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Tony Iommi: "In them days, you had to MAKE your sound – you couldn’t buy a gadget that made whatever sound you wanted"

Tony Iommi
(Image credit: Future)

Perhaps it’s the big, belting crang that introduces us to “War Pigs”. Maybe it’s the wailing drawl that rips into frame without warning, scaring many a tike shitless before the lead riff of “Iron Man” bleeds in. Or, if your roots lie in rock tones a tad more melodic, it might be the unsuspecting first notes that start “Fairies Wear Boots”. But whatever it is, there’s something about Paranoid – the smash-hit second album by British hard-rock pioneers Black Sabbath (one could brand them metal, but purists’ eyes would roll, then glare in one’s direction) – that almost any fan of the guitar can note as a pivotal moment in their musical upbringing. 

Paranoid didn’t invent heavy rock music, but its impact on the genre is downright undeniable. The record launched a generation of would-be virtuosos into the limelight, many of whom started out with their fretboards in hand as nothing more than a conduit to imitate Tony Iommi. The same is true 50 years on from its October ’70 release – Paranoid hasn’t aged a day, sonically, and its themes are more relevant now than ever before.

Such is something Iommi himself certainly doesn’t take for granted. Australian Guitar calls him up on an otherwise average weekday morning to chat about the album’s recently issued deluxe edition – and though one might expect such a rock ’n’ roll legend of his caliber to shrug through the motions of such an interview, Iommi is instead warm and buoyant and bursting at the seams of his bath robe with excitement. 

Given a chance to reminisce on Black Sabbath’s halcyon days, there’s a palpable sense of giddiness in his voice; Iommi doesn’t so much care to chat about the band’s so-called ‘peak’ or the years that saw him rake in millions per tour – it’s the blood, sweat and tears which bred Sabbath’s first few albums that he’s most proud of.

How’s everything in your corner of the world right now? 
I’m hanging in there! I do what everybody else does in my world – I go out for walks in the morning, play for a bit, do some other stuff around the house… There’s quite a bit going on in my life, but not a lot musically I must admit. I have done a few things in the studio recently – I did a track with the chap from Pink Floyd a few weeks ago, Nick Mason. Yeah, we did a little thing for charity which was really good. And that’s about it, really. I’ve been putting a few ideas down with my engineer here and there – I’ve had all these riffs piling up over the years, and finally I’ve decided to start putting them down.

Are you working towards a new solo album? 
Well, for the minute I’m just putting ideas down to get them out of my head. I could possibly do a solo album, either instrumentally or with vocals – I don’t know yet, though, I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing to do with these ideas. I just know that I want to do them, because I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of riffs that I’ve come up with and recorded very roughly, but I need to actually do something with them properly – y’know, with drums and bass and whatnot. 

Originally, the idea was to do some scoring work for a few films, or maybe something else along those lines. They could be used for a lot of things, really. So I might do some of that, some with singers and some without singers. That’s the good thing about the position I’m in at the moment – I can’t go on tour, but I can still pick and choose what I want to do.

The hot topic right now is the 50th anniversary of Paranoid, which you and the rest of the Black Sabbath team have celebrated with a downright stunning re-release. It’s crazy to think, honestly: the year is 2020, the music industry has changed in so many unthinkable ways since the ‘70s, and yet Paranoid remains an absolutely essential entry point for any true rock or metal fan. Were you thinking about the longevity of the record, or whether it would have a lasting impact on people back when it was all coming together?
Well, you never really think about that when you’re actually recording an album – you never think about how long it’s going to last or whatever. You make albums because you enjoy doing it, and that’s what you’re about. Y’know, back then we were just desperate to get music out – that’s all you’d think about in them days. But you’re right, it’s brilliant that the early [Black Sabbath] albums are going stronger than ever. New generations are catching onto this music we’d done back in the ‘70s as if it was something the label put out last week. And we’re finding more of it being used in things like car commercials and movies – the songs keep popping up everywhere, which is great.

How do you feel about the record today? Do you see it as the classic we all do, or do you have to look at it more critically, from the lens of the undeniable virtuoso you’ve grown into? 
Those records are history, them. They’re part of my makeup, and I really like them. I really do! It’s great when I can listen back to the Black Sabbath album and the Paranoid album, and be reminded of the band we were in them days. They’ve got that character in them, which only we had in them days. They were done with meaning and they were done basic as could be – they weren’t overly produced or anything like that, we just sort of went into the studio, plugged in and played our hearts out! 

It wasn’t like things are today, where you’ve got all these computers and you’re overdubbing this, modulating that, putting this effect on that track… In them days, you had to make your sound – you couldn’t buy a gadget that made whatever sound you wanted, you had to put the hard yards in and build a tone yourself. And I felt that was great, really, because you believe in it more when you’ve made it all yourself. 

