Canadian Musician

THE SIX STRING SHED

Hal Rodriguez


Interview with Billy Sheehan

I had the honour of interviewing electric bass titan, Billy Sheehan, who is currently on tour with The Winery Dogs promoting their latest record, Hot Streak, which entered Billboard’s Top Albums Chart at #16. In this interview, Billy talks about songwriting, practicing, and burning your ships down. Thanks to Billy, Amanda Cagan, and Andrew King for making this interview possible! For more on The Winery Dogs, visit TheWineryDogs.com and purchase Hot Streak on iTunes.

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You’ve said that every time you sit down to practice, you discover something new on the bass. What new bass techniques did you use on Hot Streak?

The riff that starts “Spiral” was a new thing for me. It’s kind of a flamenco technique that I had been working on where I finger pluck across 4 strings and drop the root notes on the E and A string to create a melodic motif. I just started playing it and Mike started playing a beat, and the next thing you know, we had a piece of music built out of it.

Most of our music writing process falls together pretty quickly because each of us in the band has made dozens of records under every condition imaginable. For someone who’s never done it before, it’s a daunting task, but when you get down to the 25th or 30th record, you kind of get an idea of how it works, especially writing. Writing for me is not really hard labour. I’ve done a couple of Rock N Roll Fantasy Camps where I’m the counsellor and I have to show the campers how to perform, and possibly write and record a song. It’s interesting to see them brighten up when they see how methodical and easy it can be to write a piece of music. Whether it’s good or not is another story, of course. So, that’s why you write a lot. When I do a solo record, I write maybe 50 or 60 pieces of music. Eventually, 30 move on from there, another 20 get recorded, and then only 12 get mixed.

Which songwriters did you learn the most from?

Well, the great songwriters in popular music are The Beatles, I believe. For me, it was The Beatles that turned things around and as I got older, I started listening to Joni Mitchell. Most of the music I grew up with in the ’70s was pretty well put together according to basic “Songwriting 101”, if you will. There are some rules to writing that you can ignore, follow, or reinvent. It’s art, so you can do what you please, but if you follow some basic rules, you can come up with some pretty great stuff. For example, you want a recurring theme, or you want to hear the title of the song in the first 40 seconds of the song. A lot of Beatles songs would start out with them singing the title of the song. What a great way to make a hit record because people would hear it and instantly know what song it was. Fortunately, I grew up in that time period where people were really doing their homework and doing proper writing.

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So, you dissected their songs and learned from their chord progressions.

Yeah, and in my early band, Talas, we performed so much of that stuff live. A band I played a lot of songs from was Three Dog Night and they just played songs from other writers. One of those songs was a Beatles song called “It’s For You” and Three Dog Night’s version of it was pretty interesting. It’s great to see what a band can do with a cover, then you can understand the potential of what you can do for your own songs, such as the variations you can do on arrangements, beat, or time. There are a million variables that you have control over, which is a good thing.

Do you find that learning covers also helps when you’re stuck in a rut with writing a song?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad I played in bar bands playing covers for well over a decade. In my iTunes, I have recordings of Ronnie Dio singing covers. In the early days, everyone did it because it was the best way to learn how to put things together. I read that an author, it might have been Hunter S. Thompson, took a famous novel and hand copied the entire novel just so he could get the feel of what it would be like to write that kind of a book. It’s a very, very common thing in art to copy the masters. A lot of people now want to write an original song right off the bat. I would say to them, “Before you do that, learn some great songs. Listen to some great songwriters.” Because a lot of songs I hear now are written by people that don’t have that kind of experience, and for me, the songs don’t really have the kind of depth that I believe they should have to really reach people. So, being in a copy band is not a bad thing. Learning songs by other writers is always a good thing.

If someone wanted to learn your style of writing and playing bass, what songs of yours should they study?

