On the 45th anniversary of Black Sabbath's debut, and as their final gig draws near, Guitar World picks the best of the original lineup’s tracks—from “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Supernaut” to “Sweet Leaf” and “Dirty Women.”
30. "Sabbra Cadabra"
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
“Sabbra Cadabra” closes out side one of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band’s fifth studio album, originally released in December 1973.
Metallica frontman James Hetfield sites it as one of the albums most influential to his development as a guitarist, and Metallica covered “Sabbra Cadabra” on their 1998 Garage, Inc. album.
For this seminal track, Iommi tuned his guitar down two whole steps, resulting in (low to high) C F Bb Eb G C. When playing with tunings this low, he used slightly heavier strings (.009p, .010p, .012p, .020w, .032w, .042w).
With the guitar in this tuning, Iommi plays as if he’s in the key of E, with the opening riff based on the E blues scale as played on the top four strings within the first five frets.
30. “Behind the Wall of Sleep”
Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, “Behind the Wall of Sleep” may be closer in sonic terms to the blues-based rock the band played when they were still called Earth, but the lyrics perfectly fit with the gothic imagery that distinguished Black Sabbath as the prototypical heavy metal band.
“Sleep” may not have aged quite as well as most of the other material on Black Sabbath’s debut album, but Iommi’s crisp, distorted power chords still sound more intimidating than much of what passes for metal these days.
Inventing heavy metal and singing sympathetic songs about Satan was ballsy, but recording a song like “Changes” after delivering three of the darkest and heaviest albums of all time may have been Black Sabbath’s ballsiest move ever.
Here, Iommi puts aside his guitar to play piano and Mellotron while Ozzy sings about lost love. Geezer Butler’s lyrics may be simplistic and unsophisticated, but paired with the sweet melody and pleasant accompaniment they come across as innocent and earnest.
The song was also a good way to get girlfriends hooked on Black Sabbath before bludgeoning their eardrums with “Supernaut.”
28. "Never Say Die"
Never Say Die!
Ironically, Never Say Die! represented the death of the original Black Sabbath lineup, until the band’s reunion in 1997.
This straight-up fast rocker is played in standard tuning, which is unusual, as Iommi had been detuning his guitar at different increments—a whole step, a step and a half, and two whole steps—for years.
The primary intro/verse riff is built around an open-position A5 power chord, with a repeated progression that moves from A5 to B5 to D5 and back to A5. On the pre-chorus, Iommi introduces harmonized lines thirds apart.
On his subsequent outro guitar solo, he combines a melodic approach with chromaticism, relying on licks based on A minor and major pentatonic, along with the A Dorian mode (A B C D E F# G).
27. “Dirty Women”
By 1976, Sabbath were unraveling from within and without.
The members were lost in a haze of booze and drugs, and were feeling the pressure of being viewed as musical dinosaurs as punk and new wave came into fashion.
The band responded by cleaning up its sludgy sound on Technical Ecstasy, with mixed results. However, the record did yield one classic cut with “Dirty Women,” on which Ozzy sings an ode to ladies of the night over a bed of menacing, layered guitars and swirling synths.
“Women” has endured and is currently the only Technical Ecstasy song to be included on the band’s recent reunion tours.
26. “After Forever”
Master of Reality
Master of Reality was Black Sabbath’s sludgiest, doomiest album up to that point in their career, in no small part due to the fact that it marked the first time Iommi recorded with his guitar tuned down to C# (a move that would inspire generations of future metal and grunge acts).
And yet, “After Forever” is marked by one of Sabbath’s brightest instrumental hooks, a positively jaunty descending Iommi riff that is paired with some melodic “lead bass” work from Butler.
It’s a standout moment on Master, with the band veering shockingly close to pop territory—or as close to pop as you can get in a song with lyrics like “Would you like to see the pope on the end of a rope.”
The last section of “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” is actually a cover of a song originally released in 1967 by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, formed by legendary British drummer Dunbar following his departure from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
“Warning,” the A-side of Retaliation’s debut single, could easily be mistaken for an outtake from Cream’s debut, Fresh Cream, as it displays all of the signature elements of classic late-Sixties blues rock.
