Hailed as one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, Tony Iommi thwarted the obstacles of what might have been a career-ending hand injury to develop a unique technique and distinct tone. With Black Sabbath, Iommi conjured up dark and heavy riffs in a style unlike other music of the time. As a result, Iommi’s approach has since inspired players for generations. In recognition of his efforts, he was recently honored with an Iommi Signature Gibson SG, Gibson Iommi Signature pickups, and a Laney Signature GH 100 TI 100-watt amplifier.
On his second solo outing, Fused, which includes bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes and drummer Kenny Aronoff, Iommi debuts a veteran solo band that will continue as a side project to his membership in Black Sabbath. In contrast, Iommi, the first solo disc, featured the guitarist collaborating with different musicians on each track.
VG tracked down Iommi in New York City for a chat about creating Fused, and his preferences as a musician for gear and tone. We discussed the evolution of his work and how things came together while collaborating with Hughes and Aronoff, as well as producer Bob Marlette. Iommi also addressed rumors about a long-awaited Sabbath album, and confirmed the group’s appearance at this summer’s Ozzfest, following which he plans to tour with Hughes and Aronoff.
For now, fans can explore a broader and more melodic side of the ruling godfather of metal guitar on Fused, and look forward to a summer tour with Sabbath to be followed by a tour with his solo group.
Vintage Guitar: Your last solo album featured a variety of musicians collaborating with you on each track. Why did you opt for a solid band this time?
Tony Iommi: It was really for more of an identification thing, where this is a band, as opposed to a lot of people coming in and out. On my first solo album, I used different singers and different musicians because that was always something that I wanted to do. So I’ve had my chance and done that. A lot of people thought that I was going to do it again on this album, but I didn’t. I wanted to do a solid band with a singer and a drummer, where we can go out and tour. And that’s sort of the plan – to have a live band. I want to make an album live, and not go in and do it on Pro Tools. I wanted to play it live in the studio, which is what we did
Will this band with Glenn Hughes and Kenny Aronoff be a continuing side project?
Yes, and I really want to tour!
What was best about working with one group compared to different musicians?
Well, it was good working with different musicians when I’d done that first album. It was very interesting to get all sorts of people and see the different ways they work, experience their different attitudes, abilities and approaches. But when you work with a solid band, I think it’s better because you do get into a roll and work together as more of a unit. I’ve worked with Glenn a couple of times before, and we just thought it was time that we tried to make an album properly, as opposed to the last album we did with the DEP Sessions, which we’d done and canned. We kept them in storage for 10 years before releasing them. But we wanted to do this album live and capture everything in the studio – do it the natural way, as opposed to building everything up.
Why were the DEP Sessions in storage for so long?
We did most of the DEP Sessions at my house. Glenn came up, and we started writing stuff with Don Airey on keyboards. It was just an idea of playing to see what we would come up with, and I liked it. But then the first idea of the Sabbath tour reunion came up. So I had to sort of drop what I was doing, and we held off on it. Then I went to do the Sabbath tour, and we just kept going on. So basically, the tapes went into storage. It wasn’t really a finished album, they were only ideas we’d come up with.
So these tracks were never finished or properly mixed at that point?
No, they were incomplete – just recordings to see what sort of material we could come up with. We did it out of pleasure, just to work together. So we put them in storage, and it was my guitar tech who actually found them. I gave him loads of CDs and tapes to copy – all stuff from a vault. So he had this task of having boxes full of cassettes to put riffs down for me, and he came across two tracks we had done with Glenn. He told me there was something he thought was really good and that I should have a listen to, so I did. So we got the original tapes out from all the early stuff, and listened to them, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s really good!” So I spoke to Glenn and said that we should actually put these out.
How did the music come together for Fused? Did you begin with ideas you’d been working on?
