10 Things You've Gotta Do to Play Like Tony Iommi

(Image credit: Getty/Mondadori Portfolio )

WHEN EDWARD VAN HALEN CALLED Tony Iommi the master of riffs, he wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.” Master riffmeister Iommi’s back story, rise to legendary status, and his influence on the New Wave of Heavy Metal have been well documented in the annals of modern guitar lore (most recently in the cover story of the January, 2010 issue of GP), but everything might have turned out differently if Iommi had not been so driven to play.

After losing the tips of his right-hand middle and ring fingers in a metal shop accident at 17, which was especially devastating considering it was his fretting hand, Iommi’s strong will and devotion to his craft led him to develop the thimble-like prosthetics he still wears today. Philosophically inspired to continue playing by Django Reinhardt, and musically smitten by Blues Breakers-era Eric Clapton, Iommi recontextualized the same blues-based licks and riffs everyone else was playing at the time into a much darker and heavier oeuvre that soon became Sabbath’s calling card. Like a keeper of the flame, Iommi has defined the heart and soul of the band, from the original ’70s Ozzy Osbourne-fronted lineup, to its later reincarnations with the late, great Ronnie James Dio as both Black Sabbath and Heaven and Hell (as well as honorable mentions for Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes), with killer riffs and a larger-thanlife sound.

Essential listening includes at least the first five Sabbath albums (Black Sabbath and Paranoid [both 1970], Master of Reality [1971], Black Sabbath Vol. 4 [1972], and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [1973]), a selection of ’80s and ’90s sides, including Heaven and Hell (1980) and Black Sabbath: The Dio Years (1998), Iommi’s two solo albums (Iommi [2000] and Fused [2005]), and of course Heaven and Hell’s most recent release The Devil You Know (2009).

Want to follow in the fretprints of the Godfather of Heavy Metal? First, you’ve gotta...


While many of his early contemporaries routinely plugged their Stratocasters and Les Pauls into Marshall stacks and Fender combos, Tony Iommi has always been somewhat of a renegade when it comes to gear. (Of course, as a left-handed player, Iommi’s guitar options were understandably fewer.) He entered Black Sabbath with a good- Strat-gone bad, prompting a switch to a now iconic 1965 Gibson SG Special just in time to record the band’s entire first album, except for “Wicked World,” which features the Strat. With few exceptions, this guitar paired with a Laney 100-watt stack (chosen for the company’s affiliation with Iommi’s home town of Birmingham), was the main instrumental voice of early Sabbath, bolstered only by two equally off-the-beaten-path outboard effects: a Dallas Range Master Treble Booster and a Tycobrahe Parapedal wah. (Fact: Iommi’s oldest go-to acoustic was a Gibson J-45.) In 1975, Iommi added the guitar with which he has become most associated to his arsenal. Custom- built by John Diggens and affectionately known as “Jaydee,” “Number 1,” and “The Old Boy,” this battle scarred SG-style ax sports a mahogany body and 24-fret neck (plus a zero fret), cross fret markers, a Jaydee special bridge pickup, and a John Birch-style Magnum XP pickup (also made by Diggens) in the neck position, and encapsulated everything Iommi was looking for in a guitar. Similar features eventually appeared on Iommi’s signature instruments, beginning in 1997 with Gibson’s limited edition Tony Iommi Special SG (Fact: Iommi still plays the first two prototypes.), and continuing in 2002 to the present with both Epiphone and Gibson Tony Iommi Signature SGs. The Epi model sports Gibson P94 pickups, while the Gibsons are fitted with Tony Iommi Signature Humbuckers.

In 2009 with Heaven and Hell, Iommi used an Engl Powerball head in addition to his GH 100 TI Laney Tony Iommi Signature amp along with both amps’ respective 4x12 cabs (loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers), replaced his Tycobrahe Parapedal with a Chicago Iron Parachute wah, and experimented with several additional effects, including an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Boss OC-3 Super Octave. (See GP 1/10 for the full lowdown on Iommi’s H & H stage rig.) Through the years, Iommi has always favored light-gauge strings—.008- .032 for half-step dropped tuning, and .009-.042 for tunings below that—and black Dunlop picks of unspecified thickness. Hey, you’ve gotta keep some secrets!


