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Tony Iommi Remains Heavier than Thou

February 6, 2014
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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.

Were you playing the original one that he made for you? That’s a pretty famous guitar.

It was one of the newer ones. He made the original at home on his kitchen table, and, yeah, that is a real classic. But he has made me some others now in the factory— not on his table—and I used one of those. It has my pickups—which are sold by Gibson— but we still tinker around with them. We’ll try to maybe get a bit more treble from them or whatever it needs.

So even if you’re sticking with similar body woods and the exact same body style, there’s enough variance that you still need to tweak the pickups a bit?

I’m constantly fiddling around. It’s the same with my new amp [the Laney TI100 Tony Iommi Signature Model]. The more you work with a new amp, the closer you listen to the guitar and the pickups. It’s an ongoing thing, really.

And your new Laney signature amp is what you used on this record?

I used one of those, and I used an old Laney Klipp. We had it split. Rick wanted to do that. To me, my one amp was doing the job, but he wanted to have a slightly different sound. But I think we probably went with my own amp for a lot of it.

Let’s move on to the tune “Dear Father.” That chord progression is harmonically very rich. How was that song written?

It’s like all the stuff I do. I had already done a rough idea of it at my home studio, but it was different. One day we were at Ozzy’s house, and I started playing it and Ozzy sang a melody. Once he started singing the top line, I changed a couple of little parts in it. I just embellished on that, really. I worked around what he was singing.

On the recording, did you get those cleaner tones by switching channels, or just by turning the volume on your guitar down?

Well, both actually. I do most of it from the guitar where I just turn the volume down, but, occasionally, I will switch to the cleaner channel. Live, I just use the volume knob. I tend to not fiddle too much. I’m not one of those types who stands on pedals every two seconds. I’m still from the old school where you turn it down and play quietly, as opposed to switching lots of things.

Even with your huge, distorted, heavy sound, there is enough dynamic range that turning down gives you that big variety of tones?

Yes. That’s another thing with my pickups. We designed these pickups ages ago so that when you turn down, you don’t lose that bite. With some pickups, you turn down and lose the top end, but not these. When I turn down, I still get the brightness, and it goes cleaner.

What wah pedal did you use for the “End of the Beginning” solo?

It’s a Parapedal.

The Tycobrahe? That’s pretty much been your go-to wah over the years.

Well, I used Tycobrahe for many years, and then this company came out that sort of reproduced them so that’s what I use now—a Chicago Iron Parachute Wah.

In your January 2010 cover story, you said that you wanted to find the ultimate wah pedal for you. Is that search over now?

It’s never, ever over for me. If something comes up, I’ll try it, but I never really had much success with other wah pedals to be honest. I don’t know what it is, but I always seem to go back to the Tycobrahe.

Is there a tremolo or some kind of modulation effect on your guitar in “Age of Reason”?

No, I never used a tremolo effect. Rick may have put something on, but when I recorded it, it was just dry. And that was another thing for me. Normally, when I’ve done recordings, I’ll have a bit of delay on, but not for this record. It was totally back to just a dry sound—get on with it and do it live. That’s how we worked in the early days, and that’s sort of what we’ve done on this album. There wasn’t a lot of gadgetry.

The solo in “Age of Reason” is bone dry. Does that change your approach at all, as opposed to having some reverb or delay?

Well, it did seem weird at first. In fact, I had my engineer that I use here at my house put some delay on the solo and I liked it. But, of course, we didn’t end up using it, because it seemed like it was cheating in a way in comparison to all the other stuff. After putting a bit of delay on here and a bit there for so many years, you get into a little routine of doing that, and you don’t even realize it. I’m glad Rick pushed me to keep it really natural.

Did he give you as much input about your guitar parts?

He generally liked most of the stuff the way it was. His main thing was to not overdrive it too much—to pull it back and get more of a sound like in the early days. I’ve been used to using a little bit more sustain on the later stuff, but I did pull the gain back for these sessions. So he had an impact that way, but as far as changing riffs—not as much.

You show your jazzy side on “Zeitgeist.” How did you get that tone?

I used a Gibson ES-175 that they made for me—which was fantastic. It is such a great guitar. I used that to track the end solo, plugged into a little Vox amp.

Did you string the 175 differently than your SGs?

Yes. They were a bit heavier gauge— more of a jazz style. Not quite as heavy as probably the jazz players would use, but they were heavier strings.

What string gauges are you using on your SG-style guitars these days?

I have no idea because we’ve tried so many different things lately. I still use the .008s as the first string on the main guitars, but then on other ones, I think I use a .009. I’ve got three or four different stringings now—depending on what songs we’re going to end up doing.

You used to use an .008 for both your high E and your B string.

That’s true, I used to use two .008s, and then an .011 for the G, I think. You name it, I’ve tried it. But I had to because of my finger accident. If I have them too heavy, I can’t bend them because it will rip the stuff off my [finger] caps. But again, when you use them that light, you have to get used to playing them like that. It’s not that easy to walk in and play a light guitar when you’re used to heavy strings.

