Son, son, you've gone too far,
'cause smoking and tripping is all that you do
Terrence "Geezer" Butler was born into a Birmingham working-class family in the glum that was post-war Britain circa 1949. Throughout most of his youth he was a reclusive social outcast who spent most of his time smoking and tripping and reading books about fantasy and the occult -- including Satanism, although Butler never actually called himself a Satanist. His claim to fame is, of course, the fact that he played the bass in Black Sabbath, the grandfather of all heavy metal. The man who is sometimes called "the father of all heavy metal bass" started his musical career playing the rhythm guitar in the 60's Birmingham rock band Rare Breed, which incidentally also featured his eventually far more famous bandmate Ozzy Osbourne on vocals. His change of instrument came around when he saw Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Quoth Geezer: "As soon as I saw him, it changed me. I didn't even know what bass players did until I saw Cream. I saw Jack Bruce and said, 'that is what I want to do in life'." He took up the thick strings in the late 60's, and has become one of their undisputed masters since. Being as it is that Geezer was very fond of blues and jazz, he and Ozzy eventually drifted into the newly formed blues group "Earth", which was originally formed by lead guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward.
From Earth to Sabbath
Earth was having trouble getting their big break, and its (heavily drug-addled) members felt that traditional blues was constricting their musical creativity; they had more to give than blues or rock accomodated at the time. Inspired by the wave of horror flicks sweeping Britain at the time, they decided that it could be fun and interesting to play "scary music". They fired their saxophonist and their rhythm guitarist, and renamed the band "Black Sabbath", after an old 30's horror film by Boris Karloff. It was Geezer who got the idea for the band's new name, and it was Geezer's knowledge of the occult that was the basis of most of their darker and more "Satanic" songs. Throughout most of the band's life, Geezer was its main songwriter, reputedly having produced somewhere around the lines of 95% of Sabbath's lyrics. Interesting fact: He wrote "Fairies Wear Boots" after having been assaulted and kicked into submission by skinheads.
Black Sabbath songs were written the way songs are supposed to: For the bass. A typical Sabbath composition was created by having Geezer play some of his bass licks, and then the other members would join in when they got an idea for what to play with it. Geezer has been quoted as saying that "however long the song is was how long it took us to write it." It is safe to say that while the only constant in Sabbath is Tony Iommi's mad guitar riffage and that Ozzy ran with all the fame, it was Geezer who laid the creative foundation for the band. He didn't get as much credit and fame as they, but such is the Way of the Bass Player.
Musically, what Geezer brought to Sabbath was a bass playing style and sound that can be described as anything but standard and linear. Ironically, the man who founded the art of the heavy metal bass is among its least traditional practicioners. Many a traditional heavy rock or metal bassist essentially plays "shadow guitar", mirroring the root notes played by the rhythm guitarist. This gives the rhythm string section a powerful low end, but it is also why you can never hear the bass player in heavy metal; the guitar drowns out the sound completely. Where they picked up this strange and self-defeating habit I don't know, but I do know that they most certainly didn't inherit it from old Geezer; his bass lines are powerful and groovy melodies onto themselves. Many of the most powerful Sabbath instrumentals include what is basically a guitar solo and a bass solo being played simultaneously, without either of them really getting in the way of the other. Geezer occasionally got to play unaccompanied solo bass as well, most famously in the bass intro to the Sabbath classic N.I.B. Geezer has often described Sabbath's sound as "heavy blues" rather than metal, and indeed his bass lines show as much influence from progressive blues as from rock or metal. Geezer's style has steadily developed throughout his career; he is one of those musicians who never quite stands still. He is something of a rarity among bass players when it comes to right-hand technique; he switches between playing with a pick and playing fingerstyle, usually with the two-finger style that is the tradition of blues and jazz players. Most bassists are as god damn religious about their right hand as UNIX heads are about their friggin' text editors. (Why is the police chasing us, daddy? Because we play bass with our fingers, son, they use picks.)
Tools of the Trade
As could be expected from a guy who's been around for as many years as Geezer, he has used quite a lot of equipment over the years. One of the things that is permanent (and a large part of the reason why he is as audible as he is) is his use of active pickups lending that unique "boosted power-blues" sound that he is famous for, and using those 666 billion watt cold fusion powered bass amps from Hell that rolls out of the pit of the Ninth Plane of Hell in which Ampeg has a factory. His preferred instruments are his 60's Fender P-Basses for the studio, and all sorts of weird shit for the stage. His most famous strange instrument was the Dan Armstrong Plexibass he played on Sabbath's Vol.4 tour: As the name suggests, this axe's body is made entirely of plexiglass. Nowadays he usually plays basses by Vigier on-stage.
After the end of Sabbath, he has manned the thick strings in Ozzy's solo project (when that spot wasn't taken by Bob Daisley, Robert Trujillo or Jason Newsted), and ended up forming a solo project of his own (another rare thing for a bass player): G//Z/R, later renamed to plain "Geezer", starring Geezer on the bass, Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell (later replaced by Clark Brown) shouting his lungs out, the much younger Pedro Howse on guitar, and Ozzy's drummer Deen Castronova pounding the skins. Geezer formed his new project claiming inspiration from all the new power and heavy sonics going on in late 90's metal.
Perhaps surprisingly for a heavy metal "star" and the author of some of the most reviled lyrics in rock history, Geezer is reputed to be a quiet, affable and polite man. He has inspired and influenced pretty much every bassist in modern rock and heavy metal, from Cliff Burton, Lemmy Kilmister and Steve Harris to Alex Webster, John Myung and Steve DiGiorgio.
Quotes from a 1996 interview with Geezer, available online at http://www.black-sabbath.com/interviews/butler96.html
Some Geezer style information available at http://medieteknik.bth.se/joba01/bass5.html#geezer
scarling informs me that Geezer has a nephew named Biff, who is the lead signer of the band Apartment 26. They have got to be an extremely popular band to have a member for signing things!
(or it could just be poor humour and caffeine deprivation that led me to find that typo funny.....)