In the late ’60s, in Birm-ingham, England, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward first united as a group, calling themselves Earth. By ’69 the band changed its name to Black Sabbath and its mystical stage antics and dark, tuned-down heavy rock music played at ear-splitting volume, soon became legendary.
The original lineup recorded seven studio albums between 1970 and ’78, including Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master Of Reality, Vol. 4, Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, and Never Say Die. A greatest hits compilation, We Sold Our Soul For Rock And Roll, was released in ’76. In ’79, the group split when Osbourne departed. But the band continued making music and touring, undergoing several lineup changes until Iommi was the sole original member. Nevertheless, no incarnation of Sabbath or any of the members’ own endeavors ever matched the legacy of the band’s original lineup.
Together, the original Black Sabbath created the style that became known as heavy metal. Its music has been a primary influence on many ’80s and ’90s metal and grunge bands, including everyone from Metallica to Soundgarden to Smashing Pumpkins. Early Sabbath records continue to inspire new listeners.
The original Sabbath reunited at the Live Aid concert in July of ’85 and then again for the encore of what was supposed to have been Osbourne’s farewell performance with his solo band in ’92. The response was tremendous. Although Osbourne has achieved considerable success with his own records, it was clear Sabbath fans longed to hear those classic tunes played by the original band. And they still want more.
Until recently, Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward were unsuccessful in their attempts to reunite. But in late ’97 the four finally got together to play two sold-out shows in Birmingham, England. Both were recorded and tracks from the second were recently released as a double live album, Reunion, the original lineup’s first full-length concert since ’79. The new disc includes 16 classics and two new studio tracks, “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.” The reunited Black Sabbath embarks on a six-week American tour kicking off New Year’s Eve in Phoenix, Arizona.
As advance copies of Reunion began to circulate, Vintage Guitar sat with Iommi and Butler in New York City to talk about the reunion, as well as its musical past, present, and future.
Vintage Guitar: Before ’98, when was the last time Sabbath played together with Ozzy?
Geezer Butler: We did something in ’92, which was allegedly Ozzy’s last gig [with his solo band]. It was supposed to be the ultimate farewell concert and he wanted to finish the whole thing with us. We went on and did three songs for the encore and that sort of started the ball rolling. At that time it just fell through.
What inspired the reunion this time?
GB: Bill [Ward] (laughs). Well, this time Ozzy and Tony had already agreed to it. Sharon [Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife and personal manager] called and asked me if I wanted to do it. She wanted to have us as the headliners with Ozzy at this year’s Ozzfest because of the festival’s success last year. I said yes, then it had to be put together quickly because there were only two months to rehearse.
The house you rehearsed in, was that the same one you worked in when the band started?
Tony Iommi: That house [in Monmouth in Wales], it was where we used to rehearse when we first started. We went back and it was like going back to the beginning, to the same place we started.
Did it feel as if no time had been lost?
TI: It was really good. We took time and all lived together in the house and just got familiar again. We had a laugh, joked, and had food. Then we started playing again and it was great because it all fit in.
What was the first song you played?
Iommi and Butler [simultaneously]: “War Pigs.”
Did the music naturally come back or did you have to work out any of the original parts?
GB: It was all natural, really. We hadn’t played together with Bill on a full set for 18 or 20 years from the original days. He had the most difficult job, so we had to go over stuff with Bill again just to make sure that he was alright with it.
What happened to Bill after the shows in Birmingham? There were reports he suffered a heart attack.
TI: We had done the two shows and recorded them, and that was fine. Then we were due to headline some European festivals. So we got back together in the house in Monmouth and started rehearsing. On the second day he had a heart attack.
GB: Because he was so shocked he got it right (laughs)!
TI: I’ll tell you, we were all shocked! Then we opened our mouths and said, “Oh, blimy. It’s going quicker than we expected!” And of course, the next thing, Bill had a bloody heart attack. We thought it was all going too good.
With different members coming into Black Sabbath, how had that affected the music over the years?
