Frank Anthony Iommi, best known as Tony Iommi, guitar player and composer, founder and leader of the group Black Sabbath is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential guitarists, and inventor of heavy metal music.
Frank Anthony Iommi was born 19 February 1948 in Birmingham, England, the only son of Anthony Frank and Sylvie Maria Iommi. His father had a decisive influence on his son's musical tastes in that the father, as also all Tony’s uncles, played the accordion and taught his son to do so.
But Tony's musical aspirations lay elsewhere – he wanted to learn to play the drums – to be a drummer. Fortunately for heavy metal music, Tony opted for the electric guitar.
Years later when being interviewed he admitted that he had been seriously into martial arts and was convinced that this is where his future life. Today, the only connection Tony Iommi has with martial arts is that he is surely a black belt when it comes to heavy metal music.
His first guitar was a Watkins Rapier model for lefties. Tony's inspiration came from The Shadows, the backing group for Cliff Richard, but who also released instrumentals under their own name among which were the chart toppers ‘’Apache’’, ‘’Frightened City’’, ‘’Many of Mystery’’ and many more. The lead guitarist for The Shadows was Hank Marvin, who particularly impressed Tony and whose style he copied and practiced constantly. Soon he had learned virtually all of the Shadows music.
But not only was Hank Marvin an Iommi idol, there was also Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass as well as other jazz players. As with most other musicians learning their trade, initially listening to records and copying their style was the method employed by Tony as he continued his studies with the guitar. In that way he founded such a rich jazz and blues background, characteristic to the early sixties.
Tony had joined his first band, and like so many of his friends had taken a factory job after leaving school but was determined one day to be able to become a professional with his own band.
That Tony Iommi ever came to be the legend in heavy metal music can be put down to his inability to quit or give up. A trait he was fortunate in having because before turning professional, Tony had worked as a press operator in a metal sheet factory. Having secured a contract to tour Germany with his group, he was working the final Friday before going on tour when he was involved in an accident which guillotined the tips of his left hand middle and ring fingers. A split second act of carelessness, a moment of neglect or was it destiny? Had the accident not happened, an exciting new genre which swept the world and influenced thousands of musicians would have been lost to music.
The consensus of opinion among doctors was that Tony Iommi would not play guitar again unless he was able to play right handed. Tony even visited London's famous Harley Street to consult with one of the country's top surgeons but again received the same gloomy opinion - but more on this surgeon a little later…
For a while and quite understandably, Tony went through a period of depression but things started to look up when a good friend brought him a recording by the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who following a fire, had been left with only two fingers on his left hand. At first he protested that listening to guitar music was the last thing he needed to do at this time, but his friend persevered and eventually convinced him, and as Tony listened to the brilliance of Reinhardt, he started to believe that perhaps not all was lost and shortly after started to play the guitar again. In attempts to protect his painful finger tips he tried all sorts of things but nothing was successful. He initially tried to change hands and slide on guitar’s neck with his left, playing like right handed, but it gets hard. One day, during a visit to his bank, he noticed a cashier counting money with what appeared to be thimbles on her finger. He asked if he could see these and she asked if he would like a couple. Thanking her, Tony returned home and he immediately placed the thimbles over the wounded finger tips and attempted to play. Unfortunately they were too soft but an idea had formed which was to prove adequately successful. Finally Tony found a way out of his apparently desperate situation, making two thimbles out of Fairy Liquid bottle caps and covering these with some leather.
Later he approached a medical silicone technician and asked if he could make him “made to measure” silicone thimbles which would go over the finger tips. The tips were to be hard enough to protect Tony's fingers and allow him to press the strings. After a couple of attempts or so the silicone thimbles had been made. They worked quite well but eventually Tony had to use thin extra-light strings, setting them low on fretboard to minimize the pressure. Even then he had to de-tune his guitar from E to D# and later to C#, so as to ease the tension on his finger tips. Since the fingers lost sensitivity, Tony had to retrain various techniques as bend and vibrato. It was a matter of long practice and perseverance, qualities typical of Tony Iommi, and he returned to mastering the instrument, using the ear instead of lost touch.
And this is where heavy metal music began because the change caused a unique and particularly low, gloomy sound. Recognizing that he had found something very different in music, Tony started using very loud volume and innovative ideas such as high gain, heavily distorted tone and finally plugging his guitar into the amplifier's bass input. The resulting sound was to form the trademark of the future group, Black Sabbath, identifying them everywhere they went.
Some of the earliest bands Tony Iommi had played in was during 1965-1966 and called The Rockin’ Chevrolets, and The Birds and The Bees. Towards the end of 1965 he joined a band called The Rest, which had been started by another Brummie Bill Ward. This was the first time that Tony had played with Sabbath's future drummer. The Rest was just another typical 60's band, with nothing special about it and no sign at all of the tremendous future in store for two of it’s players.
