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Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen Discuss Their Careers, Friendship and the Past Three Decades of Our Favorite Instrument

Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen Discuss Their Careers, Friendship and the Past Three Decades of Our Favorite Instrument

FROM THE GW ARCHIVE: Originally published in Guitar World, 30th Anniversary 2010 issue.

One forged the template for heavy metal. The other advanced it with virtuoso shredding. Together, they shaped the guitar universe as we know it today. Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen mark Guitar World’s 30th anniversary with a colossal conversation about their careers, friendship and the past three decades of our favorite instrument.

Rock guitar over the past 30 years would not be the same without Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen.

From details like playing techniques and equipment designs to the wide variety of hard rock and metal musical styles that sprouted from the seeds sown by Black Sabbath and Van Halen, their influence remains omnipresent to this day.

While the music industry has changed significantly since Guitar World magazine made its debut in 1980, Iommi and Van Halen have never wavered in popularity, even as trends and tastes continue to shift and diversify.

“We’ve started trends, but that was not what we had in mind,” says Eddie Van Halen, sitting across from Iommi in a Hollywood photo studio where we’ve met to discuss the past 30 years of guitar. “When Van Halen started out, there was no path to fame. We just played what we liked. Even today it always comes down to the simplicity of rock and roll.”

“A lot of music has become a formula,” adds Iommi, who is, as always, impeccably dressed in black from head to toe. “When we started out there was no formula. You play music because you love it and you want to create something.”

What Iommi and Van Halen created stretches well beyond their own personal contributions and activities. With Black Sabbath, Iommi helped create the template for heavy metal, from its dark, violent sound to its gothic, occult-inspired imagery. Songs like “Symptom of the Universe,” with its dissonant intervals, driving eighth-note low E riffing and frantic, over-the-top solo, became the blueprint for almost every thrash song that has emerged since Metallica and Slayer first co-opted those elements for themselves.

Iommi’s habits of tuning down three half steps to C# (which he started doing when Sabbath recorded Master of Reality in 1971) and using generous amounts of gain to drive his amp into heavy distortion have become essential staples of metal music. Even the most extreme subgenres of death and black metal can all trace their roots back to Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi.

Van Halen’s influence on rock guitar is also universal. In addition to introducing various equipment innovations that he designed, inspired or helped perfect—like the custom, hot-rodded “super Strat” guitar, modern high-gain amplifier and Floyd Rose tremolo—he also helped bring highly skilled, technical guitar playing into the public spotlight.

When Ozzy Osbourne enlisted Randy Rhoads, or when Billy Idol teamed up with Steve Stevens, and even when David Lee Roth hired Steve Vai to join his post–Van Halen solo band, these singers realized that having a hot-shot, Van Halen–style guitarist in their bands was a huge competitive advantage.

Eddie’s innovative use of tapping, harmonics and volume swells has been discussed at length, but more importantly he paved the way for players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani to explore sounds that existed well beyond the fretboard and conventional playing techniques. In one fell swoop, Van Halen made it cool to incorporate flashy guitar in pop music (think Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” or even Ed’s own playing on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) while he also inspired the shred guitar phenomenon, where experimental sounds and exotic scales became regular, accepted elements of the rock guitarist’s vernacular.

Driving around Hollywood today and comparing it with the Hollywood of 30 years ago, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the sorry state of today’s music industry. Glamorous office buildings that once housed record label offices now belong to film industry companies or the Church of Scientology or lie vacant. The Tower Records store that once graced Sunset Boulevard is long gone (there’s now a discount clothing store on that lot), and Hollywood billboards no longer tout new album releases. In fact, the only musician-oriented billboards on the Strip are ads for the L.A. Dodgers baseball team that feature members of Poison and Mötley Crüe.

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