Black Sabbath build the original three-plus-minute single into a 10-and-a-half-minute excursion, slowing it down to a heavy, grinding tempo and incorporating an adventurous “free” middle section devoid of strict time, followed by a hard-rocking shuffle.
Between 6:20 and 9:03, Iommi performs an adventurous unaccompanied guitar solo that demonstrates his aggressive signature style. It’s interesting to compare the first section of the Sabbath track with the Dunbar original, as Iommi plays many of the guitar riffs virtually note for note.
24. “Into the Void”
Master of Reality
“Into the Void” has earned high praise from many guitarists, most notably Eddie Van Halen.
“That riff is some badass shit,” he said.
“It was beyond anything else I had ever heard before. It was so fuckin’ heavy. I put it right up there with the intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The main riff where Iommi chugs on the low E string hits you like a brick wall. Every band on the planet still does that. It is a staple of rock and roll.”
23. “Killing Yourself to Live”
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
This track is, in a sense, two songs in one. The first two and a half minutes are straight-up hard-rock thunder, with Iommi unleashing one hooky riff after another (including one in the chorus that sounds something like a sludged-up take on Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”).
The band then abruptly shifts gears and goes full-on blues-boogie-doom for the equally riveting second half. Interestingly, there are two versions of “Killing”—a pre–Sabbath Bloody Sabbath take, recorded at a show in 1973, appeared on the 1980 live album Live at Last.
While musically similar, the live version includes sex-and-drug references that were later excised. Another thing it doesn’t feature? The words “Killing yourself to live.” Instead, during each chorus Ozzy merely yells, “Yeah, you’ll die!”
22. "Sleeping Village"
“Sleeping Village” is the centerpiece to the ambitious trilogy that closes side two of the U.S. release of Black Sabbath, the 14-plus-minute “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning.”
The song was also an important element in the band’s most acclaimed early gig, as it was performed live on John Peel’s influential Top Gear radio program in November 1969, three months prior to the release of Sabbath’s debut LP.
The dark, moody acoustic-driven “A Bit of Finger” abruptly shifts into “Sleeping Village,” a series of Jethro Tull–style transitions through different key centers, grooves and melodic signature riffs, arriving at a pair of dueling lead guitars at 2:14.
This track is not as well known as Sabbath’s biggest tunes, but in it one can hear the sounds that influenced grunge acts like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.
21. “Electric Funeral”
Black Sabbath could have easily called this song “Atomic Funeral” for its anti-nuclear war rhetoric, but their mark of true genius was calling it “Electric Funeral,” simply because that name was so much cooler.
Iommi’s use of a wah-wah pedal to accent the riff is equally brilliant, giving his guitar a voice-like quality that makes the relatively simple melody much more interesting.
The middle “rave-up” section may be a throwback to the band’s Sixties roots, but when Ozzy repeatedly chants “electric funeral” in a disembodied monotone, it somehow sounds futuristic.
Vol. 4 is generally considered Black Sabbath’s “cocaine” record, and no track better backs up this notion than “Snowblind,” a virtual ode to the white stuff.
Ozzy even whispers “cocaine” between stanzas in the first verse. For Vol. 4, Black Sabbath relocated from gloomy London to sunny L.A. and were expanding not only their minds but also their sonic and stylistic palettes.
Even so, “Snowblind” is for the most part a lean and concise midtempo rocker boasting a captivating arrangement and a pile-driving riff. Credit here goes to Iommi and perhaps, as the band specified in the album’s liner notes, “the great COKE-cola company of Los Angeles.”
The murky, slow-crawling riff that opens “Cornucopia” stands as one of the best and heaviest moments on the largely experimental Vol. 4.
But it’s just one of many enticing components in the song. The oddly accented verse section, for one, reportedly flummoxed Bill Ward to such ends during recording that he feared he would be fired from the band. It’s an example of Sabbath pushing out on the boundaries of their music to such an extent that the members themselves were struggling to keep up.
As Ozzy wails midway through “Cornucopia,” “People say I’m heavy/They don’t know what I hide.”
18. “Sweet Leaf”
Master of Reality
In addition to inventing heavy metal and thrash, Black Sabbath can also be credited with creating—or at least perfecting—the genre known as stoner rock.