Leaving The Rest, In January of 1968 Tony joined the group Mythology as their guitarist and a month later Bill Ward joined to play drums but it was a short lived affair in that Mythology split up after a gig in Silloth in July 1968. In August, at the same time as the Mythology breakup, a band called Rare Breed also broke up. Their vocalist, John "Ozzy" Osbourne, with whom Tony had gone to school and who by the way he had never got on well with, also joined. So to did rhythm guitarist Terry "Geezer" Butler. Two more who joined were slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips and saxophonist Alan "Aker" Clarke.
The six-piece band were named The Polka Tulk Blues Company, which soon after abbreviated it’s somewhat cumbersome name to Polka Tulk. The band played the blues in the fast and medium pace and a 12-bar blues. Soon after, the slide guitarist Phillips and saxophonist Clarke were dismissed from the band, and the remaining four named it Earth.
Towards the end of 1968, Tony was invited to join Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull, following the departure of Mick Abrahams, who had left to form his own band Blodwin Pig. Tony played ‘’Song For Jeffrey’’ on the only performance ‘’The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus’’ in December 1968. Even though he was with Jethro Tull for only two weeks he still had time to write a guitar part for the song ’’Nothing Is Easy’’, that was later recorded by Martin Barre for the album ‘’Stand Up’’. He claims that during this very short time his understanding of music changed enormously and he started to write his own compositions. It was during this part of Tony's career that the Fender Stratocaster appeared and which had been painted white by Tony and his father. Unease with the management of Jethro Tull is the reason given for Tony's departure.
Returning to Earth and flushed with the enthusiasm of his short Jethro Tull experience, Tony Iommi set about organizing Earth, insisting on regular rehearsals, early morning starts, late finishes and demanding much hard work. He even picked them up in the morning to take them to work. This paid off enormously and the bands technical capacity and skill increased enormously. So much so that 1970 saw the composition of their first song, which was “Black Sabbath”. This was followed by “Wicked World”.
One comical story but not so comical then told about Earth, concerns them having been hired to play in one of Birmingham's top clubs. Whilst the group was “setting up”, they were somewhat confused to be told the audience was looking forward to them playing their latest single! As they had never made a record they simply did not know what to make of it but soon realized that the club's management had mistaken them for another band with the same name and which currently was in the charts! Earth's performance at the club that night was not well received and the management banned them from ever appearing there again!
In recognizing the very real problem which two bands with the same name posed, the band decided it necessary to change its name, finally settling on the name of the English translation for the Italian horror film “I Tre Volti Della Paura’’ - Black Sabbath!
INSIDE BLACK SABBATH
It was in 1970 that Vertigo Records released the band's first self-titled album ‘’Black Sabbath’’. The recording took place in a studio for twelve hours using two four track tape recorders. The music was a hard rock with a blues influence, but these first recordings showed particular recognizable style.
Iommi’s guitar work consisted in blues-like solos built on minor pentatonic and blues scales, minor key riffing, using vibrato on open strings, making the sound solid, dark and doom. Already from the first Black Sabbath’s album Iommi’s unique talent become evident as much as his inexhaustible imagination in composing guitar riffs. The epitome of Tony’s musical ideas on the debut album was the main song for which he wrote the unusual sinister riff, using a rare interval called ‘’The Devil in Music’’ in the Middle Ages, and considered dissonant.
After four months the album was released in the United States on Warner Bros. Records and has since sold millions of copies. Of particular interest is the fact that it was with this first recording that Iommi starts using a Gibson SG guitar when his white Stratocaster’s pick-up failed forcing him to use a spare Gibson SG, a guitar which he would be loyal to for many years.
Earlier, in this history of Tony Iommi, we mentioned him visiting a Harley Street surgeon who told him that it was unlikely that he would ever play again. Whether or not its true or perhaps just urban legend, the story goes that every time a new record was brought out, Tony sent his doctor a copy who was delighted to receive it and know that he was doing well.
The group’s second release, was to have been called ‘’War Pigs’’ but later the name was changed to “Paranoid”. Paranoid climbed to first place in the UK charts. Recording the album lasted four days. ‘’Paranoid’’ has some jazzy matrix in the composition structure and guitar solo, that demonstrate Iommi’s mastery and his jazz roots. Slowly but surely, the band’s sound continued to evolve into a most revolutionary style – one which was slowly being known as “heavy metal’’.
In February 1971, Black Sabbath returned to the studio to begin work on their third album ‘’Master of Reality’’ which climbed to fifth place in the UK charts, Again, the unique and remarkable sound of the Gibson de-tuned guitar and more of Iommi's powerful ground breaking riffs ensured that sales would run into millions as had been the case with the first two albums.
Tony was among first guitarists using three-string powerchords in his music. On this album he also played flute, piano and keyboards. Master of Reality was recorded at Island Studios in London between February and April 1971. The album was produced by Rodger Bain, who had also produced their previous two albums.
