Tony Iommi: The Eternal Idol
GUITAR WORLD What inspired you to play guitar?
TONY IOMMI Initially I wanted to play drums, but I wasn’t allowed to bring drums in the house because they were too loud. After that, I really fancied the idea of playing guitar, probably from seeing all the old rock and roll bands like the Shadows, who were a British instrumental band. I really liked the idea of playing instrumentals, and the Shadows were the only band in England that were doing that. The Shadows really got me into guitar.
GW How old were you when you started playing?
IOMMI I was probably about 12. I played accordion before that. Everyone else in my family played accordion, so I got one as well. In those days you used to just sit in your room and you didn’t know what to do, so I learned to play accordion. From there I moved on to different instruments, and I eventually discovered the guitar.
GW Was it a challenge to find a decent left-handed guitar?
IOMMI It was a big challenge trying to find any decent guitar, let alone a left-handed one. In England, the only ones you could find then were very cheap. If you wanted a left-handed guitar, you had to order one from a catalog and then wait three months for it to show up. A few years after I started playing, I was lucky enough to come across a left-handed Fender Stratocaster that somebody who worked in a shop had tucked away and told me about.
GW It’s fascinating how the factory accident led to you tuning down your guitar to make it more comfortable to play, but at the same time it also made what you played on the guitar sound heavier.
IOMMI Everything I did was to make it more comfortable for me, first and foremost. It used to hurt a lot to play because my fingertips were very sensitive. If my plastic fingertips ever came off, which did happen one time, my fingers would be sliced right open by the strings and there would be blood everywhere. I really had to work with my guitar setup so I could be able to play. There were some limitations, but I had to try to get over it. That’s how I came up with all of these other things, such as a 24-fret neck and lighter strings, so I could do more. But it really helped us get the sound we were looking for.
GW I would imagine that tuning down also made it easier for Ozzy to sing.
IOMMI Whenever we tuned down, he would just end up singing even higher, so I’m not sure it helped at all! All of a sudden he could reach the higher notes.
GW How did you briefly become a member of Jethro Tull?
IOMMI I was in a band with Ozzy, Geezer and Bill before we called ourselves Black Sabbath, and we were playing a show supporting Jethro Tull. That was the same night that [Tull guitarist] Mick Abrahams handed in his notice. After the show they asked me if I’d be interested in joining them. It was a bit of a shock. I felt really bad leaving the other guys in the band, so I asked them how they felt about it, and they said that I should join Jethro Tull. I called Jethro Tull back the next day, and they told me that I’d have to come down for an audition. I went, “Ah, fuck.” I’d never auditioned for anything in my life, and I hated being around crowds of people. But I did go to London, and there were dozens of guitar players there, including Martin Barre [who eventually became Jethro Tull’s guitarist]. I was just going to walk out of there, but one of the guys came running out and asked me to just give it a chance. I told him that I wasn’t going to wait around there with everybody; it just wasn’t my thing. He told me to go sit in the café across the road and have a cup of coffee and that they’d come get me when everybody was gone. That’s what they did. They came and fetched me, I played, and they said that I had the job.
GW The only performance you did with Jethro Tull was the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus [a circus-like event staged by the Stones in December 1968 that featured performances by the Who, Eric Clapton, John Lennon and many others]. What was that like?
IOMMI That was fantastic. It was very different, as nobody had tried to do anything like that at that time. It opened my eyes to a lot of other things. John Lennon was there along with Eric Clapton, the Who—all sorts of people, all in one go. I got to know a lot of people through that.
GW Why did you play only a few months with Jethro Tull?
IOMMI I felt really bad about being in a different band. When I went back to rehearsals with Jethro Tull, I took Geezer down there with me. We stayed at a place where one of the guys in Ten Years After lived, and Geezer was going to look for another band to play with. There I was at rehearsals, and Geezer was sitting in the back of the room. I felt so bad for him. It just seemed like it wasn’t right for me at that time.
Everything Jethro Tull did was right on time. You had to be there right at nine o’clock in the morning and then rehearse until lunch break. At lunch, the band was supposed to sit at a separate table from Ian [Anderson, singer]. There was Ian and then there was the band. They were separated from each other. I didn’t understand that, because I wasn’t with the band for very long. I walked over and sat down with Ian and everybody was telling me that I shouldn’t be seated there. It just seemed weird to me, because I was used to being a member of a band where we all treated each other equally. I’ve always gotten along very well with Ian, and I still stay in touch with him until this day. But it just wasn’t for me. I finally told him that I wasn’t comfortable with the situation, and he asked me to give it more time. My heart just wasn’t there, so I told Geezer, “Let’s get the band back together and get out of here.” We called Ozzy and Bill and decided to work really hard at what we were doing. We put our total commitment into it.
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