Taken from MusicRadar (Apr 05, 2017)
Geezer Butler talks Black Sabbath, bass playing and The End
In-depth with the humble metal legend
by Jamie Blaine
(Image: Â© Brandon Marshall/REX/Shutterstock)
From the throb of N.I.B. to the string-bending doom of God Is Dead?, the original wizard, Terry âGeezerâ Butler of Black Sabbath, has set the pace for bass players for nearly 50 years. We meet the master...
With his apocalyptic lyrics and sludge-heavy bass tones, Geezer Butler has inspired a legion of devotees worldwide. Born Terence Michael Joseph Butler to an Irish-Catholic family in 1949, he took up rhythm guitar and formed his first group, Rare Breed, at the age of 18 with pal John âOzzyâ Osbourne, eventually crossing paths with Anthony Iommi and William Ward, who played in Carlisle blues-rockers Mythology.
Butlerâs fascination with sci-fi , horror films and religion helped Black Sabbath create their own revolutionary style
After a cannabis charge-fractured Mythology, Rare Breed merged with Iommi and Ward to form Polka Tulk before changing their name to Earth and finally, at Geezerâs suggestion, Black Sabbath.
Combining elements of rock, blues, jazz, classical and prog with Butlerâs fascination with sci-fi , horror films and religion, the new band created their own revolutionary style.
Sabbath sounded like iron giants lumbering through a war-torn wasteland, like the soundtrack to some cataclysmic battle between Satan and God, like the hairiest bunch of Aston sad sacks spared by fate from a life of toiling in slaughterhouses and sheet metal factories.
Armed with a fuzzed-out Fender Precision, down-tuned and coupled with wah, Sabbathâs bassist shook the devil from his strings and conjured runs both crushing and nimble, making his presence known even on quieter Sabbath songs like Solitude and Planet Caravan. Butlerâs playing was mammoth but approachable, ancient yet fresh, legendary while firmly working class.
There is no sign of drugs, groupies, witches or booze - only steamed vegetables, grilled chicken and green tea
A beginner might lack the courage to take on Roundabout or YYZ but any young player could dig into the monster riff from Sweet Leaf and come out more confident on the other side. Simply put, he is the reason many of us first picked up the bass guitar.
After a powerhouse return to form on 2015âs stunning 13 album and the subsequent sell-out reunion tour, last month saw Ozzy, Tony and Geezer hanging up their boots following one last worldwide run.
As Sabbath headed full circle for a final pair of shows in their hometown of Birmingham, we caught up with the avowed vegan and defender of animal rights in Texas, of all places.
Itâs nearly 100 degrees as weâre ushered backstage. The Sabbath crew are proper English, extremely polite and generous. There is no sign of drugs, groupies, witches or booze - only steamed vegetables, grilled chicken and vats of green tea. A row of simple dressing rooms lies beyond the catering tent.
Itâs a bit cooler inside. A Lakland bass sits propped beside a practice amp and thereâs a large tapestry on the wall of a psychedelic skull. Geezer Butler, godfather of all things metal and rock, stands to extend the hand of doom. âMemento mori,â we offer, meeting his handshake with a nod to the skull.
âDeath, yeah,â he replies, chuckling while rubbing his chin. âItâs coming for us all, innit?â
(Image: Â© Peter Mazel/Sunshine/REX/Shutterstock)
A beginning and an end
How does it feel to be here at The End?
âTerrible! Horrible! [laughs] Ah, bittersweet, actually. Itâs good to go out on top. And weâre all going out as friends, which is the main thing."
Letâs go back to the beginning. In the pre-Sabbath days, you were on rhythm guitar. What brought you to bass?
