Analysis Of The Bill Ward Legacy

bill ward

It’s arguable as to whether Black Sabbath can be called the first metal band, since they were predated by other heavyweights like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Steppenwolf (who, after all, coined the phrase “heavy metal” in the song “Born To Be Wild”). But if they weren’t the very first, they would prove to be the prototype for generations of truly heavy metal bands (until the advent of speed metal, that is) by slowing down tempos, emphasizing the bass, and stripping away any semblance of blues.

If you buy into that logic, then Bill Ward is the genre’s first heavy metal drummer. In Sabbath’s early days, his drumming could be identified by his intense and direct approach to playing the songs, fueled by quick singles and a powerful right foot.

His drum sound was also influential, although it was diametrically opposed to that of his contemporary, John Bonham. Where Bonham had open, boomy, and at times overly resonant toms, Ward’s sound featured huge, detuned, and dead-as-a-doornail toms with lots more attack and low-end thud.

For this piece, we’ll set the way-back machine to the early ’70s and take a look at Ward’s drumming during Sabbath’s early and most influential years.

“Iron Man”

Paranoid
This song’s opening bass drum pattern and guitar riff is a classic. After all, what could be heavier or darker? This is one of the many instances in which Ward played his bass drum continuously under his fills. He plays a cool single-stroke fill in the final line of this excerpt. Somewhat idiotically, and further proving the pointlessness of self-congratulatory award shows, “Iron Man” won a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in the year 2000, 30 years after its release.

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“Supernaut”

Black Sabbath Vol. 4
Sabbath recorded several songs that began with Ward playing for a couple of measures before the band enters, perhaps to lock the tempo. “Supernaut” begins with a two-handed sixteenth note hi-hat pattern that curiously omits the & of 1 in the first bar. The second part has two characteristics of Ward’s drumming: lots of bass drum notes while crashing the ride. In case you thought Dave Grohl was the first drummer to routinely pummel his ride like a crash — think again. Here we see Ward bashing his ride while Grohl was still wearing diapers. For these transcriptions, I’ve notated Ward either crashing his ride or riding his crash, since it’s impossible to tell the two apart and it’s the best indication of the resulting sound.

bill ward

“Snowblind”

Black Sabbath Vol. 4
Many Black Sabbath songs made allusions to Osbourne’s drug use, and “Snowblind” is no exception. This track shows Ward’s inventive way of working a lot of bass drum notes into his parts, but rather than coming across as overly bottom heavy, his use of drags shapes the phrases in interesting ways.

bill ward

“Sweet Leaf”

Master Of Reality
Ward could be funky when he wanted to. On “Sweet Leaf,” we hear him play a heavy yet very funky groove with lots of bass drum notes landing on the e’s and ah’s. The bridge makes great use of Ward’s big, thudding toms.

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“Hole In The Sky”

Sabotage
The cool riff on this track is fueled by Ward’s relentless, repeating groove. As the transcription shows, he abuses his crash/ride throughout this tune. The first line shows his main groove; the second line is the occasional variation he uses. He varies his chorus pattern continuously, but this is the basic pattern he improvises from. Metallica is one of many bands that covered this great tune.

bill ward

“War Pigs”

Paranoid
This song was written as a comment on the injustices of the Vietnam War and remains just as vital today. “War Pigs” was originally going to be the title song for the record, but that all changed after the band recorded the song “Paranoid.” Ward’s drumming on this track is required learning for every metal drummer. For this transcription, we chose to examine the section following the bluesy jam that opens the track. Ward uses a couple of bass drum and crash combinations followed by his hi-hat stomping eighth-notes. It’s funny how something seemingly insignificant can get stuck in the brains of thousands of drummers, such as his signature open hi-hat shuup on the & of 3 in the second bar of the cycle. In the fourth measure, he plays an offbeat drum fill to set up the mayhem that follows. He uses syncopation, flams, and quick singles to good effect in this great tune.

bill ward

“Paranoid”

Paranoid
“Paranoid” is a heavy metal anthem if ever there was one. Ward’s approach on this tune may have inspired and been a precursor to today’s use of two bass drums in metal. After all, how does one play double bass with just one kick? Like this! It’s a great driving drum part and quite a workout that Ward sustains for three minutes.

bill ward