I mean, my guitar sound – I worked on that. I overloaded the amp and stuff and found my own ways to get that heavy sound. In them days, you couldn’t buy amps that sounded like that naturally – I had to play around with them and mess with the electronics so that it would give me that sound. 

Same with any of the effects on the album, they were always made by us. It wasn’t like today, where you can go into a folder on a computer and go, “Yep, we’ll use that tone.” You had to make your own effects with pedals and amps – which I think was such a big part of Black Sabbath back then. It was good to be able to do that, because it made us creative.

That makes it even more impressive when you consider how little time you all to get that stuff in order for the Paranoid album – you were in the studio just four months after the self-titled Sabbath record came out. What drew you back into the fray so quickly? Were the ideas just pouring out in those early years? 
Well… No [laughs]. What it was was that we’d done the first album, and it started taking off and we were selling a pretty decent amount of records after a few weeks. And we were working hard – we were doing shows every night, and the label wanted us to go in and do another album fairly quick to keep the momentum up. So we started writing some songs, and I used some of the ideas that I’d had while we were touring. Because we were doing nightclubs and bars, and we’d play these ridiculously long hours as the house band. 

When we played in Germany, we’d play seven 45-minute spots in a single night –
a bloody long time in them days! You’d play 45 minutes, then you’d have a 15-minute break, and then you’d play another 45 minutes, and so on… And of course, we only had enough songs for one 45-minute set, so we had to extend stuff and make stuff up on the spot. And that, in a lot of ways, helped us create some of our most interesting songs. I’d come up with different riffs in the jam section, and we had a couple of songs come out of that – “War Pigs” was one of them. 

Then when it came time to make the album, we went into the studio and got everything ready, but we didn’t have enough songs for a proper album. We recorded everything we had, and then the producer, Rodger Bain, said, “We need one more song!” So in my lunch break, when the other guys went out to get a pint and a pie or whatever they had, I sat in the studio and just twiddled around for a bit, and I came up with “Paranoid”. 

It was a tricky one, because Rodger said, “We need a song that’s short – it can’t be long,” and I sort of went, “Oh God!” I’d never written a short song before! All the Sabbath stuff was quite long in them days, because we liked those big, epic numbers that took you for a ride. But I came up with this riff, and when the band came back I played it to them, and they all seemed to like it. And it was really basic – it was just going to be a bit of filler for the album because we didn’t have enough songs, but of course it ended up becoming a hit! Geezer did all the lyrics for that one, so obviously it was great. 

Had you been sitting on that lick for much time before then, or was it truly spur-of-the-moment? 
No, I had no idea to base it on, I just came up with it in that moment. I tended to do that with a lot of the stuff on those Sabbath records – a lot of the stuff we’ve put out in the past was written there and then; the ideas would come up less than a minute before we’d put them through the amp. I mean, in this day and age, now, I put ideas down and go back to them, because I have the technology that allows me to. But in them days, you didn’t have that luxury – you had to come up with a riff and put it down on tape, and that was it. 

But it was a lot different then as well, because the scope was broader: there weren’t many bands around playing the sort of things that we were playing in them days. So we had a lot of creative real estate to come up with different riffs. Nowadays, there’s millions of bands playing metal riffs, so you can quite easily step on any of those toes and say, “Well, that sounds like that,” or, “They’re copying them.” But with our early stuff, you couldn’t say any of that because there was nobody else doing it. 

You were really just trying to capture the immediacy of the excitement, and the energy you all had in those days. 
Yes, absolutely! I mean, on the first two albums we only had a short period to put these ideas down. With the first album, we only had a couple of days. We took a few more days to do Paranoid, and that was sort of a luxury, really, because we wouldn’t have to put everything down in the same day – we could take a few days to really figure everything out and get the songs right, which was good. 

But it was all the same procedure – you’d set your gear up, the engineer would put a mic in front of the cabinet, and you’d play like you’d play at a gig. You’d give it the same sort of energy, the same power, and then you’d capture it all on tape. The bloke at the console might say, “Oh, can you do it again?” But most of the songs, we didn’t play that much at all – we played them a few times each and that was it.

That’s all you really need when you have a great song on your hands! 
That’s right. When you do too many takes, you can start to go too deep. And I have gone down that road, later in life, where I’d get too involved with the songs and I’d start changing things around – but the songs didn’t need it, y’know? I’d waste all this time chopping and changing, and then I would listen to the original idea and go, “Oh yeah, that’s what I was going for! That sounds better!” But in them days, you didn’t do that – you built it all up at that time, while the idea was still fresh on your hands. 