This unabashed love song to marijuana, complete with Ozzy imploring listeners “come on now, try it out,” boasts a massive riff that is as thick and dark as the resin at the bottom of Trey Anastasio’s bong.
This song may be the best argument in favor of legalizing marijuana, but, then again, the creative output of James Franco and Seth Rogen suggests otherwise.
17. “Children of the Grave”
Master of Reality
With a driving groove that gallops like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, “Children of the Grave” inspired countless metal bands, including Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica.
Iommi tuned his guitar down one and a half steps to C#, making the already heavy riff sound even heavier and blazing a path for downtuned metal nearly two decades before the great unwashed masses caught on to this secret.
In his 2010 autobiography, Osbourne called it “the most kickass song we ever recorded,” a sentiment supported by the numerous times Ozzy performed the song during his solo career.
16. “The Writ”
Perhaps one of the most underrated tunes from one of Black Sabbath’s most underrated albums, “The Writ” was inspired by the numerous lawsuits they faced at the time, particularly those filed by their former manager.
Butler’s lyrics are scathing and direct, but Osbourne’s emotional performance really drives the message home.
The slow-boiling groove of the song’s first half— particularly Butler’s trippy, percolating bass line—is truly menacing, but after about five minutes the mood shifts as Osbourne sings “everything is gonna work out fine” in a child-like voice.
15. “Wheels of Confusion”
This eight-plus-minute opening cut makes clear from the outset that Black Sabbath have shifted gears from Paranoid and Master of Reality.
The multi-sectioned song begins as if the listener has been dropped into the middle of an in-progress blues jam, with Iommi wringing anguished, squiggly notes from his Gibson SG.
From there it spirals through a maze of tempos and textures, wrapping with an extended double-time outro (sometimes titled separately as “The Straightener”) that finds Iommi unleashing some of his most fiery lead lines. It’s a roller-coaster ride of a song that showcases a looser, more adventurous Black Sabbath and portends the experimental music to follow on the rest of the album.
14. “Tomorrow’s Dream”
Though it was unsuccessful when issued as a single, “Tomorrow’s Dream” is an impressively direct and focused rocker and one of the few straightforward tracks on Vol. 4.
There are no double-time sections, no extended jams, no song-within-a-song transitions. Rather, “Dream” locks into a tight groove based around an Iommi E-minor riff and more or less rides it straight through to the song’s end.
And though the chorus section changes things up with some dreamy triad arpeggios—a move that produces the song’s biggest hook—Sabbath includes it only once in the entire song.
13. "Wicked World"
Included on the U.S. release of the band’s eponymous 1970 album, “Wicked World” is a testimony to the disparate influences that contributed to the Black Sabbath sound.
The song begins as a fast swing—a rhythmic feel not often associated with metal—but the strains of progressive blues/rock innovations forged by Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and Jethro Tull are also evident.
An arrangement technique exploited by all of these bands is the accent on unison guitar/bass figures, and “Wicked World” is constructed from a steady progression of powerful riffs played in sync by Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler. A testament to Iommi’s creative genius is the interlude section that enters at 2:15, with unusual chordal arpeggiations doubled by the same track played backward and followed by a virtuoso unaccompanied Iommi guitar solo.
Named after Ward’s “nibby” goatee beard (and not “Nativity in Black,” as many assumed), “N.I.B.” is a rare instance in Black Sabbath’s recorded catalog where the spotlight shines on Geezer Butler’s bass playing.
In fact, the song starts with a solo by Butler, who plays his bass through a wah pedal before settling into the main melodic theme, which he also wrote.
(The solo is credited as “Bassically” on the U.S. release of Black Sabbath, but it’s part of “N.I.B. on the U.K. version.) Iommi’s tasteful, melodic solo is another highlight of this tune about Satan romancing a woman.
11. “Planet Caravan”
“Planet Caravan” is one of Sabbath’s most stylistically divergent cuts, built around a two-chord acoustic guitar figure, melodic bass work, congas and vocals that were filtered through a Leslie speaker for maximum warble.
