Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Tony Iommi

I cannot write a blog about guitarists that I like without writing about Tony Iommi.  If I did such a thing, all of my friends on the Tony Iommi message board [some of whom are also on Facebook] would not only give me a well-deserved rash, they would disown me.  For the uninitiated, who is this Tony Iommi guy?   He is the guiding light of Black Sabbath.  He’s the one guy who has been in every incarnation of the band since their debut album saw the light of day on Friday the 13th, February 1970.  In short, he’s the guy who invented heavy metal.  He is a king among men.

What sets Tony Iommi apart from other guitarists?  Let me count the ways…

Reason #1 - the riff.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the riff this way:  Riff Pronunciation: /rɪf/ [noun] a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation.  Tony’s greatness lies in the almighty riff.  Regardless of whoever else happened to be in Black Sabbath, the bedrock of every Black Sabbath song is the riff.   I can’t think of many memorable Sabbath solos, but there are many memorable Sabbath riffs.  There are so many great Black Sabbath songs that were it not for the riff, there wouldn’t be much of a song.  Standout riffs:  Symptom of the Universe, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Into the Void, Snowblind, Killing Yourself to Live, Heaven and Hell, War Pigs, Sweat Leaf, Children of the Grave, Children of the Sea, Mob Rules, Paranoid, Black Sabbath… No one has created more, or better metal riffs than Tony.

Reason #2 – the tone.  The last day of the last time Tony Iommi worked a “day job” he lost parts of the fingertips on two fingers of his fretting [right] hand in an accident on the job.  He fabricated prosthetic fingertips so he could play without pain.  He used the lightest strings he could find [banjo strings at first].  He also detuned his strings to ease the tension on his fingers.  Detuning gave Sabbath a heavier sound.  He couldn’t get that effect with standard tuning and heavy gauge strings.  Tony’s amp of choice is Laney.  Always in search of the “perfect” sound he’s used Orange, Fender, Marshall, Hiwatt, and Engl.  But he’s a Laney guy.  His axe of choice is the Gibson SG.  He doesn’t play a stock SG much.  He’s had SGs custom-built for him, either by John Birch, John Diggins [JayDee], or even the Gibson Company itself.   He wants 24 frets instead of the usual 22.  He has his own line of very high output humbucking pickups.  He used to use a Dallas Rangemaster to give his sound a boost.  He uses a lot of wah in his solos, courtesy of the nearly-impossible to find Tycobrahe Parapedal.  Take all of these variables together – the type of amps, type of guitar, type of pickups, the lighter strings, the detuning, the effects [such as they are] – put them all in the hands of Tony Iommi and Voila!  Heavy metal is born.

Reason #3 – the acoustic guitar.  Tony Iommi is not known for his acoustic guitar playing.  Sometimes he’d use it to introduce the song – Children of the Sea [Heaven and Hell], The Sign of the Southern Cross [The Mob Rules], Bible Black [The Devil You Know], and Too Late [Dehumanizer].    Sometimes he’d play it as part of the song – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath], Supernaut [Vol. 4], Glory Ride [The Eternal Idol], I Go Insane [Fused].  Sometimes he’d play it at the end of a song – Heaven and Hell [Heaven and Hell], Symptom of the Universe [Sabotage].  On occasion he’d play a short acoustic piece – Laguna Sunrise [Vol. 4], Fluff [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath], Orchid [Master of Reality], and Scarlet Pimpernel [The Eternal Idol].  Some bands, and I’m thinking of the hair metal bands from the eighties, would use acoustics to show their “sensitive” sides.  These would be the “power ballads” that afflicted music during that time.  I’ve heard Iommi play something resembling a power ballad only twice – Changes [Vol. 4 – he doesn’t play guitar] and No Stranger to Love [Seventh Star].  Iommi doesn’t use acoustics to show any sensitivity.  It’s a matter of dynamics, to change up the sound a little bit just to make things just a bit more interesting.  I wish I knew what kind of acoustic guitar he uses because I love the bell-sounding tones he gets out of it [or them]. 

Reason #4 – volume.  Tony Iommi’s music is not for the faint of heart.  It MUST be played at a high volume.  Of all the concerts I’ve seen since 1982, only four of them left me with crickets chirping in my ears…for days!  Of those four, two were Black Sabbath – once with Ronnie James Dio [Washington, DC - 1992], the other time with Ozzy Osbourne [San Jose, CA – 1999].  I suffered happily each time.

