With the recent release of The Devil You Know, the new album by Heaven & Hell (otherwise known as Mob Rules-era Black Sabbath) it seems a perfect time to look at the monstrous tones of one Tony Iommi. Iommi’s pioneering rhythm guitar style defined heavy metal, but while today’s players follow Iommi’s example by tuning down, they tend to use heavy strings and sometimes even baritone guitars to keep everything sounding tight and punchy. But even in Sabbath’s early days Iommi used the lightest strings he could find, and this was out if necessity rather than choice. At age 19 an industrial accident robbed the lefty of the tips of his right middle and ring fingers. While what was left of his fingers were healing, Iommi could only use his index and pinky fingers for fretting – which placed the classic root/fifth power chord and minor pentatonic scale shapes right under his fingertips, if you’ll pardon the pun. Iommi eventually fashioned leather ‘thimbles’ to replace the missing fingertips, but to further aid his weakened fingers in things like bending and hammer-ons he started tuning down. And down. And down. The combination of light strings and downtuning added a darkness and warmth that you just can’t get with a standard tuning or with downtuned heavy guage strings.
When it comes to rhythm you’ll want to use a relatively low gain sound for early Sabbath. Don’t let the overall heaviness of the band fool ya: much of the low end weight is created by not by Iommi himself but by the combination and interaction of Iommi and bass player Geezer Butler. Contrary to modern metal convention, if you’re going for an early Sabbath sound you should favour the neck pickup for your rhythm tone, and as much as possible play chords on the E and A strings instead of switching to higher strings. If played the way Iommi does it, the Iron Man riff should take you up to the 15th fret on the low E. Remember it’s often what you play and how you play it, not where the knobs are set. Back in the day Tony used a treble booster to nudge his amp further into overdrive. If you want to go this classic route, check out the Roger Mayer Concorde +.
Another important but overlooked aspect of Iommi’s sound is the use of parallel effects. The two best examples of this are the solo of ‘Paranoid’ and the rhythm guitars of ‘Killing Yourself To Live.’ In the ‘Paranoid’ solo, the signal is panned left and right, with the straight guitar on the left and the same performance fed through a ring modulator effect on the other. The result is a fuzzy, slightly seasick sound which adds to the doominess and uneasiness of the song’s subject matter. If you just listen to the right speaker it kind of sounds like a bee has flown up to a microphone and started scatting the solo, but when it’s combined with the regular unaffected sound it’s totally killer.
In ‘Killing Yourself To Live’ (from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), Iommi used a modulation effect (it’s hard to tell what it is because it’s at very high speed bit it could be an early phaser) to add a bubbly warble to some – but not all – of the rhythm guitars. In this case it would have been achieved by overdubbing an extra track (panned to the left speaker) with the effect engaged, but you can achieve the same effect by splitting your signal chain and adding the effect to one stream while leaving the other untouched. Check out the PDF on Robert Keeley’s website for schematics of a true bypass buffer/parallel looper mixing unit that will allow you to achieve this with a single amp, or use a pedal with stereo outputs early in the chain so you can split the signal off to two amps and apply the pahaser to only one signal. By the way, you can hear a similar effect on ‘Atom And Evil,’ the opening track of The Devil You Know. The effected guitar is playing a different riff to the main double-tracked guitars, but the overall result is similar to ‘Killing Yourself To Live.’
These days Iommi has his own signature Laney head (the GH100TI, pictured left), Gibson and Epiphone SG guitars, and Gibson humbucking pickup. The Iommi pickup is one of the highest output passive humbuckers you’ll find, so if you’re trying to recreate his later tones you’ll need to do some serious boosting with a pedal to get the same kind of effect on your amp’s preamp stage.