I’d done three or four tracks at home, in my studio. I had gone in not knowing what I was going to do. So Glenn came over and we got together in a rehearsal situation, and just started writing fresh material, and like the DEP Sessions, it went quick. So we developed things right away with the idea to play it live. We put the ideas down on tape, and then showed them to Kenny.
Do you favor a particular guitar for writing?
No, not really. I usually use either an SG or a Les Paul. It depends on what attracts my fancy at that time. Usually, it’s the SG. But on this album, I tried a few different things. I actually used a Strat, the Les Paul, and the SGs this time.
Which guitars, amps and effects were used on the recording?
The main tracking was done with the Gibson Iommi Custom SG. Then I did an overdub with a Les Paul for another rhythm track, so we’d have the two different sounds. Some of the solo stuff was done on either the SG, or on one track I used a Strat, which I haven’t used for many, many years. I haven’t used one on an album since the first album. It’s pretty weird, but I wanted something with a different sound for one track. The Strat is only a couple of years old and has a maple fingerboard. I’m not sure which model it is. I’ve also got a Standard Strat.
When I started with Sabbath, and before Sabbath, I was playing a Strat. I worked to get it exactly as I wanted, and I loved it. And then we did the first album, and it went bad. But in those days, there weren’t the people around who could fix them – in England, anyway. That’s the quick story of how I ended up using an SG on the first album. I used the Strat on one track, “Wicked World,” and all the rest were done on the Gibson, and I never went back. I’ve always stuck to the Gibson. But I did have a love for the Strat in those days. I’ve also got a couple of Les Pauls – an older one that I think is a ’70, and I’ve got one that’s about an ’88. Both are Standards and I fitted my own signature model pickups on one of them.
I played some acoustic guitar, too. I think the acoustic on “Insane” was an Epiphone, and I had a Gibson J-45 with me, as well. I’ve had the Gibson forever. I did “Fluff” on it in the early ’70s.
The amp rig was fairly standard. I was using my Laney custom Iommi amplifier with one 4×12″ cabinet for most of my stuff. I also had an old Vox AC30 with a separate head and cabinet for a different texture.
For effects, I used an old Tycobrahe Parapedal wah, the same one I’ve had forever. I think I bought up all the Tycobrahe wahs! Certainly about 80 percent of them. I love those and I just can’t get enough of them. I use them onstage, as well. I also used a chorus pedal, which was probably a Boss chorus. I didn’t use the pedalboard I use onstage. I just used things that were handy in the studio. Just those two pedals, and that was about it.
No overdrive pedals?
No, I used the amp. On one track, “Insane,” I tried using an Epiphone SG with P90s, which I haven’t used for years. They were screaming and whistling. We tried a few overdrive pedals on that, and it was just horrendous. None of them seemed to work.
Was there any material that was written and recorded, but not used?
There are three tracks… actually four, but we didn’t even record one of them.
Will they ever see the light of day?
Yes. I think we’re going to use them as bonus tracks, which is a rare thing for me because I’d just have enough to have an album! It goes from one extreme to another. The DEP Sessions was very short and humble because that’s all we’d done at that time because it wasn’t going to be released. So when it finally was released, they asked if we had any more tracks for it, but we didn’t. On this album, we’ve gone the other way. We had all the songs up at first and I was listening to them, and I thought the album was too long. I was pondering what to take off because we had to lose some tracks. One of the tracks we took off is long. “Insane” is long, too – about nine minutes, and we recorded it live. If you get to the last bit and you make a mistake, it just falls to pieces and you end up doing it over again.
Were all the basic tracks were recorded live?
Yes. Everything was recorded live, then I did my overdub tracks, and then the vocals.
Do you record next to your amps?
No, I work in the control room.
How are your guitars set up?
I’ve used Labella strings for a long time. I’ve got different gauges for depending on how I feel. Heavy, for me, is .009-.042. Most of the time that’s what I use. The other guitars are .008-.032, or Mike (Clement, Iommi’s tech) may slip a .036 in. He does that sometimes. It depends on how the song goes. I like the heavier strings for chords. But with my fingers, it’s difficult to play on thick strings.