So when you’d play the songs from Paranoid live as the years went on, would you improvise much with the parts or take them in any wild directions, or were you always pretty staunch on playing by the rules? 
No, we’d improvise! None of those early tracks would sound the same when we played them live, because they’d either get a bit faster or a bit slower, or I’d play a different guitar, mess around with some different bits… They’d all be slightly different. And that, again, was a good thing because we’d be playing how we felt [the song] at the time when we’d play it. And that’s what’s good about writing the song and recording it fairly quickly – you’re capturing that sort of rawness, y’know, instead of working it all out and letting it turn into something else.

Quite often we’d play a song in the rehearsal and we’d play it one way, and then we’d take a break, do something else, and then come back to that song in a totally different way. Because we never played to metronomes and all that stuff in them days – you’d play it however you felt it, and whatever timing we’d start off with was what we went with. And we’d always end up in a different timing – it’d get faster or slower, or go through a few changes – but that was part of it, y’know? The feel, and where it took you, was so crucial to the energy of a song.

The second album is always a big stepping stone for bands, whereas the first is often a little more intimidating because you don’t have any real studio experience under your belt. What did you learn from doing the first Sabbath album that you were able to utilise, or take advantage of, when you were making Paranoid
Well I mean for us, that first album… We were very excited about it, but we’d obviously never done an album before, so it was a whole new thing for us. We’d never worked with a producer or had an engineer hovering over us. And when we did the second album, we had the same producer, Rodger Bain, so by that point we’d already worked with him, and that made it a lot easier because we sort of knew what to expect. We’d gotten friendly together, and it became a little team. 

And so it was a lot more comfortable to do the second album, really – mostly because there wasn’t that insane rush. With the first album, everything was rushed – we had a matter of days to get our stuff together and pull out an album, and most of the tracks had to be done there and then; you couldn’t have another go at them if you messed something up, which was a terrifying prospect for a small-time band doing their first record. So the second album was a lot more relaxed, as far as that all went. 

It was after Paranoid came out that we really felt the heat of it. Because that album went to number one – then it became a pressure for us. Because once you’ve been to number one, then the next album… Where are you gonna go with it? What is there to achieve?

The impact of Paranoid on heavy music was pretty much instant: it charted high right off the bat, and it wasn’t long before people started declaring it one of the greatest and most influential albums of the rock genre. It feels like that would’ve been a blessing and a curse, though. Did those early wins put much pressure on you, as a songwriter, to hit those same highs or achieve that same level of success? 
The main pressure it put on us was around what kind of band we were. We were getting onto all these TV shows in England – we did Top Of The Pops because “Paranoid” became a hit single, and we were attracting a different type of audience which we didn’t really want. Y’know, we didn’t really want screaming kids and stuff like that, but that’s the crowd Top Of The Pops had – they had a lot of young girls and kids that listened to the radio. And we weren’t that type of band, y’know? 

We wanted genuine fans who would be with us right through to the end. But when we did “Paranoid” as a single and we did all the TV stuff, we started having people come to the shows to hear “Paranoid” and then go home. And these sorts of people: they’d come to a show and see what else we were about, and then we’d never see them again. But we wanted to build up a solid base of real fans – and I mean yeah, some of them would have stuck around from the TV crowds, but we tried to get away from that scene. We didn’t want to be pulled into that image of being a pop band, because we weren’t! 

So after “Paranoid”, we said to our management that we wouldn’t do another single. And we didn’t, for a while – and then we did, but y’know, by that point we’d attracted the right people and we were touring properly on our own merit.

Look at where metal has come in the half-century since then: so many bands have tried to emulate the sound and spirit of Black Sabbath, but nobody has ever really cracked the code. What is it about the authenticity of Black Sabbath that makes it impossible to replicate? 
Well, I wouldn’t know [laughs]. I think it’s one of those things where when you play as that unit, that’s what it is. If you ever hear Queen play, you can tell it’s Brian May playing the guitar – y’know, he’s got that sound. And different people have different things that make their sounds so unique. It’s hard to copy that thing because it’s not just the way you play, it’s the vibrato, it’s the way your fingers move around the fretboard, it’s the energy you put into every note… It’s a whole range of things that makes that sound, and for me… Well, I don’t know how hard it would be to top because I can obviously do it – I can just plug in and get that Tony Iommi sound because I am Tony Iommi. So it’s hard to explain from another angle. 

How important was the creative chemistry that you had when the four of you got into a room together? 
That’s the other part of it. We had such a great chemistry. Generally, we’d get into a rehearsal room and just dick around for a bit, they’d wait for me to come up with a riff, I’d come up with a riff and they’d either say, “I like it” or, “I don’t like it,” and then we’d build a song from that. And everybody would come up with their parts around that riff, and then Ozzy would put some kind of melody on it, and then we’d build the song up. Everybody contributed to all their parts like their lives relied on it.

