Published on October 18th, 2021 | by AlexandreG.0
Guitar Inspirations: Tony Iommi
Tony Iommi is best known for being one of the founding members of Black Sabbath – and, consequently, heavy metal. He played lead guitar and wrote most of its songs. Iommi is also a successful solo artist with two albums as of 2020 – Iommi, released in 2000; and Fused, released five years later.
Iommi has been included in several lists recognizing the world’s best guitar players. Rolling Stone magazine put him in the 25th spot in its “100 Greatest Guitarists” list in 2015, coming in just after AC/DC’s Angus Young and a step ahead of Queen’s Brian May.
What made Iommi earn that spot, and what makes him such an inspiration to music lovers, especially those who want to become skilled guitar players? Here’s a brief look into what makes Tony Iommi one of the most influential and iconic music artists to date.
‘The founding father of heavy metal’
The year 1969 is famous for several things, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Manson Murders, the Beatles’ last public performance and the Woodstock music festival, which drew in more than 350,000 people (the organizers expected just 30,000).
That summer, another key moment in music history occurred. During rehearsal with the band Earth, guitarist Tony Iommi came up with a three-note octave-tritone riff, heavily distorted and totally different from anything they’ve heard before. The band’s singer, one Ozzy Osbourne, put in the lyrics about a Satanic figure clad in black. They gave the song its title: “Black Sabbath,” after a horror movie that was showing in a theater across the rehearsal studio.
Many music fans believe this was the moment heavy metal was born. Earth soon used the song title as their new name, becoming Black Sabbath. Although there were other bands that played some ‘heavy’ music (such as The Who and Cream), Black Sabbath is credited for bringing together the elements that shaped and defined the metal genre, from the occult-inspired imagery and symbolism to the minor pentatonic riffs and face-melting aggressive sound.
The tale of the ‘tips
Part of what makes Iommi’s sound unique, and what made a significant impact on his playing style, are his fingertips – or the lack of them.
Iommi was about 12 years old when he started playing guitar. Fun fact: before he picked up the guitar, he played the accordion, like everyone else in his family. He also tried out other instruments and even wanted to play drums, but his parents said no because they were too loud. So guitar it is.
The story goes that when Iommi was a young lad of 17, he worked in a factory, tasked with cutting sheet metal. An accident left him without the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand, which is actually his fretting hand because he’s left-handed.
Despite the accident that left him without a couple of fretting fingertips (plus some negative comments from naysayers), Iommi was determined to play. He tried out different ways to make playing the guitar more comfortable, such as playing a guitar with 24 shaved-down frets (for greater comfort and hand clearance at the higher registers), wearing plastic fingertips (like thimbles), using light-gauge strings and tuning down the strings one whole step or more. This resulted in heavier-sounding riffs and chords. You can say that Iommi invented this technique, and we really have him to thank for those wicked riffs and fantastic heavy metal tones.
It’s really cool how Iommi tuned down his guitar to make playing more comfortable and unintentionally came up with a whole new genre of musical expression. This is what makes Tony Iommi an inspiration: he recognized his limitations but still did his best to work around them. We could all do the same when we encounter challenges and roadblocks that stand in our way!
If you’d like to know more about the great Tony Iommi, listen to his music and check out his autobiography Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath.