Billy Sheehan: New Vintage

The Bass Great and The Winery Dogs Return with their new album III

Billy Sheehan: New Vintage

The Bass Great and The Winery Dogs Return with their new album III

The Winery Dogs: Portnoy, Kotzen, and Sheehan (Photo by Travis Shin) 

Over the past six decades Billy Sheehan has undoubtedly been rock bass’s premier explorer. Credit his voracious appetite for all styles of music as a listener coupled with his distinct career path. The latter includes stints with Talas, where he had to cover much more than the bass parts; David Lee Roth and Mr. Big, where he learned the art of anchoring smash hit singles and playing stadiums and arenas; Steve Vai, where he refined his shredding in even and odd meters; and Niacin, where jazz-minded walking lines and improvisation were among the role requirements. But perhaps no band enables Sheehan to draw from his full musical persona like The Winery Dogs, his take-no-prisoners trio with ex-Poison guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.With the unleashing of their long-awaited third record, III [Three Dog Records] this most underrated of supergroups is up to their old tricks, delivering powerhouse hooks and plucking pyrotechnics informed by ’70s classic rock, ’90s and Nu metal, R&B, alternative singer-songwriter, and more—all with equal parts nuance and attitude. We had a chance to hang out with the always affable Sheehan to delve into what inspired his multiple contributions to III.

How did we finally arrive at a new Winery Dogs record?

We were planning to start another record coming off our last tour in 2019, and then the pandemic happened. We couldn’t travel and we didn’t want to do a record where we were exchanging files. For us, being in a room together is a vital part of the equation. Finally everyone’s schedules lined up and Mike and I flew out to Los Angeles to Richie’s music space. It’s a small room; I’m sitting on a little bass practice amp, with Mike’s ride cymbal four inches from my ear, but that was part of the charm this time. Before lunch break we already had a handful of songs, and by dinner a few more. I’m grateful for the chemistry we have; someone gets an idea, the other two seize on it, and we run it over the goal line. We trust each other’s judgement and we’re always willing to take suggestions from each other. It was an easy, organic process.

Did you guys have a concept going in or was it more, let’s see what emerges?

I’ve never been one to participate in having ideas first and going in to try to flesh them out. In this band especially it’s more about let’s go in and see what happens. With a lot of classic songs you listen and think, wow, someone had to figure all of that out in advance, and then you find out later, no, one guy had some chords, another guy sang a line over it, and suddenly it all fell together. That’s our method, and it seems to somehow be directed from above. All three of us write and arrange the music. One of us may say, That sounds more like a bridge than a chorus. And we’ll say, Okay, let’s make that the bridge and come up with a chorus. As for the lyrics and the lead vocals, that’s all Richie.

How is this record different from the two previous Winery Dogs albums?

Mike put it succinctly and accurately: it’s a mix of the first two records. The first one was pretty much straight up rock. The second one got a little experimental. For his record we kind of have both of those worlds—not so much experimental, but not only straight up rock. We found a middle ground without trying, it just happened that way. After the songs are mixed and mastered, a key but often overlooked component is sequencing. We’re fortunate that Mike is quite good at sequencing, and he put the songs together to create an almost cinematic experience.

Sheehan in the studio recording III

How was the recording done?

Mike cut his drums first and I played along with him on a lot of it, as a sort of guide bass—actually, some of that was used as the final bass. Drums are the most important instrument for me, so I was there for all of the drum tracks, to listen to what Mike was doing. As a result I was super prepared when it came time to lay down my bass tracks. I was tuned into all the little nuances and finesse points in his parts, which enables me to weave in what I’m going to do. I like to record separate so I can put my part under the microscope and really lock in. After Mike and I, Richie added his guitar and vocal magic.

Photo by Alex Kluft 

Did you make any changes to your tone or technique on this record?

