How to Solo Like Angus Young, Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi
As the progenitor of the heaviest of heavy metal, Tony Iommi set high standards for the writing of demonic-sounding riffs while he simultaneously created the template for the heavy metal soloing of future generations.
As a teenager, Iommi, a left-handed player, was the victim of an unfortunate accident in which he lost the tips of his right hand’s middle and ring fingers while working in a sheet metal factory. Discouraged but not defeated, the resourceful guitarist devised plastic covers made from bottle caps to wear over those fingertips.
In later years, he would wear custom–fitted leather finger protectors. Iommi also switched to using super light-gauge strings: .008, .008, .011, .018w, .024 and .032, which are much easier to fret and bend than a standard set of .009s or 010s.
In its earliest days, Black Sabbath tuned to concert pitch, but soon after Iommi began tuning his strings down one half step (low to high: Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb) and subsequently tuned down even further by one and a half steps (low to high: C# F# B E G# C#), all the while continuing to use very light strings.
A signature element in the characteristically dark vibe of Iommi’s solos is the incorporation of minor modes. In his outro solo for “War Pigs” (Paranoid), Iommi utilizes the E Aeolian mode (E F# G A B C D) along with E minor pentatonic (E G A B D). FIGURE 6 illustrates a solo played with a similar approach.
Within the key of E minor, the chord progression simply alternates between Em and D, and in his solo, Iommi’s ties his licks squarely to the chord progression with the use of chord tones that relate to each specific chord. Bars 1–4 of FIGURE 6 demonstrate this approach by favoring the notes E and G, the root note and minor third, respectively, over Em, and the notes D and Fs, the root and major third, respectively, over D. The additional notes and overall phrasing serve to fill in the space and effectively set up the incorporation of these shifting chord tones (also known as guide tones).
Another key aspect of Iommi’s soloing style that FIGURE 6 demonstrates is the intensity of both the pick attack and vibrato. Iommi’s playing is well-loved for its aggressive power, so lean into the lines with both hands, and listen closely to his recorded works to get a clear picture of and feel for his playing style.
Beginning on beat two of bar 5, I repeatedly bend E, third string/ninth fret, up one and one half steps (the equivalent of three frets) to G. When performing “overbends” like this, it’s even more important to harness the strength of at least two fingers, the ring and middle, if not three (the ring, middle and index). This is followed in bar 6 by fast whole-step bends that alternate with hammer-on/pull-of combinations between the seventh and ninth frets on the G string. This is a challenging lick that will take a bit of slow practice to master.
In the second half of bar 7, I borrow a signature phrasing technique of Iommi’s, with a 16th-note run that descends the E Aeolian mode in three-note groups on a single string, using pull-offs and finger slides. This type of line serves to add both rhythmic and melodic interest to a pentatonic- or mode-based solo.
FIGURE 7 offers another example of soloing in Iommi’s style, this time incorporating the detuning of one and one half steps. (All notes and chords sound in the key of C# minor, one and one half steps lower than written.) This example demonstrates Iommi’s penchant for using fast hammer-ons and pull-offs within repeated short phrases, as he does on his solo in “Supernaut” (Vol. 4).
The solo is based entirely on the E minor pentatonic scale, played in 12th position, and begins with a repeated phrase that starts with a quick hammer/pull on the first string from the 12th fret to the 15th, followed by D, second string/15th fret. This sequence is played four times through bar 1, and bar 2 consists entirely of trills in 12th position. (A trill is executed by quickly alternating between two notes, usually using hammer-ons and pull-offs in combination.)
Bars 3 and 4 are similar in that both feature fast phrases based on 16th-note triplets; in bar 3, note bursts are performed with hammer/pulls on the D string, and in bar 4 the hammers occur on the G string. Bars 5 and 6 offer an example of the “threes on fours” concept—16th notes phrased in groups of three—and bars 7 and 8 wrap up the solo with fast hammer/pulls, played in 16th-nopte triplets, that traverse the strings, moving from high to low.
In all of their solos, Young, Page and Iommi combine well-structured melodic ideas, solid execution and spirited performance—essential factors in any great, memorable guitar solo that you should strive to achieve in your own solos.
Illustration: Tim O'Brien