The tag “guitar legend” is sometimes thrown around. But it is truly deserved for Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. A quiet-spoken riff machine, Iommi is a guitar great. His agile but doomy riffs have influenced Metallica, Nirvana, Eddie Van Halen, Zakk Wylde, Queens of the Stone Age and just about every metal band you can think of. But what of the man himself? And what of new Black Sabbath songs?
Tony Iommi recently published his must-read memoirs, Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell with Black Sabbath. It contains some near-unbelievable stories: drugs, the Mafia, knife fights, Iommi setting fire to Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, killing Virgin mogul Richard Branson’s prize carp fish with Sabbath pyrotechnics, that Spinal Tap-inspiring Stonehenge stage set, even auditioning Michael Bolton as Black Sabbath singer (true!) … and, of course, all the guaranteed craziness you’d expect from a band involving Ozzy Osbourne.
Iommi is calmer these days. Gibson.com talked with Iommi during his recent Iron Man book-signing tour of the U.S. And at a bookstore in New Jersey, Iommi confesses that the promotional work is tougher than he thought: “Compared to playing music, this is hard work!” he chuckles. “You’re meeting different people all day, there’s lots of interviews… I’m pretty tired of it already. But I’ll keep going. But I’m definitely ready for bed after a day of constant promotion.”
Iommi remained guarded about a Black Sabbath reunion – this interview took place just prior to the official announcement that Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward will hold a press conference at L.A.’s Whiskey A Go Go on 11/11 (at 11:11 a.m.!). Let’s just say the original Black Sabbath foursome are not holding a press conference to say: “We’re never getting back together.” Iommi admits that the four have recently played together.
Read the whole interview, read between the lines. It looks like new Black Sabbath – and not just past hits – is on the way…
Why write your book now?
I just had the time. I wanted to do a book 20 years ago, but I knocked it on the head because I got too busy playing music. But I had the time recently, and I started it about two years ago.
Were you surprised about how much you remembered about life in Black Sabbath?
I actually remember a lot about the past. Ozzy’s the same. It’s yesterday I can’t remember. It was hard going back to when I was a kid, it was hard to open up. I’ve never really spoken about my personal life. When I read back what I’d written and talked about, it was like reading someone else’s story.
Your book jacket’s testimonies are impressive – Eddie Van Halen calls you “the creator of heavy,” James Hetfield salutes you as “the Riffmeister,” Brian May calls you “the father of heavy metal…” That said, are you ever frustrated at being portrayed as somewhat one-dimensional as a guitarist?
Yes, I am sometimes. But I’ve lived it with it so long now… and it’s nice to get credit for something, isn’t it? I listen to and can play jazz and blues, but it’s the riffs that I get recognized by. I haven’t done so much jazz and blues on records – one day, I’d like to do that.
But to me, Black Sabbath were always open to new sounds. On every Sabbath album there’s always something out the box. We had instrumentals on a hard rock album when everyone was telling us, “You can’t do that!” I love “Laguna Sunrise” [acoustic instrumental on Vol. 4], for example. I enjoyed working with a choir, I liked getting string sections involved on [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s] “Spiral Architect.” Sabbath always did something different on each album. But I guess many people don’t remember those tracks so well.
It’s interesting that you cite the song “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” as one of your favorites – it has your trademark doomy riffing but it also has Wes Montgomery-style octaves and some jazziness about it.
Well, I do like jazz. Django Reinhardt sparked me off – because of what happened to my fingers, he was inspirational. It was later on that I got really interested in jazz guitar. Joe Pass, I love.
My original guitar influence was always The Shadows. But when I got into blues stuff… it didn’t even matter who the artist was. I just used to buy blues LPs, just to listen and learn. But I really liked John Mayall with Eric Clapton, the “Beano” album.
There was a lot of band-hopping in the 1970s and ’80s, and the same people seemed to end up joining numerous bands. Were you ever asked to join another band?
Good question, and I know what you mean. But no. Sabbath was my baby, if you like. When everyone else has gone, what do you do? I just steamed through. Did I ever think about bailing out? Not at the time, even when I was the last man standing. But if I think about it now, I maybe would have done!
In Iron Man, you are quite blunt about the pressure you felt during the making of the albums Vol. 4 and Sabotage. Everyone else in Black Sabbath seemed to have lost the plot…
Oh, yeah. I was left a lot of the time on my own in the studio, and it was pretty difficult. I was left to do mixes on my own which was hard – the rest of the band might not like it, but they’d gone home by then. It was hard but you’ve got to believe – carry on, do it. There was a lot of drugs around. Every band I knew was the same – cocaine, booze, acid, or something else.