Reason #5 – solos.  Tony Iommi is a riffmaster’s riffmaster.  The solo is not his strong suit like it is for other guitarists [Duane Allman, David Gilmour, Ritchie Blackmore all come to mind].  But he is very, very good.  He’s best when soloing slowly [Shadow of the Wind], or Warp Factor Eight [Symptom of the Universe].  In between those two speeds, Tony is a mere mortal.  His contemporaries Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page were good at playing things off the top of their heads in concert, but Tony Iommi is a different soloist.  Whichever solo he’d record for a specific song, he’d stick pretty close to it when playing live.  The exception to this rule is Heaven and Hell.  He can solo his brains out for days on that one.  But a mere mortal Tony Iommi is better than almost everyone else.  If I had to pick a standout Tony Iommi solo, it would be his first solo from Lonely Is The Word [Heaven and Hell].  I can only describe it as being unlike any other solo in his catalog.

Reason #6 - Diabolus in Musica. Tony Iommi stumbled upon the tritone, known in medieval times as “The Devil in Music.”  It was explained to me this way –Nearly everything with that evil, doomy feel to it shares that interval relationship.  It causes a sense of unease, anxiety or evil because it doesn't fall where the ear expects it to.  The final note in the three-note/chord riff to Black Sabbath is the best obvious example.  The music itself isn’t evil, it just sounds that way.  Is there a more scary song than Black Sabbath, the first song from the first album?  What a way to kick off a career!

I asked my friends from the Iommi message board the following:  What one song, in your opinion, captures Tony Iommi's essence, and why?    For me, it’s War Pigs.  I think it’s the best metal song ever done.  So sure of this I originally thought I would put this out as something that was absolute, something that is so self-evident that none would dare argue the point.  But like Magnum PI, the little voice in my head told me “ask the Iommi board guys.”  So I did that and I’m glad I did.  Black Sabbath, and Tony Iommi in particular, are for these guys what the Beatles are to me.  These are the guys who eat, sleep and breathe Black Sabbath.  As for the answer to the question, a trend emerged – most favored Sabbath’s music from the years 1970-75, which means their first six albums with Ozzy Osbourne.  Four songs in particular stood out among the rest – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Symptom of the Universe, Black Sabbath, and Wheels of Confusion.  Why did these tunes in particular get so much love from these guys?

Black Sabbath – This is the “big bang” for heavy metal – where it all started.  This is the very first song from the very first Black Sabbath album.  When Geezer Butler noticed people paid lots of money to have the crap scared out of them, Tony came up with this.  Leave it to him to use a kind of music once banned by the Catholic Church.  It wasn’t intentional to sound evil, just to sound cool.  It starts with the gloomy sounds of rain and thunder, the peal of a distant church bell, then the Riff of Doom.  If you played this combination of notes in the Middle Ages you’d probably have various instruments of mayhem [most of them HOT] applied to your testicles.  If you want to know how to make vibrato work in your guitar playing, listen to the third note of the tritone – perfect vibrato.  There’s a tempo change from the doom crawl to very fast at the 4:35 mark, wah-wah drenched guitar and a scary Iommi solo that builds to a stop-start climax.  If you want to put a sound to the word “ominous” this song will do the trick.

Wheels of Confusion/ The Straightener – This one from Vol. 4 has probably the rawest sounding guitar in the entire Black Sabbath catalog [maybe Supernaut too].  His tone is brutal, with plenty of crunch.  The Straightener is two and a half minutes of Iommi solos.  In addition you hear the acoustic and what sounds like another guitar played through a Leslie speaker.  The Straightener is for Wheels of Confusion what Luke’s Wall is for War Pigs, a good instrumental conclusion to one of Black Sabbath’s more structurally inventive songs.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – it has a little of everything.  Tony had writer’s block when Black Sabbath started work on the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album.  Luckily this song came to him – not one great riff, not two, but three [the main, opening riff, the bridge, and the final, very heavy, detuned part].  Between the riffs are the acoustic interludes.  So you have the heaviness, the light and shade, the tempo changes.  A lot of stuff is happening on this song.  I still have no idea what “Bog blast all of you” means…

Symptom of the Universe – Tony shows thrashers how it’s done.  The riff sounds a lot like Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown, only evil.  He slashes and burns for four and a half minutes and then does a head-spinning 180 and plays a very cool jazzy acoustic guitar for the next two.  He makes the transition from hard thrash to acoustic bliss look effortless.  One of his fastest solos helps with the transition.

