Geezer’s riffs

Posted on August 31, 2017

An interview I did with Geezer Butler. Written for Bass Player, 1992.  BEFORE THE GROOVE there was the riff. And lo, in the year 1969, the riff was cast in metal, and it was made heavy, and it was exceeding loud. And Geezer Butler did walk from the dry-ice and he did put aside his rhythm guitar. And Geezer did take up the bass guitar. And Geezer begat Black Sabbath, and they did come up with many classic heavy riffs.

Geezer snaps his fingers and laughs. It’s 1992, and he’s sitting in his home studio in Birmingham, England. It’s clear that although Geezer speaks most distinctly through a bass guitar on stage with Black Sabbath, he’s more than willing to talk to me about the past, present, and future of one of the world’s longest-running and most original metal bands.

He’s explaining that a metal riff – or groove, if you will – is much more `blunt’ than other rock styles. “It doesn’t flow as easily as rock stuff or pop stuff. It’s sort of disjointed. To me it’s always had an avant-garde sort of feel that … isn’t avant-garde. Organised chaos,” he says with a laughs and a shrug. “But the riff always comes first,” he emphasises, “and then we base the whole thing around that.”

When Black Sabbath formed in Birmingham in 1969 the band found themselves poised at the birth of the British metal scene. “We were all into Cream and Hendrix at the time, and Zeppelin were a big influence as well,” Geezer says. “We were a more basic version of those, sort of. We didn’t realise our sound was that much different to everybody else’s.”

It was. They were brash, un-schooled, and exciting. They came together at first under the name Earth. Back in 1968, Geezer was simply rhythm guitar player Terry Butler, in a band called The Rare Breed. Their singer was John Osbourne, later known as Ozzy. Chickens still slept easily in their coops, heads firmly attached. One day in ’68, Butler and Osbourne went on the look-out for someone to play drums for their new band. They called round at guitarist Tony Iommi’s house to see if he knew any good drummers – and they found Bill Ward there. The four became Earth. Ward pointed out that he wouldn’t play with guitarists other than Iommi, so Butler moved happily to bass. Geezer had a Fender Telecaster, but he couldn’t afford a bass as well. So at first he tuned his Tele as low as it would go while still sounding a note, and played bass lines on that. Then a friend lent him a Hofner violin bass, and eventually he part-exchanged his Tele for a Precision.

Earth played 12-bars and were much the same as many amateur blues bands of the time, playing as many clubs and pubs as would have them. But they discovered that there was a local pop group also called Earth, so they had to change their name. Geezer suggested Black Sabbath (after a horror film of 1963) and this became not just the new name for the band but also the title of a song that they’d just written.

‘Black Sabbath’ was miles away from their normal blues material. It had a doom-laden atmosphere, heightened by crude, spare riffing, spine-tingling vocals, and horror-comic-book lyrics. Here in prototype was the shape of Sabbath’s future success. Geezer remembers the reaction that this blatantly new style caused in their normally blasé audience. “Incredible! There were a million blues bands around at the time which they’d go and see, they’d have a few pints – it was just background music, really. When we played `Black Sabbath’ everybody just stopped dead. And then they went mental. We started writing more stuff like that, and began to build up a big following.”

After their debut album in 1970, Black Sabbath made seven more LPs with that original line-up. Ozzy Osbourne split in 1979, with Ronnie James Dio filling the void, and when drummer Ward left soon afterwards his place was taken by Vinnie Appice. The Butler/Iommi/Dio/Appice line-up called it a day in 1982, reforming briefly with Ian Gillan on vocals for a one-off album in ’83. Tony Iommi was the only original member in a new 1986 version of Sabbath with a range of musicians including bassists Gordon Copley, then Dave Spitz, and finally Neil Murray. Their last album [at the time of writing, 1992] was Tyr in 1990.

Now [1992 … OK?], back on friendly terms, the Butler/Iommi/Dio/Appice line-up have reformed, recording the new Dehumanizer album released this year which boasts a brace of blasting tracks recalling all the power and verve of the group’s highly rated original triumvirate of classic metal LPs: Black Sabbath (1970), Paranoid (1970) and Master Of Reality (1971). On 1992’s Dehumanizer the Sabs sound as fiery and mighty as ever, especially on riff-fuelled powerhouses like ‘Letters From Earth’ and ‘Buried Alive’. And in this newly reformed line-up, as much as in earlier days, it’s Geezer or guitarist Iommi who come up with that precious metal turnkey, The Riff.