Not really on the tone side. My signal chain is pretty much the same [see gear list below]. I used a couple of my Attitude basses; I think it was mainly the black Attitude Limited 2, which has the true temperament fingerboard with the squiggly frets, and a red Attitude Limited 2 model that has a mojo to it. I’ve been so lucky to have my long relationship with Yamaha. On the technique side, I’m still using my basic three-finger plucking technique [ring-middle-index in alternating groups of four], and I’ve also been using my thumb more to get a fatter plucking sound on some grooves.

The opener, “Xanadu,” has two different feels and your cool harmonizing of the outro riff.

We wanted to start the record off with a bang and we came up with that opening riff together. You’re right, the verse has more of a 16th-note feel and then the chorus rides an eighth-note groove. We like changing up feels like that, it’s something we’ve done in other songs. As for playing a harmony line to the outro riff, that happened in the moment and luckily I found the right notes. Sometimes I’ll try to do that after the riff is established. Listening to classical music as a kid, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, made me a fan of theme and development, so I’m always looking for opportunities to apply that concept. By the way, we shot the video for that song on a cliff in Malibu and froze our butts off!

Kotzen and Sheehan (Photo by Travis Shin) 

“Mad World” has a funky feel with some R&B chord changes, as well as the trio’s usual unison madness.

Yeah, the funky feel was cumulative. I know I went right to Motown land and did my best to pay tribute to James Jamerson. I’m a huge Jamerson fan, I had a box set of 64 Motown hits as a kid that I wore out playing along to. Besides the feel, to me, the bridge has a Temptations vibe, with those kinds of changes. One advantage of being older is I’ve listened to a lot of different kinds of music, so I have a big bag of tricks to draw from. I try to encourage young players to take the blinders off. Dig what you dig but step out of that circle and listen to other kinds of music because when you come back in you’ll have more to offer. I’ve been backstage at major bands’ shows and they’re always listening to music outside their realm—with Van Halen it was Frank Sinatra.

With regard to the unison licks, that whole thing started for me with Steve Vai because we didn’t really do unisons in Talas, it was more counterpoint, with everyone trying to cover all the parts. Steve is an absolute master at doubling what he played, right after he plays it. But on [David Lee Roth’s] Eat ’Em and Smile [Warner Bros., 1986] [producer] Ted Templeman didn’t want Steve to do that, so I ended up doing some unison stuff with Steve on songs like “Shyboy” and “Elephant Gun,” and I got used to it. With the Winery Dogs it’s a way to lift up Richie’s guitar line for that moment in a song. And Mike usually plays along with us rhythmically, as well. We do that here leading into the bridge, playing Richie’s jazzy lick [at 2:32].

Photo by Alex Kluft

What was your approach to your solo at the very end?

That solo slot just happened and it took me a minute to figure something out. I did one pass that didn’t work, then another that let me see where I wanted to go, and finally it came together. Sometimes I’ll let nature takes it course on a solo, without thinking about it, and other times I’ll do a couple of takes until it falls into place. I don’t know much music theory and I don’t read music, so for me it’s all by ear. I call it hand-to-ear coordination, where you hear what you just played. My ear tells me if I’m going in the right or wrong direction. Playing by ear in an ensemble is a plus too because you hear what the other guys are playing and you can quickly adapt without having to think—you just react.

“Breakthrough” is a bit of a departure, with the clean guitar sound in the verse, along with your phased root-fifth-ninth bass line.

If I could add anything to that song it would be a horn section that sounds like Chicago. My very first band out of high school was a horn band and that’s where I started to get my jazzier inclinations. Chicago Transit Authority [CBS, 1969] is one of my all-time favorite albums. Here, the clean guitar sound felt like the way to go. The interval in my bass line is what I refer to as stacked fifths, which creates a pattern on the fingerboard and is like the tuning of a violin and cello. The first time I heard it was on the breakdown of “Take a Pebble” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer [Island Records, 1970]. I was so impressed, I started using it and I showed it to a bassist friend of mine who still has it in everything he plays! Not long after, I discovered tapping and hammering while watching Billy Gibbons with ZZ Top in 1974; it blew our minds because no one was doing that at the time. The phaser you’re hearing on my bass is an Eventide Harmonizer plug-in on my Universal Audio Apollo Interface. I also use that sound on “The Vengeance.”

