(Bx3 cover story for Bass Player magazine.)
Rolling Thunder: Stuart Hamm, Jeff Berlin & Billy Sheehan Bring The Big Bottom With Bx3
BY JUDE GOLD
Stuart Hamm doesn’t scare easily. And if he’s trembling at all, standing here outside his rehearsal space one blustery March day in San Francisco, it’s only because it’s been raining for what seems like forever. That said, Stu does seem, well, just a tad apprehensive. “Launching a project like this one is a bit like having a baby,” he says. “If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never have one, because you’ll never be ready.”
There’s no backing out now. Stu’s vision of having three bass titans tour the country together—perhaps even the part about them playing a none-to-serious encore together each night (Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom,” maybe?)—appears close to reality. But while Stu is the guy putting his career (or at least his checkbook) on the line for Bx3, he’s certainly not the only person full of nervous anticipation. Having landed the guitar gig for the tour, I’ve been handed a stack of Billy Sheehan, Jeff Berlin, and Stu Hamm CDs for the three sets of music I’ve got to learn in as many weeks. And these aren’t Monkees tunes.
Better get busy.
First, I call Billy, but he’s in Asia with guitar great Richie Kotzen, opening shows for the Rolling Stones. So I try Jeff at the Players School of Music, which he runs in Clearwater, Florida. “Bx3 is a great idea,” he tells me. “I play all over the world in countries where music is truly appreciated, but here in America—where music is more about entertainment than anything else—opportunities like this rarely present themselves. So I can’t wait to do these shows. However, I told Stu that while I’m a team player and really want Bx3 to work, there are certain compromises I’m not willing to make.”
Like what, Jeff? You mean no tuners or metronomes in the van? If we keep ’em all out of sight, will you do the tour? “That’s not it,” says Jeff. “What I told Stu is that I’m not doing that Spinal Tap song.”
Fast-forward a few weeks. The house lights have gone down in Milwaukee, and Billy—with eight strings of accompaniment from Stu and Jeff—has just sung the National Anthem. After Stu makes the ballpark-like proclamation, “Play bass!” the stage is Jeff’s. I know Jeff will count off the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Groovin’ High” up, but the tempo he calls seems twice as hot as it was at soundcheck. I have to create a new way to pick the head on the fly, but I don’t mind, because it’s all part of a much bigger genesis—Jeff, drummer John Mader, and I are creating brand-new music on the fly. We’re skiing down a double-diamond run for the first time and, miraculously, none of us is doing any face-plants.
Billy and Stu are watching the excitement from offstage, transfixed by what is going down: Jeff’s pressure-cooking swing grooves are proving to every rock fan in attendance that at a third of the volume but three times the intensity, jazz is every bit as thrilling as rock & roll. And, speaking of rock, Jeff’s mesmerizing bass-and-brushes version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” simply decapitates everyone in the audience.
Stu’s set is no less amazing. His powerful use of silence is as thundering as his full contact, dissolve-your-kidney-stones slap cadenzas. (As legions of “Stuuu”-chanting Joe Satriani fans have long been aware, this guy’s a one-man orchestra.) And Billy’s kaleidoscopic spanked harmonics, inimitable three-finger plucking attack, brutal neck bends, and born-for-the-spotlight stage charisma add up to a full-spectrum adrenaline rush. (No instructional video will teach you that kind of mojo.)
The house lights come on. We’ve all just survived the first Bx3 show, and Stu is elated. It’s obvious: This dog hunts. The fans love it, all three bass players love it, and even John and I, the overworked drummer and guitarist, are having a ball. Plus, we’re thrilled to find out that although Billy Sheehan and Jeff Berlin attack their instruments with great ferocity, they’re not that way with their rhythm section or anyone else. (Don’t let Jeff’s prickly reputation fool you: He’s one of the most easygoing, generous, and inspired musical geniuses you could ever hope to share a stage or a van with.) Of course, the best way to get a sense of what it’s like performing onstage at a bass extravaganza of this magnitude is to hear about the experience from the guy sitting on the drum throne all night.
