Billy Sherwood played guitar and keyboards with progressive rock legends Yes for three years in the late nineties. He took over permanent bass guitar duties in 2015, following the death of founder member Chris Squire. BGR chatted with Billy at home in Los Angeles about his career, the new Yes album, and his close friendship with Chris Squire.
A new Yes Album Billy, always a cause for excitement in the world of rock music.
It’s always good news. I’ve been a fan of Yes since I was twelve years old, but I never dreamed I would ever meet them, let alone join the band, and leave, and come back and leave, and then come back again and stay. I don’t think you are really a member of Yes until you’ve left and come back at least once!
You are a multi-instrumentalist – is bass guitar your favourite?
I enjoy playing a variety of instruments, but bass has always been my nearest and dearest because of my passion for Chris Squire’s bass playing when I was growing up. I would have been happy to get anywhere near the playing of my heroes, Chris, Geddy Lee and Jaco Pastorius. When I joined bands when I was growing up, they’d always say to me, Can’t you play a little simpler? And I’d always say Nah, I can’t do that! That’s why I create bands to be in, so I can be as complicated as I like.
How big was the influence of Chris Squire as a bass player when you were learning and growing up?
His influence was everything to me growing up. I learned that not only was he fantastically gifted as a technical player, it was his composition and arrangements for his bass playing that I loved, the progressions and phrases he would come up with really attracted me, there was just no-one else on his level. Chris was one of the first bassists to play melody lines in a band, he played different instruments as well, and that definitely had an influence on his own playing style. When I was a kid I had a poster of him on my wall, with his left hand right up at the top of the fretboard, looking regal as usual. I was listening to an album when my dad came in and commented that he liked the bass playing, so I pointed to that poster and told my dad that he was the bassist he was hearing, and my dad said, That’s not playing bass!”
I always remember listening to the Yes album and being amazed how far up in the front of the mix the bass was.
Yeah, he did screw it up for a lot of bands because their bassists all wanted their bass lines right up at the front of the sound as well. If you listen to Paul McCartney’s solo albums, he always mixes his bass up in the sound as well, especially on the Press To Play album, that’s a fantastic album.
What is it about the bass guitar that appeals so much to you?
I think the expressions from the bass can make a song different and unique. There are times when it should be anchoring the sound down in the low end, but there are also times when it should soar and influence the entire sound of the song. There are many different aspects of the bass guitar to explore, and I do my best to find some of them in the music I make.
As well as being a musician, you are also a producer, so I guess you have all your sounds organised, and you know how to get your tones in the studio, and on stage.
Yeah, my rig is pretty much set now after all these years. Before I met Chris, I did model all my bass sounds on his tones, and when we started working together, and I played On Silent Wings Of Freedom, he said that my sound was just about perfect, and could he plug into my rig and use it because I had the sounds exactly right. That was such a massive compliment for him to say that – I know we both wanted unique sounds.
Has it taken you a long time to get all your tones how you want them, and organised on your rig, for nice easy access?
The biggest change for me was swapping to digital, which was wonderful. I was able to get rid of all my stomper pedals, now I can press a button and everything is there in whatever combination I want. With foot pedals, if I wanted a particular sound for a chorus that involved three effects, and then take it off again for the verses, I used to be dancing up and down my pedals like a madman! Now I have Line Six, and I am endorser of theirs, and I have used their gear for a long time, it’s so much better. When I listen back to some of the recordings I made on analogue tape, I wonder how on earth I managed to get the effects right with foot switches, but that was how it was back then, things move on I am happy to say.
You play mainly Spector bass guitars and have done for a while. Clearly just about any make and model is available to you, so what is the attraction of Spector basses for you?
When I was young, like every musician growing up, I used to go into the local music store, in my case it was The Guitar Centre in Las Vegas, and look longingly at the instrument I really wanted, but couldn’t afford. For me, it was a Rickenbacker bass, and I knew that was the bass I was going to have as soon as I had the money to get it. So, the day came, I had the money, the guy got it down off the wall and I tried it, and I was amazed. The ergonomics were nothing like what I expected, and I really didn’t like it any more after that. So I tried a few more basses, and the one I really did like, and bought was a Spector fretless. I still have it, and I still play it with Yes. I have played lots of other models by other companies, but Spector is the one I come back to every time. In around 2006 they called me and told me they had been looking at my career, and they wanted to endorse me, and I fell in with the Spector family, and they have taken care of me ever since.
Were you disappointed that your dream bass turned out not to be the right one for you?
Not at all, that’s how life is. It was the same with cars, growing up I always dreamed of owning a Porche 911 and when I eventually had the money to buy one, I couldn’t fit in the dammed thing! Some cars are just not for some people, and it’s exactly the same with bass guitars.
Your main bass is a Spector with individual fish inlays on the neck, how did you come to acquire that instrument?