One of my fellow board members put it this way when asked the “name one song” question – I don't think I can do that. I like so much of what he’s done that no one song can do that. Each one says something different.”  That’s fair enough – I see his point.   Depending on my mood at any given moment, any of these songs [and many of the others] could be “the one.”  But if someone put a gun to my head and said “choose one now!” I’d pick Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, even though War Pigs is my favorite.

There were some other interesting choices to the "name one song" question from the Iommi board crowd. The most interesting choice was Meat from Tony's first "proper" solo album. It's good stuff - I think it has the distinction of being the only Iommi song with a lead female vocalist. It has a sufficiently high doom quotient. From the same Iommi album, my favorites are Black Oblivion, Flame On, and Just Say No To Love [Peter Steele (RIP) even namechecks Tony Iommi and Jon Lord in this one]. Another interesting choice was Heart like a Wheel from Seventh Star. That one sparked a bit of discussion since Seventh Star is probably the most "un-Sababth" album in Tony's catalog. Seventh Star was supposed to be Tony's first solo album, but the record company had other ideas and wanted a "Black Sabbath" album, even though Tony was the only original member left in the band. Interestingly enough, the person who suggested Heart like a Wheel thought he was suggesting heresey, but the reaction to his suggestion was uniformly positive. This song is as close to 12-bar blues as Tony Iommi will get. He's got a very visceral, razor-sharp guitar tone all over Seventh Star. For Heart Like a Wheel, Tony puts his best solo chops on display. Other suggestions from something besides the Ozzy era included Heaven and Hell, Children of the Sea and Die Young. One can conclude there is much affection for the Heaven and Hell album as a whole.  The Tony Martin era got no love whatsoever from these guys. 

For the most part I am partial to the sounds Tony Iommi made in the later years, most especially the albums he made with the Iommi-Butler-Dio-Appice lineup.  Not just for the guitar playing, but also for the better production, song structure and Dio’s singing.  When Dio came on board for the Heaven and Hell album, Bill Ward was still the drummer, and Sabbath still had a loose feel to them.  He wasn’t as much a timekeeper as he was a percussionist who just went where the songs took him.  They were “Black Sabbath with a new singer.”  But when Vinny Appice came along after Bill Ward left in 1980, the character of the band changed.  Vinny is more of a time keeper [think “Ringo Starr” in a heavy metal band].  And since he played a straight beat, Black Sabbath morphed into more of a skull-crushing juggernaut.  Tony Iommi [and occasionally Geezer Butler] came up with more up-tempo riffs. 

The sludge from the likes of Master of Reality was gone, replaced by the punishing Mob Rules, Dehumanizer, and The Devil You Know.  The riffs aren’t sinister – they’re brutal, mean, crushing.  Follow the Tears and Bible Black [The Devil You Know], I [Dehumanizer], Turn Up the Night and The Mob Rules [Mob Rules] easily come to mind.   The same can be said for Tony’s album with Glenn Hughes, Fused.  So many riffs, so little time…  I Go Insane [from Fused] is one of the most musically complex things Tony has done.  A nine-minute epic, it has four distinctive parts – the first 3:23 is slow, bluesy.  Then the tempo picks up – at first the music has an almost ethereal quality, but then the guitars build up to the 5:46 mark, where it’s massive, brutal, face-melting, pile-driving riffage.  At seven minutes begins the only proper solo, a minute-long affair that eases into the same theme heard in the first section.  Brilliant!  Computer God [Dehumanizer] is a different beast.  A song about technological tyranny, this one has three parts – a start-stop beginning, a slow arpeggio’d part in the middle [the part I can actually play], and the aggressive finish.  Tony flows from one part to another with ease while Geezer Butler’s bass bobs and weaves throughout.  It’s an impressive piece of arranging.  This is how men play heavy metal.
I Go Insane

Computer God

With 2012 almost upon us, we have the promise of a new Black Sabbath album and tour from the original four [Tony, Geezer, Ozzy and Bill Ward].  These men are in their 60s now, but I have no doubt they have one more great work in them.  Psycho Man from Reunion was merely "ok" - I think they can do better.  Tony Iommi’s skills as a player haven’t diminished.  Judging from his last two studio works [Fused and The Devil You Know], I don’t think his ability to create classic riffs has diminished either.  Tony has no need to prove he can produce great work in his later years – he’s already done that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Buddy Guy

