Bill Ward: Ironing Out The Devil's Metal

bill ward

1968 in Aston, England. Four schoolboy friends make music together, trying to emulate the choppy British blues sounds of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers album. The music is loose and awkward with little direction — all hope and heart. But they keep after it because making a life out of music could be their only ticket away from the dismal future of working the factories in this small industrial town. So they keep plugging away, listening and playing and hoping. Eventually Tony’s guitar notes get darker, more ominous, pulling from the sinister side of Beethoven, Basie, Miles, and Wagner, until finally the session is halted with a question that would forever change the lives of those four schoolboys and the world over: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could scare people?”

And so the jazzy blues band Earth became the legendary Black Sabbath, and heavy metal music was born. The career of Black Sabbath would, throughout three decades, mimic the band’s dynamic and fearless sounds as the band endured both triumph and tragedy album after album, tour after tour. Equally mercurial is the musical life of drummer Bill Ward, who has persevered through a lifetime of addiction and distress, relying on his patented sound — part evil basher, part freeform lickster — to keep him on the Hall Of Fame side of life and away from the factories and funeral homes.

Today, Ward is clean and sober and finally mostly content with his life in California. While he still itches for just one more insane world tour with the Sabbath boys, he keeps busy by anguishing over his solo projects and reminiscing about some of those priceless moments he created with his schoolboy friends. He recalls the transitional moment from Earth to Sabbath with broken pieces of a distant memory, his thick British accent contrasting with his soft-spoken and reflective manner.

“Well, in 1968 is when I first recognized that Tony [Iommi] was tending to play darker notes. In Earth, we still continued to play jazz and blues because we were heavily influenced by British blues. The John Mayall Bluesbreakers album was one that we just sat down in ’67 or ’68 and listened to constantly. And me and Tony had been together since we were 16, then we were about 18 when we met up with Ozzie and Geezer, who were blues-based as well. And there were some jazz influences as well. Tony is an exceptionally good jazz player.

“All my life I’ve been attracted to powerful music — anything with dark, powerful, odd notes. So when Tony started playing some of those notes we were all immediately attracted to it. ’Wicked World’ was the very first song we ever wrote and Tony’s riffs were already quite dark, and it was extremely empowering and attracting.”

True creation often occurs under a cloak of naivete and such was the case with Ward and Sabbath. In fact, even as the band accepts its Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, it’s hard for Ward to grasp just how big this band is. “In the past 15 years, there’s been such an incredible movement of heavy metal music and a lot of credit has been given to what we did as Black Sabbath. So you hear all that and you think, ’Wow, I guess we did do something that was important.’ I mean, I knew that Sabbath was a big band. We were selling a lot of records all over the world, but I certainly wasn’t aware of anything we were accomplishing that would have the lasting effect that it has.

“I just thought we were having a great time. And it really just felt like we were standing in the center of something and couldn’t really see what it was. Tony was writing all these amazing riffs, and I was reacting to them. We were all just reacting to each other. And that was the world we felt. Then we’d go on stage and give it everything we had.”

A Paranoid Studio

There’s a photo of Bill Ward from 1971. He’s crouched behind a seemingly miniscule Ludwig kit, crammed into a corner with barely enough room to move his arms. There’s lots of hair and a little sweat, but overall it’s a very simple photo. Then you realize that is the kit he’s playing on the Paranoid sessions, and you immediately doubt your own eyes. It seems impossible that he created those powerful, unabashed drum riffs — although often tunefully jazzy — on such an understated outfit. But he did.

“I wish I knew where that kit was,” Ward laments. “It served its purpose. Those were very faithful drums.”

And he goes on to explain some of the studio process behind the infamous Paranoid album, including that vicious yet sensitive drum sound.

“Well, I played really hard. When we did Paranoid we’d been playing very loud for about three years as we toured Europe. We hadn’t got to the States yet, but that was just around the corner. So we were really slamming. I was just kicking the crap out of everything.

“And technology was at the point in the studio where you could put a couple mikes up and get a really loud sound. So I think that helped. We didn’t use room ambience, which I almost regret because that really brings the drums out in an enormous sound. So we were still close-miking the drums at that point. Whenever I listen to ’Iron Man’ or a couple other tracks on Paranoid, I’m a little disappointed that the drum sound is a little muffled and closed in. But that was our best shot at that moment in time.

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“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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“Then Roy gave me a really good piece of advice. He said, ’You know what, you can already play drums. Why don’t you just be Bill Ward, because you’ve been doing really well being Bill Ward.’ And he was right, and I feel like in the last ten years that I’m starting to get a footing on myself as a drummer. I feel like I’m getting there because I’ve gone through so many phases in drumming and so many phases within myself. The whole thing keeps changing all the time. It’s constant progress.”

The Devil Of Success

The concept of constant progression touches not only Ward’s drumming ability and expertise, but also his personal and professional goals and ideals.

