- Black Sabbath
- Tony Iommi
- Heaven & Hell
Watch Tony Iommi in Action at the bottom of this page!
Famous / Infamous for
Black clothes and silver crosses. Carrying on. While other Sabbath member came and went over the years, Tony remained the constant. And oh, yeah — how about inventing Heavy Metal? Sure, some bands were playing loud, heavy music before Sabbath, but they were blues-based or psychedelic. It was Tony Iommi who found and embraced the dark, eerie music and riffs that would launch a whole new musical genre. Where bands like Zeppelin for example, balanced heavy music with other styles, Sabbath made heavy their main thing. Whether you choose to call him the Father, the Grandfather, the Godfather of Heavy Metal, or all three — whatever — Tony's it!
Obvious: Before Sabbath was Sabbath, they were a rhythm & blues band called Earth. They played blues rock standards and some experimented with some "freestyle jazz odyssey," remnants of both are still evident on the debut album, Black Sabbath. There a some jazz background in Iommi that tends to manifest itself in his approach to soloing.
Not-so-obvious: Tony has mentioned Wes Montgomery, Les Paul, and Eric Clapton among his influences. And for all I know, they could be, but as far as I'm concerned Tony Iommi is an original.
Riffs, riffs, and more riffs. He's the Riff King — an endless fountain of great, heavy riffs that are instantly recognizable as pure Tony. It's been joked that every metal riff you've ever heard came from Iommi — it's either just sped up or slowed down. No one has created more, or better metal riffs than Tony.
Rhythm playing and meter. One of Tony's greatest strengths is his ability to lay back in the track. He never rushes. Instead he drags, and play behind the beat — the same way John Bonham played the drums in Zeppelin. This element creates great tension and heaviness in music. When you hear other people play Tony's songs — Ozzy's guitarists for example — they play on the beat, and thus never quite capture the feel of Tony songs.
Remarkable consistency. Over 30 years, Tony has never changed (or lost) his style. From the opening notes of the first Black Sabbath album to the closing notes of his latest solo album — Tony's the same guy — kicking out the same moody, plodding, Dinosaur riffs and tasty solos. His direction remains the same. He hasn't lost his will to kick-ass. His playing skills haven't deteriorated. What other guitarist can you say these things about? And live, Tony's like a machine — he never misses a note!
Not much, really. If I really want to nitpick, the only weakness is a relative one. People can discuss the merits of Iommi for ages before they ever get around to mentioning his lead guitar playing. His riffs, rhythm work, and songs, are just so damn strong that they tend to overshadow his lead playing. Now Tony is a very tasty, melodic, lead player who has good chops as well. But I don't believe the majority of people tend to think of him as a "lead guitar player," or see that as his primary strength.
Tony's rhythm tone is huge. If you see him live, the sound hits you like a punch in the chest and flattens you. He's got the original T-Rex driving a steam roller tone. Big, brown, and as heavy as can be. And it has been for over 30 years! Tony achieves this sound using both Gibson, and non-Gibson "SG style" guitars. Tony's SGs feature 24-fret necks and very high-output pickups. He runs his guitars through British, EL-34-based amplifiers. Although Tony has used Marshalls on occasion, he's been more loyal to Laneys. In fact, Laney now makes an Iommi signature amp head. Those are the basics of the sound, but Tony runs a large and elaborate stage rig. For complete details, go to his website: www.iommi.com and drill down 'till you find the gear section.
Tony's lead tone is quite bright, rather thin, and very piercing. He uses a lot of wah in his solos — derived from the impossible-to-find Tycobrahe Parapedal. This unique-sounding relic fom the 70s undoubtedly colors his lead tone in a distinctive way.
What makes Tony sound like Tony? Many things. It's much more than his lead style. As you may know, Tony lost the tips of two fingers in an accident when he was seventeen. He wears little leather-covered, plastic "finger tips" which fit over the ends of his two fingers to compensate for the loss in finger-length and reach. Though he overcame this as a playing obstacle years ago, the situation has colored his sound and style. For example, Tony must use very light strings, usually .008s because heavier gages tear up his fingers. So very early on, he began tuning down — often as far as C# to keep his sound heavy and ballsy.
And Tony's goal was always to make Sabbath sound as heavy and as full as possible. To that end, he used standard techniques such as palm-muting, downpicking, and devised other techniques to meet his goal. For example, Tony plays most power chords on the low E and A strings — even if it means playing them quite high on the fingerboard. Most players — especially those with large hands and fingers — play the same chords, but in the root 5 position on the A and D strings. Tony says: * "it definitely sounds darker and gloomier (on the E and A strings) which is the vibe I was after. You also get more of a chunk when you play it on the lower strings." He likes to let the open low E string note ring out whenever possible, chugging it and also doubling it with the E note at the seventh fret on the A string. He'll double the open low E string, and add vibrato to the E note on the A string to add a bit of a chorus effect.
Tony Iommi is also known for dark, evil-sounding music. This is achieved more through harmonic material rather than the physical techniques listed above. Perhaps the seminal Iommi trademark is the flatted 5th interval. Tony says: "I've always really liked because it's so dark and moody. The guys over at Guitar World tell me that this flatted fifth interval used to be called Diabolus in Musica which is Latin for the devil in music! For anyone who's confused, an example of the flatted 5th interval is the third note heard in the intro and verse parts of the song Black Sabbath. The first note is the root (G), the second note is (G) one octave higher, the third note is the flatted fifth (D flat). Tony's riffs have made the flatted 5th interval famous. Try to use it in a song a not sound like Tony. It's almost impossible!
Another trademark is using clean and distorted tones to create contrast — Tony calls it "light and shade." Jimmy Page called it "heavy and light — like a Led Zeppelin" but it's the same dynamic principle: setting you up with the velvet glove, then smashing you in the face with the iron (or Led) fist. In Sabbath's music, this usually takes the form of a quiet introduction for a thunderously heavy song, such as Embryo/Children of the Grave, or Children of the Sea. This may seem like old-hat now, but it was people like Page and Iommi who pioneered this practice in rock.
As to his lead style, Tony is a very percussive player and not a pure alternate picker. He'll alternate when he needs to, but he doesn't try to pick every note and uses a lot of downstrokes. He uses hybrid picking on occasion on things like Embryo. Iommi lead trademarks include trills — rapidly hammered notes and turns — licks where the root note is surrounded by higher and lower notes. He's primarily a Minor Pentatonic and Blues scale player, though you'll hear some Dorian and occasionally some Mixolydian.
Although some solos of Tony's contain beginnings and endings that are obviously worked-out, the middles usually have an improvisational feel that probably stems from some jazz influence. That said, even if a solo was originally improvised, once Tony's recorded it, he remains loyal to it. The solo you hear on the album is the solo you'll hear live.
Though he'll occasionally used a wider finger vibrato, the one I hear him use most during solos is nervous-sounding — fast and narrow. Probably a result of his false fingertip issues. Similarly he seldom bends a note beyond a whole-step. A very distinctive trademark of Tony's style is that he frequently adds finger vibrato to power chords. He does this to fill out the sound and make it bigger.
Tony Iommi in Action
by Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.
* Quotes reproduced from material on www.iommi.com.