“I’m getting stretched like a piece of saltwater taffy,” says John Mader a few shows into the tour. It’s no exaggeration. Locking down burnin’ bebop with Jeff, firing off double-kick-drum thrash with Billy, and handling everything from classical to funk to country with Stu, Mader demonstrates powers of elasticity that put him in league with the leader of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four. “To my surprise, the gig is going really smoothly,” adds John, who is also a member of the Family Stone and has worked with Steve Miller, Pat Benatar, and Patti Austin, as well as on major musicals such as The Lion King and Rent. “I think that’s because not only are they great bassists, but they each really know how to listen. There’s never any, ‘I’m the superstar, so here’s where the time is.’ No one’s fighting the groove.
“Jeff is great because he encourages you to really go for it on every song, and he loves new ideas,” continues John. “He’s also taught me some subtleties about time—how even just thinking about laying back slightly can affect the song’s feel. And Stu’s set is a blast because it’s so musically diverse and covers so many different landscapes. It’s extremely melodic and funky, yet always rocks. Stu has me doing everything from playing the toms like timpani and playing delicate parts with mallets and shakers to surfing crazy meter changes and using loops.” Things get even more explosive when Billy takes the stage. “I love Billy’s set because it’s so aggressive, which is a great emotional space for a drummer to be in. One of my favorite Billy tunes is ‘Taj.’ It’s a fast-paced, odd-time rock piece with a Middle-Eastern sound that’s fun to play.”
Luckily, John also enjoys the other 21 hours he spends with Jeff, Stu, and Billy each day. “They each have a great sense of humor, and they’re all really bright, intelligent people,” he says. “Driving around with them is sometimes as fun as the gig itself. I love the hang.”
Somewhere outside of Chicago, we pass a Chinese restaurant advertising fresh clab. “What the heck is a clab?” asks Jeff, playing along with the typo. “Well,” answers Billy, “it’s a bit like a robster.”
Perhaps tour delirium has already set in amongst this van load of overworked, underslept, under-roadied musicians, but we all find this little Engrish exchange to be gut-bustingly funny. Indeed, when you’re trying to make the miles go by, nothing is more effective than a shot of comedy. Stu is the best joke teller. Jeff does the best impersonations, nailing everybody from Gleason to Ali. And the master of monologue is Billy, whose lengthy recaps of his wild times with Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, and Talas are so over-the-top hilarious they leave everyone suffocating with laughter.
Most of the humor in the van centers on music. “Don’t let Jeff see that copy of Time magazine,” says Stu on the ride to Detroit. “He hates metronomes, so the title will just piss him off.” Everybody laughs. “Actually,” says Jeff, “Time is okay. Just don’t let me see a copy of Click.”
From there, it just gets zanier. “Billy, choose a number between one and ten,” says Jeff, who has just scribbled something on a piece of paper. Billy responds: “Three.” Jeff unfolds the paper and holds it up. Miraculously, it reads, rock bassists always choose 3.
Don’t ask me, I just play guitar here.
Not long after a road sign reading bong recreation area cracks up the entire van, the conversation turns to the deeper topic of finding your voice as a musician. “It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone,” says Jeff.
“That’s what made Miles [Davis] so utterly inspiring,” adds Stu. “He inspired each player in his band to hit another level.”
“Keith Jarrett once asked Miles why he stopped playing ballads,” says Jeff. “Miles said, ‘I stopped playing ballads because I love playing ballads.’ You’ve got to admire the power of character it takes to deny yourself the thing that comes so easily.”
“Sometimes that’s the only way to find yourself,” says Billy.
“Force yourself into a corner,” says Jeff, “and you you’ll find every way to play every square nano-portion of that corner.”
This reminds Billy of certain one-note vamps he’s been assigned on G3 tours. “Steve Vai would sometimes have me holding E forever,” he says. “I swear, I found 50,000 different ways—over the neck, under the neck, slapped, tapped, as a harmonic—to play that one note. Paint me into a corner and I’ll create a way out.”
