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Billy Sheehan: 4-String Commando

Billy Sheehan: 4-String Commando

Double the Tapping Fun: Billy Sheehan (far left) shreds on his double-neck Yamaha bass while Mr. Big drummer Pat Torpey capos it at the second fret. Singer Eric Martin does the same for Paul Gilbert and his custom, dual-neck Ibanez. “We’re friendlier now than we ever were,” Sheehan says of the band’s interpersonal dynamic, “and I’m more pleased about that than any sales figures.” Photo courtesy of Union Entertainment Management

What If ... is Mr. Big’s first studio record in nearly 10 years. What’s different this time around?

With age, there is wisdom... I hope [laughs]. I think we’ve all learned to be better communicators, so the whole atmosphere is completely different. The priority was to reestablish the relationships in the band, and I think we succeeded. We’re friendlier now than we ever were, and I’m more pleased about that than any sales figures. If we never sold another record or made another five cents, I’d still consider that a success.

Have those behind-the-scene relationships affected the music?

They have, for one main reason: We decided we were going to evenly split the songwriting credits. In a band situation— especially when everyone is a writer—it really is the best way to do it. This way we all have a stake in every song and work to make each song great.

Have you changed your playing approach this time around?

I’m literally working harder than I have in my entire life, and I’m re-energized on bass. I’m not working on being a faster player, but I’m trying to have supreme command over everything I play. I’m trying to make my playing not something that I can generally pull off—but sometimes not—I’m trying to push myself as far and as hard as I can. It seems like most people will ride on what they’ve already done, but I think this is a great opportunity to use this ride as a stepping-stone to something better. Every time I sit down with my bass, I come up with a few things that I never knew before—things like lines or how to connect notes together.

What was the band’s approach to recording the new record?

Almost everything is a live take. The producer refused to give us the opportunity to go back and replay our parts, so there are almost no bass overdubs— there are maybe 45 seconds of bass fixes on the record. On one hand, the energy of a band performing together is the way a record should be, but doing it that way is scary. It can lead to a lot of takes. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull off some of the difficult technical parts sitting next to a drum set and a guitar amp and playing by feel instead of listening to every note in the control room. Sometimes music has to be precarious—if it’s too easy and too automatic, then it’s not art to me.

Which part on the record really pushed your boundaries?

There’s a tricky part on “Around the World” that Paul and I play together. We modified it with a whole new part the day before recording it. Not only did we have to articulate the new part, we had to remember it and play it together as a band, because the way we were recording wouldn’t allow us to punch it in piece by piece. We stuck with actually performing it together, with the band, and doing it right. I tore my hands to pieces, because I play really hard. I love that, because it shows me that I’m working. When there are flecks of skin flying around, that’s when I know real work is happening.

Judging by online video clips of you playing, it looks like you play really hard.

I dig in really hard. Bass is a strength instrument, and I try to teach people at clinics to get as much sound off that string as they can and to not rely so much on the pickups and amps. To get that string sound, you have to hit it hard.

Do you have a special setup to help you with your heavy attack?

Not really, but I constantly tweak my bass. When I’m on tour, I start with a light action, but after a week I get stronger and I start to overwhelm the low action. I end up not get- ting notes—just fret buzz—so I keep raising the action as the tour continues. By the end of a tour, my bass’s action is set pretty high.

Back in the day, we had to figure out how to set up our instruments by ourselves. I’m glad I learned how to set my pickup height, adjust the action, and dress my frets. Basically, I’m able to fine-tune my bass to where it’s most comfortable to me. Opening up the bass and learning what’s going on inside really helps me know my instrument. The more command you have over your instrument—inside and out— the more confident you’ll be as a player. And confidence is an artistic advantage.

Do you ever suffer playing-related injuries, and if so, how do you deal with them?

I had wrist problems for years. It didn’t affect my playing very much. I could barely move my wrists, but I went on a low-carb diet and it’s completely cured. I’ve advised many musicians over the years to try this, and pretty much all of them are cured. High carbs, high glucose, and joints do not work together well. Everyone is different, and one cure won’t work for everyone, but the anecdotal evidence seems really strong. Another issue from playing hard is that the fingernails on my picking hand start to separate out from my fingers. Man—is that painful. I actually superglue them back on.

You’ve had success in a number of different playing situations. As a musician, what makes Mr. Big different than the others?

It’s the most all-around, regular rock band that I’ve been in. Talas was cool, but it had its limitations. I really enjoyed playing with David Lee Roth, he’s a great frontman, but it was his band. But with Mr. Big, we’re all singing and playing. All of my favorite bands— like Grand Funk Railroad, Humble Pie, Spooky Tooth, and Free—are all about singing and playing. There’s song structure. And that’s how we modeled Mr. Big in the beginning. We even took our name from a Free song. The real attraction of Mr. Big, to me, is that it’s a regular old rock band where we can sing and play. I got caught up in a lot of progressive and instrumental stuff, which I really like, but I always gravitate toward sitting around with friends, opening a bottle of wine, and singing songs. We’re not going to play metal, we’re going to sing. Singing is what we use to reach people. You can reach some people with an instrumental band, but if you have good instrumental work with singing on top of it, then you can reach a whole other, larger audience.

Singing while playing bass is much more difficult than playing guitar. Why is it harder, and do you still have to work on it?

I can strum a guitar and sing all day long, but with bass there’s something about the articulation of your plucking hand and singing that I have to work on all of the time. When I see someone like Esperanza Spalding doing it, I feel like giving up.
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