Geezer Butler on Black Sabbath's early days, the making of 13 and which album has the worst bass sound

Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath
(Image credit: Future)

In the world of hard rock and metal bass, you’d be hard pressed to find a player who doesn’t regard Geezer Butler as a giant of the genre.

And while most of us are familiar with Geezer’s deep, bluesy bends, his nimble fingerboard acrobatics, and his downright gargantuan tone, few are as familiar as Rob Blasko.

Spending the last decade backing Ozzy Osbourne on his solo albums and tours, Blasko is a Sabbath scholar on another level. So when the opportunity arose for the two bass brothers to talk shop, we jumped at the chance. Ahead of the release of 13, the first new album from Sabbath since 1995— and the first with Osbourne on vocals since 1978’s Never Say Die!—Blasko and Butler met up to talk tone, technique, and tools of the trade.

How did it feel, after so many years, to work with Ozzy and Tony on new material?

I’ve been working with Tony since we did Heaven & Hell together, so we’ve been doing it since 2005. When the three of us got together, it was fantastic— it’s like the magic was back. Everything fell into place. Nobody else sounds like us when we’re together.

We did try in 2001 to do an album, and it just didn’t work. Ozzy was doing his television show. We’d rented a house to do the record, and we were all stuck in a house together, driving each other nuts. It just didn’t feel right—it was too forced.

This time, for some reason, we just knew it was going to work. It’s sort of now or never, because we’re not going to be around much longer! [Laughs.] The difference this time is that Tony had two or three albums worth of riffs. The three of us got together to listen to them, and we just knew that we had some good stuff to start working on. That made a lot of difference.

Did you go back to listen to the old records for inspiration?

We got together with [13 producer] Rick Rubin at Kid Rock’s house in Malibu. He had us listen to the first album, which none of us had listened to for about 30 years.

When this process started we had [drummer] Bill Ward with us, so there were the four of us, listening to the first thing that we had done together. It was really weird! The four of us hadn’t listened to it together since back when we recorded it in 1969. It was like listening to it for the first time.

We realized it wasn’t really heavy metal— it had a lot of blues to it. Each song was different from the other; there were a lot of different colors and flavors. Rick said that was the feel he wanted us to get on the new album, so that gave us the direction to go in.

What we learned from listening to that first record was how basic it was. On the first three albums, there were no keyboards or any of the experimental stuff we did later on. We wanted to capture that live feel again, and that’s why Rick insisted we listen to our first album. He told us he didn’t want a typical heavy metal album. So it was about re-learning the blues approach. And I think fans of the first three albums are going to like this one.

You did that first record in just a matter of hours.

We did it in two days. We’d just come off playing a gig, and we happened to stop off at the studio on our way to do a residency in Switzerland. We played it like a live gig.

Rubin got the four of you in a room together to work on new music, which is something you hadn’t done for years and years.

Yeah. Before this, Ozzy had a lot of distractions— he was doing his TV show and solo albums, as well. But this time, he was really into it. We all had suggestions for the music, and Ozzy and I collaborated on the lyrics together, like we used to in the old days.

Are your basslines always inspired by a song’s riff , or does it sometimes work the other way around?

Practically always, I’m following Tony’s riffs, unless it’s something that I’ve written, like “N.I.B” or “Behind the Wall of Sleep.” On the new album— and about 95% of what we’ve done—the bass part is centered around Tony’s riff s.

On the new album, there are two tracks that came together purely as jams in the studio, with one take. What we’d do is jam together for about an hour in the studio, before we’d record the song we were there to work on.

This particular song [untitled as of press time], we were jamming and Rick said, “That is absolutely great—you’ve got to do that one!” We said, “What do you mean? It’s just a jam.” It was 18 minutes long, so Rick told us to pick out parts and make a seven-minute version of it. We did, but it just didn’t sound right. We couldn’t get that same feeling. So he edited his own version of it. Then Ozzy put vocal and harmonica on it, and we were like, “Yeah, that sounds really good.” We didn’t really even remember playing it! [Laughs.]

There’s an acoustic track on the album called “Zeitgeist.” For that, Tony was fiddling around with an acoustic that Taylor Guitars had just sent him, and Rick asked him, “What’s that?” Tony was just trying the guitar out. Rick said, “Put bass on it, Geez.” I didn’t even know what he was playing! I was just watching the chords Tony was playing, making it up as we went along. And it worked.

How did Rick Rubin get involved?

For years, he’s told us, “If there is ever another Black Sabbath album, I want to produce it.” When we tried in 2001, we went to Rick with the songs we had written. But as we played them for him we realized it was a lot of crap. [Laughs.] He was up to working on it, but we knew it just wasn’t up to standard.

