Master of Reality: Sound Like Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi

Who among us hasn't wanted to sound like Tony Iommi at some point in our playing careers? Our Unholy Father of Heavy Metal long ago devised a bewitching stew of demonic riffage, virtuosic soloing, and larger-than-life guitar tones that continues to be as influential today as it was when Black Sabbath was in its '70s heyday. Iommi's distinctive style and sound evolved from a combination of circumstance, pragmatic decision making, and pure inspiration, using the tools that were available to him at the time to make the most of his artistic abilities and sensibilities. Most guitarists have by now heard the story of him losing a couple of crucial fretting hand fingertips on his last day of work at a sheet metal factory, then fabricating his own prosthetics and basically inventing the light gauge string set to accommodate his new handicap. This is a prime example of the man's ingenuity, creativity, and artistic relentlessness, and it was, in many ways, the catalyst that set him about inventing his own unique approach to rock guitar.

Of course, like any guitar player, Iommi's sound is as much (or more) about his technique and aesthetic preferences as it is about gear. Although the gear is certainly an important piece of the pie, simply replicating the man's rig isn't even going to get you close without intimate knowledge of his style and overall feel. The best way to approximate this, is the time-tested method of simply listening to tons of Sabbath records while playing along. It's easily the best way to train your brain, ears, and fingers to internalize some of Iommi's singular musical sense and idiosyncratic approach to riffs and grooves. That being said, your mom and all the dudes down at your local Guitar Center are probably sick of hearing you play "Iron Man" over and over again, so for everyone's benefit, consider getting into some of the deeper album cuts. Why not "Hand of Doom?”

Musical Elements

The essential elements of Tony Iommi's playing style, which were considered quite unusual in the early 1970's, have become the standard way to make heavy guitar sounds today. Two-note, root-plus-fifth power chords on the low strings is a definitive Iommi maneuver, which, though brilliantly innovative, probably seemed overly rudimentary and caveman-like to other guitarists at the time. Playing in unison with the bass is another trick that many of Iommi's contemporaries would have eschewed as being too simplistic, but which Iommi and his equally innovative cohort Geezer Butler embraced fully for the monolithic quality it gave to their beastly riffing. Tony Iommi was also the first to put to frequent use the sinister sound of the diminished fifth interval, a peculiar dissonance that has been used (or, more often, avoided) for centuries in western harmony because of its tendency to evoke moral restlessness, outright evil, or eternal damnation. In the music of Sabbath it can he heard in many signature riffs, as well as in Iommi's ever-present trilled accents and blazing, yet musical, solo sections.

Tony Iommi's Guitars

Tony Iommi will forever be associated with the Gibson SG and its appropriately devil-horned body shape. Some may be surprised, however, to learn that he originally began work on Sabbath's debut album with a white Fender Stratocaster. This was his main guitar at the time, with the SG serving as a backup, but when the Strat crapped out early on in the sessions, he picked up the SG and ended up adopting it as his main axe from that point forward. Iommi has periodically used other guitars, but his Gibson SGs and JayDee Custom SG replicas (built for him by John Diggens, a luthier from Iommi's home town of Birmingham) have served as the foundation of his tone and style since Black Sabbath.

Key to getting Iommi's sound with the SG is the use of very light strings and dropped tunings. Due to his fingertip injury, the tension of heavy strings and standard tunings caused him considerable pain, so to alleviate this, he began using sets of 8's for half-step dropped tunings, and sets of 9's for C# and other tunings lower than a half-step. At this time, light gauge string sets weren't commercially available for guitar, so Iommi assembled his own sets using banjo strings, until he eventually convinced the Picato company in the UK to manufacture them for him. The combination of light strings and low tunings made for a doom-laden guitar tone that instantly set Sabbath apart from the pack of blues-based English hard rock bands.

Tony Iommi's Amplifiers

Like the Gibson SG, Iommi's Laney Amplifiers have been the cornerstone of his rig since the beginning. His devotion to Laney amps is partly due to the fact that the company is based in his home town, but also to the fact that Laney simply gave him a bunch of free amplifiers in Sabbath's early days. His contemporaries were using Marshalls and Hiwatts, so he saw this as an opportunity both to get free stuff and to set himself apart from the crowd by using something unique. Iommi currently has a signature model Laney, but for much of Sabbath's reign he used the Laney 100 watt, EL34-powered, Supergroup heads, which he typically set up by rolling off all of the bass and turning up the middle, treble, and presence controls up to 10. And you may have already guessed this, but the volume should be turned up as well. Loudness is crucial, and the Laneys were not high-gain amps by any means.

Tony Iommi's Effects

Iommi wasn't a huge effects guy in the early days, but he did use a couple of key items to achieve his signature tone. In addition to cranking the mids and high-end on his Laney amps, he also hit the front of them with a Rangemaster treble booster for more overdrive and punch. The result was a fat, fuzz-like tone that is often mistaken for a Big Muff or some other pedal. It is, in fact, just a treble booster and a big-ass tube amp set on "destroy". Modern guitarists also tend to forget that Iommi's sound was not a high-gain one. Even with the Rangemaster, his tone was quite clean by modern metal standards.

The Tycobrahe Parapedal was another effect that Iommi used frequently, establishing his characteristic tone and style. The Parapedal was essentially a wah, but its sound was a world away from the old standby Crybaby and Vox models. It exhibited an uncommonly wide, vocal wah tone, blended with a sort of synthy, filter-like effect that lent the notes a distinctive voice and swell. Today Iommi uses the Chicago Iron Parachute wah, which is a precise replication of the Parapedal circuit and housing. He often uses his wah pedal as a sort of tone filter, rather than in the cliche wah-wah-wah fashion, leaving it half-cocked for a cutting, nasal sound that focuses in on the mid-range frequencies.

Incorporating the Evil

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but no matter what you do, you're never really going to sound exactly like Tony Iommi. This is okay, though, because, to quote the Highlander, "there can be only one." The idea is that, by studying his style, technique, and tone, you might be able to absorb and incorporate some of the Iommi mojo into your own unique style. Unless you intend to spend the rest of your guitar playing years in a Black Sabbath tribute band (lame), this should be the ultimate goal of this exercise. So, with this in mind, grab an armload of Sabbath LPs and hit the woodshed, friends. Keep it evil!

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