Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath Opens Up About His Battle with Cancer and the Struggle to Make '13'
Did Rick’s desire to capture that old feel extend to the gear used on 13, as well?
I knew that was his intention, but I was shocked when I walked into the studio and there’s like 20 amps there. I go, “What’s all these?” And the engineer said, “Well, we brought in all these vintage amplifiers for you to play.” I already had my own Laney signature amp there, but he’s like, “Well, these are old Seventies amps.” And I was, “Okay, let’s try them.” So I tried them, and I didn’t find one that remotely got close to the sound.
They thought just because the amps were vintage, they would produce that old sound.
Yeah. But anybody who had an amp back then, like the Who or whatever, would have them worked on and modified. I remember borrowing a Hiwatt from Pete Townshend in the Seventies, and I thought, Oh this is great, I love this. So I call Hiwatt and ask them to send some amps down. Of course, they sent some and they sounded nothing like Pete’s. That’s because he had them worked on! It was the same with the Marshalls. So this time I knew it wasn’t going to sound great, but they kept going on and on about all the vintage stuff.
At what point did you push back on the engineers?
They had this old Laney Klipp amp. I’ve been with Laney for a long time, and I knew the early ones used to blow up. So I said, “Blimey, I’m surprised that hasn’t blown up.” And they went, “Oh, no, it’s never blown up.” So I start to play, and I hadn’t been in there an hour and it blows up! [laughs] And they were like, “I can’t believe it’s blown up!” [laughs] So I go in the next day and they’ve got four of these Klipps. I don’t know where they’ve gotten them, because Laney can’t even get them now. I went, “Oh no. I’ve been down this route. I started off with this. I started this bloody stuff!” I’ve gone through all this and now I’m here, and somebody is telling me how to get my sound. That’s a bit weird. So I had to draw the line.
After all that, did you end up using your signature Laney model?
Yeah, the Laney Iommi model. I had two. I had one out about 10 or 12 years ago [Laney GH100TI]. And the new one, Laney TI100, which has a couple of channels. It’s got preamps and everything built in. I did the bass channel like I did in the early days. I used to plug into the bass channel with the treble boost to give it that sort of sound. In those days boosters were unknown. Nobody used them. It’s supposed to be a clean sound. So I tried the same method with my own Laney. At one point, Rick was saying it was too “metal” sounding. I just plugged it into the other input and said, “I can get the sound. I’m the one that started that sound.”
Did they also try to dig out your ’65 Gibson “Monkey” SG from the Hard Rock Cafe?
No, that’s still in the Hard Rock in New York. In those days, I used it because that’s what I had, like the amps. It’s what you had so that’s what you’d work with it. And I got used to it and I really liked it. But it was really temperamental. If you touched the neck, it would go all out of tune. And of course things come off in the years—bridges and stuff. So I stopped using it. It was in a case for years. And then we talked with Hard Rock about it, and I decided to retire it there. It’s better to be where somebody else can see it than be stuck in a box in storage.
What were your main guitars on the new record?
I’ve still got my old Jaydee [“Old Boy” SG], which I really like. J.D. [John Diggins] originally came along to work for me on the road, and he made this first guitar at home on his kitchen table. I kept it for a while and never used it. But then one day I started to use it and I liked it. So now he’s made me about four or five to go on the road with. For the recording, he made me a new Jaydee: a white one with an aged look. I used that, and I used my old Jaydee. Gibson Custom Shop made these limited-edition Iommi SG models, which are really great. I have the first six of those. But I don’t actually think I used one of them on this album.
Gibson also made me this custom ES-175 jazz guitar. Actually, they’ve been making it for me for five years. They made it for my 60th birthday, and I’ve just had my 65th, so I don’t know what happened. [laughs] It went wrong somewhere. Years went by, and I thought, Well, they’re never going to do it. And it turned up a week into recording. It’s a one-off black 175, and it’s really lovely. For the acoustic track “Zeitgeist,” I used a big Taylor [815L], which is a great guitar, and the 175 for the outro solo.
What were some of the main effects you used this time out?
My setup is quite primitive, really. I had a board built to use with Heaven & Hell, with a long delay, which I don’t use now, a chorus and the wah-wah. The wah-wah was the old Tychobrahe, which I’ve used for years. Then the company started making the Parapedal, and I use them now. I’m actually not sure what I’m using right now for the chorus.
Let’s talk about some specific tracks. How did “God Is Dead?” come together? Is that main riff one of the things you had stockpiled from your studio demos?
I actually came up with the sketches of that heavy riff when we were first writing at Ozzy’s house in L.A.
Geezer has a very active bass line in that track, which never gets in the way of your riffs. Can you speak about how your styles complement each other?
Well, we’ve really built it up from playing together all these years. He knows exactly what I’m going to play and can follow it. And we do the same things: he’ll bend the strings when I bend the chords and so on. Geezer always knows what to play, and I just love his style. He always knows how much to put in, and also what not to put in.
“God Is Dead?” has a relatively short solo break. Did you have that in mind from the start, or was it part of the editing process?
I never know how long we are going to do a solo part. On “God Is Dead?” it was actually longer, but Rick moved things a bit. He let the riff go for a bit and then brought the solo in. On some of the others, the ends become a jam and the solos go on longer.
“End of the Beginning” starts with a very simple early-Sabbath-style doom line, which you steadily build into an upbeat galloping riff. When you are writing, do you consciously think about how to structure build-and-release dynamics?
I suppose so. Once you start off with the riff, you never know where it’s going to go. You just put in another and then another, until it sounds like it flows. I’ve always done it like that. There are a lot of different riffs in some of them. You could make five songs out of one song, really.
That song also has two wild solos, which are both pretty long. Did you track those in pieces?
The end of that song was one of the jams where we kept it going. Geezer always follows me, so when I’m recording I always have to concentrate and think, Well, if I try something here and I go to the wrong thing, it might all go to pieces. That’s why sometimes I put the chords in, so I can then relax and work in a solo. And I know if I make a mistake in the solo I can do it again. But when you are doing the song live, there’s no room for trying things or for making mistakes.
Wait—so you did that outro solo live? Wow, was that nerve-wracking?
Yeah, it was. I told them, “Well, I’ll just play, and when I go back into the chords, you’ll know the end is so many from that.”