When you’re part of the machine and the industry, you do really become part of it. You do the same. I didn’t even realize it at the time, it’s only now, when looking back, I think: oh yeah, I did do that. I’ve stopped now. Do I feel lucky to get out alive? I do.
Do you feel, over the years, as if you are “the leader” of Black Sabbath?
Yeah, that’s probably fair to say. But in the early days it was all rehearsals together, jamming, and songs would come out of that. Now, I prefer working at home. When I get a good riff, I’ll record it, jam it with other people, whoever.
Iron Man is full of fascinating anecdotes, but I certainly didn’t know about Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham jamming with Black Sabbath.
No, very few people knew that. As I say, this is my private life that I’ve never laid bare before. Are there tapes of that jam? I really don’t know. They might exist on the end of some master-tapes we had, but I certainly don’t have them. John was a good friend, best man at my first wedding, and he liked us. We jammed through “Supernaut” [from 1972 Sabbath album Vol. 4]. John loved that track.
Though we ended up just jamming 12-bar blues at the end. “Supernaut” got too complicated for John! He was going all over the place.
You explain in Iron Man how you only started relying on your Gibson SG because your Fender guitar broke, but the Gibson SG is a guitar that is now synonymous with you…
Absolutely. You could get to the top frets easily on an SG, and it was light. The SG was just ideal for me. Once I’d recorded the Black Sabbath debut album, I never went back. It was a bit touch-and-go at the time. I was using very light strings, the SG’s neck was not all that stable – you could bend the neck and it went “oooo-wee-ooo.” But that original was a great guitar, I used it for many years.
My original SG is now on display at the Hard Rock Café in New York. I modified it a lot. I put polyurethane on the frets so I could slide chords and solos easier. I play with thimbles on my fingers, so I had to make every guitar work for me. I remember Brian May [of Queen] picking up my guitars once and he just said: “that’s so different to any guitar, how do you even play that?”
It’s a cliché, but many guitarists say their sound really is in their fingers. Do you still sound like Tony Iommi on, say, a Gibson Les Paul?
A Les Paul? I could get my sound from a Les Paul, I’m sure. Again, I did a track with Brian May years ago, and I gave him one of my Gibson SGs and a Vox AC30… and he sounded just like Brian May always did.
When you are at home, what do play?
I just write. I don’t make a habit of sitting at home and playing for hours. I used to. But now, I go into my studio and I write. You do what what works for you. These days, I like to play for half an hour, get a riff, and that’s it. But I’ve still got a guitar in my bedroom, and if I think of something I record that and get to my studio and put it down.
I still have tons of stuff, loads of riffs. I’m bursting at the seams with ideas right now, all the time. It’s just finding the time. I’m lucky in that regard. Sometimes, I’ll hear something in my head and grab a guitar and record it. Other times, I’ll purposely go into my studio, start playing and something evolves.”
Are you still discovering new sounds for your playing?
To be honest, I just “maintain” my sound now. I do always learn more, though. I’ve been working with Laney on a new amp, it’s out in 2012, and it’s a refinement. After touring with Heaven and Hell [with the late Ronnie James Dio on vocals] I just learned more about sounds and tweaks, and we’re putting the modifications into this new amp. Modelling and software amps, I have tried. Last time I was recording in L.A. I tried a few. They’re quite good but after all this time, I do prefer just a big amp!
In Iron Man you say you still have six demos with Ozzy Osbourne singing?
Yeah. They are still kicking around. I’ll decide what I do. There are all these rumors flying around about a Black Sabbath reunion, but we’ll have to see. If it was the original lineup, great, I would love that. But we will have to see.
New songs? I’ve still got loads of ideas. Some, I wouldn’t use on a new Black Sabbath album, I’d have to change them. But let’s just say I have lots of ideas.
Impossible question: What are your own three favorite Black Sabbath songs?
Oh, haha, that’s difficult. They’ve all meant something to me. Even favorite albums, it’s the same! I do like Heaven and Hell as an album a lot, because I got to play something different. But everything I’ve done, I like. I wouldn’t have released it if I didn’t like it. “Iron Man,” “Into the Void,” “War Pigs”… those are some favorites. But I dunno, there’s a lot of Sabbath songs! The track “Black Sabbath” is still great.
It was then I knew I had come up with something different on the guitar. But I still get a thrill from playing all Sabbath songs.
More Black Sabbath and SGs:
Tony Iommi Signature Humbucker
The Gibson SG: 50 Essential Facts
Epiphone Iommi SG