Photo courtesy of Union Entertainment Management

Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan may be the modern-day epitome of a rock “lead bassist,” but he never forgets that the bass’ primary role is to put the “roll” in “rock ’n’ roll.” While it’s easy to focus on the over-the-top aspects of Sheehan’s playing, few bassists can hold down a solid low-end like he does. In fact, he’s quick to emphasize that it’s his rock- solid foundation in the groove that allows him to launch his dazzling technique. He’s also a straight-up gearhead with tons of personal experience modifying instruments and designing rigs to create his singular sound.

But Sheehan’s approach to bass extends beyond the mechanics of playing—he’s a big proponent of knowing how to work on your instrument well enough to make it serve your needs as a player. “You have to learn the instrument, learn the fundamentals—how to play it, how to tweak it, how to play strong, hard, in tune, and in time. You need to do all of those things up front, andthenyou can learn the frosting.”

The “frosting” would be things like the two-handed tapping, chord work, and blazing three-finger plucking that he’s become famous for during his gigs with Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Niacin (featuring Hammond B-3 master John Novello and virtuoso drummer Dennis Chambers), and Talas. Sheehan’s trademark show-stopping moments onstage and on record are only possible because he has always pushed himself to be a better musician and to redefine what’s achievable with a 4-string bass.

“I know a lot of great players who use 5- and 6-string basses,” says Sheehan, “but you can do just about everything you need to do on a 4-string. I think people think they can solve their problems as players by getting a 5- or 6-string bass, but maybe they haven’t explored all the possibilities of a 4-string.”

Sheehan’s journey began in his native Buffalo, New York. While he was paying his dues with legendary metal band Talas, he developed his high- octane style and an absolutely incredible bass tone. Playing a heavily modified Fender Precision with two outputs he ran through a complex rig, Sheehan created an inspiring bass tone that, paired with groundbreaking technique and showmanship, made him a top candidate for the group that would make him an MTV and radio fixture—David Lee Roth’s solo band. In those post-Van Halen days of 1985, Sheehan was probably the only bassist with enough technique and presence to share a stage with the flamboyant Roth and shred deity Steve Vai on hits like “Yankee Rose” and barn-burning rockers like “Elephant Gun” and “Shyboy.”

After leaving Roth’s group, Sheehan formed Mr. Big in 1988 with former Racer X guitarist Paul Gilbert, vocalist Eric Martin, and drummer Pat Torpey. From the start, Mr. Big focused on powerful lead vocals and rich vocal harmonies that complemented Sheehan and Gilbert’s fretboard pyrotechnics. The formula was popular from the start—especially in Japan, where Mr. Big continues to have a massive following. But it was the band’s second album, ’91’s Lean into It—which included the hugely popular ballad “To Be with You” and the rocking “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind”—that launched the group to the top of the charts in America.

Mr. Big broke up in 2002, but reunited seven years later for a tour that was released as a live album and DVD, both entitledBack to Budokan. Inspired by revitalized chemistry, Sheehan and his mates headed into the studio to record Big’s first studio album in nine years,What If ...Recorded with producer Kevin Shirley (Iron Maiden, Journey, Dream Theater), the new album’s vocal harmonies, glimmering guitar tones, and grinding bass prove the group is still firing on all cylinders.

We recently asked Sheehan and his 6-string cohort, Paul Gilbert, about recordingWhat If ...and the gear they used to get their much-emulated sounds. Both players are veteran clinicians with a lively sense of humor and a generous inclination to share what they’ve learned.