Get Their Sound: Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Sound like an Electric Wizard
Tony Iommi is the type of guitarist we can all look up to, regardless of whether we love metal or not – confident without being too flashy, melodic and instantly recognisable. His riffs have thrilled and inspired musicians for decades whilst his knack for beautifully fusing dark, doom laden riffs with triumphant fist pumping chord progressions and face melting solos that are as melodic as they are memorable have inspired millions to take up the guitar and create entirely new genres of music. The truth is, without Iommi’s influence on Black Sabbath, there would be no heavy metal. Voted number one Guitar World’s “100 Greatest Metal Guitarists of All Time” and ranked 25th in Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” in 2011, it’s plain to see Iommi’s skills on the guitar are widely respected and his sound coveted.
In this article we’re going to take a quick look at the Black Sabbath guitarist’s guitars, pedals and amps as well as the modern day equivalents, showing you what you need to sound like the man, short of cutting the tips of your fingers off of course.
Tony Iommi’s Guitars
Any Black Sabbath fan will instantly associate Iommi with the Gibson SG. The same way if Angus Young walked out with anything other than an SG, if Iommi played a gig these days without one, it just wouldn’t seem right! However, his initial use of an SG was only due to a technical fault. Iommi actually began his career with Sabbath wielding a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster with black rosewood fretboard. He later sprayed it white and brought it into the studio with him when Sabbath were about to lay down tracks for the first record. Interestingly, the pickups failed him and he decided to switch to his back up guitar – a 1965 Gibson SG in red complete with P-90 pickups that he bought in a music store in Birmingham. The interesting thing about this particular guitar was the fact it was a right handed guitar, and being a lefty, he simply turned upside down for the sessions on the first record. He did however, get to use his Fender Strat on the 1st album and you can hear it on ‘Wicked World’ the final track on their debut, self-titled record. Once you hear the difference you’ll never not be able to hear it again!
A short time later, before the recording of their album ‘Paranoid’ Iommi met someone who had a left handed version of the guitar but played right handed and they agreed to do a straight swap. This was then his number 1 guitar for years and was known as the famous “Monkey” guitar. He then swapped out the original pickups for custom John Birch Simplux pickups – a different take on the P-90s which were covered in a metal casing. This guitar was then used on the albums Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (1971), and Vol. 4 (1972) before it was sold to the Hard Rock Café museum.
After working with John Birch to create his custom P-90 pickups, Iommi commissioned the Luthier to create the first 24 fret guitar after other companies simply wouldn’t do it, or said it was impossible. The result was an instant classic and extremely striking guitar owing to the fact the fret inlays were shaped in the form of crucifixes. Both Gibson and Epiphone would later replicate this guitar with Iommi signature models throughout the years.
The Epiphone Limited Edition Tony Iommi Signature SG Custom, features Gibson USA Tony Iommi Signature humbuckers, 24 medium-jumbo frets and a 1960’s SlimTaper D-profile neck that would feel almost exactly the same as his number 1 guitar back in the day. If you want to emulate the sound of Iommi’s electric sounds, your first stop should always be an SG Standard or indeed his signature model.
As for acoustic guitars, Iommi has been quoted as using a Gibson J-45 on Sabbath records, which you can hear on the song Fluff from the ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ album. He was also seen using Taylor acoustic guitars on the Classic Albums documentary.
Tony Iommi’s Guitar Amplifiers
To get that signature vintage heavy metal sound, you’ll need to invest in a good solid valve amp with plenty of wattage. Iommi was known to use a 50 watt Marshall plexi before his Sabbath days and during the writing process for the first album. Unfortunately, an original plexi will cost you around the same price as a semi-detached house in the UK, but thankfully you have the likes of the Marshall CODE series to fall back on complete with Plexi modelling. You can even dial in the settings to sound like an all 1960s era amp and cab. You can get a variety of sounds from the most influential stages of rock all in one amp.
Iommi eventually migrated to Laney amps in the later years, specifically a Laney LA 100 BL at first, then on to, and almost exclusively, a Laney Supergroup. From time to time he was also known to use a Vox AC30 during the ‘Technical Ecstasy’ era in 1976.
