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Learn To Play: Riffs In The Key Of Tony Iommi

From the first second of the first track from their 1970 self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath was the word "ominous" embodied as music. They practically invented heavy metal, paving the way for bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica (among many others). While Ozzy Osbourne may have provided the gothic frontman aesthetic, guitarist Toni Iommi has been Black Sabbath's only continuous member and primary composer. Others have turned metal into a lifestyle (and commercial engine), but it was Iommi who created its raw musical form. This lesson explores three of his licks that cut to the core of that sound.

Tony's Technique

When studying his riffery and solos, it helps to understand that Iommi lost the tips of his ring and middle fingers on his right hand when he was seventeen due to a sheet metal factory accident. As a left-handed guitar player, this obviously affected his ability to fret chord voicings and perform solos. Inspired by Django Reinhardt's ability to play with only two fingers, Tony developed ways around the injury. Using things such as artificial plastic fingertips and detuned lighter gauge strings (for easier bending), he was able to find his voice. His playing ever since has been a case study in creativity born out of constraints.

The Gear Of Tony Iommi

Tony's contributions to the gear world go deeper than most people realize. His early Jaydee Custom SGs (built by John Diggins) were some of the first guitars to use a 24-fret fingerboard. He also experimented for a time with modular pickup cavities in guitars, allowing him to swap pickups in and out from the back of the guitar without the usual hassle. He was even the first guitarist to have a signature pickup (Gibson).

When it comes to Iommi's rig, his defining setup might be a Gibson SG (with custom pickups) running into a high-gain Laney amp, with a Dallas Rangemaster treble boost pushing the signal. This is a configuration he used frequently while touring. Before Black Sabbath released their first album, Iommi actually played a white Fender Stratocaster before resorting to his custom pickup-equipped 1965 Gibson SG Special (a guitar known as "Monkey") when the Strat's pickup failed. Later, he played custom SG models with 18-pole humbuckers and his now-famous cross inlays.

If you want to go the manufacturer route, you can check out the Gibson Tony Iommi Signature SG and Laney's Toni Iommi Signature Series of amps. If you're more about approximating his sound, you can always swap in some Gibson Tony Iommi Rail humbuckers and use a Rangemaster-esque treble boost pedal with your existing tube amp. Whatever you do, remember to tune low, turn up and use that augmented 4th!

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