Iâd been wanting to switch to bass and hadnât gotten one by the time we started rehearsing, so I had to play bass on my Telecaster
âWell, Tony didnât like playing with other guitarists. We were really into Hendrix and Cream - bass, guitar and drums - and thatâs the way we wanted to go. Iâd been wanting to switch to bass and hadnât gotten one by the time we started rehearsing, so I had to play bass on my Telecaster. We started out doing 12-bar blues stuff and I was just doing your very basic B/A/B, with no runs or anything like that. On the way to a gig, I borrowed a friendâs HĂ¶fner: that was the first time Iâd ever played an actual bass.â
What bassists were you into?
âJack Bruce was a huge influence. I was listening to a lot of Noel Redding and Charles Mingus as well.â
Mingus? Thereâs a lot of jazz in early Sabbath
âThat was Tony and Bill, really. After Tonyâs accident [Iommi lost two fi ngertips in an industrial accident], he learned a lot of chords from Django Reinhardt, because he also had two fi ngers. And Joe Pass as well. Bill was brought up on Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. So I played off Billâs swing feel, and thatâs what brought the jazz to Sabbath.â
Your bass sound was different after Sabbathâs debut album in 1970. What was going on?
âI probably changed the strings on my bass! On the debut album I was too poor to buy new strings, so they were always, like, 10 months old. Iâd only replace them if they broke, so thatâs what gave the record that dull, flat thud sound.â
What were you playing through?
We didnât know what we were doing on the debut LP... We werenât allowed in on the mix or anything like that
âA 70W Laney guitar amp with a Park 4x12 cabinet with only three speakers. I couldnât afford anything else. We didnât know what we were doing on the debut LP. Treated it like a live show, really. We werenât allowed in on the mix or anything like that. Two days to record and off to the continent to play some gigs. As time went on, I experimented with different setups and different basses. It could only get better.â
Did you have a sound in your mind you were looking for?
âI did, but it was so hard to find because technically, I wasnât very proficient. I finally found it on 13. It took me 40 years!â
You were proficient enough to land a bass solo on the first record. That wah on Bassically was pretty radical. How did that happen?
âWe actually wrote N.I.B. jamming on stage. Sabbath would play these places in Europe and have to do eight sessions a day. Weâd run out of material so we made N.I.B. last 45 minutes! I used to do a 10-minute solo before we even started N.I.B., just to fill time. When we got to the studio I did a shorter version of the solo and the producer, Rodger Bain, suggested using a wah-wah to make it more interesting. I borrowed Tonyâs pedal, simple as that.â
Iâd love to hear a bootleg of an hour-long N.I.B.
âMe too, but I donât think one exists.â
(Image: Â© Kevin Nixon /Future Publishing/REX/Shutterstock)
You were bending your strings quite a bit, which wasnât very common for bass players back then.
âAgain, Jack Bruce. I saw Jack do it and simply copied his technique. It suited the sort of blues jams we were doing quite well.â
What did you think of Sabbathâs softer cuts like Planet Caravan and Laguna Sunrise?
We tuned down to ease the pressure on Tony's severed fingers. Light gauge strings were hard to come by, so tuning down was the only way
âI like light and shade on an album, so I thought they were really good. I donât like eight songs which all sound the same. Contrast makes things interesting. If you put on something lighter, it makes the rest sound that much heavier.â
Were you listening to bass players outside of rock? Your sound had a bit of funk edge to it, especially on cuts like Juniorâs Eyes...
âSure, yeah. Iâve always loved bass guitar, especially soul and R&B. James Jamerson was a genius player. Tamla Motown and Stax produced some great session bass players. I still listen to that stuff now, and newer stuff, like Bruno Mars. Funkadelic was fantastic.â
How did you create the bass-line for Children Of The Grave?
âI just followed the guitar riff. Tony started the track with a galloping riff and I followed that throughout the song. We always jammed songs until we were satisfied with how we wanted them arranged. Iâd usually keep the first few ideas that I had.â
You guys tuned down to C# for Master Of Reality in 1971. Did you do that to make the sound heavier?
