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.

Jon Willis Billy Sheehan Wife Bass Replica

“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.

Jon Willis’ Billy Sheehan “Wife” Bass Replica Photos:

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Share your thoughts

  1. great work. and billy is such a cool dude

  2. That might be the coolest repro I have ever seen.

  3. Very honored to have my bass featured on a page that is typically reserved for work of art basses made of incredible woods with custom features.

    • So what was it like to play the “real thing”? And how similar/different was it from your repro (which is amazing, by the way)?

  4. Man! This is devotion!! Awesome work.

  5. Wow, that is soooo cool!! :-)

  6. Awesome… I’m afraid to know the final $$$ amount.

  7. Little increments are always less painful. Its a great work and a testiment to Sheehan’s legacy. Almost 30 years later and I STILL think about he and Steve Vai’s bass and guitar solo duet during the David Lee Roth, “Eat’em and Smile” tour.

  8. I think the best part of all that work making a replica, was he then got to play the real thing because of it – like a dream coming true twice.

  9. As someone who grew up standing 10 feet away from Billy’s bass on a lot of Talas gigs, part of me says “this is really cool”. But the rest of me says “Why?”

  10. That body is so sweet I want to take a bite out of it! But then I’d have to find the original and take a bite out of it too, to maintain authenticity.

    Good on Jon! Killer bass.

  11. A spectacular job—what an incredible honor. Thanks very much for telling the story of this magnificent reproduction. Much appreciated! Hey Jon! Hope I see you again soon!
    Love & Respect,

    • Cool, I saw Billy play that bass many a time with Talas. I’m surprised it held up that long. He really gave it a beating!

    • Thomas Bartnicki (Bartikus)

      I saw you in Philly when Mr. Big opened for Rush on their Presto tour. You were absolutely amazing and the experience of witnessing two of the most masterful players (you and Geddy) since John Paul Jones was so surreal. I really enjoyed the differences in your sound, styles, and music. “Addicted to that Rush” was your opening (perfect for who you were opening for) and I’ve been addicted to the bass ever since that night..long..long time.ago.
      “Slappin da Base” in Delaware.

  12. Wow That is really something to be faithful to wife! Awesome!

  13. Willis and I were both at the Sheehan event. I was able to play most of Sheehan’s basses including Willis’s repro of the Wife bass. It was an eye opening experience. I have been doing my own bass setups for many years and know what works for me just as Sheehan and Willis knows what works for them. As far as feel none of the basses felt simular but as far as looks Willis nailed it and has an incredible eye for visual details.