Tony Iommi: The Eternal Idol

Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2008

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 them 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.

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.

GW With Earth you were playing blues-based rock. What led to that seismic shift that transformed Earth into Black Sabbath and the unique new sound you created?

IOMMI The song “Black Sabbath” came first. We were in our rehearsal room one day and I came up with this riff. We all went, “Bloody hell. That’s really different. That’s great.” The sound just came about. We weren’t working on it or trying to come up with something different. That riff pointed us in a direction of where we thought we should be going. We wanted to do our own stuff, and this was a direction that no one had tried before.

GW Several songs that Earth recorded—“The Rebel,” “Song for Jim” and “When I Came Down”—have surfaced over the years in snippets, but none of the full songs are readily available. What is the story behind those songs?

IOMMI We didn’t write those songs. They were written by a chap named Norman Haines. At the time we were managed by Jim Simpson, who was a local Birmingham guy. He insisted that we record these songs that his friend Norman had written. We just wanted to play so we recorded them. We wanted to write our own songs and make our own record, but this was just an initial effort. We had never been in a recording studio in our lives before that. It was a very basic studio. Even back then we never really wanted those recordings to see the light of day. Those songs sound nothing remotely like Black Sabbath.

GW You used Laney amps during the band’s early days. What influenced your decision to use their amps?

IOMMI Laney started up as a company about the same time that we did as a band. They’re a Birmingham company, so we approached them to see what kind of deal we could get. Since we were from Birmingham as well we thought it would be nice to use something that was from our own hometown. Lyndon Laney, who owns the company, was very open to the idea, so he gave us some amps. Back then the amps were really basic, and they used to blow up. Then they tried to make a 200-watt model, and that blew up, too. There were growing pains, just like you have with everything. In some ways we were testing things for Laney, but I really liked the sounds that I got from his amps. I had a couple of Marshalls before that, but we wanted to have a lot of equipment, and to be blunt about it, we couldn’t afford to buy any. Lyndon gave us a lot of stuff, and we were really pleased with that. We used it, liked it and got it for nothing, so it was great for us. We worked with him over the years. For a while I moved on to something else, but I came back to Laney. Of course, now Laney makes my own signature model amp [the GH100TI].

GW When you were making the first album, you started recording with your Stratocaster but then you switched to your Gibson SG. What made you decide to stick with the SG from then on?

IOMMI The SG was the only other guitar I had at the time. I initially had this right-handed SG, and I used to restring it and turn it upside down so I could play it left-handed. I heard about someone who had a left-handed guitar, and he played it upside down. I decided to contact this guy, and we swapped guitars. I got the SG just so I’d have a spare guitar, because I loved the Strat. We went into the studio to record the first album, and just after we finished “Wicked World” something went wrong. No sound was coming from it. In those days you couldn’t go to the store and buy a new pickup. We had only finished the one track, and all of a sudden the guitar was gone. We only had so much time in the studio to make the record, so I switched to the SG. Because I recorded everything on the SG, that became my sound, and I stuck with it.

GW What was your setup in the studio then?

IOMMI It was just the SG into a [Dallas-Arbiter] Rangemaster Treble Booster into the Laney amp. I plugged into the bass [input] on the amp back then. It was a hell of a racket but it was a good sound. I used to pick up every possible [electronic] interference with the Rangemaster. It was great until we started playing places like the bloody Philadelphia Spectrum, where they had all of these machines to make ice for the hockey rink. You wouldn’t believe the racket that those things can make!

GW Black Sabbath continued in a rather consistent direction for the first six albums, but Technical Ecstasy was a rather significant shift. What happened there?

IOMMI Basically, I took on the creation of that album by myself. I was just left to it. We had a number of different people playing on it, for a start, like Gerald Woodruffe on keyboards. It became very experimental for us. I was in the studio for endless hours by myself, farting about and trying something else. I was even using Vox AC30 amps.

GW On Never Say Die! your guitar playing stretched out quite a bit from what you had done on previous Black Sabbath albums.

IOMMI We did go out on a limb with that album because it was a weird time for us. Ozzy had left the band, and I had already booked a studio in Toronto, of all places. A couple of days before we left for Toronto, Ozzy decided to come back to the band. When we got to Toronto, we sat around trying to write the album. We rented a cinema in which to write songs during the morning and afternoon, and we’d go in the studio to record at night. It was the middle of winter, and the cinema was bloody freezing cold because they didn’t turn on the heat during the day. It was a bit hard, so that’s probably why the tracks are different from a lot of the other things we’d done. There were a couple of jazzy songs, and Bill sang “Swinging the Chain” because Ozzy refused to sing it. It was a very difficult time. I suppose we got a bit lost, but I like a few of the songs that we did for it.

GW What finally led to Ozzy’s departure from Black Sabbath?

IOMMI After we recorded Never Say Die! and did a tour with Van Halen, we ended up in Los Angeles and tried to make another album. It really went to bits then. That’s when the drugs were at their full force, and it just wasn’t happening. We couldn’t get Ozzy to do anything. The rest of us weren’t exactly angels, but we could still function. We knew we had to do something, so we decided to get another singer. It was either that or break up the band, which nobody wanted to do. It’s like a factory: if somebody leaves you don’t close it down. It was sad to see it happen, but it was the only thing that we could do.

