Something Wicked This Way Comes Traversing heaven amp Hell With Tony Iommy

January 1, 2010

Black Sabbath was released on Friday the 13th of February in 1970. Mere months previous to that fateful date, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terrance “Geezer” Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne had been performing blues tunes in Birmingham clubs as the band Earth—but during a trip to Germany they had transmogrified into the first fully realized heavy metal band, and upon returning to England soon captured the imaginations of legions of new fans. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Jeff Beck Group, and Deep Purple had already been playing heavy music—and Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore even had the “dressed all in black with crosses hanging around neck” thing going on—but Sabbath were the first to directly invoke the Dark Lord in their lyrics and surround themselves with the Gothic and horror movie imagery that has been de rigueur for the genre ever since. They may not have actually sold their souls to the Devil, but they looked and sounded as if they had, and that’s what really mattered. That Iommi continued playing using homemade prosthetic “thimbles” after slicing off the tips of his second and third fingers in an industrial accident may also have fuelled speculation of supernatural intervention.

Sabbath’s eponymous debut—recorded on a pair of 4-tracks in two days—was quickly followed by Paranoid and Master of Reality, which levitated the band to platinum record heaven and formed the core of the nascent Metal Canon. Several strong albums followed, but the band’s trajectory eventually arched earthward, and by 1979 had gone to ground with the forced departure of Osbourne. Within weeks, however, Ronnie James Dio of Rainbow fame had stepped into Ozzy’s shoes, and despite the band’s nearly terminal dysfunction, Black Sabbath was effectively revitalized, releasing the critically acclaimed Heaven and Hell in 1980, followed by Mob Rules a year later. The band had already begun its seemingly endless rounds of personnel changes by then, but for most of the Dio period—including a short-lived reunion in 1991—the lineup was Iommi, Butler, and drummer Vinny Appice.

This version of Sabbath got together again in 2006 to record three bonus tracks for the retrospective Black Sabbath The Dio Years CD, released the following year. Things went so well that the four members decided to continue on as Heaven & Hell. “We’re really still Black Sabbath, as it is basically the same lineup we had when we recorded the Heaven and Hell album in 1980,” says Iommi. “But we call ourselves Heaven & Hell because that enables us to play the Sabbath stuff we’d done with Ronnie, without having to do ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Iron Man’ and all that. After playing the Ozzfests and the Sabbath shows for so many years, it’s a nice change to play the material recorded by the Dio version of the band.” Heaven & Hell issued 2007’s double-disc Live from Radio City Music Hall, played 2008’s Metal Masters tour, released The Rules of Hell (a 4-CD box set), and toured again in 2009 to support a new studio album, The Devil You Know [Rhino].

As for Heaven & Hell’s ultimate destiny, Iommi prefers to leave it open-ended: “We agreed that we’d do the tour and then have a break and if we wanted to do it again after that we would. We didn’t want to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to be together for ten years or something, because as soon as you say that, it’s dead.”

Iommi has also been commissioned to score Mike Fleiss’ remake of the 1963 horror movie Black Sabbath, bringing him full circle—as the band had originally taken its name from the film.

You recorded The Devil You Know mostly live in the studio.

Yes. In the early days Black Sabbath would just write material, rehearse it, and then go into the studio and play it live in the same way we’d play it in concert. We wanted to get back to that basic idea of walk in and play and walk out.

Did you record the solos at the time you recorded the basic tracks or some time later?

We got the basic tracks out of the way and then I recorded the solos later once I had lived with the tracks a bit. When you’re writing the riffs and the songs and God knows what else, you’re not really thinking of solos—you’re thinking about whether those parts have gone well. Then, when you come back to play the solos, sometimes it’s like, “Oh no, it’s awkward to play on this bit,” and you have to think about it for a while. That said, I never completely work solos out ahead of time—I like to just go in and wing it.

Did you layer your guitar parts to get some of those really huge sounds?

