Although both Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, here with one of his fleet of Viger DoubleBfoots, and Billy Sheehan play signature doubleneck instruments, it’s more than a novelty. Both players draw upon a wealth of tones and extended techniques with their axes. Photo by Hristo Shindov
Have the five of you played these new songs together in the same room as a band yet?
Sheehan: No, but I’m ready to go. A lot of times, when I have to record separately, and record to a track that’s already laid down, my goal is to play as much of it as possible from beginning to end, as opposed to doing it measure-by-measure, bar-by-bar, or part-by-part. I like to take it from the beginning and see how far we get. Generally, I can get through a lot of the song like that. It feels more like real life to me. Doing my homework is essential and I hit it hard. I always want to come in knowing everything I possibly can about the track, and be able to perform it as much as possible in hopefully one shot. That’s not always the case, of course, but that’s the goal and it helps to do that. That was a big help on this record.
Bumblefoot: The best performances happen when everyone is playing together and you’re locking into the overall pocket of things. With that, you’re forced to commit to things, which is good and bad. It’s great, because honesty comes from first takes, but it also doesn’t give you a chance to develop a song. It could be good, because, “This is what our instincts said, and we ran with it.” But it could be bad, because, “This is what our instincts said, and we ran with it.” [Laughs.] I guess the best thing would be the old school way of the band writing together, playing the stuff together, letting the songs develop, and then recording them after you’ve really connected with the song as a band, and let it tweak itself a little bit over time. But time is the enemy.
You play a lot of your rhythm guitar parts on the fretless. Why is that? Is that just where you are when writing the parts?
Bumblefoot: On the fretless, I drop the 6th string, the low E, two-and-a-half-steps down to a low B, almost like the 7th string on a 7-string. On the fretted, I drop the 6th string a whole-step down to D. I have two different tunings at the bottom. With the fretless, you can get some interesting, dragging, low, growly things. The fretless can lead you into different riffs that you wouldn’t necessarily come up with on the fretted. It’s not just a gimmick. It’s half my playing.
I would think the intonation, when playing rhythm, would be more important than when soloing. Do you have tricks for nailing the pitch?
Bumblefoot: Practice [laughs]. That’s it. You’ve got to practice the instrument and develop your intonation from what you hear, feel, and see—and triangulate all of that. Put it together and, hopefully, playing from those three angles, you’ll get in the ballpark.
Sheehan: His intonation is great. I’ve listened to him very closely and he nails it. It’s not impossible, of course, as every violinist and cellist knows. You listen to a proper classical musician, that’s their stock in trade. They hit that note and it’s the right note. He seems to have that. It’s a cool tonality, too, because it’s metal on metal—a metal fretboard with a metal string. He’s a really unique and incredible player. He has characteristics and flavors that are different from anybody I know, and it’s really wonderful to hear that.
Speaking of classical musicians, what was it like playing with an orchestra?
Bumblefoot: The orchestra was great. It was so fucking cool seeing how the conductor and arranger came up with his ideas for what would work, hearing the orchestra play them, and having a choir as well. Playing “Diary of a Madman” with an orchestra and choir behind you at this big ancient amphitheater … that was nice. I should choose a better word than nice. That was definitely a moment to remember.
Sheehan: That was amazing. We got to play with real musicians. When the cellists arrived, I said, “The real musicians are here.” [Laughs.] It’s such an incredible discipline. But it’s funny, because I’ve seen classical players who can’t play if they don’t have that sheet music or that software directing them. They are a little bit lost. Whereas when I do have the sheet music there, I’m really lost. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Ideally, it would be great to do both, and there are players that do both so incredibly well, and I’m completely jealous of them.
As a band, and as you get used to each other, do you loosen up the forms and improvise?