Photo by Alex Kluft

“Rise” has a sick verse bass groove and a call and response bass solo.

I came up with that verse bass line in the moment. What happens with us is sometimes Richie will stop playing and just sing, so I’ll have to do something to spell out the chords rather than just pedal the roots. Oftentimes that will turn into a riff, like here; I’m trying to lay down a bed for the verse vocal [see music sidebar below]. Regarding the call and answer aspect of my solo, that was inspired by the trade-off between Eric Clapton and one of my main bass idols, Paul Samwell-Smith on “Here ’Tis,” from Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds [Epic, 1965]. What we’ll also do along those lines is Richie will learn and double parts of my solos. We did that on the first two records and on this album you can hear it during my solo in “Gaslight.” It heightens the interaction.

“Stars” casts your bass in a new light, first playing a deep-grooving, detuned ostinato and then rising up through the chord change in the next section.

I can’t remember if Mike played the groove and I went with him, coming up with that rumbling, repeated bass line, or if I started playing the bass line and he went with me. Normally I would have moved off that figure or played variations, but for some reason it was appealing to me to just sit there looping it in realtime. I definitely had Grand Funk Railroad in mind; the rhythm section of [drummer] Don Brewer and Mel Schacher—another bass idol of mine who I later found out put an EBO pickup on his Fender before I did. Here I used my hipshot to drop the E string to a D, which means you can play an octave in the same fret. So when the G chord comes in the next sectiion, I play in octaves moving up the neck, hitting other notes in the chord. I wanted to provide movement and contrast to the previous static part. I also sing a low harmony on the track. I’d been listening to The Everly Brothers a lot and the spirit of their two voices was in my ears.

“Pharaoh” has your Indian-flavored opening melody and some Zeppelin-like riffs throughout.

I was definitely going for an Indian sound there; the open E string droning, with a melodic figure above. The hammering and tapping helps give it that vibe, too. I’m a big fan of Indian music, first through records by [sitarist] Ravi Shankar and the tabla player Zakir Hussain, and then the violinist L. Shankar’s record, Who’s to Know [ECM, 1981]; I listened to that constantly. The Zeppelin-style riffs are from me and Richie; we’re huge fans, it’s in our DNA.

The ballad “Lorelei” has a cool laid-back shuffle groove.

That started with an ascending bass line I played. Mike heard the shuffle feel in his head, we tried it and it worked well, and we built the tune from there. It reminds of a groove we played in Niacin on the song “Hell to Pay.” Richie came up with Lorelei’s touching storyline about a friend of his.

“Red Wine” has a subtle odd-meter twist in the intro and the choruses, and an extended, all-out jam at the end.

I believe that’s two bars of 7/8 and two bars of 4/4. Having to make that subtle change and get back into the pulse reinvigorates the groove for us; it’s a way to keep you on your toes and make sure your seatbelt is still fastened. It’s a similar challenge to the sextuplet fill I play [at 1:02], where you’re playing a loose groove but the fill is such a course change that it has to be exact. Overall, I first got into odd meters through Frank Zappa and Genesis, but the way they used them felt smooth and not jarring, like some of the odd-meter stuff today, where it seems like that’s the intent. In this case, by having the 4/4 bar as the turnaround we don’t lose the uninitiated. At the end of the song what happened was we went to the breakdown and then we kept jamming, with no idea what we were going to do. It totally reminds me of the Who on Live at Leeds [MCA, 1970]. That album was a big part of Talas shows, and then in 2006 Mike and I did an all-star Who tribute band run [with guitarist Paul Gilbert and vocalist Gary Cherone], so he and I were ready to get our Who on here.

You guested on two recent all-star bass records, Bass Extremes’ S’Low Down and Jeff Berlin’s Jack Songs.