TI: Funny enough, when we got back together we realized how different things were in between. Nobody plays those songs like the original lineup. You can’t replace anybody, you just carry on. And that’s what happened. It was only when we all played together again that we realized how those songs should sound and we went back to the way we played them. It just felt nice having the songs sound the way they should. It’s funny, playing the solos again and all those particular riffs. We had it sounding much the same as it was when we’d originally done it. All through the years we had done different albums where there was more solo stuff going on, but there’s probably less solo stuff in this, and more riffs.
How did that affect you as a guitar player?
TI: I got worse (laughs).
What was it like going back in and working together on the new material? How did you approach it?
TI: When we went in to do the mix they asked us if we could come up with two new tracks as a bonus for the album. It was totally out of the blue while we were in the middle of doing the mix. It had to be done quickly, so we didn’t really have any time to think about it. We just came up with some ideas and put them down. Then Ozzy came up with a melody line and we all played it and it was as simple with that, really. They wanted it that quick and it was done in just a couple of days.
What is the standard Black Sabbath formula for writing songs?
TI: I’d come up with a riff, then Ozzy would come up with the melody line and we’d just built it up. The new songs were done just like we had always did them.
GB: I didn’t contribute anything to these two new songs (laughs). They’d already done it by the time I’d got there and there was nothing to change about it.
How long did it take to get the new tracks on tape? Did you record anything else at that time?
TI: Do you want more, then (laughs)? We wrote just those two songs in the studio and, overall, it took about four days in the studio to write and record them from start to finish.
Is there a possibility we may see a new Sabbath studio album with the reunited band?
GB: There might be. It just depends, but we’re not going to force it. It’s got to be marvelous – it either happens or it doesn’t.
TI: There is a possibility. I’d just rather think that when we’re ready to do that, we will. We’d love to do it, but until that happens, we stand to whatever else we’re going to be doing.
Let’s talk a bit about your gear. Tony, how have your choices in guitars and amplifiers changed over the years?
TI: My guitar has pretty much remained a Gibson SG. I also had some made in England by J.D., the same chap who built them for Gibson. I played those for a while and then went back to Gibsons. It’s more or less been the same as when I started.
I’ve tried different amplifiers over the years. I started out using Marshall amplifiers and then I switched to Laney – we were both using Laneys then. I used Laneys for quite a while and then started trying others, like a Boogie 300-watt head, which I didn’t like because it was too large-sounding. Then I went back to Marshalls again, then back to Laneys. The Laneys I use now are designed the way I would want to have an amplifier sound. They’re my own model Laney amp and they’re a bit different from the regular models they do. We worked on getting the sound right where I wanted it, so they’ve got a lot more highs and they’re very loud. While my sound used to be a bit fuzzy, it’s not quite so fuzzy now. I want a sound that’s solid and powerful. I like a cleaner sound, not a fuzzy one. There are a few other changes from the original amps, including the way it’s wired up.
What are you currently using for outboard effects?
TI: I have a Pete Cornish pedalboard, but I only use wah wah and chorus. The wah is an old Tycobrahe. I haven’t found one to beat it, although I have loads of different ones. I have no idea what the chorus pedal is and I have no idea what’s in the rack. I’ve got two or three different ones and backup systems in the rack, but I don’t know which unit we’re using at this minute.
How do you usually set your amp?
TI: I don’t have it full up. I have the drive up to about 7 and the master volume up to about 7, too. The other controls – the tone controls – are quite responsive, so they’re set about halfway. I used to turn everything full up years ago, on the original amplifiers, and I used to use a treble booster to drive the input. I’d turn everything full up and turn the middle off. Now I have that treble booster built in to the amp.
What are your preferences for your guitar’s neck shape, frets, and the setup?
TI: I like a thinner neck than the regular Gibson because it’s easier for me to hold. I like 24-fret necks, too. I also prefer thin fretwire, like the old ’61 Gibson-type. I don’t like the chunky type. I like the strings to be set low, as well.
What kind of strings and picks do you use?