The action is set quite low and they have low frets. The fingerboard is built up with polyurethane on my main guitars, so it’s almost like they run into each other. Because otherwise, if I use these caps [prosthetic tips on his middle and ring fingers], they catch. So I’ve made it so I can slide easier. Gibson just sent me the Epiphone Iommi model, which is great, and I just play that as it is. It depends on the guitar. I’ve had the frets taken down on some guitars, and lowered the action a bit, as well.
How different was the gear you used in the studio from your live rig?
It was just the guitar into the Laney amp. It’s a bit boring, really, but that’s it. No Pete Cornish switching system.
What type of picks do you prefer?
I use black Dunlop picks, but I don’t know what gauge they are.
Your tone on Fused is not as dark as it is with Sabbath. Was there a conscious effort to change it?
Yes. That’s because of Bob Marlette. He and I hear things a bit differently, so we compromise. Ideally, if it would have been me tuning in the sound for my ears, it would have been a lot darker sounding. Bob had something in his head and he wanted to create this sound with a mixture of the two guitars. He seems to go for a much cleaner sound than I would. But I like what he’s done. It’s different from the Sabbath tone.
Your solos are also more melodic than on Sabbath records.
I wasn’t that happy with some of the solos I’d done on this album, because I like to experiment a bit more and try different stuff. But again, using a producer, there has to be a line drawn. I might think I could do it better, but he’ll say it’s fine. So that’s sort of the way you compromise, and I think that we’d all done it. Glenn had done it, and the same for drums. We were going for a particular feel on the album, and you have to draw the line, otherwise you’ll be there all night – and I would be. Sometimes you have to tell me to stop, or I will carry on until I’m satisfied.
Do you ever pull out your old stage guitars or collectibles?
The John Diggins guitar is still alive – a fantastic guitar that is (a.k.a. Jaydee, Number 1, “The Old Boy”). I don’t use it much now, but I love that guitar. It’s time to use my own model Gibson guitar. The original red SG that I used on the early albums, that’s now in the Hard Rock on permanent display. I’d rather it be there than stuck in a box at home. It’s alright collecting all these guitars, which I did for years, and I had a lot of them. Being left-handed, they were all collectible. But they’d end up in storage and I had so many of them. I had a special storage to keep them in with temperature control and all that. At the end of the day, I just thought it was pointless. Every time we do an album, they all come out and I go “Oh, I remember that one.” Mike has logged them all on the computer with serial numbers. But it’s such a bloody shame. They come out for an album, then go back for however many years until I decide to do something else. Then they all come out again. I ended up not using a lot of them, so I thought it was better for someone to see them and for them to be displayed.
I got rid of a few, and basically kept a couple of the old ones. I’ve got a Barney Kessel which is one of three made in ’65 that were left-handed. Some of my old original ones were stolen many years ago. I had two left-handed three-pickup SG Customs in white with gold pickups and the tremolo that you lift with your little finger. I liked it and I used it on the song “Paranoid,” and then it got stolen. I’d rather they be displayed somewhere than have to keep worrying about them being stuck in storage and what’s happened to them. I’d rather it be somewhere safe where people can go see it.
Aside from the Barney Kessel, which instruments do you prize most?
I’d say the Jaydee. I’ve had it for many, many years. He was my guitar tech for a while, and he made that guitar. He made that guitar very quick at home, and I just stuck to it and I really liked it. I’ve got other Gibsons floating about. The 1970 Les Paul is quite a nice guitar. I have a one-off Les Paul that Gibson made for me about seven years ago, which is a fantastic guitar. I was at Gibson and they had this one piece of wood that they’d kept, and it’s magnificent. He got the block out, showed it to me, and asked if I’d like to have an SG or a Les Paul made out of it. He said it would be lovely as a Les Paul, so I told him to make a Les Paul, and it’s absolutely fantastic. They used it on their catalog.