In an interview with Music Radar, Iommi explained why he switched over to Laney amps which would then become his brand of choice. “I think I was using Marshall early on, and then Laney on the first album, but when we first wrote [‘Black Sabbath’] songs I was using a Marshall 50-watt. I switched to Laney because they started up around the same time as us and they’re a Birmingham company. To be honest, they offered to give us all this gear when nobody else did. What do you say to that? ‘OK!’ So I used them.”
If you wanted to pursue that Laney sound, a great place to start would be the Laney Lionheart LT50H Head and matching L412 Cab. You could easily rock a stadium sound with 5 x EL34 selected and matched output tubes and 50 watts of power behind you!
If you already have your own guitar amps and don’t fancy replacing them, you could quite easily grab a Plexi modeller such as the Rowin Plexion guitar pedal. This pedal mirrors the original Plexi amps and gives you the sound you need instantly. Which brings me to my next point…
Tony Iommi’s Guitar Pedals
Mr Iommi relied more on the sound of his amp and guitar to get that signature growl, but he has been known to use a few pedals in his long and successful career, particularly his customised Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster. This pedal was used on all the early Sabbath records and hooked up directly to his Laney, until a roadie threw it away without realising what it was in 1979. Iommi said: “I didn’t know until it came to the time when I was looking for it and he said, ‘Oh that? I threw it away. It was crap’. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen it from that day on and my amps didn’t sound right without it.” He told Music Radar. Although the likelihood of finding one of these is almost impossible, treble boosters are (fortunately) easy to come by.
One of the industry standard pedals can be found in the Jim Dunlop MXR Micro Amp Pedal – a great option used by professionals worldwide. The Wampler dB+ Boost / Buffer Pedal and Electro Harmonix Screaming Bird Treble Booster Guitar Effects Pedal will also give you that extra push you need for soloing to ‘Iron Man’, ‘Paranoid’ etc.
The keen Sabbath fan will know that Wah pedals have also appeared on a variety of Sabbath recordings including ‘Electric Funeral’ and ‘Turn On the Night’. Although his favourite pedal is the now out of production Tychobrahe Wah, he is known to also use a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby classic, which will do the job perfectly.
Octave pedals have also played a part in Iommi’s career to fatten up the sound of his riffs. Rumour has it that some kind of octave pedal was used on the studio version of ‘Paranoid’, but Iommi has never confirmed nor denied as such. The Boss OC-2 Super Octave features on Iommi’s pedal board to this day, which has now been updated by Boss to the OC-3 Super Octave.
In addition, Ibanez can now count Iommi as part of their long list of guitar legend endorsees as his board now features an Ibanez TubeScreamer TS9/808. Although vintage ones are hard to come by, Ibanez have re issued this coveted pedal at a completely affordable rate aptly titled the TS808 Vintage Tube Screamer Re-issue.
Due to an accident that resulted in Iommi losing the tips of his fingers on his right hand, he found it uncomfortable to play heavier gauge strings. He actually used banjo strings, coupled with the lightest set he could find in the early days of Sabbath due to the fact string companies couldn’t make them light enough. He tunes down quite a lot too, with almost all songs utilising either D# or C# tuning. If you want to try out a lighter gauge string, you’re going to want to start with 8s or 9s. D’Addario make reliable options including the D’Addario EXL130 Nickel Wound, Extra-Super Light, 8-38 whereas Elixir, D’Addario and Ernie Ball all make great super light 9-42 strings.
So with our short guide to Tony Iommi’s gear, you’ll be well on your way to jamming out some ‘War Pigs’ or ‘Paranoid’ in no time! View a complete range of guitars, effects and amplifiers over at the Dawsons website.
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Uncovering the gear behind the artist is a privilege and a pleasure. Check out our articles on The 1975, Brian May, Mumford & Sons, Squarepusher, Deftones, Jimi Hendrix, and Jerry Cantrell, with more to come!