“That’s why we play a lot together, me and Tony,” Geezer says. “On most Sabbath things, whatever the bass does the guitar does, and whatever the guitar does the bass does. It’s like one overall sound – and that probably happened more by accident than anything, because I couldn’t think of anything else to play,” he says with a laugh.

Accident or not, a good new riff needs to measure up to a crucial if obvious Sabbath rule: everyone in the band has to like it. “We’ve got hundreds of tapes with riffs on. The hardest part is for the four of us to sit down and go yeah, that’s a good riff. And it’s hard to come up with fresh sounding riffs. We’re lucky because we’ve got a sort of trademark sound, but for unknown bands to try to come up with something completely different and not sounding like a Sabbath riff or a Zeppelin riff or something else, that’s really hard.”

Which leads to a consideration of the déjà vu syndrome, that nagging feeling that you’ve actually heard this riff somewhere before … but can’t quite place it. Geezer relates a classic case. “I think it was on the Never Say Die album (1978). We came up with this great riff, and everybody was saying yeah, this is brilliant. And I kept thinking, I’m sure I know this from somewhere – but it’s probably that I just think I’ve heard it before. And then it just so happened I went back home that weekend and one of the albums I was listening to was by Aerosmith. I put it on and … out came the same riff. I think it was ‘Back In The Saddle’. The riff we’d come up with was actually an Aerosmith riff! So that was like a whole week wasted.” He laughs long and hard now at the memory, but I bet the band weren’t amused at the time.

“A really great riff is one that’s ultra-simple,” Geezer says. “We all know about that from Zeppelin riffs, and from that first song we wrote, ‘Black Sabbath’. Three notes. Sounds dead easy to come up with something like that, but it’s the hardest thing in the world.”

Geezer should know, because Sabbath have in their time been guilty of the deadly sin of over-complication. “In one way that was why we split with Ozzy. On the Never Say Die album he thought we were trying to over-complicate everything, doing riffs just so that people would go oh wow man! How d’you play that? And we were too complicated, now I look back on it. Ozzy was saying: I can’t sing on that stuff. And he was right. You can get carried away. You think well, we did what we did on the last album, so let’s take it one stage further on this one. And the more you try and better yourself musically from the last album, the more you lose the spirit of what you started out doing.”

In his early days of tackling the solid riffs at the very heart of the Sabbath sound, Geezer remembers his bass playing as what he calls learning by numbers. “I don’t read music or anything so I didn’t have a clue of how to learn a bass by a book. You couldn’t really get a book then, as far as I could see. There weren’t any chord progressions or anything to go by, so I just sort of made everything up. Mainly I made the bass go around the riff of the song.”

It’s probably just as well Geezer didn’t find any tutor books, because they would undoubtedly have told him that you don’t play bass through effects – which would have meant the loss of his wah-wah bass on ‘NIB’ on the Sabs’ debut album. The inspiration for this great moment in interrupted interface turns out to be not so much experimental as practical. “When we used to do gigs then, we only had about six or seven numbers, so I used to do a bass solo before ‘NIB’ just to lengthen it out. So I did it in the studio, too. I’d never seen anyone using wah-wah on bass before. And of course we never understood then about things like the wah-wah bringing the bass down in volume. Coming from pub gigs you don’t think about how things like that will affect the sound in the studio. And I think we were the first band the producer had ever done.”

The first Sabbath album, recorded in one day at Regent Studio in central London, still has remarkable charm and atmosphere, 22 years after the event. “Yeah, I think it still stands up,” Geezer says with a nod. “Actually a lot of bands try and recreate that sound now,” he says, laughing. “Unbelievable really, isn’t it?”

Probably the band’s best known piece is ‘Paranoid’, the title track of their second album. But it wasn’t even planned for the record. Geezer remembers they had an hour of studio time left and thought they’d finished the record. But the producer decided they needed one more track for what at this stage was intended to be called the War Pigs album. The band replied, no doubt politely and with good grace, that they didn’t have any more songs and could they go home now please? To which the producer replied, “You’ve got an hour: think of something.”

Geezer remembers what happened in that hour. “We made up ‘Paranoid’. I whizzed off the lyrics to it – Ozzy was saying, ‘What the bloody hell does paranoid mean?’ Tony came up with all the music for it, and we jammed it off there and then, Ozzy singing the lyrics off the bit of paper I’d just written them on. It’s another example of how you can work and work and work at trying to think of incredible riffs and not get anywhere … but a producer says you’ve got an hour and you come up with something that’ll last probably more than all our others put together.”

