Known for holding down the low-end for Black Sabbath, Terence “Geezer” Butler is usually busy with his band GZR whenever the Sabs go into stasis. A quartet with a sound more modern than Sabbath, GZR recently released Ohmwork (Sanctuary). Butler is originally from Birmingham, England, and like many bassists, he started as a rhythm guitarist.
“I had my first guitar when I was 11, and it took me two years to figure out how to put my finger on the string to change the notes,” he said with a laugh. “After I discovered that, there was no looking back! I started out on a Rosetti, and progressed to a Höfner. The very first bass I had was a thing called a Top Twenty, which no one had ever heard of – and I haven’t seen one since. I exchanged that for my first Fender Precision. All of the paint had been taken off of it. In those days, if you had an old bass, you either looked like you couldn’t afford a better one, or you weren’t serious. So I traded it in on a brand new Fender.”
The liner notes of 1972’s Black Sabbath Vol. 4 show Butler playing a short-scale Ampeg Dan Armstrong plexiglas bass, the acquisition of which happened by accident. “We were on tour in America, and had flown from Detroit to Toronto on a Sunday. When my bass came through customs, we found that someone had opened the case and smashed it with a hammer. I was panicky, because at the time there were no music shops open on Sunday. The promoter knew a guy who owned a shop, so he met me there, and the only reasonable thing he had was the Dan Armstrong. So I bought that and played it for a while.”
He also began a relationship with Birmingham builder John Birch, and his first acquisition was a solidbody, single-cutaway bass with crucifixes as fret inlay. Butler recalls that instrument as being an eight-string, and he had several other Birch-made instruments. He also used B.C. Rich basses.
The largest crowd Black Sabbath ever played for was the first California Jam, in 1974. Butler described the view from stage as “…like lookin’ at the sea. But once you get onstage, it’s really all the same whether it’s 10 people or 10 million.”
At that time, the band tuned to D. “You could only tune down so low before (the bass string) would start flopping all over the place,” Butler observed. “And it would depend on what bass I’d choose. That’s why I hardly ever use my vintage Fender these days.”
GZR’s first album was 1995’s Plastic Planet, followed by Black Science in ’97. As for the sound of the new album, Geezer tends to eschew a description of Ohmwork as “modern metal.”
“I wasn’t trying make it like some of the new metal or some of the extreme stuff,” he explained. “I just wanted more the album to have more of a hard rock feel than a metal feel. But it sounds modern in some ways.”
Some listeners, as should be expected, will be comparing GZR material to Black Sabbath, and the introductory riff to “Misfit” as well as the dirge-like “Alone” are fodder for such comparisons.
“That’s just my natural way of writing,” Butler said. “I’m not really conscious of doin’ it, and everybody who was in a band always gets compared later to the whole band, like McCartney always getting compared to the Beatles.”
One of Geezer’s favorite tracks is “I Believe,” which includes vocals by his son, Biff.
These days, Butler relies on a Lakland bass as his primary instrument, but the purchase of a vintage bass first called his attention to the new American brand.
“I was in London,” he recounted. “And I went down to the Bass Centre, because they had an all-original ’64 (Fender) Jazz Bass. As I was buying it, I noticed a Lakland; it looked well-made. I picked it up and plugged it in, and I loved the sound of it. I thought it sounded like an old Fender and had a really good tonal range, but it didn’t have the problems some old Fenders can have – parts, stayin’ in tune… I’d never heard of it, and the guy in the store said it was made in Chicago. When I got home, I called ‘em up. I think this was just before the Ozzfest 2000 tour, and they asked me if I could come to the factory; if not, they could bring one to me. They brought one to our gig in Chicago. I was playing Vigier basses at the time, which were great live, but I couldn’t use them in the studio because they were active, and so powerful. I was trying to get away from the active thing, and my Lakland’s passive. It has a pure sound, what I’d call a nice old growl.”
Ohmwork was recorded in a St. Louis studio near St. Louis Music, the wholesale distributor that owns several gear lines, including Ampeg. Butler acquired new Ampeg bass combos, and used a Line 6 Pod on a handful of settings. The album was being mixed as the lineup for this summer’s Ozzfest was finalized, and it included Black Sabbath. Accordingly, plans are being made for GZR to tour later this year and into early next year. Beyond that, Butler has plans for other songs written for Ohmwork to be used on future albums or posted on the band’s website.
Whether with GZR or Black Sabbath, Butler provides a distinct, always powerful low-end style.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.