TI: I use LaBella strings and black Dunlop picks. My strings are different custom-gauge sets, and they’re not always the same. I’ve used strings ranging from a very light .008 set to a heavier .010-.052 set.
How many guitars do you generally take on the road?
TI: Probably about six or eight, but I use two throughout the show. We use different tunings because some of the albums were played in different tunings in the early days. We never went by the rules and just tuned the way that sounded right for that track or that album. We’ve always tuned a semi-tone down, but on the Paranoid and Black Sabbath albums we tuned to pitch. On Master Of Reality we tuned down three steps. We didn’t have any rules, because everybody else made the rules up. We just broke them. Onstage we tune down a semi-tone.
VG: Did you tune down because of Ozzy’s vocals?
TI: We had always experimented with Black Sabbath. That was the greatest thing we’d done. We had always tried things that weren’t the norm. We were the first to tune down, and nobody could understand that. I also went to many guitar companies years ago when I wanted light-gauge strings and was told they couldn’t make them because they wouldn’t work the same. I had to explain that I’d already been using them and that I’d made up the sets myself.
It was the same with 24-fret necks. I put money into a company because I couldn’t get guitars built the way I wanted them. I had to prove it to the manufacturers. So I put money into John Birch guitars, and he built my guitars. I had to prove it worked. All of this was done by experimenting and trial and error. I paid for that myself in the early days to show it could be done. And I paid for all these companies to get the benefits nowadays. Back then they all said it couldn’t be done. I also used locking nuts years and years ago without a tremolo, before locking nuts were the norm.
I also came up with a guitar with interchangeable pickups you could slot in from the back. It was a John Birch guitar. We only sold one, and Roy Orbison bought it. I came up with that years ago and the first one was made for me to use in the studio. At the time I had a lot of problems tuning guitars because of the neck and the light strings on the Gibson. I decided to come up with a guitar that I could use in the studio with different sounds so that I didn’t have to keep changing guitars. You could slot a pickup in it and get a Fender sound, then slot a different pickup in it and get a Gibson sound. That was the idea. I did use it for a while, but they were too expensive to mass-produce.
Do you still hold the patent on that design?
TI: I did years ago, but I probably lost it now. That was about 28 years ago. I had just done it for my own interest. If it was successful I knew people would rip it off.
Speaking of pickups, what’s different about your signature model Gibson pickups from the stock pickups in a typical SG?
TI: You can turn them up more without feeding back. Gibson said it’s entirely different from anything else they’ve done. My original Gibson pickups used to feed back and squeal all the time and I couldn’t control it. I wanted pickups that wouldn’t feed back when the volume was up, but when you turn down they sound clean. If you turn up, you get all the guts without any squealing.
Being left-handed, has it always been difficult for you to find gear ?
TI: Yes, and even more so in those days. You couldn’t find anything. I’d see maybe one left-handed guitar in a store. I had a Burns guitar because you could find them easily in those days, but I had always wanted a Strat. Then I eventually saw a Strat and bought it. I used it on “Wicked World.”
Geezer, tell us about the equipment you’ve used through the years.
GB: I was using Fender Precision Basses on the first two or three records. Then I had a Dan Armstrong bass. After that I used a John Birch and basses made by J.D. and B.C. Rich. Then I was playing Spector basses, and now Vigier. The basses I’m using live are Vigier XS models.
When I started playing, the very first amp rig I had was a 70-watt Laney head and a Park cabinet with three speakers in it because I couldn’t afford four. That’s what I did the first album with. Then, when I could afford it, I got two Laney 4 X 12s and two Laney 100-watt bass amps. From there, I went to using Ampeg SVTs with various combinations of speakers. Now I’m using the newer SVTs.
For outboard gear, I use an old Tycobrahe wah wah on “N.I.B.” There’s nothing to replace them. You just cannot get that bass sound with anything else because you’ve got the sub-bass control on the back of the wah wah, as well. I also have a DigiTech digital EQ, and that’s it.