I actually did very little layering on this album. Mostly what you are hearing is just one or two guitars. Sometimes in the past I have layered up to eight guitars, but this time we wanted to get more of the natural sort of sound we had on the first few Sabbath albums.

This ’71 Gibson SG Standard was “customized” by John Birch and used by Iommi in the studio.
RANGEMASTER PHOTOS: PAUL GOODHAND-TAIT Originally a red Gibson SG Junior given to Iommi by Leslie West, John Birch converted it to a two-pickup lefty.
A Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster (serial number 193929, non-original case) owned by Paul Goodhand-Tait of ampaholics., who purchased it from ex-Black Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nicholls. Nicholls believes it was Iommi’s, but the guitarist is certain that it isn’t his long-lost tone machine.
John Diggins built this instrument for Iommi in the early ’80s. It has a walnut strip down the middle and features John Birch pickups with rails added and a Washburn Wonderbar vibrato. It was used on tour and for the “Zero the Hero” video.
There’s a monstrously chunky sound at the beginning of “Follow the Tears.” Is that just one track?

That’s a guitar with an octave divider.

There’s a really singing solo tone low in the mix at the beginning of “Bible Black” that’s sort of unusual for you. How was that done?

[With poker face] I used a guitar. I was playing through the Engl Powerball, a 100- watt amp that has more overdrive than my Laneys, and probably also a Tube Screamer. We set the track back in the mix because with that much gain it got really noisy the moment I stopped playing.

Did you use the Engl a lot on The Devil You Know?

Yes. That was the main amp on the record, through an Engl 4x12 cab. I also used my Laney signature model amps on a few rhythm tracks, but I wanted to try something else to see what different sounds and textures I could get. The Engl’s sound is more raw overall, and the individual notes are a bit raspier, which I like. The Laneys are great for chords, I must say, but I mostly used the Engl on the album.

How about guitars?

I used the old Jaydee custom SG that John Diggins made for me, though I also did a few overdubs with one of my Gibson Signature SGs.

Black Sabbath and Heaven & Hell both tour with bands that have a lot more low end and distortion, yet you are always heavier than they are. Is heaviness in the gear, or the fingers, or is it more a state of mind?

Geezer and I play very close to each other. He’ll play the same riff I’m playing, and instead of just pumping away he’ll bend the notes in the same way that I’m bending the chords, and that makes the parts sound a lot bigger and wider. We’ve always tried to make the sound as big as we could because we were just two guys, and that’s one of the ways we did it. We also experimented with tuning down in the very, very early days, long before anybody else had done it, to try to make the sound as wide as we could.

Did you play in standard tuning on the first two albums or were you already tuning down then?

The first two albums were recorded in standard tuning, but I think we tuned down a whole step to D on stage. The first album we tuned down on was Master of Reality, and for that I believe we tuned down a step-anda- half to C. We tried everything. Of course it’s all about getting the sound you hear in your head. You set your amp a particular way, or tune a particular way, or use a particular vibrato to get that sound.

After the accident you were encouraged to begin playing again when you learned about Django Reinhardt.

Yes. Up until that point I hadn’t heard of Django Reinhardt, to be honest. I was young. But once I found out that a similar thing had happened to him [Reinhardt’s third and fourth fingers were paralyzed due to extreme burns], it really made me look towards him in all ways and check out everything he had done. After the accident I was told to pack up. I went to the hospital and they said, “You might as well get another career.” But hearing Django inspired me to really go for it. Unless you’ve had that sort of accident, you can’t really appreciate how difficult it is because it’s just another world. Before the accident I played with all my fingers, but afterward it was like, “God, what do I do now?” And, “How do I play this bit?” I tried to find new ways of playing them, but there were lots of things that I couldn’t do because it just wasn’t possible at that time. Not being able to feel the strings was a major part of it because you can press too hard or you don’t know where you are. It’s a matter of working for years before you get used to it.

Do you feel like after all these years of playing that you are used to it?