We tuned down to ease the pressure on Tony's severed fingers. Light gauge strings were hard to come by, so tuning down was the only way
âTony started tuning down to ease the pressure on his severed fingers, because it was just bloody killing him, yâknow? Light gauge strings were hard to come by back then, so tuning down was the only way to go. I tuned my bass down so as not to cause confusion when we were deciding what key a song would be in.â
What tuning do you use now?
âD, C and C#, depending which suits Ozâs voice. I usually take eight or nine basses on tour. Three main, three backups, one for the dressing room and one spare.â
You played some amazing licks on Vol. 4 in â72 but theyâre difficult to make out in the mix. What happened?
âThat album was very badly produced, as far as I was concerned. Our then-manager insisted on producing it, so he could claim production costs. Those first albums have grown on me over the years, but at the time it was so different. I wasnât happy with the bass sound, ever. I never could capture that live sound in the studio.â
What gear were you using on those early tours?
âLaney 4x12 cabs and 100W guitar amps. I had a Fender P-Bass, Dan Armstrong bass and then the John Birch and Jaydee custom basses.â
(Image: Â© Dick Wallis/REX/Shutterstock)
How were Jaydee and Birch customising for you?
âThey built short-scale basses to my specs. I actually had the first guitar with crosses on the fretboard! Tony liked the idea and had a guitar made with crosses on his fretboard too. I loved the look of those basses, and still have them now.â
In early clips you played all fingerstyle, sometimes low near the bridge and other times high on the neck, even bashing the strings with your fist now and then. Did you ever use a pick?
I still play really hard with my fingers but I donât bash about as much, especially since Iâve got arthritis in my thumb
âOnly occasionally, if I had blisters on my fingers, or when the skin was sensitive from playing so much. On my solo G/Z/R albums I used a pick on some tracks to give a more aggressive sound. Also, a couple of songs were so fast, I had to use a pick to distinguish the notes. I used one on Children Of The Sea, I believe. I still play really hard with my fingers but I donât bash about as much, especially since Iâve got arthritis in my thumb. I take care of my hands a lot better these days.â
Your tone on Heaven And Hell (1980) is massive. What were you doing in the studio?
âI was using my full stage rig, six cabinets and six amp heads! I didnât know any better and it was the age of excess. All that and it still took weeks to get the right sound. Martin Birch was producing, and he helped. Ronnieâs friend Craig Gruber put bass on Die Young, but apart from that, everything else was mine.â
That line on the title track - youâre not following Tony there. How did you come up with that?
The bass part for Heaven And Hell was actually written by Geoff Nicholls
âThe bass part for Heaven And Hell was actually written by the keyboard player, Geoff Nicholls. I liked it so much, I didnât feel the need to change the verse parts. On that album Iâd follow Tonyâs riff to make some parts heavier, but then Iâd go off on tangents. I had been out of the band a while and came back in really fresh and wanting to prove myself again. Also, since I was hearing the whole album for the first time, it gave me another perspective as opposed to hearing it a hundred times a day over the previous year.â
Mob Rules (1981) has even more bite than Heaven And Hell
âThatâs right, yeah. The bass sound was by mistake! We were on tour and needed to write for the next LP, so we booked John Lennonâs studio in his house. It wasnât long after he died, actually. They had this obscure, battered old Italian bass amp. I have no idea what it was, but I plugged it in and got this really great raw sound. We used it on the Heavy Metal soundtrack and it took me ages to get that sound again for the LP.â
Your bass had a really wicked grit on those tours
âWe started from scratch, really. I was using JBL 12 and 15 speakers in huge PA cabs, Crown amps with Alembic preamps and custom BC Rich basses.â
(Image: Â© Fotex/REX/Shutterstock)
What was that BC Rich you played at Live Aid in 1985?