The song’s laidback tempo and spacey vibe are so far removed from the traditional Sabbath sound that Iommi says, “It was almost…‘Um, should we do this?’ ”
Pantera grappled with a similar question when they decided to cover the tune on 1994’s Far Beyond Driven, leading Phil Anselmo to pen a perfunctory defense in the album’s liner notes: “It’s a tripped out song. We think you’ll dig it. If you don’t, don’t fucking listen to it.”
10. "War Pigs"
The opening track from the band’s 1970 sophomore release, “War Pigs” evokes all of the dark and dramatic elements that define Sabbath’s greatest work.
At this early stage, Tony Iommi was not yet detuning his guitar, but even at standard tuning, his mammoth tone is truly demonic. The track begins at a dirge-like tempo, with overdubbed police sirens foretelling the terror to follow.
At 0:54, the song shifts to a faster tempo, with unison guitar/bass figures played in call-and-response fashion with Ozzy’s vocals. Iommi mirrored his rhythm parts with double tracking, but at 3:45 there are suddenly three soloing guitars, each venturing in a different direction.
His soloing style is earmarked by blazingly fast hammer-ons and pull-offs, as well as wide string bends, executed on his custom set of super-light strings (.008, .008, .011, .018w, .024 and .032).
A significant ingredient in the dark vibe of Iommi’s solos is the incorporation of minor modes. In his outro solo to “War Pigs,” he utilized the E Aeolian mode (E F# G A B C D) along with E minor pentatonic (E G A B D).
9. “The Wizard”
Depending on which member of Sabbath you ask, “The Wizard” is either about a drug dealer or Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
Either way, it doesn’t much matter, as the real star of the show is the uncharacteristic harmonica part that anchors the song, which is only rendered more striking by the fact that it was played by none other than the Ozzman himself.
Add in Bill Ward’s tumbling drums and Butler and Iommi’s open and airy riffing, which functions almost solely as an accent to Ozzy’s vocal and mouth harp, and you have one of the more unusual and, dare we say it, fun tracks in the Sabbath catalog.
8. “Under the Sun/Everyday Comes and Goes”
Ozzy begins Vol. 4 “lost in the wheels of confusion,” but he ends the record with this treatise on self-reliance.
Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of Oz as self-help guru, “Under the Sun” is wholly convincing with its chugging riff and exotic guitar runs, not to mention its crushing rhythm.
The “Everyday Comes and Goes” section ups the tempo and gives Osbourne an opportunity to unlease his anxiety and paranoia, but Sabbath ends the song and, by extension, the album, on a confident note: “Just live your life,” Ozzy declares, “and leave them all behind.”
Although “Supernaut” apparently was written primarily as a vehicle for Bill Ward’s concert drum solos, it has endured over the decades for its truly mammoth guitar riff.
The song is simultaneously heavy and funky, driven in parts by a sizzling hi-hat pattern uncannily similar to the intro of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.” Iommi’s jittery guitar solo was probably the result of the massive amounts of cocaine the band ingested during the Vol. 4 sessions, suggesting a little Super Fly influence as well.
6. “Iron Man”
When Ozzy Osbourne first heard Tony Iommi’s “Iron Man” riff, he allegedly commented that it sounded like a huge, iron man walking around.
Butler liked that image, so he based his lyrics on that idea as well as the Ted Hughes children’s novel The Iron Man, published in 1968.
“The title was from a comic book, Iron Man,” Butler told author Martin Popoff in Black Sabbath—Doom Let Loose.
“I was into English comics, but not really American comics. It was about this entity that turns into metal and is incapacitated at the end, just lying there. He can’t talk at the end of it, but he has this knowledge that can save the earth from catastrophe.”
Speaking to Guitar World in 2004, Geezer Butler described Black Sabbath’s most famous song as “an afterthought.”
And what a glorious afterthought it is: a two-minute-and-53-second blast of heavy-rock angst, wrapped up in a hard-charging Iommi riff that seemingly anticipates everything from late-Seventies punk to early Eighties speed metal.
Today, “Paranoid” stands as one of the most recognizable and celebrated songs in rock and roll, having been performed everywhere from Buckingham Palace (by Osbourne and Iommi in 2002) to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden, where Ozzy joined Metallica onstage for a rendition.
