Tony Iommi Remains Heavier than Thou

February 6, 2014

It's an amazing achievement to be respected in your chosen style. It’s more amazing still to be so respected that you’re considered influential. If it can be said that you define your particular style, well that’s just plain incredible and rare. But what if you invented a style? That simply doesn’t happen, does it? It does, maybe once or twice in a lifetime, when planetary alignments, harmonic convergences, and tectonic shifts give us the Beethovens, Beatles, and Hendrixes of the world. The plural is used, but we all know damn well there’s only one of each of them. The very same thing is true with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. With one sinister riff in a tune named for his band (which was itself named after a similarly sinister Boris Karloff horror movie), Iommi changed everything back in 1970. Sure, there was heavy music before Sabbath, but no one put it all together like Iommi and his mates—Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and one John Michael Osbourne—put it together. The bass and drums were crushing, wild, and crazy, and Ozzy was then, as he remains today, a force of nature. But when people sing heavy metal music, it’s Iommi’s monstrous guitar riffs that they sing. His guitar is the voice of doom, and even when no one knew anything about him, they knew they had never heard anything like this. They were terrified by it but inexorably drawn to it.

When people did get to know Iommi, they learned what has now become the stuff of legend. They found him to be a survivor of the highest order—a guy who played groundbreaking music only after a horrifying accident deprived him of two fretting-hand fingertips and very nearly deprived him of his will to ever pick up a guitar again. Inspiration from another odds-beating hand-injury hero, Django Reinhardt, convinced Iommi to persevere and redefine his relationship with the guitar, steadfast in his commitment to somehow create the sound he heard in his head.

And he did. He devised prosthetic fingertips with leather-covered “thimbles,” strung his guitars with extra-light strings to accommodate his new technique, and set about transforming the music world, even though in his mind he was simply “getting on with the work.” He proceeded to crank out riff after classic riff, each one heavier than the last, and then blazed explosive, cinematic solos over those progressions. Along the way he influenced damn near every guitarist who has ever used distortion, played power chords, or landed on a b5. Yeah, he is that guy.

Over the years, Sabbath has seen more ups and downs than Spinal Tap, yet another band that they have influenced (Stonehenge monument—Google it). Despite all of that, in the year of our lord 2013, a much-anticipated Sabbath reunion record seems like a natural. With the career-reviving Rick Rubin at the helm, 13 [Vertigo/ Universal] represents a return to form for Sabbath. It’s got the crushing riffs, the cool dynamics, the awesome tempo and groove shifts, and the refreshingly in-your-face production that made their early albums classics. But it couldn’t happen without Iommi displaying his survivor street cred one more time, by battling—and beating— cancer. How heavy is that? He answered questions from his home in Birmingham, where he was recovering from another bout of treatment before going back on tour with Sabbath. And, in the process, the heaviest guitarist of all time became a strong contender for the nicest and most polite interview subject in the history of GP.

How are you feeling, both today and in general?

Oh lord, yeah! Ozzy eggs on Iommi in concert.

I go up and down. Some days I feel not quite so good and other days I feel okay.

Today I don’t feel too bad.

You guys have never worked with Rick Rubin before. How was the overall vibe?

It was fine once we got used to him. We didn’t know how he was going to work, because through the writing period, we didn’t see a lot of him. He’d say, “Phone me up when you’ve got an idea and I’ll come down.” So we’d have a track together and phone him up or email him, and then he’d come down and say, “Yeah, I like this part, but I don’t like that part” or “I like everything,” whatever it may be and then he’d go. He was only there perhaps ten or 15 minutes at the most. We didn’t know how he was going to approach recording. It was all a bit of a mystery to us.

How did things change once you got into the studio?

When we got into the studio, he started saying things like, “Let’s do this slower” or “Extend this part.” We thought, “Why didn’t he say that when we were in pre-production?” But, of course, he didn’t. He decided to save it until we got in the studio—which was fine because it kept us on edge. I think it worked well in the end, although at first it seemed odd.

This record does have an immediacy and an honesty to it, and it seems like a lot of his productions do. Maybe that’s part of what he brings.

Yeah. It’s sort of left to the last minute, and then he throws it at you. He just pushes that much more, and that’s difficult for a band like us. We’ve been around so long, it’s hard to accept criticism from somebody we’ve never worked with. But we did, and it was good. It was really good. We might be working on a track, and he’d go, “Oh no, it doesn’t feel right. Try it again and try extending that part.” So we’d do it and then we’d be thinking to ourselves that it may be too long, but we’d do it anyway. And then he’d go, “That doesn’t feel right. Let’s try another one.” And then he’d say, “Okay I think we’ve got it, but do you want to just try another one?” So we would try another one, and he’d say, “Okay, let’s leave it now.” So we never knew exactly which one he was going to pick.

How else would he push you?

Rick kept going on about us doing a blues jam just to warm up when we started. His idea was to just have a blues jam for five minutes to get us into the vibe. We said, “What’s the point of that?” “Let’s just do one,” he said. “Well, we haven’t got one.” So, basically, I worked out just the main riff, and then we went from there and just jammed it—sort of making it up as we went on, really. And then it was on the album [laughs].

That became the tune “Damaged Soul.” Is what we hear on the album the first take?

No, we actually did a few different versions of it. It was good fun doing it.

I know you don’t really plan out solos, but the solo in that song sounds particularly off the cuff.

Definitely off the cuff [laughs]. That was one of the things that Rick wanted to do with this album—to have me play the solos live. At first I objected. I said, “Well, I don’t really like to do that. I like to play the chords and everybody else can follow that, and then I’ll play the solo.” But he went, “Well, just try the solo anyway, and we can always redo it.” Of course, we never did—we kept them. I must say, I enjoyed doing it that way. It had been a long time since I’d done solos there and then.

What was your rig for that tune?

I was using a Jaydee, which is a company here in the Midlands. The guy [John Diggins] made a lot of guitars for me. In fact, he used to work for me many years ago, and then he opened a guitar company.

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