We’ve said that simplicity can make a riff work. But undoubtedly of importance are the sounds used to play that riff, the undulating textures that varied combinations of instruments can create, and the particular choice of harmonies or unisons stacked together at different points during the riff’s journey through the song. Geezer declares most definitely that he hates getting sounds. He describes the studio-bound fiddling with amps and effects and mikes and leads as “the bane of me life”.

Geezer’s hatred of knob twiddling comes from the period around the Heaven & Hell album (1980) and, even more so, Mob Rules (1981), when he says he would drive himself bonkers by having to spend as much as four days getting one bass sound. “By that time I was deaf to the original sound. I was so far away from it after four days, me fingers were bleeding. That’s why on the new album I just let [Queen producer/engineer] Mack do it. I just plugged in and let him fiddle about with it. And it’s not a great bass sound on the album, but I didn’t want to spend hours and hours just to get a sound.”

Geezer’s been through a veritable arsenal of basses since he traded his original Telecaster for a Precision all those years ago. The Precision was kindly dealt with by some baggage handlers in Canada in the early 70s. “The case was completely undamaged, so we weren’t suspicious. We got to this gig on a Sunday, opened the case, and there was this completely wrecked bass inside. All the shops were closed, but the promoter knew this guy and he opened his guitar shop specially, and I picked up a plexiglass Dan Armstrong – the only thing I could get. So that was me second bass. I adopted that. It was great, I really liked it.”

Then that got stolen, but not before giving sterling service on the Master Of Reality tour and the Volume 4 album. “By then I’d learned to take more than one bass on tour,” Geezer says. “Tony used to have his guitars built by [Birmingham maker] John Birch at this time, because he used to have terrible difficulty getting hold of left-handed Gibsons. So he got John Birch to make him left-handed SG copies, and he made me two or three basses. I really like them, they were me first custom-made basses.” After that, Geezer had his basses built by another Birmingham maker, John Diggins, who’d worked for John Birch, and he made a number of Jaydee basses for Geezer until about 1978.

“Then I went on to BC Rich, up until about ’83, after that to Spector, and now [1992] I’m on Vigier. I tried Status basses as well, I like them too. The Vigiers are great for live work, great for studio work, got a nice clean sound but have a punch to them as well, plus they’re really lightweight, which I like. And all the strings are of equal volume, no matter where I play. With a lot of bass guitars I’ve found the E-string is really loud, and the G is half that volume, no matter what you do to the pickups or anything. For example, with the Spector, the E and A dominated the D and G.”

Do the looks of a bass make a difference to what he chooses? “As long as it’s black,” he says with a grin. “It’s got to be within reason. BC Rich made me this Ironbird bass, such a weird shape. Because I was using BC Rich, he made it for me, so I couldn’t say no or anything. It had the cross inlays, Sabbath logo on the body … it was the first one he’d done of that shape. I used it when we did Live Aid and I tell you, I nearly crippled meself using that pissing thing. I used to do a windmill, you know? Like Pete Townshend, bash me strings, and I hit one of them points on the BC Rich. My whole hand went completely numb! I had to use me little finger to finish the song off – and all in front of 50 million people or whatever it was. So I never even look at weird-shape basses any more.”

What he does like, however, is distortion. “With bass,” Geezer says, “if you have a nice, clean, thin, modern sort of sound, it sounds terrible with a real heavy riff. Which is another reason why I have trouble getting a bass sound in studios, because engineers are used to all these pop bands and stuff where the bass end is so thin it’s unbelievable. Then I come in and say it’s not distorted enough, and they say what do you mean? You’re not supposed to have a distorted bass sound. They just don’t understand. With Sabbath it just has to have distortion to make it really thick.”

Does it ever amaze Geezer that Black Sabbath are still going, despite one or two breaks? How much longer can it go on? He laughs out loud again. “They’ve been asking us that since 1969! No idea. Every tour I do I say well, that’s the last one. I could make albums from now until forever, but I don’t like touring, I must admit. Specially now. I mean, you think you’re not getting old, until you go out on tour. It used to be the other way around, I used to hate the studio and love being on tour. Now I’ve got me little studio here at home, and I love it. I just love playing here with all me little gadgets.”