Rarely can you point to a single musician and say, "he and his band mates practically invented a musical genre on their own."
But that description isn't much of a stretch for Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, one of the most influential and oft-imitated guitarists in the history of music.
After losing the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in an industrial accident at age 17, Iommi began to tune his strings to lower pitches so that the homemade thimbles he'd fitted on the ends of his injured fingers could bend guitar strings more easily. But along with making the strings easier to bend, these alternate tunings gave Iommi's riffs a more ominous, heavy sound; one that changed rock forever.
Gibson SG in hand, Iommi merged the blues with gothic, minor-key riffing, creating the perfect foil for a carousel of remarkable frontmen, including the incorrigible Ozzy Osbourne, the legendary Ronnie James Dio and the stately Ian Gillan.
The sole constant member of Black Sabbath, Iommi's signature tone and riffs birthed heavy metal. Today, Guitar World pays tribute to one of rock's greatest axemen by revisiting 10 of his greatest riffs. Enjoy!
The riff that started it all. Dissonant, haunting and just plain scary, this was Iommi's mission statement for Black Sabbath. “We were in the rehearsal room one day, and I came up with this riff,” Iommi said. “We all went, ‘Bloody hell! That’s really different!’ That riff pointed us in the direction that we thought we should be going. We wanted to do our own stuff, and this was a direction no one had tried before.”
While there's definitely a pronounced blues feel to the endlessly satisfying main riff from this somewhat rare track (it was included only in the U.S. version of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut), Iommi explores other influences as well. A testament to Iommi’s creative genius is the interlude section that begins at 2:15, with unusual chordal arpeggiations doubled by the same track played backward and followed by an unaccompanied Iommi guitar solo.
Though it might be a stretch to associate Black Sabbath with the punk movement that would follow less than a decade after their debut, "Paranoid" certainly has many of the genre's characteristics. Aggressive and filled with attitude, Iommi's riff sets up this flattening, hard-charging, but tantalizingly brief Sabbath classic.
Though it's possibly more famous for Osbourne's vivid lyrics, describing a truly larger-than-life, superhero-like character, what would "Iron Man" be without its main riff? Working in tandem with Ozzy's vocals, Iommi stamps out any and all opposition with this classic.
Though "Supernaut" was allegedly conceived as a showcase for Bill Ward's concert drum solos, it has become a longtime favorite, mostly due to Iommi's monstrous riff. Chunky and mountainous, Iommi matches Ward's incredible percussive power blow for blow.
"Under the Sun/Every Day Comes"
Iommi's titanic riffing on this track might make you think the title is a reference to the sun's implosion. Its urgent tempo and flair for the dramatic not only forecast the speed of thrash metal but the theatrics of symphonic metal.
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"
Aside from being one of Black Sabbath's most iconic tracks in general, "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" actually features a variety of classic Iommi riffs. While the verse riff lurches and lumbers along, the chorus explores Iommi's more jazzy side. But it’s all just a warmup for the song’s centerpiece, the crushing “Where can you run to?” midsection, which is built around perhaps the most devastatingly heavy riff in the Sabbath catalog, and an unmistakable template setter for decades of metal to follow.
"Symptom of the Universe"
The first four minutes of “Symptom of the Universe” are truly the beginnings of thrash metal. It has all the quintessential musical elements of thrash, including flatted-fifth dissonance, half-step intervals, manic drumming and a vocal performance where Osbourne sounds like a demon possessed.
"Heaven & Hell"
"Heaven & Hell" loudly and proudly announced the beginning of a new era for Black Sabbath, one that didn't include its famous founding frontman. Though its production is a bit more welcoming than Sabbath's Osbourne-era material, Iommi sounds just as fierce. The opening riff to this track is the sound of floodgates being opened.
"The Mob Rules"
With Ronnie James Dio's more operatic pipes, Black Sabbath's music took on a more arena-type, anthemic feel. The opening riff to "The Mob Rules," is almost ... dare we say it, fun! Though Dio's lyrics still focus on humanity's dark side, he has a levity that Iommi reflects in the song's opening riff. Though it was certainly different, it showed that Iommi was always versatile and willing to lead Sabbath into uncharted musical territory.