“When I was ten years old, ’success’ was to be able to shake my ass like Elvis Presley, meet millions of girls, and have lots and lots of money. Then I found out that being in the music industry is hard work, and that concept took me by surprise because I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. I didn’t realize it required patience and a lot of other things that come with being a musician. In my teenage years, my idea of success was to be a pop star or rock star. I thought that was it. I thought that would fix it. If I had all that, I would be safe. Well, that did happen and I wasn’t safe.

“My idea of success now is to write a piece of music that is good music. I don’t look for accolades or financial rewards or prestige. All of the things I thought I wanted as a younger man have all become something different now. I measure another person now not by what he wears or what he has. I measure him by the way he acts. So I’ve learned to realize that there are all kinds of different people, and they’re just people. And it’s okay.”

Lessons learned from the pits of hell. The inner turmoil that Sabbath endured — together and apart — has been well documented. All the drugs and alcohol buried the group in a dense, bitter mud. Lifelong friendships were thrown away with the empty bottles. But in the end, after years of painful emotional and physical rehab, the four boys would reunite.

“We’ve always been kind enough to be caring towards each other, even when we disagreed. And I think that comes from doing a lot of time together. It was 1967 when we first started getting together. That’s a lot of time on the road, sleeping in the same beds, sharing music, sharing everything. When you have something like that and you’ve gone through a life that’s been so consuming — we just had us to help each other, we didn’t have psychiatrists, just us — you get each other through all the rough stuff. And that camaraderie and strength we built was enough to hold us together right up to today.

“I think also that all of us have gotten healthier as time has gone on. We don’t harbor resentments, and there have been a lot of behind-the-scenes apologies. I think we’ve utilized the twilight years of our lives pretty well in order to give each other a bit of respect … and a hug.

“I have to feel comfortable with the guys I’m working with. I can’t hide away from the other musicians, because I have no place to go anymore. It used to be that I could go hide in a bottle, but I can’t do that now. I’m stone cold sober. So I have to insist that my relationships are strong. Otherwise, it’s not going to work. I stopped running away from me 23 years ago.

“One of the things that I’ve learned — and severely so — is that in Sabbath we really believed in what we were playing. And that’s why we could get through the rough stuff — the months and months on the road and a lot of different things. I think it’s important that musicians who have any reservations towards their music and who plan to go out on the road should really take heed. Beware. That stuff will pull you down pretty quickly. If you’re not your real self on the road, then it doesn’t take long to collapse. It’s important to be as true to yourself as possible with whatever you’re doing.

“A lot of people ask me what was the best gig we did and stuff like that. And most people think it would be the biggest gig with the millions of dollars where the band played great and all that. It really has nothing to do with that at all. The best gigs we ever did were when we were really tired, we hadn’t eaten, half of us were sick with the flu, and really we just wanted to go home and lie in bed for a month. But instead we were in a place where it was snowing outside and very cold. And we’d be sitting on our couches backstage, and I’d look around and everyone’s either asleep or dying.

“Then about 20 minutes before stage time our roadie would come in and say, ’Twenty minutes lads.’ And we’d all get up begrudgingly and pick up a guitar, or I’d pick up my sticks — just really slow and tired. Then as soon as we stepped on stage, it was as if none of that existed. I’ve seen that band go up on stage and absolutely kill the place like there was nothing on earth wrong whatsoever and then come back and literally collapse backstage.

“Now that’s a good band. That’s how you measure a good band. Nobody was whining. Nobody was saying they couldn’t take it anymore. We just got up and played and then collapsed again. That’s what we learned to do. And because of that, I’m really proud of our band and really proud to be part of a band like Black Sabbath.”

Wards Traps

bill ward

Circa 1970
Ludwig Drums (Gray Ripple finish): 14" LM 400 Series Snare, 22" x 14" Bass Drum, 10" x 9" Tom, 18" x 16" Floor Tom. Zynn Cymbals: 14" Hi-Hats, 18" Crash Ride, 20" Crash Ride. Hardware: Ludwig.

bill ward

Circa 1980
Tama Drums (except otherwise noted): 14" Ludwig 600 Series Snare, 26" Bass Drums, Octobans, 4" Tom, 6" Tom, 8" Tom, 10" x 9" Tom, 12" x 10" Tom, 12" Tom, 15" Tom, 22" Gong Drum, 18" Floor Tom, 20" Floor Tom. Cymbals (various manufacturers): 15" Hi-Hats, 22" China (upside down), 20" Crashes. Hardware: Tama. Pedals: Ludwig Speed King.

bill ward

Circa 2005
Tama Imperialstar Drums (except otherwise noted): 14" x 8" Sonor Snare, 26" x 14" Bass Drums, 20" Gong Drum,14" x 5" Sonor Snare, 6" Octobans, 14" Toca Timbale, 15" Tom, 16" x 16" Floor Tom, 18" x 16" Floor Tom, 14" x 8" Snare. Sabian Cymbals: 14" AA Sizzle Hi-Hats, 24" HH Powerbell Ride, 14" AA Mini Chinese, 22" AA Medium Ride, 24" HH Powerbell Ride, 22" AA Brilliant Rock Crash, 10" HH Splash, 27" HH Chinese (with one rivet), 26" Brilliant Prototype Chinese.