How are your basses set up?
GB: They have a wide neck with very shallow depth because I want the neck to be as thin as possible with the strings a bit further apart. They have 24 frets and are set up with incredibly low action. I also use built-in active electronics set on full blast.
Do you play with a pick or with your fingers?
GB: I use my fingers, but I sometimes play with a pick. It depends on what the song needs. If it’s fast and needs a lot of clarity, I’ll use a pick, but I normally use my fingers.
What kind of strings and picks do you use?
GB: I use DR strings and black Dunlop picks – the same ones as Tony.
What are your typical amp settings?
GB: I set the amp with loads of bass, no mid, and the treble set about 7. My volume is set on about three. My stage volume is incredibly loud.
Do either of you wear earplugs?
GB: No. I just got so used to the volume over the years that I don’t need them. If I go on with ear plugs or without that volume, it just sounds horrible to me and I can’t play.
TI: I don’t wear them, either. Since we first started we were always loud and we’ve always done it like that. It’s always been a major part of the band’s sound. I’ve just gotten used to the volume.
Do you use wireless systems?
GB: Yes, for sure.
TI: I use a wireless, as well, but it took me years to use one. I never liked them because I tried a lot of systems and thought many of them changed your sound. I’ve used them on and off. But now Shure has come out with one that I like. I used it on the last tour.
Do your live rigs differ from the gear you use in the studio?
TI: I use much of the same stuff I’m using onstage. I use a Laney amp and cabinet. That’s what I used on the last studio album. In the past, I never used to use the same gear onstage and in the studio. I used to always use something different in the studio because I could never seem to get the sound I wanted with the stuff I was using onstage. So I’d end up using a different amp, anything from a small Boogie amp to a Marshall – whatever sounded right. In fact, PRS built an amp I liked. It sounded good and I used it on a couple of things.
GB: For me, it varied with every album. On the last couple of albums I ran three signals. I used a total bass sound through a 15 set on full bass. Then I’d run a direct sound to give it clarity, and another signal through a Marshall 4 X 12 with a Marshall guitar amp so it has an ultra distorted sound at the top. When I mix the three sounds I’ve got the ultimate live bass sound with the clarity of the direct signal and the ultra distortion, as well.
Do you stand in the same room as your amp when your record your guitars?
TI: Not anymore, but we used to in the early days. I usually do everything in the control room.
GB: In the old days I stood in the same room, as if it was a live gig, especially on the first two albums. We’d mic everything and literally play live in the studio as if it was a gig, because that was all we knew. We had never been in the studio before and we only had 12 hours to do the first album.
TI: Not only that, but in those days they had nowhere to stand in the control room. The control rooms were very small.
VG: When did things start to change?
GB: Probably on the third album. We started experimenting and that record was made in about 10 days. It wasn’t until Vol. 4 that we really took ages, and that took all of six weeks. It seemed like ages for us.
Were there any tricks you used in the studio to get different sounds in the early days?
GB: Yes. We used a producer (laughs).
TI: We tried different things. We’d spend all day farting about and end up with nothing usable. We’d end up making things, making all these cabinets and coming up with all these brilliant ideas, like trying things going off the piano, into the piano and then micing up the piano strings to hear different sounds. In those days we’d make up ideas and try things. Now you just go buy a box and press a button and you’ve got that sound.
GB: This was before samplers and synthesizers. If you wanted anything different or any weird sounds you had to do it yourself from scratch. You had to sit down and work them out and make something that sounded different. Like the track called “FX.” That’s Tony standing and playing his guitar in the nude (laughs). He took all his clothes off in the studio and his was hitting on his guitar strings with the crosses that he wore around his neck. That’s what it was on the whole track (laughs). Bill used to throw things in barrels of water and put a mic on them.
TI: Like the anvil that time. Bill threw an anvil into a big barrel of water. He liked to make sounds on the mic.
GB: One time we brought some sitars in and tried them on some tracks.