Arguably the first band to embrace los diablos en musica, or the dreaded, churchbanned b5 interval (It’s just three whole-steps and the center point of the 12-tone chromatic scale, folks. Honest.), Black Sabbath wasted no time putting this dissonant “devil’s interval” to work. “Black Sabbath,” the opening cut from the band’s 1970 self-titled debut commences with a thunderstorm that lulls us into the ultimate b5 riff gloriously notated in Ex. 1a. Follow the G5 power chords with an octave G, and then add the trill between the b5 (enharmonically notated as C#) and the 5 (D) for the bulk of bar 2. Substitute a lone, vibrated C# for the trill during every other repeat and you’ve got most of the song under your fingers. Ex. 1b, a b5-based riff similar to one found in “Electric Funeral” (Paranoid), features a root-5-b5-4-b3 motif—essentially a descending E blues scale minus its b7—laced with Iommi’s signature vibrato. For total authenticity, play the first beat as four palm-muted sixteenth-notes and change the rhythm on beat four to a sixteenth and dotted-eighth pairing. Iommi can sound equally scary without the b5. The ominous riff in Ex. 1c (also redolent of “E.F.”) relies only on notes derived from the E minor (Aeolian) scale. Add wah articulations to each note, play beat one as two eighth-notes, move beat three ahead to its upbeat eighth-note, and you’re in like Flint. (Tip: Try applying bends and releases to beats two and four.)


The first time I heard Sabbath’s music was when a local band called Rockhouse covered “Wicked World” (from Black Sabbath) ca. 1970-71, leading me to believe that Black Sabbath was more of a bluesy British jazz-rock outfit in the vein of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Blodwyn Pig, and the Keef Hartley Band rather than the forefathers of heavy metal! “Wicked World” opens with a Buddy Rich-style hi-hat intro (the third to hit Ten Things this year!), followed by Ex. 2a’s swinging call-and-response riff in the key of E. Iommi’s signature trills occur between the b3 (G) and the 3 (G#), a common blues move that’s often applied to shuffle rhythms and packs extra weight in this context.

Ex. 2b depicts Iommi’s IVchord figure, which utilizes an A blues scale line for another round of melodic Q & A. Play the example twice as written, add three rounds of A5-C5-D5 power chords using the first three hits of Ex. 2c’s rhythm, break on a seventh-position E5, and you’re ready to pair the full rhythm shown in Ex. 2c with the descending E blues scale in Ex. 2d to complete the song’s next riff on your own. (Tip: Play it three times and land on an open E5.) You’ll find this lick transposed first up a whole step to F#, and then another whole step to G# later in the song.


Many Sabbath tunes, including “Sleeping Village” and “Spiral Architect” are prefaced with Iommi’s moody acoustic intros. Learn the arpeggiated Em picking pattern shown in Ex. 3a, and then shift your fretting hand to the Emadd9 voicing diagramed in Ex. 3b to approximate the former.

And do the same with the Dm chord and Dmadd9, Em/DDm7Aadd9, and G/A grids in Examples 3c and 3d to simulate the latter. (Tip: Play Dmadd9, Em/D, and Dm7 for a full measure each, and then shift the picking pattern to the next lowest string set and alternate one beat each of Aadd9, and G/A over the course of two bars. Rinse and repeat!)


Renowned for his lightning fast single-note soloing, Iommi often accomplishes the deed with a slew of strategically placed hammer-ons and pulloffs. Let’s examine four typical phrases built from a 12th-position E pentatonic minor scale and extrapolate a variation from each one. Bar 1 of Ex. 4a shows a cool run with one pulloff per beat, while bar 2 cuts off the last note in each beat, turning it into one of Iommi’s signature start-and-stop staccato motifs.

Similarly, bar 2 of Ex. 4b transforms the run in bar 1 into a stuttering staccato lick by cramming the first three notes into a hammered-and pulled sixteenth-note triplet.

In bar 1 of Ex. 4c, we add another sixteenth-note to the previous lick, and then displace and double-time the triplet in bar 2.

Finally, Ex. 4d makes the important distinction between six-note-perbeat groupings. In bar 1, we have two accented triplets per beat (3x2), while in bar 2 we find each beat divided into sextuplets (2x3) with accents on the first and third notes. Try reversing the rhythms in bars 1 and 2 while keeping the notes the same. (Tip: Mix-’n’-match ’em as you please!)


You’ll find a blizzard of ostinatos, or repetitive, single-note lines played in unison with or counterpoint to the rhythm section, evident throughout both the Sabbath and Heaven and Hell catalogs. Ex. 5a takes us back to “Black Sabbath,” where Iommi breaks out of Ex. 1a’s b5 riff with this palm-muted, low-register ostinato, first over a pedal G, and then over a descending G-F-E-Eb bass line.

Iommi turned the common suspended D lick in Ex. 5b into a blazing interlude during “Sweet Leaf” (Master of Reality) by starting it on beat four. (Savvy readers will recognize the notated rhythm motif as half-time version of bar 2 in Ex. 4c.) Sometimes simple is best, as in Ex. 5c’s Em-based sequence of descending thirds. (Tip: Try it over other chords from the key of E minor, especially D and C.) Ex. 5d falls more into the category of hemiola (repetitive 3-against-4 rhythmic patterns) than ostinato, and incorporates three important Iommi trademarks: 3-against-4 rhythmic phrasing, a whole-step bend and release from the root (E) to the 2/9 (F#), and rapid trilling. (Tip: Check out “War Pigs” [Paranoid] for some similar action.)