I would say just give them Talas’ Sink Your Teeth Into That record. It was the first record where I really displayed what it is I do and so it’s a good beginning spot. Then the Eat ‘Em and Smile (David Lee Roth) and Lean Into It (Mr. Big) albums as well. They were both extremely successful records and I think there’s some good songs on both of them, so you can hear what I do in the context of a song, which is essential. Some guys will just extract the solo from one of my DVDs and post it on YouTube and people might get the wrong impression that soloing is what I do all night long every night. But it’s only for one spot in the set so I can give the singer a rest. So, I would recommend getting records of mine that were successful and learn the songs.

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I tell young players, “Go find your favourite records and learn the whole thing.” I used to do that myself. The first two records I learned in their entirety by ear were the first Santana record and Jethro Tull’s Stand Up. I would sit down and play through the whole record, playing all the bass parts. Then once I got tired of those, I learned some of the solos and some of the keyboard parts. When I finally started playing live, we needed about 40 songs to do a night in a club and we also switched up the songs once in awhile. So, at any given time, any one of us in the band could pull 60 or 80 songs out of the hat and perform them, which was a really good basic vocabulary to have. Lately, I’ve been trying to write down a list of every song I’ve ever performed live and it’s a daunting task to figure it all out.

What are you learning by ear these days during the Winery Dogs tour?

The music of Art Tatum, who was an incredible pianist from the ’30s and ’40s. He is mind numbingly awesome and his playing is beyond human ability. He just rips across the piano with a big smile on his face. I’m not so much a “jazz guy”, but I do like a lot of jazz, and Art Tatum is my current go-to-guy for that style. I’m trying to listen to him to get a feel for what he’s doing and try to somehow adapt his blistering, perfect explosion of notes into something I can actually use on bass. So, that’s the mountain I’m currently climbing.

As you’re figuring his playing out, are you analyzing it in terms of, “that looks like this scale and that might work over this chord”?

I’m not sure what the process actually is because it’s hard for me to step outside of myself and take a look. This is why I love doing clinics. I’m not a teacher, but I like showing people things, and they force me to step outside of myself and explain what I’m doing. Actually, I learn more from the clinics than any attendee ever because of that. Basically, you have to find an entrance point into a piece of music that is within your playing ability. Then, move beyond it and see if you can expand it. For example, there’s a viola solo in one of the Brandenburg concertos that I knew a little bit of for years and I finally sat down and said, “I’m going to learn the whole thing”. And I did, but man, it was tough. It’s just mechanically tough to be able to pull off the violist’s notes on bass because that instrument is tuned in fifths.

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How did you develop your soloing abilities?

Well, I remember we played the Free song, “Mr. Big”, in Talas. There’s a spot in the middle where the bass player goes off and does a solo and one night I told the band to just stop playing during that spot and I would just keep going. This was around ’72. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix doing the Star Spangled Banner solo from the Woodstock record, and I was thinking of doing something along those lines. Plus, I learned a lot of little bass pieces by ear: I would sit down and learn some lines from the Brandenburg concertos, Bach’s well tempered clavier pieces, some cello solos, or an Oscar Peterson piece. Then when the drummer and guitar player stopped playing, I would have some musical pieces to play on the bass. I remember the first night we did it, it was a funny transition, but people started asking for it, “Are you going to do that solo thing again?” Then, it kept growing until it became a feature of the show. Plus, we played the same clubs all the time, so I always tried to come up with new things to keep the solos fresh. That gave me a big vocabulary of moves I could do at any given time.

Could you describe what you practice to prepare for a Winery Dogs gig?

Absolutely. I’ll fret the 2nd or 3rd fret on the E string, which is an F# or G, and play quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes for a long time until there’s a solid groove to what my hands are doing. Then, I tighten up on my criticism of what I’m doing: I make sure that every note is the same length and the accents are on the right spot. Then, I’ll move back and forth between the E and A string playing a simple two fret pattern. I was doing that in my hotel room last night. I opened up the hotel room window, moved the chair over by the window, watched the stars, and did that exercise for an hour. I do that to improve my muscle memory, to get the tiny, little nuanced moves firing as accurately as possible.

