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Bill Ward: Ironing Out The Devil’s Metal

bill ward

“We didn’t have the big bass drum microphones at that time, so we used these very thin direct mikes that picked up a pinpoint sound on the batter head and didn’t give a lot of strength to the kick. All that air pushing through was lost. But I played very loud for that album, and to be honest with you that was more of a curse than a blessing. I didn’t know how to play quiet. I had no finesse. Sometimes the sound of the snare gets flattened out because I’m hitting it so hard. Had I played a little quieter the sensitivity of the snare might have come through better. I’m completely overextended and going nuts like I’m on stage. Playing with finesse and working with a microphone was not my forte at that time.”

Sabbath’s first (self-titled) album was recorded in a single session. The band basically filled a cramped studio and ran through their live set. Similarly, Paranoid was recorded in just a few days. Much of it was live tracking, and the feeling of urgency rushes throughout the album. The band took different approaches on future albums, as their experience and budgets grew exponentially, and currently Ward tends to labor for years on producing an album of solo material. It’s been a battle of spontaneous versus meticulous for many years.

“I think both spontaneity and being meticulous work for me. Spontaneity is exactly what I have in drumming. However, I will give myself the luxury of reviewing my spontaneity to see if it works. I have to be very careful to protect the spontaneity even if it’s not perfect. If it hits me in the gut, then I’m not going to throw it away.

“If you have the songs well-rehearsed, you can go in and record live as a band and capture that atmosphere. And I think atmosphere is half of the record. A great example of that is ’Please Please Me’ by the Beatles. It’s a very straightforward record, but you can feel that atmosphere still today and it sets a time and a tone and a place. I think when you have that you have a lot. It’s almost show stopping.

“Sabbath in those times didn’t really have a giant studio budget, and I think that was a good thing. A lot of the times, once the basic tracking was down, Tony was pretty much left in the studio to double-track while Ozzie and I were two doors down at the pub. And I don’t feel good about saying that.”

Master And Student

There are no minor chords for drums. While that seems an obvious and maybe oversimplified statement, it also raises a question that can be difficult to answer: How does one play drums darker? When Sabbath makes a conscious effort to darken their music, what kinds of stylistic changes does that require from the drummer?

“I react to the music. So I don’t play drums as one would play drums. I react. If Tony would play say five or six notes very loud, then I would react to that with crash cymbals and going immediately to my floor tom. I do a lot of work on floor toms. It’s a leap forward from Gene Krupa’s ’Sing, Sing, Sing’ to the song ’Black Sabbath.’ I’m playing music that I felt enriched the sound. It was a pure reaction.

“Keep in mind that we were influenced by dynamic music from the very beginning. And that obviously went into Sabbath’s music as well. In the actual song ’Black Sabbath,’ there is no time. One can’t sit behind a kit of drums and play that song unaccompanied because it doesn’t have any rhyme or reason. It doesn’t have any time. The whole thing just hangs there.” ‹

It does literally hang there in all its frightful glory as Ward yanks the emotion from each shell and bell. While countless bands credit Black Sabbath as their inspiration and major influence, Ward’s unique style of heavy, mean, dynamic drumming has never been duplicated. His playing is a painstaking display of change and contrast: angry yet loose, powerful yet reactionary, rhythmic yet melodic. And still, even after all his success, the humble (to the unfortunate point of uncomfortable) Ward continues to find himself at the mercy of his instrument.

“About 16 years ago, I reached a point where I was really battling with myself as a drummer. I realized that I couldn’t actually play drums in the sense of keeping a straight time or beat. It even got to the point on my first solo album that I recruited other drummers to come in and play parts for me. I didn’t seem to have the ability to play drums to my own music. And these drummers came in and nailed in two takes what had taken me weeks to try to figure out.

“I began to realize that I wasn’t one of those real drummers — what I consider a real drummer — that comes in, counts to four, then knows exactly where they’re going. It dawned on me that I might be more of an orchestral drummer than an actual timekeeper. I’ve always been impatient with keeping time, and everything I play is about force and energy and a commitment to that one-second of now.

“So I really lost my identification as a percussionist. That’s when I ended up going to Roy Burns to take lessons. I went there with the serious and severe hope to learn notes and actually learn to play drums just like everybody else learns. I was about 40 years old at the time and was finally making the step that I thought I should’ve made when I was seven or eight years old. And I failed miserably. I got stuck on the eighth-notes. I really tried, and I practiced every day, but I just couldn’t interpret eighth-notes. I just couldn’t do it.

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