Player Spotlight – Tony Iommi

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The feature of this edition brings us back to home soil, right here in the UK 🇬🇧; Birmingham, the second largest city in the country and with more canals than Venice it’s definitely quite a maze to navigate.

Actually, this underrated city flowers from the industrial revolution and became synonymous with the level of UK manufacture, and most notably, the production of metal.

February 19, 1948 one of the innovators of metal entered the world, but not the metal we were accustomed to… . Ladies and Gentlemen, lay down your heart to the Lord of the Dark Riff.

Mr. Tony Iommi ⛪️ 🎸

“I’ve always had determination. I had to go against all the people who said, ‘You’re never going to be able to play guitar'”

Tony Iommi – Neville Marten (Guitarist) April 01, 2020

The Industrial Riff-olution

Looking into the history and development of this week’s player in the spotlight there was a serious sense of discovery in regards to the sheer resilience of the man that was so awe-inspiring it’s left us with nothing but fascination and admiration for the torch bearer of the wicked and haunting riff.

This man’s dedication, positivity and determination, along with his calm, collected and focused exterior is so relevant in current standings and he is a true joy to watch and listen to in interviews and appearances.

“I used to work on a way to make the sound bigger and get as much out of the guitar as I could”

Tony Iommi – Neville Marten (Guitarist) April 01, 2020

Hailing from humble working-class beginnings Tony recalls that many family members and relations would play instruments. He expresses that he vaguely remembers his dad having brushes with guitar, but not too often as he was always working of course.

As we all were Tony was initially fascinated by the Drums as a young child, but of course a drum kit was far too large for the house and far too unattainable financially. He then began to express his interest in the guitar after hearing the popular podcast on the radio from the current artist of his time: The Shadows.

The sounds of Cliff and The Shadows have been so influential on so many people of a certain generation. The iconic status they presented and invitations and inspirations into the guitar reaches far and wide.

Image credit: Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the sound we know of today from this iconic and darkside guitar player to have evolved from such commercial and polite beginnings.

Like many guitar players at the time this was the go-to sound along with the ample doses of Blues guitar players that were also commonly shared amongst that generation of budding musicians.

“The energy they unleashed in their tracks without vocals was transferred directly into me. I just owned a ‘Best Of’ LP by them, bought from my pocket money, but in retrospect that was no bad choice. Because if you could accuse the Shadows of anything, it was that their albums, like the albums of the early 60s, consisted of a few hits and a lot of filler material. But Greatest Hits contained my two favourite songs Apache and Wonderful Land– plus a lot of other great stuff. But I tell it how it is: without The Shadows and their guitarist Hank Marvin as idol, my playing might have developed into a completely other direction, and Black Sabbath would not have been the band it became. “

Tony Iommi – https://vinylwriters.com/tony-iommi-on-the-shadows-greatest-hits/

Obtaining his first guitar proved more difficult than most due to the fact that he was left-handed. Just being able to have a guitar was a big step, and being able to find a lefty one… that it was a huge step!

After a long search his first guitar was sourced from the catalogue by his mother.

This was Tony’s first guitar. He came across it while reading a catalog, and it was the only left-handed guitar he could find. The guitar costed around £20 (around £400 in new money), and Tony’s mother bought it for him on weekly instalments. Tony was around 10-13 years old at the time.

1960s Watkins Rapier 22

“As far as we know, the Watkins guitars were first introduced in the late 50s and they were available with two, three, or four-pickup setup. Tony’s model was the one with two pickups dubbed ‘Rapier 22’, and featured a Hi-Lo Watkins vibrato bridge and a Gibson-style Rhythm/Lead toggle switch. Although we couldn’t find any direct statement from Tony about the finish, the guitar was most likely red since Tony was a big fan of Hank Marvin at the time who himself played a fiesta-red Stratocaster, and most of the early Watkins guitar were indeed finished in red.”

Mat Lemmon – https://www.groundguitar.com/tony-iommis-guitars-and-gear/

Tony became focused on guitar and progressed to great levels rather swiftly and began to join several groups even before he turned 18.