This time, we were writing at Ozzy’s studio. He’d come down, lie on the couch and listen and either go, “Yes” or “No.” He’d leave after about ten minutes, and we’d have to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. When we were tracking, we’d do a take, and he’d say, “Yeah, that was great. Do it again.” So we’d do about four or five takes. Ozzy was starting to get pissed off , because Rick would say things like, “That was brilliant! Do it again.”

Once we got a good take, he wouldn’t even give us a chance to listen to it. He’d have us stay there and do the next song. We’d work from 1pm to 6pm, and no matter what we were doing at 6pm, we’d stop. We’ve never worked that way—we thought it was nuts!

But he did a great job with Ozzy. That’s where I really saw how good he is. He kept Ozzy in his register, reminding him that everything he did in the studio, he’d have to do on the stage. Ozzy had gotten used to singing beyond his range, which is why we couldn’t do a lot of the later Sabbath stuff live.

Your performance at last year’s Download Festival was pretty epic. How was it from your vantage point?

It was strange when we first went on, because we didn’t expect so many people. I’ve played Download in the past, and usually there are around 60,000 people. But that day, it was 120,000. It took my breath away. It was overwhelming at first, but once we got into it, it was another gig.

How did you get your start as a player?

Originally I picked up rhythm guitar because I loved the Beatles—John Lennon in particular. I started off with a little acoustic guitar that my brother bought me. I eventually bought a Fender Telecaster, just to play along with Beatles tunes.

Then John Mayall and Cream came on the scene. When I went to see Cream, Jack Bruce absolutely blew me away. I had never really paid much attention to bass before that. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

I was in the Rare Breed with Ozzy at the time. Ozzy and I wanted to do music full time, but the other guys in the band didn’t. So we left and got together with Tony and Bill. I still had my Fender Telecaster, but Tony said, 'I don’t want to play with a rhythm guitarist—you’ll have to switch to bass.'

I had never played bass before, so I started really listening to what Jack Bruce was doing. I couldn’t afford a bass, so I’d tune my Telecaster down. Eventually, I bought a Top Twenty bass and played it through a Selmer amplifier. I borrowed a friend’s Höfner “Beatle” Bass on the way to one of our gigs, which was the first time I had ever played bass on stage.

As a guitarist, why didn’t you play bass with a pick?

Because I saw Jack Bruce play with his fingers, and I said, that’s the way you play bass. After we got the first gigs out of the way, I swapped my Telecaster for my first Fender Precision Bass.

Ozzy says that when he saw This Is Spinal Tap, he thought it was a real documentary. He didn’t get the humor in it, because it was so close to home. Are there any standout Spinal Tap-type moments from your time with Sabbath.

Oh, God. Too many to mention. One of our first American tours, we didn’t know we had to have backstage passes and all that, so when we got to the gig, the security guy wouldn’t let us in to our own gig. We had to get the police to escort us in.

How did you become one of Sabbath’s primary lyricists, and where did the lyrical themes come from?

We knew when we started that if we wanted to get anywhere, we’d have to write our own material. I think the first song we wrote together was “Wicked World,” and Ozzy came up with those lyrics. “Black Sabbath” was the second song. I was into the occult at the time.

One night—I don’t know if it was drugs or what—I woke up and saw this bloody shape at the bottom of the bed, staring at me. It totally freaked me out. I told Ozzy about it, and he used it for the lyrics. Then he just didn’t want to write any more. Everybody else was singing about love, and we just didn’t want to do that. With the heavy music, it just didn’t feel right.

“The Wizard” was based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Th e Lord of the Rings, which was a big thing at the time, and I had just read it. “N.I.B.” was about the devil falling in love.

Where does the band’s name come from?

At the cinema I used to go to, a film called Black Sabbath came through. I was too young to get in to see it, but I loved the title.

On Black Sabbath Vol. 4 [1972], you’re pictured playing a Dan Armstrong plexiglass bass.

I only used the plexiglass bass because we were on tour in America, somewhere between Detroit and Toronto, someone had opened the case of my Fender bass and smashed it to pieces. You could see the hammer marks.

It was a Sunday, and shops weren’t open, so we got in touch with the promoter, who had a friend who ran a music shop. He opened it up for us, but it was mostly cheap stuff . The only reasonable bass they had was the Dan Armstrong. That’s what I used on Vol. 4, which probably has the worst bass sound of any Sabbath record.

On the next tour, that bass was stolen. That’s when I started having custom Jaydee and John Birch basses.

At the 1974 California Jam festival, what is the white bass you played?

That was my first John Birch custom bass. After the Dan Armstrong bass was stolen, I got back to England and didn’t know what kind of bass to play, so I just had one made. Throughout the rest of the ’70s, I was using Birch and Jaydee basses. And by then we were tuning down as much as three semi-tones, so I needed to have custom instruments made. You couldn’t tune other basses like that.