“He was for me what Elvis probably was for most other people.  My course was set and he was my pilot.” – Eric Clapton, on the occasion of Buddy Guy’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 2005

Here it is another blog about another blues guitar legend.  Today’s subject – Buddy Guy.  Eric Clapton once called him the best guitar player alive.  Jimi Hendrix once said "Heaven is sitting at Buddy Guy's feet while listening to him play guitar."  When he was 13 he made his own guitar and taught himself how to play.  Buddy Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in the late 1950s.  Chess Records used him as a session guitarist for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and many others.  For those blues icons he played the way those guys and his employers [Chess Records] wanted him to play.  But on his own his playing took on a different character.  His guitar playing is loud and aggressive.  He uses feedback and distortion.  He’d play guitar behind his back or with his teeth.  He would solo with total abandon.  His live shows were [and still are] incendiary.  Jimi Hendrix saw that and wanted to be Buddy Guy.    When he became known to the American rock listening public, the assumption was that Buddy Guy was copying Hendrix when it was really the other way around.  Eric Clapton got the idea for a blues-rock trio after seeing Buddy Guy’s trio perform in London in 1965.  He wanted to be like Buddy Guy with a singing, composing bass player.  That trio that Clapton wanted turned out to be Cream.  Buddy Guy has also influenced the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan [RIP].  Without a doubt he is the bridge between blues and rock and roll.
As much as he has been revered by rock and blues musicians, for a long time after the 1960s Buddy Guy couldn’t get arrested.  He’d play his live shows with the same fury and abandon, but he couldn’t get a recording contract to save his life.  In the early 1990s he finally got a deal with Silvertone Records.  He’s recorded some fine albums with Silvertone.  His first three, Damn Right, I Got the Blues [1991], Feels Like Rain [1993] and Slippin’ In [1995] each earned him critical acclaim [Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album each time].  Heavy Love [1998] has more of a rock than a blues feel.  For the most part Buddy Guy’s output follows a formula – his albums are slickly-produced, feature guest appearances [Clapton, Beck, BB King, Bonnie Raitt, Jonny Lang, Mark Knopfler, Carlos Santana, Tracy Chapman, John Mayer, etc], and his on-stage intensity is dialed-down quite a bit.
Sweet Tea [2001] is not slick, not overproduced, and features no guest stars.  There’s no blatant attempt to win a cross-over audience.  This is Buddy’s homage to the hypnotic drone blues played by the likes of Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, CeDell Davis, and R.L. Burnside.  That’s the sound of the North Mississippi hill country.   That’s the sound of Fat Possum Records.  Recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, it’s “back to basics” for Buddy Guy.  For those wanting to hear Buddy Guy finally cut loose on an album, this is the one for you.  Unlike most of his studio output, Buddy dials up the intensity.  Buddy followed his most electrifying album with another atypical album, a completely acoustic folk blues album, Blues Singer [recorded in the same studio as Sweet Tea].  Blues Singer is an excellent counterpoint to Sweet Tea. 
Buddy Guy is an assassin.  Just ask the Rolling Stones.  He played Muddy Waters’ Champagne & Reefer with them for their Shine a Light documentary.  He didn’t pay any deference to them as others who shared the stage with them [Jack White and Christina Aguilera (?!?)] - he slayed them!  Keith smiled the whole time.  I could almost hear him thinking “thank you sir, may I have another?”  The Rolling Stones, despite all their pop success, is a blues band at heart, so they don’t mind it one bit when one of their musical heroes smacks them around on-stage.

Buddy has been around a very long time.  The work he did with Junior Wells [using the pseudonym “Friendly Chap”], most especially Hoodoo Man Blues [1965] and Play The Blues [1972], has been acclaimed by many as some of the finest Chicago-style blues you’ll ever hear. His 1968 album A Man and the Blues is essential.  Buddy’s most recent work [2008’s Skin Deep and 2010’s Living Proof] finds Buddy back in his comfort zone of Chicago blues.   These albums aren’t as intense as Sweet Tea, but they have more grit to them that his well-acclaimed 1990s output.  At 74 years old, they show Buddy Guy isn’t going away quietly anytime soon.  And because of that, the music world is a better place.  Buddy Guy is one of only a few blues giants left.  I hope he’s around quite a bit longer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Hubert Sumlin

