Bass of the Week: Jon Willis’ Billy Sheehan “Wife” Bass Replica
Jon Willis shared a photo of his pride and joy on our Facebook page, and needless to say I was floored by the instrument. But the story behind it is even better. The bass is a near perfect replica of Billy Sheehan’s famous Wife bass, which the Mr. Big bassist used from his very first gig in 1971 until the late ’80s. Covered in stickers and wear, the bass’s mojo was Willis’s introduction to bass.
“When I was a kid, I saw a fold-out of Billy holding the Wife bass in a Hit Parader magazine,” he explains. “I wasn’t even playing bass yet, and had no clue what a bass was… all I knew was the ‘guitar’ some dude was holding looked awesome, and I wanted to play a guitar like that!”
After years of following Sheehan and collecting pictures and info on the bass, Willis finally decided to get a replica of the bass made for himself. “My search for a builder to put this dream to life started in 2008, after about 2 years of looking, I found the guy to do it: John Scott of Bluesman Vintage Guitars out of Nashville. John already had a reputation of being a quality builder in the Nashville area. I began discussing the idea with him and after some talk of details and sharing some photos back and forth, John agreed to assemble the bass from the ground up. John’s knowledge of the period correct components really came in handy during the project. I know he also went through quite a number of bodies and necks looking for the perfect combination of wood grain and tone. The beast gradually began to come to life.”
Sheehan’s Wife bass is a truly unique beast, and recreating it was no easy task. Willis and Scott scoured the world to find the exact stickers that cover the bass and the same hardware that Sheehan fitted it with.
“One of the major components unique to the Wife Bass are the stickers that are on it,” said Willis. “Many of them are rare, out of production stickers from Skateboard companies. I began to contact skateboard sticker collectors and convince them to sell these rare stickers from their collections. It was quite the undertaking both in time and money to assemble the collection of stickers that were needed! While I was doing this, Bluesman Vintage was doing his part in finding the hardware for the bass. One gem he was able to locate was a real 1966 Gibson EBO pickup, I believe from a bass destroyed during the Nashville flood. This would become the Wife’s neck pickup.
John and his crew did their part to recreate all the paint damage and aging, and did an outstanding job. However, it eventually came to a point in both their production schedule and my budget, that we decided that I would do the final fine-tuning of the wear and tear on the replica. They sent me the bass and I was floored with the result, and even more so I was looking forward to spending hours getting every little slight detail just right. John sent me the bass with the Bluesman Vintage logo on it, and unfortunately I damaged it while recreating some of the headstock wear. I then made the effort to put a Fender logo decal on it myself.”
Willis went on to spend “countless hours” replicating each and every ding, scratch, and scuff. “From the stickers, to cutting and dremeling an expensive original 60’s Fender pickguard, no detail has been overlooked.”
After completing the bass, Willis got in touch with Sheehan through Facebook after he posted a photo of his replica to a Yamaha Attitude Basses group. He travelled across the country to attend Yamaha’s “Attitude Bass Day” in 2012 and showed his labor of love to Sheehan. The event became a dream come true.
“Billy’s reaction was priceless! He looked genuinely thrilled and reached out for it right away,” Willis said. “Then he handed me HIS bass! I will never ever forget the feeling holding it…finally the REAL bass…the same one that hung on my wall 25 years ago. It was an amazing moment. Billy played both basses, we swapped back and forth a few times, and thanked me for my effort in recreating his famous bass. He then offered to sign it, but I told him then my bass would not be as “correct”! He said he would sign his too to match and we had a good laugh.”
Willis also took the opportunity to take even more pictures of Sheehan’s Wife bass to even further match his replica. That, my friends, is dedication at its finest.