TI: We tried violins and cellos, bagpipes – and tried to get sounds out of them, too. We tried all sorts of stuff, but it was just ideas. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it was fun. It used to take a long time, but at least it was original. You wouldn’t hear it anywhere else.
Have you continued to apply anything you learned in the old studio days on the new recording?
TI: Yes. We’ve learned not to do that kind of stuff in the studio or we’d be there forever (laughs). The formula we used to write songs, that’s remained the same. But again, this time the studio was more of a mix room and we just miced up the guitar amp.
What tips do you have for other players on developing their own style?
TI: I think everybody has a unique style – it’s just that certain way you play. I imagine people try to sound like somebody else, but it’s hard to do because you have a unique way of playing and how you create that sound. You should try to develop your own style and go from there. We’re players from the heart, we play from within. We didn’t learn the music side of it – we never learned all the scales and all the stuff they say you’re supposed to. We learned by sound and feel. If it sounded good, then it was right for us. We went against the grain in the early days and we always stuck to that. It was a lot of listening to each other. We didn’t listen to people telling us that we couldn’t do something or that we shouldn’t be doing something a particular way. We developed a unique style that worked perfectly together and we played off of each other. We had to make it sound big since there were only two guitar players – a guitar and a bass – to make it sound that way. And that’s the way we’ve always worked it.
It’s probable Geezer is responsible for creating the distorted bass sound popular among bands today.
GB: I didn’t even play bass before we got together. I was a rhythm guitar player first, but we didn’t need a rhythm player in this band so I switched to bass. A lot of people think a bass player is supposed to be more melodic, like Paul McCartney, playing all these nice things to give everything more depth. But I couldn’t do it that way so I just followed along with Tony’s riffs. In addition, when we used to go into the studio they’d say I couldn’t have this much distortion on bass, because bass players don’t do that. But that’s me, that’s my sound. We used to have battles with producers and engineers about distortion and what a bass is supposed to sound like. It was always an argument on every album.
TI: In the studio they would always try and separate the guitar and bass sound. They’d get into the control room and listen to our tracks separately and complain that Geezer’s bass sounded so distorted. They didn’t understand that what we had together was the sound we wanted. You just can’t start listening to the parts individually, because together it created our sound.
Of course, we have to give Tony credit for developing the fifth-chord technique [playing the root and fifth notes of a chord] that’s become the legendary power chord used by every guitarist today.
TI: I did it purely because I had to. But to make it sound bigger, I developed a vibrato technique and put it on the whole chord.
Tony, how do your fingertips affect your technique? (Ed note: Iommi has prosthetic fingertips on the middle and ring fingers of his right hand.)
TI: My technique is different. I was already playing guitar for three years when the accident happened, but I had to completely relearn. I was playing with two fingers for a long time and that’s how the fifth chords came about. I can’t feel a thing, so I just have to do it by ear. It is hard and it took a lot of getting used to. Put a sewing thimble on your finger and that would be the equivalent.
Which Sabbath songs best define the scope of the band’s music?
GB: I’d say “Black Sabbath,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” and “War Pigs” are the essentials. We’ve had so many facets to the sound from heavy slow things like “Black Sabbath” to nice ballads like “Changes.” When the song “Black Sabbath” came out it was so different from anything else before, and that was probably what made people listen. Nobody else sounded like that.
TI: I would agree. The track “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath” is another level we went on and I thought Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath was a good album. There are other tracks, like “Solitude,” “Changes,” and “She’s Gone,” which no one would think of as us. In fact, some of those tracks were being played on the radio and nobody had a clue it was Black Sabbath. At the time it came out, nobody would have guessed “Changes” was us.
GB: In Poland, Sabbath is banned, but the government used to use “Laguna Sunrise,” one of Tony’s instrumentals, as the background music for its propaganda speeches, not even realizing it was us.
TI: There is also a guy who recorded “Into The Void” for a Russian rap record and he didn’t know it was one of our songs. I guess it’s safe as long as no one finds out it’s us.
Photo: Kevin Westenberg.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.