âThe Ironbird! That thing was impossible! Itâs got a really spiky body and I whacked my thumb right on the point. Never played it again. Still got it, though. Iâve got all the basses Iâve used over the years. Iâve still got my Paranoid bass, the Heaven And Hell bass, the California Jam bass. Most everything, really. I donât have the bass from the first record because we swapped it for the one I used on Paranoid.â
Then everything changed for Born AgainâŠ
[It's] Tony, Ozzy, Bill and me. I rather like the Ronnie James Dio era too. Everything else I donât really consider Sabbath
â[Groans] I donât even like to think about that album. To me thereâs only one true Sabbath and thatâs Tony, Ozzy, Bill and me. Thatâs the ultimate true Sabbath. But I rather like the Ronnie James Dio era too. Everything else I donât really consider Sabbath.â
You say 13 is the first time youâve ever truly captured your bass sound on record. How did you go about working with Rick Rubin to do that?
âWhen Sabbath reformed, I went back to my old way of playing fingerstyle because I wanted 13 to sound as close to our first three records as possible. But the engineer, Greg Fidelman, is the one who captured it. Rick told him what he wanted and he made it happen. It was a mixture of an original 1969 Ampeg 8x10 bass rig, an Ampeg Heritage 8x10, and various plugins. I also used a Bill Nash P-Bass as well as my Laklands.â
Damaged Soul is as strong as anything in the Sabbath catalogue
âThat was a last-minute add-on. We used to jam for an hour to loosen up before we recorded anything, and that was an 18-minute jam that was luckily recorded. We tried to cut it properly but it didnât have the same feel, so we edited the long version down to around eight minutes, added vocals and harmonica, and voilĂ !â
Have you ever considered returning to Sabbathâs roots for a blues project?
The follow-up to 13 was going to be a blues album, but the tour got in the way
âThe follow-up to 13 was going to be a blues album, but the tour got in the way. It would take something like two or three years to do it properly, and we thought we might not all be here by that time, so it would be better to do this final tour first and then maybe weâll do a blues record later.â
If you did it jam style it wouldnât take that long to do blues?
âProbably not. Youâd have to make it varied instead of doing 10 tracks of the same old 12-bar blues though. But even back in the Heaven And Hell tour days, Tony would go up into his lead and we would just jam around blues riffs for eight or nine minutes. And every night was different. So that is a thought.â
(Image: Â© Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock)
What does it take to do a tour like this in 2017?
âLots of sleep, many cups of tea, some B-12 shots now and then. I donât drink any more or do any kind of drugs.â
Live you can stretch out and try new things. Sometimes it works and other times it doesnât, but it keeps it fresh
How would you have answered that question in 1972?
âCocaine. Cocaine... (pause and laugh) Cocaine.â
What sort of warm-up do you do pre-show?
âSome runs, maybe a song or two, depends on my mood. Blues, a lot. And Iâm still writing new stuff quite a bit.â
What song still gives you a thrill to play after all these years?
âAh, Dirty Women. Itâs different every night so thereâs lots of room to improvise.â
Is there a temptation to revise or update parts as time goes by?
âI donât exactly play the runs off the first albums. Those were done in such a short amount of time. You only had one take in the old days so you played it safe, basically, pardon the pun. Live you can stretch out and try new things. Sometimes it works and other times it doesnât, but it keeps it fresh.â
Whatâs your favourite bass-line from the classic era?
âProbably After Forever.â
You always come off as very humble about your role. Why do think youâre considered such an innovator?
We always stuck to what we believed in. Sabbath was turned down by six record companies before we got a deal
âI donât know! It's kind of a hard question to answer, really. I think itâs because we always stuck to what we believed in. Sabbath was turned down by six record companies before we got a deal. But we stuck to what we wanted to play and refused to change. I think the honesty comes over in our music.â
Nearly 50 years in, do you have any regrets?
âNo, life always has ups and downs. Iâm thankful I was able to have a life, as I think all life is miraculous and sacred.â
What will you do once the final show is done?
âI have no idea. Watch a bit of football, I suppose? I might not play music publicly but Iâll always be writing and Iâll still play every day. Itâs my hobby as well as my career. I still love to collect guitars - and I still love playing bass.â