GW The Heaven and Hell album was a bold reawakening for Black Sabbath. Your guitar playing, in particular, seemed to be more technical and inspired than it had been in a while.

IOMMI I was so inspired by working with Ronnie [James Dio]. Working with Ozzy for all of those years, I knew roughly what he was going to do or what he was going to sing. Ronnie was completely different. He would sing across riffs and chords, and it opened up a lot more possibilities for what I could play. We were at such a low point when Ozzy left the band, but when Ronnie came along it was great to really be working again and doing something. It gave us a purpose, and a challenge as well. With Ronnie we didn’t know what was going to happen next, and we knew that we really had to work to make it happen.

GW You only made two studio albums before Ronnie left. What happened?

IOMMI When we recorded the live album [Live Evil] everything went pear shaped [British for “horribly wrong”]. A lot of rumors were being passed around, and we listened to them. People were telling us that Ronnie was coming into the studio after we’d left and changing everything. It was all rubbish, really, but it came to a head, and we started arguing about it. We finally decided that was it, and we started looking for another singer.

GW After Ronnie was gone, Ian Gillan joined Black Sabbath to record Born Again. For that tour, the band made some Stonehenge props that I understand became the inspiration for the Stonehenge sequence in This Is Spinal Tap.

IOMMI Our story is almost exactly the same, except our Stonehenge props were too big. Geezer came up with the idea, and we thought it sounded pretty good, so we wrote the idea down on a piece of paper. They spent months making the Stonehenge stage set, and we didn’t see anything until it was done. They delivered it to us in Birmingham where we were rehearsing, and we couldn’t believe the size of it. It was so big! We didn’t know how we were going to fit in anywhere we were supposed to play. We were only able to use the full set at two outdoor shows we did—the Reading Festival and some festival in Ireland. We carted the whole bloody thing all over America, and we were able to use only half of the set at most. It was too tall.

GW Was the next Black Sabbath album, Seventh Star, supposed to be a solo album?

IOMMI I had gone off on my own and was working on a solo album, but it ended up being a bloody Black Sabbath album. I wasn’t in control of things then. The label said that I owed them a Black Sabbath album. Originally I wanted to use different singers on different songs, which is what I did when I finally released my first true solo album in 2000 [Iommi]. But it was so difficult in those days to get labels to allow their artists to guest on other people’s albums. When Glenn Hughes came along, I decided just to do everything with him. If I used different singers it would have taken forever to make that album.

We did some shows afterward that were horrendous, because Glenn was in a bad state. He just didn’t have the confidence, and it was difficult anyway because the album was called “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi.” It forced us to do shows as Black Sabbath, which meant that we had to play songs like “War Pigs” and “Iron Man,” but with Glenn singing them. He did a great job, but he didn’t last that long. We had to bring Ian Gillan back to finish the tour. That was a tough period for us.

GW What led to the Black Sabbath reunion with Ozzy in the late Nineties?

IOMMI We had gotten together for Ozzy’s “final” show and played two or three songs with him in 1992. In 1997, we got a call from Sharon [Osbourne], and she asked if we’d be interested in doing some shows with Ozzy. It was a low-pressure situation—nothing more than playing a few shows and no big agreements. I thought that sounded pretty good. I asked if they had asked anyone else yet, and they said that they wanted to ask me first.

Then they asked Geezer, but they didn’t ask Bill. At the time Bill was going through a lot of problems, and they probably thought it would make things too complicated.

We did the shows, and they went well, but I knew that we had to get Bill back in it. We got him back, and off we went. It was lovely to play the songs as the band had done them. The audience reaction was just great. We all had buried the hatchet, and we were a band again.

GW Initially, Heaven and Hell was formed for a single, one-time tour, but it’s now turned into more than that.

IOMMI That was another thing that wasn’t planned. We’re just taking it as it comes. When the label wanted to put out the Dio Years compilation, they asked me if I had any old recordings that we had never used. There were a few things, but I suggested approaching Ronnie and seeing if he’d be interested in recording a few new songs. Ronnie came over to England to work in my studio, and we got to know each other again. It really fell into place. We recorded one song, then two, then three, in a really short amount of time. We played it to the other guys. They thought it was great, and off we went and finished those three songs. Then we decided to go out on tour.

We’re taking it step by step. We’re not saying we’re going to be doing this for the next 10 years; we’ve just done it because we really want to do it. That’s much better than saying that the band is going to be around forever. Getting back together with Ronnie this time is a totally different thing. We give and take a lot more all around. It makes it so much easier. If you become too stubborn in these things, they don’t last. It just blows to pieces. We definitely realize that this is it. We’ve dropped all of our egos and we’re getting on with it. It’s been great this time.

GW You’ve inspired a huge genre of music that is still going strong today. How does that make you feel?

IOMMI It’s fantastic to me. When I look at MySpace, I can’t believe all of the bands that are inspired by us. I’m always meeting guitar players who tell me that I inspired them to play guitar. I’m really proud to have had such a positive influence on so many people.

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