Would you ever play a Les Paul onstage?
Have you in the past?
I think I may have, possibly just for one song. I’ve never been a Les Paul person. I like them, but they’ve always felt awkward for me to play at the top of the neck.
What do you enjoy listening to? Is there anything that’s inspiring you?
No, in a word! I think I’m battered of being able to sit down and listen to anything like what I do. Most of the stuff I tend to listen to consists of old stuff, or jazz or classical – just something different from what I do. I could never put an Iron Maiden album on, which everybody thinks you do if you’re in a band like Sabbath. I’ve been listening to more of the older standards because it takes me away from what I do.
And when I’m wrapped up in writing and recording an album, I don’t listen to anything else. I listen to what I’m doing, particularly when I’m writing. I hate listening to other stuff because I might just pick something up, and I’m always conscious of that. I like to try to create what I’m thinking about. I don’t want to subconsciously hear something and then start playing that type of style. I want to go into a room and start rehearsals, like we did. Glenn and myself just went in, locked ourselves away, and just started playing whatever came up. There was no, “It’s got to sound like this” or “It’s got to be like that.” We just came up with whatever we felt was good.
How do you do warm up for a show?
I get there early, to sort of get into the vibe of the whole thing, and sit in what is supposedly peace and quiet inside the trailer, which it is not – on Ozzfest we have our own little compound where you can’t hear the second stage, but you can hear the main stage. I’ll start warming up and play for a bit, then get something to eat, then play for a bit more. I play anything, like some jazz or anything to stretch or just to loosen up. I find that I have to do more and more these days because things don’t work as well as they did years ago.
Are there plans for a solo tour following Ozzfest?
Yes, that’s the plan. If we hadn’t been doing Ozzfest, the original plan was to tour with Glenn and Kenny.
Will you do another album with them?
For years, there have been rumors of a new Sabbath album. What’s the reality of that happening?
That’s what I’m trying to find out. Ozzy (Osbourne, Sabbath front man) phoned me about three months ago and said, “I hear we’re doing an album.” So that was great news to me because I’ve been saying we should do an album for ages. So that plan is being worked on at the moment. Hopefully, it will be a reality. I think we should do one.
There were two new studio tracks included on Sabbath’s live Reunion album from ’98, which ignited the rumors.
They were very quick tracks. Basically, I just put the idea down and then Ozzy, Bill (Ward, Sabbath drummer), and Geezer (Butler, Sabbath bassist) came in and played, which is not how we’d worked on Sabbath tracks before. We’ve always jammed around and come up with ideas and worked on them as a team. So they were quite different.
I’ve actually written several songs, and I think three or four of them are very good. We had a month in Wales and we all went to live in this house in a studio away from everything, and just wrote songs. Then everything went quiet because Ozzy started doing the MTV show (“The Osbournes”). Everybody said to be patient and kept saying it’s going to happen. But you can’t do other projects when you’re making a record. You’ve got to be involved in it completely. I certainly would like to do it!
How does it feel to be dubbed “the godfather of heavy metal guitar” and to continue being so influential to players today?
Old! Actually, what better compliment could you have, being a musician? I’m lucky to be able to do it in the first place, and to be working all my life. To have people recognize that is brilliant, and I can’t say enough about it because it’s an honor. I love it!
What advice can you offer players on developing an individual style and tone?
Well, I think you really have to believe in what you do. Listen to advice, but don’t let it take you over. If you really want to be different, know that people want to hear you for you. And if you want to be special, you’ve got to do your thing – do what you feel. I created stuff that I wanted to, not what someone was saying I should do. I couldn’t listen to someone tell me to do this or that. So that’s what I’ve done all my life, and I’ve gone against the grain to some degree. But I think you’ve got to follow the road that you believe in, and not what people keep saying you should do. If you’ve got that belief in yourself, follow it, and head for a goal.
Photos: Rick Gould
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.