Jeff is a dear friend who lives here in Nashville. I’m glad he’s around if I have a musical question, plus he’s funny as hell. Like me, Jeff’s love for Jack Bruce knows no bounds and he created a true tribute to Jack’s music and the incredible influence he had on his peers. Having my background with odd meters defintely helped when Jeff asked me to solo over the 7/8 riff of “Smiles Story and Morning Grins.” Also, Pat Bergeson’s harmonica playing on the album blew my mind.

As for Bass Extremes, I love Steve [Bailey] and Victor [Wooten] as people, in addition to them being bass geniuses. I’m always very honored to be a guest on their records, although it provides a good bit of pressure to come up with something musical in the styles they’re known for. In this case they sent me “Oh Tell Billy” [named for Sheehan and Oteil Burbridge], with Greg Bissonette’s nasty shuffle groove. In addition to contributing some fills to what they had, I sent back a shredding section and they graciously added it as a bridge in the tune.

What’s upcoming for you and will it include a solo record?

We’re going to visit as many cities as possible with this new Winery Dogs record. We have the U.S., Europe, and South America, and we’re trying for Australia and Japan in the fall. I’m also going to be doing a limited run with Mr. Big [with Paul Gilbert and vocalist Eric Martin] as a proper farewell and tribute to [the late drummer/vocalist] Pat Torpey, with Nick DiVirgilio filling in on drums and vocals. We have shows in Asia in July and August, with the U.S., Europe, and South America coming in early 2024. As for a solo record, there’s no timetable, but it’s underway with my good buddy, Korn drummer Ray Luzier, who is one of the main reasons I moved to Nashville. We’ve been working on songs and parts in the spare time in our busy schedules. We just need two open weeks and we can get it all finished. We’re going to go to some wild places, musically! –BM

All Rise

From deep-seated, detuned grooves to solos that snarl with the ferocity of a junkyard dog, Billy Sheehan displays the full range of his bass talents and broad listening habits on the Winery Dogs’ latest, III. One of the undersung paws-to-the-cause moments is Sheehan’s verse groove on “Rise.” It’s first heard in the instrumental intro at :17, but best savored at :33 and 1:46, when Richie Kotzen stops playing to sing the first and second verses [See Ex. 1 below]. 

The gyrating wall of plucked and hammered 16th-notes—perfectly married to Mike Portnoy’s syncopated kick drum and emerging boldly in the space between Kotzen’s vocal—propels the section, while also affording time for a nasty fill at :47. Sheehan explains the part in the video below.


Basses: Yamaha Billy Sheehan Attitude Bass (seafoam green); 2016 Attitude Limited 2 (red); 2017 Attitude Limited 2 with true temperment frets (black): “Yamaha sent me an unfinished, unfretted neck and we sent it to the True Temperament people, who fretted it with cast frets and even added my usual scalloped frets on the G and D strings, from the 17th to the 21st frets.”

Strings: Rotosound BS66 Billy Sheehan Signature Stainless Steel Roundwounds [.43-.65-.80-.110]

Amps: Four Hartke LX800 heads (one for highs, one for lows, one for pedals, and one spare); five Hartke HL115 cabinets: “The lighter Class D heads and lighter cabinets are easier on the crew and for travel. They’re performing very well. The rig is fast, with plenty of lows, and a little more attack than the old heads.”

Effects: Line 6 Helix: “They modelled my original late-’70s Pearce preamp and one of my old Ashley SC-55 Compressors.” McMillen 12 Step MIDI controller pedal; EBS-BS Billy Sheehan Signature Drive Bass Pedal

Other: DiMarzio pickups and cables; Real Rock Gemstone Guitar Picks; homemade straps, “I made a YouTube video on my custom strap build.”

Recording III: “My digital path is my Line 6 Helix, Avalon VT-737sp Preamp, and BAE compressor all into a Universal Audio Apollo Interface. My analog path is my Pearce preamp, a crossover, an Ashley SC-55 Audio compressor, and an ISP Technologies Decimator ProRack G Noise Reduction System. I have no miked amp component anymore.”

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Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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