that. I don't use it very much though, and if we're doing a budget or overseas run, I won't take it with me. But it's nice to have and I've always been a fan of Eventide effects. From the old Talas days, I was one of the first guys to have an Eventide harmonizer in their rack, back in '78. And I still have my original Eventide Instant Phaser in my studio. It was one of the first products they came out with. I think it's used on the drums on Zeppelin's "Kashmir." How many basses did you bring?


Billy Sheehan: I've got four out with me now - a doubleneck and three singlenecks. The doubleneck is strung E, A, D, G and B, E, A, D. So one neck is strung like a normal bass, and the other is strung like the last four strings on a 5- or 6-string. Some people might think that's ridiculous, but I'm just used to the 4-string configuration, and I also like that it's a really interesting tonality when you restring that 4-string bass B, E, A, D. It gives a different character to the notes when you're playing like that, and I really like it. The doubleneck is basically two Yamaha Attitude basses and it weighs a ton! The rest are all standard Attitude basses configured almost exactly the same. As a matter of fact, I'm a stickler, and I want all my basses to sound and feel the same, so when I switch from bass to bass, I don't have to change the amp at all. Among your Attitude basses, is there any one that's a favorite?


Billy Sheehan: Actually, I have one that I sent to Sims Custom in London and they did the whole bass in metallic chrome-plated silver. So the fretboard, the neck, the body, and everything on it is completely silver. It's an amazing looking bass. For some reason this bass just sounds spectacular. It plays great and it has a real bounce to it. Most of the Attitude basses are pretty consistent. I've felt a couple that were a little different - a little more woody than others or a little bit brighter. It all depends on things like the moisture content of the wood. But over all, they're pretty consistent and pretty much the same. Like I said, I try to make them like that so I can just go bass to bass. I think that school of thought comes from having only one bass in the old days - my old Fender P-Bass with the Tele neck. If anything ever happened to it, I don't know what I would have done. I was grooved in on that bass. So the Attitude basically replaces that with all of the same measurements and a lot of the same feel, with a few very good improvements. But then I got a lot of them, so that worry from my old days of poverty of "what would I do if I lost my bass?" has now ceased to be. So I would just go to another one that happens to balance and sound the same way. What year are the body and neck of your old P-Bass with the Tele neck?


Billy Sheehan: The neck is a '68, which is a great year for Tele necks. They're big fat baseball bats, and the neck on the Attitude is modeled after all the dimensions on that neck. The body is a '69 or '70. Has that Fender bass been permanently retired?


Billy Sheehan: Technically, it's in the closet and I do take it out occasionally, but I just don't take it on the road. Have you retired any of the original Attitude basses that had been your road dogs?


Billy Sheehan: There were two that I had from the first run - a blue and a red one. Those are retired and away. I may donate them somewhere in some capacity. They were my first two Attitude basses. They still play great and they're still solid beasts, but I went on to the second version of the Attitude, which had an all-wood neck-to-body joint. It just sounded a little better to me. What do you listen to for enjoyment?


Billy Sheehan: I find myself not listening to music for a long time. I go on real dry spells where I don't listen to anything because I don't want to be influenced. And then I'll flip around the other way and I'll listen to everything I can get my hands on - all kinds of stuff - and I'll go on a quest for new and different things. I'm at the stage right now where I'm not listening to anything, and a lot of people offer to send me tapes and demos and things like that, but personally, I just don't have time to listen to a lot. I feel bad and apologize to people for not being able to listen, but there's just so much stuff coming at me. It's psychotic. I have records I played on that I haven't heard. I don't really have a chance to do that too much. Hopefully I will snap out of this, probably at the end of the tour, and get into some new CD listening. I'm famous for going into record shops and just bingeing, and I'll come out with several hundred dollars worth of stuff.


I like a lot of singing and harmony bands like the Hollies, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Three Dog Night - I was a huge fan of them. A lot of singing bands I dig, the harmonies and all that. I enjoy that very much. I'm also a big fan of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darrin, Mel Torme, and guys like that. I also like a lot of real heavy stuff like Fear - the LA punk band. I was a big fan of them. I like some of the new Slipknot stuff, and My Chemical Romance. Those bands have some interesting stuff. I also enjoy a new band called As I Lay Dying. They're really cool and play a really cool genre of metal. Solos are coming back into it, which is very interesting. I went to see them perform in LA, and when the guitar player would take a solo, you would see all these hands in the audience shoot up with their fingers flailing like they're playing solos. "Guitar solo? Cool!" It was like they hadn't heard one in years. So it's interesting to see the pendulum swing. I don't things will ever go back to the way they exactly were, but the pendulum does swing, and I think music, musicians, and playing - all those kids that bought guitars to bash out "Smells Like Teen Spirit," at some point - they're going to go, "Can you do more with this?" I think it's an evolution, just like when I picked up guitar to learn "Gloria." Who's this Antonio Carlos Jobim? Or who's this Julian Bream? Who are these guys??? Eventually, it's an evolution, and it happens from generation to generation. I think we saw the beginnings of it when a lot of the more accomplished musicians and musicianship went away in the '90s. A new generation came out, and I think they're rediscovering it. I see a lot of younger kids at the shows, and the shows are packed. We have a lot of problems with the shows that are 21 and over because many of the people who come to our shows are under 21. So it's very interesting to things coming back. What advice can you offer to others on becoming a better musician?


Billy Sheehan: Fear not being in a copy band. I recommend it highly. I think once you get out and start playing songs in a band, you've got to string songs together in a set, make an entertaining evening of it, and get from song to song without too much time in between. All those things relate to your hands and your playing, your command as a musician and over your gear, and your ability to pull it off live. Your priorities will line up exactly as they should - exactly as nature intended them to once you do that. I think a lot of people spend just too much time thinking and planning and scheming, and spending time in their bedroom rehearsing, practicing and learning licks, and they never really do much with it. When I started, I really didn't know that much. I had a bass, I had an amp, and there I was onstage. Ok, now figure it out. Everything that I do now evolved mostly from performing live and meeting challenges that I had to meet when playing live. My hand strength and my tonality are from playing live. Most players that have a really distinctive sound have it in their hands. Eric Johnson got up and played with us the other night. His hands are his tone because he's just been playing and playing and playing.


So if you can't go out and sell yourself as an original recording act, do what the Beatles, Van Halen, and a lot of other bands did, and be a copy band. Start that way. Then eventually, work your originals in. I think the Beatles were such a great example of so much in the music business. I have a bootleg of their first demo of 40 songs, and there's not one original on it. And they evolved into some of the best writers in popular music. But I think that says a lot of the training ground of what being a copy band is about. Would you like to do a solo tour?


Billy Sheehan: Yeah! Hopefully, after the tour with Steve is done, I will go out and do some stuff on my own with Ray Luzier, the drummer who played on this record. That's the plan. It isn't solidified or out on paper yet, but that's what I want to do. I really want to go out and sing. I'll be pulling out some of the old stuff, like some Talas and Roth material, and it should be an entertaining night!