And while, as Butler stated, the band members themselves initially didn’t think much of the song, Sabbath’s British record label certainly did. “Paranoid” was not only released as a single, rising to Number Four in the U.K., but the ensuing album, originally slated to be called War Pigs, was retitled at the last minute to capitalize on the song’s chart success. Oddly, however, the cover art of a helmeted man brandishing a sword and shield—a “war pig” come to life—was left untouched.
4. “Hole in the Sky”
Black Sabbath may be best known for their heavy riffs, but they could also swing as hard as they pummeled. Perhaps the best example of this is “Hole in the Sky,” which strikes like a 20-ton wrecking ball.
Black Sabbath were seven years and six albums into their career by this point, and while outside forces threatened to tear them apart, the band, at least in a musical sense, was tighter than ever. Iommi’s guitar tracks marched in lock step with Butler’s bass lines and Bill Ward’s swaying drum cadences, and his multitracked rhythm layers sounded like an advancing army of guitars, resulting in some of the biggest and most powerful tones he ever laid down on tape.
Butler’s lyrics are unapologetically drug-inspired, written from the perspective of a pessimist, with psychedelic visions not far removed from those of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. Although the lyrics seem like cryptic nonsense, Ozzy sells them with a commanding performance that convinces listeners that he’s truly experienced the magnificent visions he’s describing.
3. “Symptom of the Universe”
The first four minutes of “Symptom of the Universe”—not including the 49-second acoustic guitar instrumental intro titled “Don’t Start (Too Late)” often considered part of “Symptom”—are the true beginnings of thrash metal.
Led Zeppelin may have previously featured a similar chugging low-E eighth-note guitar riff on “Communication Breakdown,” but “Symptom” had all the quintessential musical elements of thrash, including flatted-fifth dissonance, half-step intervals, manic drumming and a vocal performance on which Osbourne sounds like a demon possessed.
After those first four intense minutes, Sabbath shifts into an acoustic hippie-rock jam that, somehow, perfectly complements the previous onslaught. The contrast between the two segments makes the heavy section sound even heavier, a clever arrangement trick that countless thrash bands have used to great effect ever since.
Four short years after this song came out in 1975, Diamond Head recorded “Am I Evil?” which they admitted was inspired by “Symptom.” Four years after that, Metallica recorded an entire album, Kill ’Em All, that heavily borrowed from several elements of “Symptom,” including the main riff, the breakdown near the two-minute mark and the transition before Iommi’s fiery solo.
2. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Tony Iommi once told Guitar World that “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” came together in a “spooky old dungeon” in a castle in Wales, and it certainly sounds like it.
The title track and opening cut from Sabbath’s fifth studio album is one of the band’s most chilling compositions, a murky, musty doom-metal workout with lyrics that seemingly depict a slow descent into madness—and which Ozzy delivers in a banshee shriek.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is also a study in extremes, with verses constructed from a lumbering and lurching Iommi riff juxtaposed against a chorus of smooth, oddly jazzy noodling. But it’s all just a warm-up 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, if not in all of heaven, hell and heavy metal itself.
1. “Black Sabbath”
With its dissonant diabolus in musica tritone guitar riff, haunting slow-tempo mood and chilling lyrics about Satan, “Black Sabbath” is ground zero for the genre that became known as heavy metal.
While numerous other heavy metal contenders came out before it, “Black Sabbath” transcended the distorted blues guitar riffs and love-obsessed lyrics of its predecessors and introduced a new dark, menacing and evil sound.
“We were in the rehearsal room one day, and I came up with this riff,” Iommi recalls about the song, which was written in the summer of 1969. “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 that no one had tried before.”
The 1963 Italian horror film Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff, which was showing at a theater across the street from the band’s rehearsal space, inspired the song’s title. This was also one of the few instances during Black Sabbath’s initial 1968–1979 chapter where Ozzy Osbourne wrote the lyrics instead of Butler.
Still, Osbourne was inspired by Butler’s account of seeing a dark, shadowy figure standing at the foot of his bed one night, a short time after a book of black magic that Osbourne had given to him mysteriously disappeared.
When the band members adopted Black Sabbath as their name in August 1969, they totally devoted themselves to creating the musical equivalent of a horror movie and became the founding forefathers of one of rock’s most enduring subgenres.
Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images; page 60, March 2015 Guitar World