So, watching me warm up or practice is supremely boring, because I’m just basically working on mechanics, or over the skeleton of what will later, hopefully become music. I try to build a machine into my hands that will be able to do anything on the fretboard. Once that machine is built, I forget all about the machine and just concentrate on actual music. In doing so, I’m never held back by any inability of my hands to do anything.

It’s just the approach that works for me and this way has a couple of advantages. If I can’t come up with any musical ideas for example, I just go back and start working on more mechanics. Eventually, my hands get up to speed and I find at that point, I have all kinds of new musical ideas as opposed to drawing a blank. I tell a lot of players, “If you’re bored with your playing, just get to work. Don’t play, let’s work. Let’s get your hands in better shape. Make sure you can do every move you need to do and that your fingers are plucking the notes exactly right. Work on groove, start swinging everything, and start boogie-ing everything. Start doing stuff in 3/4 or 5/4 time.” Then, whenever you revisit the real reason for all of it, which is music, you have a lot more to your vocabulary.

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What new things did you learn about singing from Richie Kotzen in The Winery Dogs?

Well, Richie and I both go to the same vocal coach, Ron Anderson in Los Angeles, who coaches everybody from Bj√∂rk to Janet Jackson. Ron is a genius at being able to look at you and somehow know what’s going on inside of you. As you get older, your range is supposed to decrease, but my range has increased by a step and a half, sometimes two, and Ron was a big reason for that. Richie does soulful vocal moves that I don’t necessarily do. It’s not always within my capabilities. But I try because I have to harmonize with him a lot and I have a few little moves now as a result. I’m not quite up to Richie’s speed as he’s got a great voice; he always has since I first met him. Being around a great singer is always a good thing. You’ll pick up something from them one way or the other and I’ve been fortunate to be around some good ones.

You’ve said that in Mr. Big, you used to just practice with the drummer, Pat Torpey, to make sure the drums and bass were locking. In The Winery Dogs, do you and Mike Portnoy also practice together without Richie?

Yeah. Bass and drums are really the foundation and the drummer is the most important guy in the band. You really need to fine tune what you’re doing to the drums. For me personally, I just like to go over every song with a drummer in a room before I go out on a tour or do a record. I do it just to make sure I know what the drummer is doing and to get a feel for what he’s going to do instinctively. I know when he gets to this part, he’s going to make this move, so I’ll anticipate that and we get an ESP connection happening where we’ll both play the exact same thing at the same time without having planned it. That’s some of my favourite moments of performing live and Mike and I do that a lot. Also, you can actually get away with playing more notes when you’re locked into the drums. Great bassists like James Jamerson and Paul McCartney played all over the neck, but because they had great time, it all worked. But if you get busy on bass without breathing in and out in sync with the drummer, you’ll probably fall on your face.

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You have such a long career and continue to be part of great bands and put out successful records. Was there ever a time in the early days where you had any doubts about “making it” in the music business and how did you overcome them?

I don’t think I really had any doubts. Again, it’s like what I discovered before: whenever I’m out of musical inspiration, I go back to building up mechanics. That philosophy also worked its way into the rest of my life, where if things weren’t going right in one area, I got to work on something else. I left high school in my senior year and never actually did any jobs outside of music. I forget who it was, but some old general, would take his men on a ship when they would go and attack. When the ship got to the land, the soldiers would get off and the general would burn the ship. The idea was that he gave his soldiers no other choice but to win because they couldn’t turn back.

In a way, I felt like that guy a lot because when I got to my late twenties, I didn’t have much of anything. But in my mind, I had burned the ship so there was no going back. It was either make it or die in the attempt (laughs). It got desperate a couple of times, but I never backed off. Sometimes, I felt like Talas was like the Buffalo Bills of bands because we would just almost get signed. We showcased for Clive Davis and John Kalodner from Geffen, but they never signed us. I’d always get so close just to see it fall apart, so it was a frustrating thing. But you have to stick to it long enough, be smart, self-critical, and self-disciplined. It’s important to take responsibility when it doesn’t happen and don’t blame anyone else. Rather than cry in my beer, I got back to work. I kept trying another angle, another approach, and eventually it paid off.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

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