Notes from Billy Sheehan’s Basic Bass Instructional Video

One of my recommended tactics for learning bass as a guitar player is to utilize instructional videos on YouTube. I came across this 90 minute lesson by bass extraordinaire Billy Sheehan. It’s a great foundational lesson for beginners. Billy covers left and right-hand basics, exercises, how to practice, and much more.

These are my notes from this lesson.

Full video:

Introduction (0:00)

This lesson is for an absolute beginner, how to pluck, how to finger, how to hold the bass, basic fundamental essentials

There are no rules as far as how a bass should be held, or how it should be played, or what music you should do, or what scales you should play…but we’ll try to give some guidelines without enforcing any rules as to how the bass is played or how it is approached…”

Active vs Passive Bass (9:15)

Billy’s bass has the option to switch between passive (no battery) and active (battery required) electronics. The passive option is a backup.

The less variables you have, the less things that can change or alter, the more likely you are to stay on an even keel, in a gradation to a higher level player…the more that things change around you the more uncertain you’ll be about what you need to troubleshoot…”

Right-Hand Basics: Anchor your thumb (12:40)

Make sure your thumb is anchored on an anchor point on the bass. Use that to give your fingers strength to pull the string hard.

Practice playing in time (14:35)

Be able to consistently play notes in a sequence. Get the mechanics of your fingers working. Even if it’s just a single note plucked by one finger initially. Get a metronome or play along with a record. Billy highly recommends playing along with records to develop your timing.

One finger plucking

Exercise 1: Pluck open E string 8x, open A string 8x, back to E, then A, etc.

Exercise 2: Pluck every open string 4x 

Two finger plucking

Exercise: Pluck every open string 4x or 8x

Three finger technique (19:30)

Sequence of fingers for plucking: Ring, Middle, Index, Ring, etc.

Exercise: Pluck every open string 4x or 8x

Don’t be afraid to do it super ultra slow…”

Mechanics of plucking (24:00)

Use the first joint in your finger to pluck the string. It’s a smaller radius, more efficient.

Remember: thumb is locked, work from the first joint.

Slap and Pop (26:30)

Technique that originated from bassist Larry Graham

Thumb is loose, hit down, pluck up. Think of it like you’re doing drum patterns with your right hand.

Left-Hand Basics (30:00)

Introduction of half-steps and whole-steps to be able to play major scales.

Achieving larger stretches (37:15)

Pull in your elbow and you’ll be able to get a larger extension with the amount of notes you can play on one string with one hand.

Breaking down a lick into Component Parts (42:35)

Take any lick and break it down into smaller pieces, the “component parts”. Identify the parts that are difficult and practice just that.

Use your imagination for any combination you can do, perfectly in time with a metronome or a drum machine, every combination of notes possible, across the strings, backwards, inside out, upside down, every way you can conceive of creatively, you’ll find that your hands will become very smooth, very strong, and capable of executing anything you might want to execute or perform…

Time (44:53)

The bass player’s relation to the drummer is very important, it’s the most important relationship between two instruments within a band, it lays the foundation for the rhythm section…”

Get a record, a song you love, sit down and listen to how the bass player and drummer work together, sit down and learn, listen to how these guys are fitting in together…”

“Your ability to hold time is vital to your success as a player…”

Exercise: Tap your foot in time and play along with it, while keeping your foot tapping. Try hitting a note every four taps. 

Exercise 2: Play along with your metronome. Play a note per click, or two notes per click. Play upbeats. Switch between downbeats and upbeats. 

Locking with the Bass Drum (50:00)

A great starting point is to play a note every time the bass drum hits. Lock in with the bass drum.

Basic fundamental: hit a note when the bass drum is hitting. That is your entry point for playing in a band, aligning with the drummer.

Root-Fifth-Octave (51:44)

Playing the root-fifth-octave is a fundamental beginning for creating a bass line. Used in millions of songs.

Pay attention to minimizing noise between the notes. Keep it in time.

Simple Bass Line 1 (55:50)

Billy improvises some bass lines and breaks them down.

Shows the technique of barre-ing and how you can make an exercise out of it.

Simple Bass Line 2 (1:02:00)

Stay with the click, stay in time, it’s very important.

If you’re beginning bass, play in time, with a drummer, in the context of a song, that’s a great spot to be at! Basically what you’re doing, you’re playing the notes you need to do, playing it in time, fitting in with the band, that’s what it’s all about…”

Simple Bass Line 3 (1:06:12)

A lick that is higher on the neck.

There’s a million things you can add to licks to give them their own character, their own flavor, their own feel…”

Playing in Different Styles (1:10:35)

Listen to the style of music you love, and listen to what the bass player is doing. See how he is treating the basic things. Is he plucking, slapping…I have to recommend to you to listen to the music you love and listen for the bass part, it’s a fundamental part to be able to hear the bass in the song when you listen to it…”

Learn the basics because they will apply to all music styles.

Using an Amp (1:12:56)

As an individual player you’ll need to find your balance for Treble, Mid and Bass tone settings.

  • Treble: Noise, sound of your strings
  • Mid: Body of the note
  • Bass: Gives the fat “room shaking” sound that bass players love

A great place to start is “flat”: 50% for all three controls. Start there and then mess around with the three tones.

Billy will typically set: Treble 50%, Mid 75%, Bass 50%

Some players like the “smiley curve”: Treble 75%, Mid 0%, Bass 75%

It depends on what you prefer, what the music you’re playing calls for, what you feel best playing through, what makes it sounds like it should to your ear, there is no right way or wrong way…”

Changing a String (1:18:00)

Walkthrough on changing a string.

Key is to keep pressure on the string the whole time when winding it up. 

After the string is on, pull really hard on it to tighten it on the head post. It will likely go flat, tune it up again.

  • Keep it close to the wood
  • Keep the angle (string on the headstock) as tight as you can)
  • Make sure nothing is loose on the bridge or headstock
  • As you tune it, pull the string, tune it up, and keep going until you can’t pull it flat anymore

Tuning (1:23:05)

Tuning sometimes is more of an art than a science…”

Make sure when tuning it, you’re in the position you’re going to be playing.

Check with your ears if you’re using a tuner. 

Each instrument has its own little nuances of what’s right or wrong or what works. Some bases are in tune perfectly up and down the neck all the time, some bases are little fun in certain areas, it’s the nature of the beast, you put on new strings and it changes…”

“It’s important to stick with the same instrument for a little while, learn it’s nuances, how it tunes…”