I went to a NAMM Show here in Los Angles and Stewart Spector had this fortieth anniversary bass guitar he had built, and it had beautiful fish design inlays on the fretboard, because Stewart likes to fish, so he added his hobby into his design. Yes fans will know that Chris Squire’s nickname in the band was Fish because he was fond of long soaks in the bath that often kept them waiting to rehearse. I thought it was some kind of message, so I asked Stewart to make me another bass with the fish designs, and it is my way of honouring Chris, it’s my favourite bass guitar.
I know you are a fan of fretless basses; did you get into them early on in your career?
Another of my heroes growing up was Jaco Pastorius, and I figured I could probably play a fretless and see what sounds I could get out of it. I got one, and found it was a lot harder than I thought, so I parked it for a while, then tried again, and then tried on and off through the years until I got to a level I was reasonably happy about. There are guys out there who can play fretless basses like Jaco, I just don’t happen to be one of them.
The point about fretless basses is that they reward that additional hard work you need to put in to master them, because the sounds you can get are so remarkable.
That’s true. I bought mine and realised afterwards that it had no fret markers on it, so I couldn’t actually find anything! I did persevere, which as you say you have to do, and now I have got to a level where I am confident about playing it with the band on stage and in the studio. I remember being at a Yes rehearsal and Steve Howe came over and asked what bass I was going to use on Awaken. I said that Chris used to use a triple-neck and I don’t have one of those, so I was going to split it between eight-string, four-string and fretless. Steve raised his eyebrows when I said the fretless, and he said we’d see how it went. When we took a break, he came over and said that he had never heard anyone with intonation of a fretless as accurate as mine, and I took that as a great compliment from Steve.
Are you a plectrum or fingers player?
Both, depending what the song requires. I’m not as proficient a finger player as some guys, Tony Levin is the master of the craft there. Mostly though I use a pick, I think the music Yes makes requires it. For years and years I played with a pick based on how I thought Chris held a pick, and when we got to know each other, we were over at his house just noodling around, and I noticed how he held his pick, and it was not like I thought at all!
I questioned him about it, and he showed me his way, and I showed him my way, based on what I thought his way of holding the pick was, and I was wrong! But I figured, well, too late to change it now!
You are clearly happy with the Spector range that you play, but we always like to ask musicians what they look for if they are shopping for a new instrument, even if it’s only theoretical?
Well, I am a creature of habit, but I do like to keep my eyes open in case something new catches my eye. Recently the Spector company has been sold and Stewart has retired, and I have had a discussion with the company. I told them I have been very happy and very loyal for a long time now, and would they object if I brought out different basses to try out on the road, and they said they were fine with that. So I may try out some Kubicki basses. I used to have some years ago, I like the dropped G they have with the little lever you can use, so I may start looking at some of those again. I am an aesthetics guy, I love a bass to look good.
What advice do you have for bassist looking for an instrument?
The first thing is to make sure that the bass is comfortable, not only in your hands, but on your neck and shoulders. I was a big fan of Greg Lake from Emmerson Lake And Palmer, and I loved those Alembic basses he played, but Greg was a big guy, and those basses really weigh a lot! I couldn’t stand for a three-hour Yes show with one of those. A bass needs a certain amount of weight to carry the tone and the sound, but I guess I max out at around the eleven-pound mark for maximum weight. Right now, at the end of a Yes show, my left shoulder is starting to pay the price, but that’s just part of getting older I guess.
Do you prefer specific basses for studio and others for stage?
No, not really, I take my fish bass with me most times. These days, I have done enough sessions for producers to know how I sound, so if I get hired in, it’s because they want the sound that I make. If a producer wants a specific sound, maybe fretless, that’s fine, but as a rule, my own sound is what I am being hired to bring. When I was getting established as a studio session player, I would carry a Fender Jazz, as a standard sound, but now, people know how I sound.
Do you have a favourite track on the new album that you will enjoy playing when the band gets back out on tour?
I love all of it, but I do like the delicate pieces where I can play fretless bass. Future Memories is great, I love the expressiveness of that as a song. It really moves, me, and I really enjoy playing it.
Are you looking forward to going back out on tour?
Oh man, like you wouldn’t believe! We are all so excited. I was gutted when Covid stopped our touring plans. I had studied Relayer, and I worked hard to get Gates Of Delirium to sound how I liked it, and then it all stopped. Now I have to go back to rehearsals again, because Gates Of Delirium is not something I tend to play every day!
Do you carry a lot of basses on the road?
Well, I have a carry-case with eight slots in it, and I put my fish bass in, and my fretless, and then I fill up the others slots with what I think I may need. I do have a range of Spectors, and they are all different, and do different jobs and have individual sound and feel to them. I have white Spector because I am a huge Sting fan and he played one all through the Synchronicity tour, so I asked Spector if I could have one. I like it because it has a slower action, and I always like to have the right bass to suit each song we play.
Are the tour plans in place?
Absolutely! We have a North America tour in March, and then we plan to come over to Europe in May so I am really looking forward to seeing all our fans over there again. It will be worth the wait, I know!