A super-light G string like that would be very easy to squeeze out of tune. Do you use really low frets?

They’re low frets, yeah. And when I tune down, I use a heavier gauge.

How many gigs will you get out of a set of thimbles? How long before the leather gets worn out?

I usually have to change them a couple of times during a tour. Because it’s old leather and it’s hard, they tend to last a bit longer. I’ve tried modern stuff, and newer leather just doesn’t last. That’s another part of the reason that I use light strings. If I used heavy strings—bending them and whatnot—the leather would just rip through. It was a lot of hard work going through the procedure trying to find the right thing and the right balance of strings so I could bend the strings without damaging the leather, and without damaging my fingers. It was that happy medium that I had to achieve. But, at first, it was bloody hard work trying different stuff. I had to change everything because before the accident I used to use heavy strings like everybody else, and I’d play acoustics and all that. But once I had the accident my whole thing changed. I had to come up with a totally new way of playing. Nobody would think about using thimbles or designing something with leather on it. But that was the only way that I could play.

I read an interview where you said that after the accident either you thought about playing right-handed, or maybe you should have thought about it. I have to say, I think it would have changed the entire music business had you flipped your guitar over and played righty.

I think you’re probably right, because that accident made me develop a style—one that I could play—and by doing that, it created a different sort of sound. I had to make the sound bigger and work on it a bit. I couldn’t just pick up anybody’s guitar and play. I mean, the whole thing really was against me. But that sort of thing makes you work. It makes you develop something, because I really wanted to play, and I wanted to make the sound big. I had to come up with a new way of playing to make it big.

You guys have always had tempo and groove changes in your tunes, and “God Is Dead?” is a great example of that tradition. What is it that you like about doing that?

I just think it gets to a point in the song where it needs something—either picking the tempo up or slowing it down. If it’s a fast song, maybe a bit that slows down in it, like we did with Ronnie on “Die Young.” It was an up-tempo thing, but then we used a quiet part in it to come down. Again, it’s just down to creating some kind of different mood in the song, and I’ve always liked that.

Why do you think more bands don’t do that, because it’s very rare?

Maybe they don’t like it [laughs]. I don’t know. But it’s just been the way we work, and I tend to write stuff like that—the light and shade and tempo changes.

Because you guys do that so well, and it’s such a trademark for you, maybe other bands are afraid that if they try it people will say, “They’re just ripping off Black Sabbath.”

Well, I suppose that’s what tends to happen. We are probably accused of ripping off ourselves.

Some people say that about this record.

But it’s always that way. People go, “Oh, it doesn’t sound like the old stuff.” And then when you do something that sounds like the old stuff, those same people say, “That sounds like the old stuff. You’ve done that before.” What do you want? What are you expecting?

Brad Wilk plays drums on this record. Is your rhythm playing and your soloing different with him, as opposed to playing with Bill Ward, Cozy Powell, Vinny Appice, or any other drummers that you’ve worked with?

Well, I play what I play. And certainly with Brad, he picked up on that. He knew to listen up a little bit to follow, and when you listen to the record, you can hear these little things he put in. It was very subtle— much like what Bill would have done, really. Bill would listen to little accents that I’d do, and a lot of drummers don’t. They don’t hear it. They just hear the immediate riff or chord or whatever. But with Brad, he was picking up little accents like Bill did, and it was good. And he was thrown right in the deep end, poor old Brad, because he didn’t have much time to work on these songs. That was probably another good thing from Rick’s point of view. I think he wanted to have this element of jamming where you’re on edge all the time. Every time we’d track a song, when we’d do it again, Brad would play something different, because he was obviously feeling stuff out. So it was really good. He was doing stuff off the cuff. I thought he was excellent.

You’re famous for your minor key riffing and your tritone chord progressions. But in the Dio years, it seemed that you wrote more major-key, comparatively happy-sounding progressions. I’m thinking specifically about tunes like “Walk Away” and “Neon Nights.” Can you talk a little bit about that difference.

Certainly when Ronnie came into the band, we did write differently. There was a distinct difference in the way we were doing stuff because of the way Ronnie sang. Where Ozzy would sing over riffs and things, Ronnie didn’t particularly want to do that. A lot of the songs were more open, like “Heaven and Hell.” It would be a riff and then it would be just the bass and he’d sing over that. It was just a different way of writing. When Ronnie came in, it really went more chordal, as opposed to riffing.

A really cool sound that you got early on was layering two different solos on a tune, like you did on “War Pigs.” It seems to me like you kind of stopped doing that. Why is that?

I don’t really know why. In fact, I actually thought we were going to maybe do that on this album, but we didn’t. We just ended up keeping the original solos. It’s funny how it sort of fizzles out without you really realizing it, to be honest, until somebody points it out. It was all innocent when we did it back then. But I don’t know why we didn’t do it this time.

It has been said that any guitarist who bashes a power chord should pay Pete Townshend a royalty. I think they should probably split that payment between Pete and you. How do you view the impact that your playing has had on rock music?