By that time I had a whole PA setup as a rig, with Crown power amps and what I think was an Alembic preamp. Standing in front of it, it wasn’t that loud. But halfway out in the audience, it was deafening! We used to call those rigs Green Weenies, because they were green. The road crew hated me, because they were so heavy.

During Technical Ecstasy [1976] and Never Say Die [1978], you were known to play a Rickenbacker.

I actually only used the Rickenbacker on one show, and it was the one that was videotaped. It was the bass Glenn Hughes used in Deep Purple. I bought it just as a collector’s piece. We got to that Hammersmith gig, and I had completely forgotten to bring my basses with me. The only one I had with me was the Rickenbacker. I’m not sure why I even had that with me.

In the Heaven and Hell era [1980–81], with Ronnie James Dio fronting Black Sabbath, you played B.C. Rich basses.

When we were writing for those records, I just wasn’t happy with the bass sound I was getting. Somebody recommended B.C. Rich. I went down to the factory and met with [B.C. Rich founder] Bernie Rico. He made the basses for me himself. I really loved those basses—they had a great sound. It took me two weeks to get the studio bass sound for Heaven and Hell.

Your tone on Born Again [1983] is intense. What bass did you use for that?

I think I was using a Jaydee at that time. It was a neck-through bass, but it didn’t have a truss rod. By the end of tracking that record, it looked like a banana!

What’s your current setup?

Live, I’m using Harke Kilo amps with custom Hartke 4x12 and 2x15 cabinets—eight cabinets in all. In the studio I was using a combination of the Kilo, the studio’s 1969 Ampeg SVT and an Eclair Engineering Evil Twin direct box. I played everything cranked all the way up. I actually ended up blowing out the SVT, so we used the Kilo through the Ampeg cabinet to get that really distorted sound.

What are your favorite tracks on the record?

Now that I’ve heard them all back, “God Is Dead?,” and the blues jam—because I can’t even remember playing the bloody thing!

Fender, Dan Armstrong, Jaydee, Rickenbacker, B.C. Rich, Vigier, and now Lakland—what are you after in your bass choices?

I’m collecting—I collect guitars, as well. I’m after the perfect sound, and of course that’s a never-ending search.

I’ve always loved the sound of my first Fender, so I’m always trying to find that sound. I have nine or ten pre-CBS Fender Basses. They’re great at home or around the studio, but they won’t stay in tune on the road—they’re so temperamental. Plus, they’re terrible when you tune down. I like how well-made the Laklands are. Aside from sound, a bass needs to be well made to stand up to touring. Consistency is a thing, as well.

Nowadays, your basses are tuned CFBbEb. What do you do for strings?

DR Strings just made me a set of strings with a .115 low string. For a while, the thickest you could go would be .110, and then you’d jump all the way to a .120 for 5-string. These .115s are really good for C tuning.

You still use a wah when you play “N.I.B.” What other effects have you played with?

On Born Again, I used a one-off Yamaha pedalboard that had a bunch of different effects built into it. There are tons of bass effects on that album, but a lot of people think it’s keyboards.

I used Tony’s wah pedal on the first album, and I used a Tycobrahe wah pedal live. They went out of business, but there’s a firm in Chicago that’s making reproductions. Now, I’ve started using the Dunlop wah, and I really like it.

If you could change anything about what you’ve played or how you’ve sounded in Black Sabbath, would you?

Not so much what I’ve played, but I find the bass sound on Vol. 4 to be terrible. That album was when we’d discovered cocaine.

We also had a manager that ripped us off. He had taken all sorts of royalties and tour money, but he wanted to be a producer, as well. He didn’t have a clue how to get good sounds. And he kept us so coked out of our brains that we didn’t know any better.

Pulling some fan questions from social media, Ryan Beavers asks, “As Sabbath’s main lyricist, is there any one song that holds special meaning for you?”

It’s hard to say, but I know that Ozzy loves the lyrics for “Spiral Architect.” He’s always going on about how they’re his favorite lyrics of all time. So I suppose it would be that.

Sean Pelletier asks, “How hard was it to be vegan on tour back in the day?”

Bloody very hard! It was literally a baked potato every day. That’s what I lived on.

Joe Flores asks, “What was the first band you ever saw in concert?”

The Beatles, back in 1966 on their last tour. Problem is you couldn’t hear a thing because all the girls were screaming through the whole bloody set.

Ozzyrocks on Instagram asks, “With the music industry being what it is, do you think you’d have a chance of success in this day and age?

That’s impossible to say. There are so many bands around now, and the competition is ridiculous. It’s got to be so hard for a band to get known now.

Zachtheripper on Instagram asks, “What modern bands do you listen to?”

I don’t really listen to a lot, since I’ve rediscovered soul music by bands like Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic. The most recent heavy band that I like is Mastodon. I liked Black Mountain when they came out, but I haven’t heard from them in years. And I like the Band of Skulls album.

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