There’s still a lot of preparation that I go through before I walk onstage, and people really don’t know that. Even before we go on tour there’s a lot of preparation. For example, I have to put leather on the thimbles and make sure it’s the right thickness. The leather I use is from a jacket I bought in Toronto 35 years ago, which was old when I got it. I’ve been cutting little pieces from it all these years because it is just the right type of leather for the thimbles. I’ve tried newer leather and it doesn’t work because it grips the strings too much. I put little pieces on the tips of the thimbles, and then rub the surfaces down on a mirror or something so that the leather bonds in, and I also rub the edges down so that they don’t catch on my other fingers.

It’s a miracle that you happened to find that jacket when you did.

It would probably be a classic now if I hadn’t cut it up [laughs]. But yeah, it’s been a useful jacket, and I’m going to have to find another one at some point.

Can’t you have someone else make the thimbles?

I’ve tried and they’re not the same. I’ve had various hospitals make their versions but they haven’t worked. I’ve gone back to the basic idea of having them made out of a resin sort of thing now—but its still the old Heath Robinson job, and I still have to stick the leather on. I wish I could find something that was indestructible, but after a while the leather wears off. And you come up against other things. Like, a couple of weeks ago we played at an open-air festival in Europe and it rained really hard and water got on the thimbles and really affected them and consequently affected what I could do.

Vibrato has always been a fundamental part of your sound. Which fingers did you use for vibrato after the accident?

I mostly used my index finger and my little finger—and I still do. For a long time after the accident I played with just those two fingers, because the little finger had to take the place of the other fingers and play the parts that I wasn’t able to do with them. It was a real struggle to play full chords in those days, so I had to adapt and create a style of my own. When I’m wearing the thimbles I can’t feel the strings, and that takes a lot of getting used to.

Trills were also a hallmark of your sound, particularly in the early days. Did you also use your index and little fingers for those?

No. At first I did them with my little finger, but I couldn’t quite get the speed I wanted. Then, once I got the thimbles together, I mostly did them with my second and third fingers.

After the accident you experimented with a lot of modifications to your guitars. Describe a few of them.

I began experimenting while I was still playing my Strat. I used to have it in bits constantly, with the neck off, and was always doing something to it. It was all a matter of trial and error to find ways to make it more comfortable for me to play given my limitations. I had the frets taken down, I had polyurethane put on the fretboard so that the thimbles wouldn’t catch on the frets and rip the leather, and I used really light-gauge strings. I even put scalloped fretboards on a few guitars, but I wound up changing them back because I couldn’t keep the guitars in tune.

Did you also bypass the tone controls on the early guitars?

Only for the bridge pickup—I had it wired straight through from just the volume control. The tone control on the neck pickup was still connected.

That makes sense because it sounded like you were rolling the tone back on the neck pickup to get some of your tones.

That’s right. The reason I bypassed the other tone control was that I used to keep knocking the thing off with my hand, so I just had it wired on and said, “That’s my sound and that’s it.” I’m pretty basic in that way—I don’t use a lot of gadgetry and whatnot. Some people put a million pedals out there and create the sound like that, but I like to create it from the guitar tone.

One device that you did rely on for your sound, though, was a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster

Yes, I had one in the late ’60s, and while I was playing in a band with Bill Ward this guy who played in another band with Bill said to me, “I can make that sound better for you,” so I let him take it and when he brought it back it had a lot more sustain. I used it on all the early Sabbath stuff, right up until Heaven and Hell.

Why did you stop using it?

I hired a guy to rebuild all my amps and believe it or not he found it in my trunk and threw it away! I couldn’t believe it. And since I didn’t know which components had been changed, I’ve never been able to reproduce it. I ran the modified Treble Booster into the bass input of my Laney amp and it created my sound. Without it, the early Laneys were underpowered. The Treble Booster was noisy, though, and caused a lot of problems, particularly in the early days when we were touring in the U.S. For example, we played at an ice hockey rink in Philadelphia called the Spectrum, and all the machines that kept the ice frozen affected the Treble Booster so I got this horrendous buzzing sound. We did actually cancel some gigs because of the noise, because I couldn’t get my sound without using the Rangemaster.

