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
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.