Unfortunately at the age of 17 he was about to have a life changing accident…

Reinvention To Revolution 

Being from a hard-working working-class family, hard work and having a job was just in the blood. Tony had been working hard on his job in a factory from as early as he could, like many people in the city of Birmingham at the time industry and manufacture was the only real choice for employment.

Like many Tony dreamed of a bigger world outside the factory and becoming a guitar player seemed to be a viable ticket out to discovery.

Having gained some great momentum as a guitar player Tony had fortunately found himself on a tour booked in Germany with a band, just 17-years-old this was going to be his big break and he saw this as an opportunity to turn professional.

Fully committed he vowed to leave his job and hadn’t already handed in his notice, ironically it was his last day and he was operating machine he was not familiar with due to another persons absence.

What followed was a horrific and terrible accident, misjudging the machinery through inexperience Tony subsequently lost the tips of his middle and index fingers on his right hand. Being left-handed this is, of course his fretting hand! He was told he would never play guitar again by many doctors and specialists.

It was absolutely devastating as you can fully imagine.

Image Courtesy of – https://vinylwriters.com/tony-iommi-on-the-shadows-greatest-hits/

A truly dedicated individual who would not give up Tony vowed to relearn and re-approach the guitar against all advice. This was after a visit from his manager at his former workplace where the accident happened…

Straight after the accident Tony of course fell into a deep depression and withdrawal due to this devastating incident.

His former manager introduced him to a record knowing Tony was now against everything music or music-related (due to the fact that he couldn’t play any more). He eventually gave in and listened to this vinyl his manager (and friend) had presented to him.

Tony Iommi on playing guitar after his accident

Tony Iommi – https://vinylwriters.com/tony-iommi-on-the-shadows-greatest-hits/

It was this encounter with Django Reinhardt that would really push Tony to pursue reinvention and re-learning of the guitar as Django of course had very similar disability to his fingers.

Tony persisted and began to make himself fingertips from various materials starting with plastic and then through experimentation finding out that leather seem to be the most practical.

This incredible dedication and refusal to give in and give up is an amazing part of his character, this enormous belief would shine through in his newly developed playing style in the years to come.

Once he has reaffirmed his focus and drive on the guitar through great adversity he now began to make adjustments to the guitar so he was able to get the most out of it, regardless of his impairment.

Do you Sabbath🤘

Now this is a band that we can all really get on board with here and has proved to be the soundtracks of many peoples lives in one form or another; there is no getting away from it and there’s no denying it: Black Sabbath is about as cool 😎  as it gets.

Photography by Warner Bros. Records – Billboard, page 7, 18 July 1970, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27211119

Formed in Birmingham in 1968 by guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, bassist Geezer Butler and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. They are often cited as pioneers of heavy metal music.

Not only were they revolutionary but they were era-defining, along with causing a real stir in the industry, the press, and society in general.

The dark, haunting, and slightly unnervingly demonic sound really got heads turning in a good way in and a bad way.

This ‘dark side’-type of sound came from a mutual interest in horror music and horror soundtracks, along with Tony’s newfound a newly adapted style on guitar the Sabbath sound was born, this was a benchmark in contemporary music and spawned so many influences and bands for generations to come.

Black Sabbath are a one-of-a-kind band that went on to have worldwide success and historical credibility in the world of rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame.

There really is nothing quite like these dark, tense, and suspenseful riffs with musicianship that shines through the sound of a true band.

The Guitar, The Strings, The Sound of Sabbath … 🎸

There are many key factors to consider here when you reminisce and overview the sound that Tony Iommi created with Black Sabbath. Along with his incredible ability to adapt after his horrific accident he was also continually innovative as a musician and guitar player.

This is heavily evident in the sound he created with his guitar, somewhat overlooked now, but back then that sound simply wasn’t available and yet he managed to produce a colossal sound from only one guitar that many had never heard or experienced before.

This was initially due to the combination of a few things: firstly, when Tony was playing a gig one night in Carlisle I believe a member of the audience came up to him after the show and said:

“‘I can make that sound better. I’ll take it and bring it back tomorrow.”

What he took away was Tony’s Treble Booster which was the now iconic Rangemaster.