“And what’s amazing,” says Jeff, “is the number of skilled musicians—I’m talking about guys of great playing ability—who aren’t willing to step outside of their comfort zones. They’re content to merely imitate others, like Elvis impersonators.”
“There once were a couple of guys who would do my shtick exactly,” relates Billy. “They had the same gear and everything. At first, I felt insulted and ripped off. But later I just felt sad for them.”
“They can’t leave the nest,” says Jeff.
“Yeah,” says Billy. “It’s like you already went through the pain of forging an original style for them.”
When it comes to fist-pumping, lighter-waving, coke-snortin’ cock rock, Mr. Big’s “Addicted to That Rush”—which we shred on each night in Billy’s set—is one of the genre’s most robust offerings. And Jeff wants to learn how to play it. No, it’s not Billy’s death-defying bass acrobatics Jeff is after. He wants me to show him the slippery Paul Gilbert guitar pull-offs that open the song. He’s also fascinated with the up-tempo twang licks I bust out with each night in Stu’s set during his bass changeover. Once again, Jeff wants out of his comfort zone.
“You always have to practice,” he says backstage in Chicago, where for the past hour he’s been running exercises from one of his favorite bass-clef exercise books, Joseph Viola and Phil Wilson’s Chord Studies for Trombone. “You expect someone to pay money to see you perform, and you haven’t practiced? Would you get on a plane with pilot who hasn’t trained? Here, you need your gall bladder removed? I’ve never used a scalpel, but I know how a knife works. Lie down—I’ll cut it out and save you 15 grand.”
Jeff takes inspiration from one of his former bandleaders, Bill Bruford. “He once told me that before King Crimson shows, he’d have his tech randomly rearrange his drum kit,” shares Jeff. “That way he’d be out of his comfort zone and sound different every night. On fretted instruments, there are plenty of ways to do the same thing. For example, try soloing over a blues progression playing only the #11 and 13 of every chord.”
Someone once theorized that comedians want to be actors, actors want to be musicians, and musicians want to be comedians. The latter part of this hypothesis seems to be proved every night with Bx3.
“How’s the mix out there?” yells Stu at his soundcheck in Buffalo. “Good,” Jeff shouts back from somewhere in the house, “but Jude’s guitar is a little buried.” Without a hint of hesitation, Stu says “Cool,” turns off his amp, and heads backstage.
Stu is the turbo-witted, straight-faced master of smart-aleck comedy. “Here’s a little ditty I whipped up at the hotel just now,” he tells audiences before blowing their minds with his solo-bass melding of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. (“It took me months to work that out,” he confesses later.) Of course, the audiences don’t always catch Stu’s sarcasm—at least not in Bangkok, Thailand, where between songs he tells 2,500 people, “If you all have no idea what I’m saying, just sit there silently and don’t applaud.” They oblige.
Jeff finds endless humor in performing jazz—“stadium jazz,” as he’s come to calling it—for crowds of young rock fans crammed against a barricade. “I always tell Stu and Billy that if they ever have a big, high-paying rock gig they’re too busy to take, they can pass it on to me,” he tells one audience. “Look, everybody, I can play rock too,” he boasts, launching into “Smoke on the Water.” But just as he’s about to conclude the bonehead-simple Deep Purple riff, he lapses into some double-time walking bass. “Oy,” he groans. “I messed up. I better keep ’shedding on my rock playing.”
In Annapolis, when all three bassists have come onstage to close out the first tour together, Jeff takes the opportunity to compliment Billy on his set-closing thrasher “Shy Boy” (made famous by David Lee Roth). “I love that tune,” says Jeff. “What if it was played as a swing?” Suddenly, Jeff launches into a hilarious yet musically stunning cruise-ship rendition of the song.
“That’s awesome,” says Billy. “If I could play it that way, I would have written it that way. But then, of course”—and here he winks at Jeff—“it wouldn’t have been a hit.”