I’ve been thinking of writing blogs about guitarists I like for quite awhile. I just hadn’t made up my mind who to start with.  Sadly, current events made up my mind for me when I heard that blues great Hubert Sumlin passed away.  Born Nov 16, 1931 in Mississippi, he was the youngest of thirteen children.  He started with harp player James Cotton, then joined with Howlin’ Wolf in 1954.  After playing with the Wolf for two years, Muddy Waters hired him away for awhile in 1956.  Muddy paid better but he toured more than Howlin’ Wolf.  After that stint with Muddy Waters he rejoined the Wolf and stayed with him until the Wolf’s death in 1976.  He was a guitar hero’s guitar hero.  His guitar playing has been described as “angular,” “jagged.” After hearing all the songs he did with Howlin’ Wolf, I could hear why these guys were so enamored with Hubert.  Without Killing Floor, Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song would exist.  Other songs in Howlin’ Wolf’s repertoire – Smokestack Lightning, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, Commit a Crime, Shake For Me, Down in the Bottom – would be hard to imagine with Hubert’s guitar.  I heard those songs and got hooked on not only Howlin’ Wolf, but Hubert Sumlin as well.

Hubert Sumlin was not a household name.  But for blues enthusiasts, the word “legend” barely scratches the surface when describing Hubert Sumlin.  The music Hubert Sumlin created with Howlin’ Wolf is a landmark (one of several) in the development of electric Chicago blues.  He never achieved the fame that Wolf did, but without Sumlin, Wolf’s greatest, most influential records wouldn’t have been the same.  One look at old Stones and Hendrix concerts and Sumlin’s influence is easily seen. The Rolling Stones imitated the Wolf’s recording of The Red Rooster.  When Hendrix wanted to play the blues in his live shows, his supercharged version of Killing Floor fit the bill.  But don’t take my word for it – check out Hendrix’s BBC Sessions and hear his vicious take on the Howlin’ Wolf classic.  The list of guitar players influenced by Hubert Sumlin is a pantheon of rock guitar gods:  Clapton, Beck, Page, Richards, Hendrix, Vaughan, Zappa.  His importance cannot be overstated.

Bob Margolin:  “When Hubert plays guitar, he takes you to his world of Blues Feeling, from despair to ecstasy, from delicate grace to raw power, from lost to found. His style is original and personal and instantly recognizable. What kind of man can make or break your heart with his guitar?”
Jimmy Page: “I love Hubert. He always played the right thing at the right time.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan:  "Hubert's the heaviest, most original guitar player I've ever heard...and that's the truth!"
Ronnie Earl:  "Hubert's one of the guys who sat down and taught me stuff.”

His preferred axe was a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.  He was known to play a Fender Stratocaster from time to time though.  Early influences that affected Hubert Sumlin's style of play at a young age, included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and of course Howlin’ Wolf.  It was at Howlin’ Wolf’s urging that Hubert stopped playing with a pick and used only his fingers.   Once Hubert found his “sound” he became [or his sound became – he was very unassuming] as iconic as Howlin’ Wolf himself.

When Chess Records wanted Howlin’ Wolf to make a record in England [with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts], they (Chess) originally didn’t want Hubert playing the sessions with them.  Clapton told Chess that if Hubert wasn’t involved then neither was he.  Chess changed their minds, Hubert played on the album.  Such was Clapton’s respect for Hubert Sumlin.

Awhile back I saw a celebration of blues music called Lightning in a Bottle, which was filmed at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 2004.   I wanted to watch it because Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes were going to play [they played The Sky Is Crying].  But before they played, there was Hubert Sumlin with David Johansen.  They played Killing Floor and they smoked!  An amazing thing about Hubert was that not too long before he played RCMH, he had a lung removed due to lung cancer.  Here’s the clip:

He’s done an album with Pinetop Perkins [Legends], A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (1998) with other former members of the Wolf’s band,  and he cut a couple of tunes with Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin on his All-Star Blues Jam (1999).  Someday I’ll get his own CD I Know You.  On the last CD of Hubert Sumlin’s that I bought [About Them Shoes, 2004], Hubert is joined by Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Bob Margolin, and David Johansen to play tributes to Muddy Waters.  Particularly noteworthy are I’m Ready [with Eric Clapton] and Still a Fool [with Keith Richards].  Both are always on my iPod.  If you can find About Them Shoes, get it!
Hubert passed away from heart failure on December 4th.  He had just celebrated his 80th birthday two weeks ago.  As Jimmie Vaughan so eloquently put it in song after the passing of his brother Stevie Ray, “Heaven done called … another blues stringer back home.”