“He could have really cocked it up, but he took it away, put different components in it, brought it back and I loved it. It had got a great sound with the amps I was using at that time, which were Marshall 50s. He’d given it sustain and everything. So I went to a company saying, ‘Could you build this booster into the amp?’ ‘We can’t do that.”

Tony Iommi – Neville Marten (Guitarist) April 01, 2020

The next key element of the Sabbath sound was of course getting the guitar refined for Tony’s needs and requirements.

Quote from Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

Photo Courtesy of – https://reverb.com/news/master-of-reality-sound-like-black-sabbaths-tony-iommi

This guitar has shaped the sound of Black Sabbath and the legacy of Tony Iommi as a player. Synonymous with the SG-style guitar from his early days one particular guitar has been the forefront of the sabbath Sound in mind, body, and spirit.

This particular guitar was actually a backup guitar to a Fender Stratocaster that failed in a studio session, the SG was called upon and became the go-to guitar for Tony for many years.

All of his guitars, including this one, had to be heavily modified for him to be able to play: lower frets, lower action, and of course very particular gauge strings which we will come onto shortly.

This particular SG known as “The Monkey 🐒 Guitar” due to the now instantly recognisable sticker attached to the guitar.

Image credit – https://bravewords.com/news/black-sabbath-guitarist-tony-iommi-discusses-monkey-1964-sg-special-replica-guitar-a-bit-like-a-dream-video

This instrument was heavily modified to meet Tony’s requirements. He found it difficult to get people to cooperate with him on certain projects but found a mutual enthusiast in John Birch.

“So you shaved the frets down and then had the fretboard lacquered as well?

“Yes, John Birch did that as well. I tried everything I could to make it easier for me, because of my fingers. Having high frets was disastrous because I’ve got thimbles on: they’re hard, not like the skin where you just glide over. So I had the lacquer put on to build up the fretboard so I could sort of roll over the frets. 

“All these things were experiments to make things work for me. Like the first fret. Because I was using light strings, everything had to be worked differently. It had to be right from the off, because I was already struggling.”

Tony Iommi – Neville Marten (Guitarist) April 01, 2020

Image credit: Future / Olly Curtis

Monster Riffs, Monster Strings?

So here we go again, a guitar player filling a huge space with one guitar and one big sound; a tone that is truly revolutionary and infectiously inspiring.

Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi have a huge and epic sound which could be described as colossal. 💥 .

To this day people are fascinated and intrigued and simply blown away by the sound of Sabbath.

Here’s a perfectly encapsulated description here that I have stumbled upon which completely frames Tony Iommi as a player and an individual.

“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 manoeuvre, 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.”

Quote Courtesy of – https://reverb.com/news/master-of-reality-sound-like-black-sabbaths-tony-iommi

As well as the many alterations required to the guitars themselves to enable Tony to play, the string choice had to be as precise and accessible.

In the above interview with Gibson TV Tony describes his journey on trying to obtain really light gauge strings to enable him to play to some degree and bend and add vibrato without damaging his handcrafted prosthetic finger tips in place.

Tony Iommi's Electric Guitar String Gauges

Many string manufacturers appeared to be unwilling to help or just simply did not have the time to accommodate but eventually Tony found a UK company, a heritage brand here with Strings Direct, Picato. They managed to meet his requirements and help him towards his ideal solution.

From there, Tony progressed to GHS Strings and now resides with the prestigious La Bella to fulfil his very specific requirements.

“Tony has used La Bella strings since 1990. La Bella is the trade mark of E&O Mari, a family run company based in Newburgh, New York state. People may be surprised to know that they are one of the few string companies that actually do make strings! This means that when we make requests regarding the actual string construction, e.g. extra reinforcement at the ball end of some of Tony’s very light gauges, we know that we will be accommodated.”

Here at Strings Direct we have created some sets inspired by Tony Iommi. Check them out here.

[We have the La Bella strings incoming in the single varieties so that’s big news and something we are all looking forward to here. ✌️ ]

Check out this incredible interview on Gibson TV just a matter of self and some cameras in a very Gothic-looking room this is essential viewing as Tony Iommi is an absolute legend and an absolute gentleman. What a player.!

References


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