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.
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. The came and fetched me, I played, and they said that I had the job.
Read the complete interview with Tony Iommi in the Holiday 2008 issue of Guitar World, on sale October 14!