Speaking of “War Pigs,” Iommi often created double- tracking effects in the studio using tape delay, but this solo was triple-tracked, sometimes in unison and sometimes not, much in the spirit of Clapton’s “Politician” solo (the studio version from Wheels of Fire) and most of Jeff Beck’s Beck-ola. Inspired by this threeguitar solo, Ex. 6 simulates how Iommi unleashes a controlled chaos of pre-Cream Clapton-isms first with two guitars in unison (Gtrs. 1 and 2, bar 1), and then by adding a third in bar 2, where each guitar does its own thing for the remaining three measures. Considering how all three guitars are playing in the same twelfth-position E pentatonic blues box, the result is pretty remarkable.


Though he began tuning down a whole-step much earlier for Sabbath’s live shows (their first two albums are in standard tuning), Iommi later dropped his tuning an additional half-step beginning on Master of Reality. With this C#, F#, B, E, G#, C# configuration, songs like “Into the Void” reached new depths of heaviness, inspiring the likes of Edward Van Halen. Ex. 7a presents the song’s main riff in all its glory. (Extra Credit: Can you spot the hemiola in bar 2?)

For whatever reason, by the time Sabbath recorded Heaven and Hell with the late Ronnie James Dio, Iommi and company were back to tuning down only a half-step, but with heavy-ashell riffs like the one in Ex. 7b, culled from the album’s title track, who even noticed?


One of the keys to Iommi’s heaviosity is his tightness with bassist Geezer Butler. While many shy away from unison bass-and-guitar figures for fear of redundancy, both Sabbath and Heaven and Hell embraced the concept in dozens of songs. The intros to Heaven and Hell’s “Atom and Evil” (Ex. 8a) and “Fear” ((Ex. 8b), both from The Devil You Know, are prime examples of the power of octave reinforcement. Both riffs create a sinister vibe via the inclusion of the “other devil’s interval” (I just made that up), the b2/ b9 located a half step, or minor second, above the root, with the former utilizing root+5 power-chord diads, and the latter relying on single notes. (Tip: Repeat Ex. 8a as written, but on the second round substitute Db5 for C5, C5 for B5, G5 for F#5, F#5 for F5, and F5 for the single-note Gto create the full, four-bar rhythm figure.) Ex. 8c takes us back to where we left off in Ex. 2d. Preface this riff, which is played twice in the lower octave (downstems) and twice in the upper octave (upstems), with the descending Eblues lick you built by merging Examples 2c and 2d. For total authenticity, swap rhythms on the first and third beats, and for extra credit segue to the F# and G# transpositions discussed back in Examples 2c and 2d.


Perhaps the most important factor in Iommi’s massive sound is his use of two-note diads in the form of root+5 power chords, and his insistence on playing them on the bottom two strings whenever possible for maximum girth. Let’s wrap it up with a couple of must-know Sabbath classics to illustrate the point. The title track from Paranoid begins with a trio of grace-hammered double stops applied to a traditional clave/rock-and-roll, three-plusthree- plus-two rhythm motif followed by two beats of hammered E pentatonic minor sixteenth- notes exactly as notated in Ex. 9a. (Tip: Feel it in double time.) Precede the bVII-bIII-bVII-I figure shown in Ex. 9b with a bar of palmmuted E5 sixteenths to construct the first half of the verse rhythm figure, follow up with E5 held for two beats, C5 and D5 for one beat each, and another measure of E5 sixteenths, and you’ve pretty much nailed the whole tune. Hot on the trail of his apocalyptic, whole-step, behind-the-nut bend and gradual release of the low open E string and Ozzy’s Godzilla roar, Iommi’s main rhythm figure from “Iron Man” rides the sixth and fifth strings exclusively with root+5 power diads.

Ex. 9c reveals some minute and often overlooked details in Iommi’s secondary intro, including sixteenth-note ghost slides (bar 1/beats one and four, and bar 2/beat two) that allow smooth position shifts, and a strategically placed moment of silence. (Yes, that’s a rest!) During the song’s verses, Iommi plays a single-note version of this figure by omitting the top note of each diad, changing the second sixteenth-note of bar 2/beat two to another F#, and most likely incorporating both the sixth and fifth strings.

So, does playing every power chord on the bottom two strings really make a difference? Check it out and you’ll have to agree that this guy has definitely been on to something for the past 40 years. Thanks for sharing, T.!