It’s hard to talk about yourself that way and say, “Oh yeah, we did this and we did that,” because you’re just doing it for you at the time and hoping people like it. But it’s been proven over the years with people coming up saying we’ve changed their life with our playing, and we helped other bands develop something. I think it’s made a big impact on music. I don’t think the music would be like it is today without us—without bragging about that.

It doesn’t sound like bragging at all. All you have to do is look at all those greatest riffs lists. Invariably “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” are not just on those lists, but quite often they’re right at the top. Can you describe what that’s like to have a riff that you wrote and played be deemed “The Greatest Riff of All Time”?

It’s hard to believe it happened, because you never think of that. You’re just playing something that you like. You certainly don’t think, “Oh, this is going to last forever, and this is going to be voted the best riff of all time.” But to see it now and to hear it—it’s fantastic. What better thing could be said about your music than that?

You are widely credited with inventing heavy metal. What influenced you and drove you to create that sound?

I think it was the dramatics of it all. I used to listen to the old classical stuff with the dynamics in the music, and I wanted that sort of dynamics in what we were doing—something that was really dramatic and big. And that’s what I tried to achieve guitar-wise. I wanted to make this big, powerful thing come over you—like what happens when you go and see a horror film. I wanted to create a huge sound that was really horrific in some ways, if you know what I mean.

Being so closely associated with heavy metal has pigeonholed you to a certain extent. People don’t always remember tunes where you branched out, like “Laguna Sunrise,” or the fact that you’re into jazz or classical music. Do you think you’d ever do a jazz album and show that side of your personality?

Possibly. Geez has mentioned it to me a couple of times, too. We used to do a lot of that sort of stuff. We started off playing bluesy jazz, and we used to enjoy that. I’ve gotten out of the genre a bit now, because we don’t play it so much, but in the early days, it would be half a minute of vocals and five minutes of guitar solo. It allowed me to experiment and try things, but I’ve probably forgotten a lot of that now. We still jam around in that style at rehearsal and I like it. We’ll see how it goes this year, and if health-wise I’m okay, I’d like to do that, because I do like playing bluesy jazz stuff.

Given all the ups and downs that you and your band have been through, could you ever have guessed, say, back in the 1990s, that you’d be talking about a vibrant new Black Sabbath album and a new tour in 2013?

Really, I never thought about whether ten years down the line I would still be in the press, or still famous, or this or that. My thought has always been you get on with it, and do stuff you enjoy, and when you don’t enjoy it, stop. But I’ve enjoyed doing what we did, and I always had this thing in me to push on—to forge on. Still, I remember in the ’70s doing an interview with somebody and they said, “Don’t you think it’s time to retire now?” I said, “Today?” This was in the ’70s! God knows what they’re saying now [laughs].

WALKING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS

CURRENT OZZY GUNSLINGER GUS G EXPOUNDS ON HIS HERO

"I could probably talk about Tony Iommi or Black Sabbath all day long,” says Gus. “I still remember the day in school when my classmate handed me a tape of Master of Reality. At that point I was listening to stuff like Metallica and GNR, but when ‘Sweet Leaf’ came on, I was in shock. It’s such a simple—yet heavy—dark, and groovy riff. That song and ‘Paranoid’ were the first of many I would learn to play. It’s always been a debate in my mind whether ‘Sweet Leaf’ or ‘Into the Void’ would get the award of ‘Heaviest Riff Ever.’ It doesn’t matter. They’re both awesome and faves of mine.

“The biggest shock for me was probably the first time I saw Black Sabbath live back in 2005. I couldn’t believe the tone that came out of his guitar. It sounded like there were ten guitar players up there. What a massive wall of sound!

“Tony Iommi is the master of riffs, no doubt about it. He makes you want to pick up the guitar and learn those progressions yourself, whether you play or not. When it comes to his solos, I’ve always loved how he mixed fast pentatonic licks with tasteful blues phrasing. And he always ends his solos on the right note. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if his fast licks are thought out or if he’s making it up as he goes along, as it all sounds so free form. But then you see him live and he nails it note for note. For a blues or heavy rock player, he has all these hidden details in his solos. You can play them, but you really have to dig deep in his playing to find all the little things he does.

“Another thing I love about Mr. Iommi is just how evil his riffs sound. It’s not only about that b5 note that invented a whole genre on ‘Black Sabbath,’ but it’s also his rhythms and grooves. Listen to the middle of ‘Children of the Grave.’ You can almost envision thousands of people in cloaks gathering for a huge mass. Then there’s the middle part of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.’ It’s like the man can afford to use one of the best riffs ever as a small middle section in a song. If anybody else came up with that riff, it would be his magnum opus, his greatest achievement. But not Tony Iommi. He’s got thousands of those riffs. He’s not just an innovator. He’s inspirational.”

When he’s not fronting his own band, Firewind, and promoting the new live album, Apotheosis—Live 2012, Gus G plays with a man named Ozzy Osbourne. Although he has huge respect for every guitarist who has played alongside Ozzy, Gus has always been clear on which of them has had the biggest impact on his playing. —MB

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