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The Eternal Idol
He shaped the course of metal with his fiendish riffs and wicked guitar tones. Forty years after Black Sabbath’s birth, Tony Iommi reflects on his riff-tastic career and his legacy as the grand wizard who defined metal for the ages.
Almost 40 years ago during the summer of 1969, an event transpired that changed music forever. When guitarist Tony Iommi banged out a heavily distorted three-note octave-tritone riff during rehearsal, he and his bandmates realized that they had invented a new sound that would make their band stand out from the other blues-based rock bands of their day. Singer Ozzy Osbourne penned lyrics about a black-clad Satanic figure, and the band named the song “Black Sabbath,” inspired by the title of a 1963 Italian horror flick starring Boris Karloff that was showing at the midnight movies in a theater across from the band’s rehearsal space. In addition to being the beginning of the band Black Sabbath (which formerly went by the name Earth), that moment was the birth of an immortal genre of music known as heavy metal.
Other undeniably heavy bands preceded Black Sabbath, among them Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who. But only Black Sabbath brought together all of the lasting elements that define metal, including minor pentatonic guitar riffs, occult-inspired imagery and a raw, aggressive sound. Arguably, no other metal band has been more influential than Black Sabbath. They alone have inspired several generations of bands such as Judas Priest, Venom, Iron Maiden, the Eighties heavy trinity of Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer, Death, Pantera and Mayhem, as well as nü-metal bands like Korn and Slipknot.
Through his discovery of the tritone/augmented fourth interval—once called diabolus in musica (the devil in music)—and his preference to write in minor keys, Tony Iommi became the founding father of heavy metal. Iommi’s contributions to the genre as a guitarist are encyclopedic, and one of his biggest innovations came about literally by accident. After chopping off the tips of his right hand ring and middle fingers while cutting sheet metal at a factory job, the left-handed guitarist experimented with various means to make the guitar more comfortable to play. One of his solutions—tuning down the strings a whole step or more—presented the added benefit of making chords and riffs sound heavier. Down-tuned guitars are commonplace in metal today, but Iommi invented the practice almost two decades before other players discovered their sonic benefits.
The band Black Sabbath has survived many personnel changes since that fateful day in 1969 when Iommi, Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward decided to change Earth’s name, image and musical voice, but Iommi has remained the one constant throughout. While the initial classic Ozzy Osbourne–era lineup released eight studio albums over a nine-year period, Iommi has kept Black Sabbath alive over the years, releasing 10 additional Black Sabbath studio efforts with a constantly revolving lineup, including the version with Butler, singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice that is now known as Heaven and Hell. “I can’t think of any other band that has been through that,” says Iommi. “Black Sabbath has had the same singers and drummers come and go two or three times. It’s gone around in circles.”
Today, Iommi remains as prolific as ever. In addition to getting together onstage with Ozzy, Geezer and Bill every few years to reintroduce classic Black Sabbath to new generations of fans, he keeps his creative juices flowing with Heaven and Hell, who continue to tour and are currently recording new material, and via solo efforts like 2000’s Iommi and 2005’s Fused. He’s also collaborating with Gibson on three new Tony Iommi signature guitars that should hit the market later in 2009.
To pay tribute to Iommi’s remarkable contributions to metal as a guitarist, Guitar World invited him to discuss his entire career and share stories about his lesser-known exploits, from the brief period he spent as a member of Jethro Tull in 1968 to how Black Sabbath inspired Spinal Tap’s legendary Stonehenge scene. Although the genre that Iommi fathered four decades ago may have officially reached middle age, thanks to Iommi and the legions of players he has influenced, it has never experienced any crisis.
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.