Sheehan: We make room to move. It’s the nature of how I play. I do like the discipline of making sure I do it exactly the same way every time, exactly how it was on the record. That is a cool discipline. But generally, I’m a more improvisational player. I’ll hit the things I have to hit, but I’ll move around, too. If you really know the song well, there’s room to move. And “move” doesn’t necessarily mean more notes. It just means different melodic and harmonic moves that will take the song into different places and make it come alive.
I remember my first days of hearing live records. One of the first ones I ever heard was “I’m a Man” by the Yardbirds, on Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. “I’m a Man” is a very simple song, but when you heard the live version, they went crazy with it, and it was amazing. I realized “Wow, a live version, this is what you do.” That was back in the mid 60s. And, of course, hearing Hendrix live. What he did with songs you knew and loved became part of my constitution—to understand that when you play it live you have some freedom to move around. Not completely. I don’t want to make the thing unrecognizable. You want to stick with the fundamentals, and it doesn’t apply to every song or every situation. But especially in a more jammy, improvisational, wilder situation instrumentally, it’s fun to be able to move around.
Bumblefoot: Solo-wise, I try, just for the challenge of it, to keep it similar to what I did on the album, which is what I did when we toured the first album. A lot of those solos happen as you play. You improvise until you do something shitty, and then take it from there and continue. Learning something that just flowed out is tough, but I like the challenge. That’s the problem I have: Most of my solos just happen and then I have to figure out what the hell I did—to get comfortable doing something night-after-night that just happened once as an automatic, almost, reflex. So that’s the tough part: learning your own shit. Also, Derek and I can definitely infiltrate each other’s sonic space, so it’s important to work out who’s doing what part and with what kind of sound. Sometimes, you want it to double up. The thing about Derek is he plays like a guitar player. He runs his keyboards through half stacks, guitar amps. He plays with a lot of grit, and it’s like playing with a second guitarist. Sometimes you want to be in unison with each other and sometimes you want to contrast each other. Depending on the song, and depending on the part, we work it all out. Sometimes I’ll be the layer on top. Sometimes, he’ll be.
You recently toured with a reunited Asia. What was it like being a lead singer? Did you feel naked without a guitar?
Bumblefoot: I feel liberated. I’m suddenly 20 pounds lighter without the doubleneck. I think I’m actually taller. It was a lot of fun.
Billy Sheehan began using his Yamaha Custom Shop-built doubleneck Attitude basses in 1996, on Mr. Big’s Hey Man tour. It weighs about 20 pounds and has a toggle to choose either or both necks, plus two outputs, which means each gets its own wireless transmitter in live performance. Photo by Hristo Shindov
Steve Howe joined as well. Did you learn any cool things from him about guitar playing?
Bumblefoot: It was all the surviving original members of that band. Carl Palmer on drums. Geoff Downes on keys. Steve Howe for the last half of the show would come out—that’s when I would take off my guitar and be Wayne Newton with the mic—on bass, Billy Sherwood. I play guitar and sing for the first half and then just sing for the second half. I’ve been a Yes fan and an Asia fan from way back. I heard the Going for the One album [by Yes] when it came out when I was 7 years old. I still think that’s one of the greatest masterpieces ever made. What I found interesting was that Steve Howe also uses the Helix. He uses the Helix into the Line 6 flat response cabinets—almost like floor monitor speakers. But he had his rack of all those legendary guitars that he’s used, and just seeing them up close was like, yeah, damn.
Billy, going back to that ’85 tour with Talas, did you know David Lee Roth was going to do your song “Shy Boy?”
Sheehan: I’ve done that song in just about every band I’ve played in [laughs]. I did it with David Lee Roth, we do it when I play it with Steve Vai solo, Mr. Big did it. I’m very pleased that people still request it and want to hear it. But I don’t want to overdo it, so I try to mete it out sparingly. There are a lot of guitar players who want to do it with me because they want to play the Steve parts along with me. It’s a cool situation to have a song that’s been around for a long time and have people still enjoy it. I’m supremely grateful that they do and that they still ask for it.