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Billy Sheehan: 4-String Commando

Billy Sheehan: 4-String Commando

Spanish Scallop Magic: Sheehan takes advantage of his Yamaha Attitude signature model’s scalloped frets while engaging in some of his trademark chord work onstage at Rockstar Live in Bilbao, Spain, on September 19, 2009. Photo by Koldo Orue

What do you do to overcome that difficulty?

I get comfortable with the bass playing first, then I add the singing. Basically, I just start making mistakes. I keep going over the part and fixing the mistakes until it falls together. You have to do it until it’s second nature. We toured with Rush, and Geddy [Lee, vocalist and bassist]—who’s a supreme master at his craft—admitted to me that before a tour he has to work on being able to sing and play. The answer is always that you have to spend time on it to be able to hit it hard.

You have such a powerful and distinctive sound. Besides your fingers, what do you need to sound like Billy Sheehan?

The dual output of the bass is one of my secret weapons. Each pickup has a dedicated amp and cabinet. My sound breaks down into a clean, bright sound with not much low end, a distorted sound without much low-end, and a separate amp with just super-deep lows. I mix those three together to get articulation, harmonic content, and deep low end.

The neck pickup on my bass is modeled after the Gibson EB-0 sound and that big, deep, Paul McCartney-like tone runs through a Hartke LH1000 head and AK410 4x10 cabinet. I don’t need much tone shaping on the lows—I need power. The highs and grind come from the P pickup, which I run through a Hartke HA5500C head and AK115 1x15 cab. I run the P pickup’s signal through two channels of a Pearce BC1 pre-amp. One channel is clean and one is distorted. The clean is always on full volume, and the distortion channel is switchable. Each system runs through an Ashly Audio SC-50 compressor.

I use the 4x10 for lows and the 1x15 for highs—which is backwards from what most people do. I find that the surface area of 15" speakers disperses high frequencies in a softer, less shrill way. The smaller surface area of 10" speakers is good for fast, tight lows. I want the low frequencies to be super fast, because if they’re not, they get left behind and the sound is mushy.

Tell me about the scalloped fretboard on your signature Yamaha Attitude bass.

In the summer of ’85, Talas toured with Yngwie [Malmsteen], and he had scalloped frets on his Strat. I was so impressed with his complete mastery of the instrument that I wanted to try scalloping the frets on my old P bass. I didn’t want to take that much wood off of the neck, so I went halfway across the fretboard’s last five frets with a Dremel. Anyone can bend with or without the scallops, but I found they make it a little easier to bend the high notes. When Yamaha did the new Attitude basses, they decided to include all of my hotel-room repairs—only they did them a lot more professionally [laughs].

Over the years, you’ve taught a lot of seminars and clinics. Are there certain questions you get asked often?

People always ask about my three-finger technique on my right hand. I always say “I’ll coach you through anything you want, but before I do, how badly do you need to use three fingers at this point in your career?” People usually get the point. In the weeks before Mr. Big starts its full-on rehearsals, [drummer] Pat Torpey and I work on the drum and bass moves, getting the idea of where everything should land. Then Paul Gilbert comes in and we work him in before we set up for the full band. But a lot of guys who come to clinics want to jump ahead and learn some big technique before they even know what the bass drum is doing. I try to get them to pay attention to the snare and the bass drum and understand what they are doing before worrying about using three fingers.

Billy Sheehan’s Gearbox

Yamaha Attitude Ltd. II 4-string basses

Amps and Cabinets
Hartke LH1000 head driving a Hartke AK410 4x10 cabinet, Hartke HA5500C head powering a Hartke AK115 1x15 cab

Ashly Audio SC-50 compressor, Pearce BC1 preamp

Strings and Picks
Rotosound Billy Sheehan Signature stainless-steel roundwound strings (.043–.110), Real Rock stone picks

DiMarzio Stereo Guitar Cable, DiMarzio M-Path Interconnect, DiMarzio Jumper Cable, and DiMarzio High Definition and Super M-Path speaker cables
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