Were you ever swapping instruments or experimenting with different versions of the formula? 
We tried that – but it was a bit disastrous, really! Geezer and I decided we were going to do all the string sections ourselves, so we got ourselves a violin and a cello, and gave it a whack… And it was bloody awful. I mean it just didn’t work at all. And then I bought a sitar and tried that, and that was crap. We used to try different things, and I think as far as I got, I played the flute on a couple of tracks… Well, I think it made it onto one track in the end. But that was about it, really.  

I remember reading that just before you recorded Paranoid, you had a few small modifications made to your Gibson SG – like the inclusion of Simplux pickups. What was the importance of those? 
In them days, the pickups were P-90s, and they used to whistle and feed back all the time. Because we played loud, and because I used the amp and I had this preamp modified to boost the channel, it used to pick up everything – taxis and street dogs and God knows what else – and the pickups were very sensitive, so they’d sort of start whistling and feeding back and sounding absolutely horrid. So I tried all different ways to stop that – insulating the inside of the guitar with copper, and then having the pickups dipped in wax… All sorts of bloody things. 

And eventually, I met a guy who was a pretty decent guitar builder; I teamed up with him and put the money in for him to make me something custom. The idea I came up with was to build my own pickups and do a 24-fret guitar – and it sort of worked, surprisingly. Mainly just for myself at first, of course, but it benefitted other people as well. I mean, my guitar used to scream like mad – it was uncontrollable! The volume, the treble boost and the booster, all together, just made for this unbearable screech. And I wanted to try and stop that. So by working on that, we created the pickups that are still part of the Monkey SG today.

You’ve played a lot of different guitars throughout the years, but it’s always that SG you come back to in the end. Is that just the quintessential heavy rock guitar? 
When we did the first album, it was a Strat, but the pickup went on the second song. I only had the SG as a backup, really – I bought it ages beforehand, but I’d really never used it ’til then. But I had to use it when we did the first album, and that was basically the first time I played that guitar properly. It was a bit of a worry at the time, but after that session, that became the guitar. I did have a white, three‑pickup SG as well, which is actually the one I recorded Paranoid with. But the red ‘Monkey’ guitar was the one I used all the time onstage. 

I didn’t have a lot of guitars back then – I only really had that one to play on, so I used to carry it around with me everywhere, and it became like gold to me. I’d have it right next to my bed in the hotels, I wouldn’t let anyone touch it and I wouldn’t take my eyes off it – it was one of those… It’s just a precious thing, y’know? It’s a part of me. Everyone has that thing where it’s your thing, and if you lose that, you lose your value. And that became my thing.

Did you look at it as your good luck charm? 
Well, it was! It was a good luck charm and a bad luck charm, because I used to have so many bloody problems with it. Because of the setup I had – I used lighter strings, and the neck on this particular one, in them days you could touch it and it would go eww-ooh-ah-ooh-ah-eww. Y’know, it wasn’t very stable. But I got used to it over the years and had a lot of the issues fixed, and it became glued to me. I really liked it! That’s why we recently did another model of it at Gibson.

Do you find that you’re still finding new ways to explore the guitar and enhance your arsenal of techniques? 
I don’t really know – I mean I’m certainly not a technical player, by any means. Especially these days, you see some of the kids out there and they’re just brilliant, y’know, they’re inventing all these new techniques with scales and stuff… I’m not that type of player. I’ll come up with something that I like, and that’s it – it might be very basic, but to me, music is about what you can present; it doesn’t have to be technically brilliant, it’s just about how you put it out there. 

So if you come up with a simple riff that really captivates you, then that’s as good as all the other guitar players out there doing all these crazy fretboard gymnastics. And those kids are fantastic, y’know – I couldn’t do that stuff! But I’m from a different era, and I still play in the same vein I did in them days. That’s what I was about with my playing. I play what I can manage, really.

So what’s next? Do you still feel like bringing Sabbath back for the 2022 Commonwealth Games? 
Yeah! We spoke about that, and we were asked by them if we’d do it… But y’know, you never truly know what’s down the line. It depends on how healthy everybody in the band is by then. But it’d be nice to do it – I’d really love to play with the guys again. Certainly no big tours, of course – but I’d like to do a few shows with them. We’ll have to see. 

I do miss actually being onstage and playing – I miss playing shows in general, because that’s really what it’s all about, y’know? It’s that chemistry between the fans and yourselves which creates that real euphoria. I’m not into doing most of the other stuff you have to do to be a career musician – photographs and interviews and all of that stuff. What we’re about is the music, and that’s it.