I read somewhere that you were playing through two 50-watt Marshalls in the early days.

“I listen to things that are musical— jazz, blues, anything really—but not so much metal. I don’t like to hear stuff where I might think, ‘Oh, I’ve played that riff before’ [laughs].”

Are they on the first record or had you already switched to Laney by then?

I used 50-watt Marshalls before we recorded, but had switched to the Laneys for the first Sabbath album. Laney was a company from the same town as the band, and we both started up at the same time, so we tried to help each other. They were really good and gave us amplifiers and I stuck with them for many years. I’ve gone off to Marshall and to Mesa/Boogie at various points, but I’ve always come back.

Speaking of Marshalls, don’t you have a JCM- 100 head that was modified by Paul Reed Smith?

Yes, I’ve still got that in storage at home.

In what ways was it modified?

I don’t have a clue. I used it just briefly, to be honest. It’s weird that you’d ask about that amp because I hadn’t really thought about it in the 15 years or so since he built it for me, but just before leaving on this tour I told my tech that I’d like to try it out on the road just to see what it was like, as I’d only tried it in the studio before. We didn’t do that, but I’d still like to at some point.

Let’s talk pickups. You’ve used everything from the original P-90s in your SG to your signature Gibsons. What were the differences and how did your tone change with each new pickup?

The Gibson P-90s had real problems with feedback and picking up noise, so I experimented with repotting them, dipping them in wax, putting special casings around them, and everything else to try to eliminate those problems. After that John Birch and I tried to develop a double-pole pickup that would perform better, and we tried lots of different versions until we found one that was pretty well in the ballpark. Then John Diggins came along and worked for me as a tech. We wound up forming a company together and he made me some more pickups. As to how the different pickups changed my tone, the very early P-90s were a bit more muffled, so my tone has probably become somewhat brighter over the years, with a bit more attack. Then again I suppose it also depends on the combination of amps and all that sort of stuff—but in those days you were really limited to just a few amps.

Didn’t Seymour Duncan make you a really highoutput pickup?

He did, yeah, and I think I used it on the Heaven and Hell tour back in the ’80s. I can’t properly remember because there were so many guitars and different pickups flying around then that they were practically coming out of my ears. But Seymour still sends me pickups and other gadgets.

One gadget you’ve always used is the Tycobrahe Parapedal wah. What do you like about it so much?

We used to use Tycobrahe sound gear and at one point they made a small number of these pedals and gave me a few of them. Hendrix or somebody like that had one, so I tried one and liked it. In those days it was hard to get a pedal that could take a lot of power and not be too noisy, and that one worked well, so I just stuck with it. Soon they went out of production and now they are hard to find, so although I’ve still got the old ones, now I use the Chicago Iron Parachute Wah, which is an exact copy. Why do I like them? I just like the character of them I suppose. But I still like to try different stuff—I also used a Cry Baby on the album—and I’d like to find the ultimate wah for me—but it’s taking time [laughs].

To what extent do you use pedals for overdriven and distorted tones as opposed to amp distortion?

On the last album I did use a Tube Screamer, and that’s what I was saying about the racket that was going on [mimics sound] for some of the solos through the amp. I’m always trying stuff just to see what it sounds like, and, really, to try and recreate more or less what I had years ago with the Rangemaster.

Talk briefly about the guitars you play live.

I use the two original prototypes of my Gibson Tony Iommi Signature SGs that have my signature humbuckers in them, but I mostly use the guitar that John Diggins built for me many years ago. I needed a second guitar back then, and he said, “I’ll make one at home for you,” and I said, “Oh right,” and this thing turned up and I kept it for a while and never played it. But eventually I tried it and liked it so I stuck with it and it became a great favorite. I retired the very old cherry red Gibson SG and now it is in a case at the Hard Rock Café.

Do you still play Strats?