In emergency situations, Billy Sheehan isn’t afraid to operate on a piece of gear. “I was on a gig once back in my Buffalo days where lightning struck the building and knocked out the P.A,” he says. “I opened up the power amps and found that connections had actually come unsoldered.”
Billy saved the day back then with his soldering iron, and today, two hours before our show in Taipei, Taiwan, he’s being called upon to do the same thing, because his treasured Pearce preamp—the cornerstone of his bridge-pickup lead sound—won’t power up.
“When gear fails on the gig, nine times out of ten it’s not a bad part, but some kind mechanical problem,” says Billy. Sure enough, when he opens up the rack unit, he finds the power transformer has torn loose from the chassis (likely due to less-than-gentle treatment of his gear by airport baggage handlers). He borrows nuts and bolts from elsewhere in the preamp to reattach the component (the original screws are long gone), resolders the wiring, reattaches the lid, and pops the unit back into his rack. “You don’t need to know this stuff if you’re Eric Clapton,” says Billy, “but if you’re on your own in, say, Peoria, Illinois”—a city that, strangely, seems more remote than the Asian capital in which we stand—“it sure comes in handy.” Billy also handles neck alignment, intonation, fret dressing, and pickup wiring on all his instruments, and he’s proud to be one of the very first bassists ever to have a rack setup. “I was building rack rigs myself back in ’72 or ’73,” he says.
The thing you soon realize about Billy’s fearless, do-it-yourself approach to gear is that it’s emblematic of a much larger hands-on approach to life—a tireless zeal for the hard work and endless maintenance that any career in music requires, particularly a multi-platinum one such as his.
“No matter how good you are or how successful you are,” says Billy, “you shouldn’t let other people handle everything for you. Even if you’re on a major label, you have to be as involved as you possibly can in the day-to-day stuff that’s happening with your music.”
Being a great musician and getting your music heard are two different skills. Billy Sheehan seems to have both.
Bx3’s first Asia show—Hong Kong—is exciting. We run out of encores, so someone suggests we rock out on a Cream-inspired version of “Crossroads.” The spectacle of American bass heroes performing this iconic piece of American musical culture is more then the crowd can handle, and it pushes them over the edge into uncontained ecstasy. Most of them abandon their seats and swarm the stage. The same thing happens at the next show, when we play the song at a packed convention center in Thailand.
“I’m very fortunate to have had some great nights in front of huge crowds, and am very thankful for that” reflects Billy later, “but the Bangkok Bx3 show was extra sweet, because that time it was an all-bass thing that blew up the place.”
For Stu, though, the sweetest finale still has to be the one that occurred toward the end of Bx3’s first tour, at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York City. The seats were filled, the crowd insatiable, and the encores slammin’. To help generate the appropriately massive sonic derriere for “Big Bottom,” I, too, picked up a bass. And on this night, a surprise guest hopped onstage to join us: Victor Wooten. This meant there were now five bassists playing.
Yep, you did the math right—Jeff Berlin, after all that fussing, is up there too, playing “Big Bottom” with us. In fact, he’s having a great time doing it. And get this—just after Stu sings the line about a “flesh tuxedo,” the whole band breaks and Jeff steps up to the mic, and, in his classic lawn guyland dialect, rhymes the lyric with the gem, “I wanna sink her with my pink torpedo.”
Not to overanalyze things, but Jeff’s participation in these antics is symbolic of the Bx3 dream materializing: Three disparate musical worlds have come together on one stage for an action-packed celebration of the 4-string.
The standing ovation makes Stu happy. “I’ve got goose bumps,” he says after the show. “I remember before the tour envisioning how we’d all share playing tips, how I’d finally get the bass lessons I’d always wanted from Jeff Berlin, how nearly everybody in the audience would be exposed to at least one style of bass they weren’t familiar with, how ‘Big Bottom’ would make people happy, and how people would leave our shows with smiles on their faces—and it’s all happening. Here we are, seven guys in a van towing a trailer, doing the kind of touring I swore I’d never do, and it’s working.”