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
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
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
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
This ’71 Gibson SG
Standard was “customized”
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
A Dallas Rangemaster Treble
Booster (serial number 193929,
non-original case) owned by
Paul Goodhand-Tait of ampaholics.
org.uk, who purchased it
from ex-Black Sabbath keyboardist
Nicholls believes it was Iommi’s,
but the guitarist is certain that
it isn’t his long-lost tone
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
To what extent do you use pedals for overdriven
and distorted tones as opposed to amp
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
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 …
Just wah wah?
That’s a great sound.
Yeah, until you have an aching foot
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
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?
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!