I’ve still got some Strats, yeah, and once in a blue moon I’ll take them out and play them. They are just stuck in cases in my studio, which is sort of a shame, though I did get rid of a bunch of guitars purely because I wasn’t using them.

You use a lot of vibrato, but you rarely play guitars with vibrato tailpieces.

I don’t know why, but from day one I’ve had this thing in my head about wanting to create vibrato without using one, and I’ve always felt a little bit fake when I did. I have a vibrato tailpiece on one of the guitars that I play live, but I only use it to get the divebomb bits on “The Mob Rules.” To be honest, I can’t even use one now because I’ve gotten so used to playing without it, though I know that you can get some great effects. Jeff Beck is obviously an example of someone who really uses it properly, as is Eddie Van Halen.

Roger Bain produced the first three Sabbath albums. Is there anything about those records that’s directly attributable to him as a producer?

We were one of his first projects. He knew more than we did because in those days we had never been in a studio and didn’t have a clue—but as far as creating sounds, I think we created them, and he and the engineer just stuck some mics up. It wasn’t rocket science. The engineer we had at that time [Tom Allom] was very good, though, and he was a bit more technical.

There are some great multi-tracked guitars on those records, mixed in interesting ways.

Thanks. I would record overdubs right away after recording a main track, but on those first three albums I never got involved with the recording or mixing or anything. We just played and Tom would do the taping and then we’d leave. We did the first album in a day or two, and the second one didn’t take much longer.

On “Black Sabbath,” right after the fast riff going into the solo part, you’ve got double tracked guitars and on one side there’s …

Wah wah.

Just wah wah?


That’s a great sound.

Yeah, until you have an aching foot [laughs].

On “Wicked World” during the fingerpicked section there’s what sounds like reversed tape.

Yeah, I think that might well have been. You couldn’t get an effects box that made that sound then, so you had to do it yourself

It sounds like the solo on “Warning” is doubled with tape delay at the end.

That’s right. But I’d also record two solos and play them back together on a lot of songs. For some reason I got away from doing that after the first few albums, but I don’t know why, because I always liked the effect.

our tone on “Paranoid” is a little different than on the other tracks on the album

I played that song on a white 3-pickup SG Custom.

Is that a ring modulator on the solo?

It was some sort of tone generator thing that Roger put on there after I’d left.

Is the tone generator also producing the synthlike sounds on “Planet Caravan”?

I think so.

Run through tape delay?

Yeah, probably.

You also get a nice clean solo tone on that song. Is that the Laney?

Yeah, and I’m playing the cherry SG using the neck pickup, or possibly the bridge pickup just turned down.

Lester Bangs famously compared the music on Black Sabbath to Cream, and “Warning” in particular sounds very much like them. To what extent did Cream and Clapton influence you?

I liked Clapton and sort of took to that style of playing, but more from the John Mayall period than Cream. When he joined Cream, I wasn’t that keen to be honest.

There’s a live recording of Mythology, the pre- Sabbath band you were in with Bill Ward, doing a very Cream-like version of “Spoonful,” but at the end you go into this solo that sounds more like freeform jazz than Clapton. Were you also interested in that kind of music?

Bill Ward and I both liked jazz and jazz drumming, and we would try to put that in the songs. Then when we formed Earth with Geezer and Ozzy, we were mostly playing blues with jazzy bits, which was great for me because I could play a lot more and try lots of new things.

You played a lot of blues early on, but it never became a huge part of your style in the same way that it did for many British guitarists. Do you feel a kinship with the blues, and have you ever thought about doing a blues record?

I’ve thought about it a few times actually, and I absolutely would like to record a blues album someday. In fact, Deep Purple’s keyboardist, Don Airey, used to come over to my house and we’d just jam playing jazz and blues and it was really great, though we didn’t record any of it. But, yes, recording a blues album would let me play all of the blues things that I’d like to play. With Sabbath and Heaven & Hell I play for the song, and we don’t do 12-bar blues tunes—but on a 12-bar I could really go to town!

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