Much like Stonehenge, Black Sabbath’s first six albums are heavy, monolithic, came out of nowhere, are getting pretty old now, yet remain awesome. Yet in my extensive archaeological studies Black Sabbath wig–out sessions, I have found the two most antiquarian entities to be the most impressive; by which I mean, Sabbath’s first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid, are their best. A common trait of these two is the superior construction of their base…by which I mean, bass. Guitar. Sabbath’s first two albums have a distinctly different style of bass playing on them to that on the albums that would follow, and these are the two albums I’m going to focus on. As great as Master of Reality, Vol. 4, Sabotage and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (especially Sabbath Bloody Sabbath) are, there are only traces of the creativity that mark out the bass lines on Black Sabbath and Paranoid.
Before this begins to sound like I’m trying to give Geezer Butler a bad name, Butler is the original heavy metal bass guitarist, and one of the guys who invented heavy metal, so he could teach me a thing or two. However, it is observable that he simplified his style between Paranoid and Master of Reality, sticking to root notes and occasional arpeggios from the latter onwards. But on their first two albums, influenced by Cream’s Jack Bruce, armed with a Fender P Bass, standard tuning, finger style and the occasional use of wah and distortion, Butler’s creativity is close to Tony Iommi’s. Sabbath never had a second guitarist, and the space that this left, combined with Bill Ward’s jazz–influenced, behind–the–beat drumming, allowed Butler to play counter–melodies and lines independent of the guitar riff, (Evil Woman, The Warning at 4.49), take charge in times of guitar solos (Black Sabbath, NIB ) and play with tempo (Sleeping World ). His signature is perhaps interesting plodding; an oxymoron to be sure! I hear you cry. But Butler makes it not so, Black Sabbath and War Pigs being two excellent examples. Overplaying would have been very easy to do, and I think had I been in his position I think a lot of bass guitarists, including myself, would have fallen into that trap. Instead, the space allows War Pigs its 6/4 lumber, Behind The Wall Of Sleep its swing, and the yearning of Planet Caravan is in part created by the undistracted, repetitive bass line, barring a few minor variations. That said, when it does come to time to rip the frets up, he certainly can, leading Sleeping World with a fast charge at 2.00 and a moon–jump of a slow down at 3.10, some free–flowing lines underneath the guitar 3.40 into War Pigs, and moving and grooving on Fairies Wear Boots. The inventive approach in the latter is astonishing; where does a bluesy guitarist turned bass guitarist, without any formal music education, come up with a walking bass line? He walks 8 bars on a single chord 3 times (A, B and C#, if you were wondering), and on another (G) for another 12 bars, when he could have easily stayed on root notes.
Sometime it’s easy to be convinced that there’s only one kind of bass line for certain types of music, and that the line that fits easiest is the only possible one. Every time I listen to these two albums, I’m reminded that this is a lie. Tony Iommi may be the iron man, the inventor of heavy metal, but Geezer proved its lack of limitations. He is the wizard.