Original Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward had an immediately identifiable style: hard-hitting, driving, and relatively simplistic compared to the spastic fills of Keith Moon and the endless triplets of John Bonham. With a band as guitar riff-centred as Sabbath, Ward found his playing was at its best when it highlighted the other instrumentalists at play, whether it was Tony Iommi’s endless list of memorable riffs or Geezer Butler’s thunderous bass lines.
That said, Ward did get to show off on occasion. With the band essentially being a three-piece instrumentally, Ward often had to fill in the spaces that were left open by Iommi and Butler. Although rock-solid during Iommi’s solos and always keyed into Butler’s frenetic runs, Ward had the chops to kick out a series of killer fills or a series of all-time drum solos when the occasion called for it. He had a band-first mentality, but when given the spotlight, Ward made sure to make the most of it.
You can hear this everywhere in the Sabbath catalogue: ‘War Pigs’, ‘Rat Salad’, ‘Wheels of Confusion’, and ‘Supernaut’ all show Ward’s impressive technical prowess and willingness to go all out on the drum kit. When listening closely, it almost seems as though there’s a slight jazz feel to his furious rudiments, never letting himself go full caveman and allowing a fair amount of tasteful restraint to colour his more aggressive hits.
This is no coincidence, as Ward grew up as a total jazz nut. “Childhood, all me influences were, say, between the time that I can remember, which would have been about three years old to the time that I was about five or six years old, all the music that I ever heard was jazz and it was American jazz, and it was big band jazz, to be more defined,” Ward explained to AllAboutJazz in 2005.
“I based my tuning on Gene Krupa, Buddy and Joe Morello,” Ward told MusicRadar in 2018. “I knew how I wanted the drums to sound and we did the best we could with a beat up Ludwig kit. I spent a lot of time around drummers learning how to get sound. I knew the sound I was after and what would work for what we were playing.”
“The biggest example I can give of that is ‘Sing Sing’ with Krupa, and that was one of the first things I ever learned as a kid,” Ward told AllAboutJazz. “When I was like 10 years old I was already playing…[Gestures with his hands and sings the drum part to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”], with dropping the hat and playing on somebody else’s drum kit, not mine, but a much wealthier kid that I knew who actually did have a drum kit when he was 10 years old. And I would play his drums and mimic Krupa or think that I was doing a really good job.”
Ward also mentions tools of the trade that would befuddle most upstart drummers, especially those going for the harder-hitting styles of metal that Ward pioneered. “Listening to Basie, ‘String of Pearls’ by Glenn Miller, all these feels and touches, brushes, textures, all these things were things that I was eating up and I was being drawn into.” This was the man who performed on ‘Planet Caravan’, after all, so a diverse range of skills is useful on the odd-Sabbath soft number.