If heavy metal started anywhere it was in September 1972 when Black Sabbath released ‘’Vol.4’’ – their fourth album. However, there had been problems with this album. Tony said in which the group started experimenting with the sound. Two tracks, ‘’Wheels Of Confusion’’ and ‘’Under The Sun’’ can rightly be called the prototype of metal genre. Vol.4 whilst not doing quite as well as the previous three, nonetheless climbed to eighth place in the UK charts.
When it came to the fifth album there were problems. Tony said: "Ideas weren't coming out the way they were on Volume 4 and we really got discontent. Everybody was sitting there waiting for me to come up with something. I just couldn't think of anything. And if I didn't come up with anything, nobody would do anything." Tony's answer was to take the band to an 18th century Gloucester castle and to start rehearing in the dungeons where he regained his inspiration and came up with the main riff for the title track.
Rick Wakeman from Yes joined Sabbath for ‘’Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’’ song to play keyboard, and Iommi played both electric and acoustic guitar as well as synthesizer piano, harpsichord, organ and flute. With this album, the band expanded upon their slow, crunching style of music by adding strings, keyboards and more complex orchestral arrangements. Released in November 1973, the album climbed to fourth place in the UK, and sold over a million copies.
The sixth album, ‘’Sabotage’’ was the first Black Sabbath album which did not receive a platinum disk. It was released in September 1975, Tony, who also produced the album, said: "We could've continued and gone on and on, getting more technical, using orchestras and everything else which we didn't particularly want to. We took a look at ourselves, and we wanted to do a rock album,’’ which they did and which climbed to seventh place in the British charts. In the same year, Tony Iommi was named as the best hard rock guitar player in the world!
Black Sabbath began work for their next album at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, in June 1976. To expand their sound, the band added keyboard player Gerry Woodruffe, who also had appeared to a lesser extent on Sabotage. ‘’Technical Ecstasy’’ reached twelfth place in the UK charts. With this album Iommi had wanted to diversify arrangements using additional instruments, which some claim is the reason for the albums title but the rest of the group were reluctant, wishing to remain with the style to which they had been accustomed and which had been so obviously successful.
However, Tony won the day and the style followed by the band for the first five albums changed. During this period, Tony Iommi was always looking for new ideas, constantly evolving as a musician, and exploring the music world around him. Something which has remained with him until this very day.
In October 1978 ‘’Never Say Die’’ was released. It was also the last year that the groups vocalist John ‘’Ozzy’’ Osbourne would be with the band. Ozzy’s drug abuse caused Tony to ask him to leave. As with the previous album, ‘’Never Say Die’’ was different. More experimentation from Iommi had produced a sharp progressive guitar sound, obtained primarily using custom guitars and different amplification techniques. In this album, Tony's appreciation and understanding of jazz figure strongly, with keyboards and saxophones providing a jazz flavour.
It's generally accepted that the albums recorded up to this point of time by Iommi's band had a tremendous influence on contemporary music, leading to the emergence of an independent genre of heavy metal, and inspired generations of young musicians.
In 1979 Osbourne left Black Sabbath to be replaced with Ronnie James Dio, the former vocalist for Rainbow.Dio brought with him a new sound for Sabbath whose next two albums as “Heaven and Hell’’ ( April 1980, ninth place in UK charts ) and “Mob Rules” ( November 1981), both sold millions. Dio helped the band to acquire a new generation of young fans and his powerful, far ranging voice enabled Tony to expand even further his musical horizons, continuing his creative drift in a new direction, and to perfect his rhythmic riffs and fast solo techniques.
The 80's and 90's saw Tony rebuild the band with many line-up changes with vocalists including Ian Gillan ( formerly of Deep Purple ), Glenn Hughes ( formerly of Trapeze and Deep Purple ), Ray Gillen and Tony Martin ( Alliance). He also collaborated with Cozy Powell, Bobby Rondinelli, Vinny Appice (drums), Neil Murray, Bob Daisley (bass) and others. With these different line-ups were released the albums ‘’Born Again’’ (1983), ‘’Eternal Idol’’ (1987), ‘’Headless Cross’’ (1989), ‘’TYR’’ (1990), ‘’Dehumanizer’’ (1992), ‘’Cross Purposes’’ (1994), ‘’Forbidden’’ (1995). Many claim Headless Cross is one of the best albums recorded by Black Sabbath, ranking as one of the best albums the band ever released.
In 1985 the original Black Sabbath line-up returned together for an appearance at Live Aid.
TONY IOMMI SOLO
Tony Iommi recorded his first solo album In 1986. It was named ‘’Seventh Star’’ and featured Glenn Hughes (vocals), Geoff Nicholls (keyboards), Dave Spitz (bass), Eric Singer (drums). Although the album was exclusively Tony's solo creation by virtue of the fact that he was the author of all the music and most of the lyrics, the record company demanded that it be released under the Sabbath banner. The album was incorrectly described as ‘’Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi’’, but Sabbath was not involved and as mentioned it was Tony's first solo project. The very powerful vocals of Glenn Hughes’ combined well with Tony's high-speed blues solos.
In the 1992 Iommi appeared at the Freddy Mercury tribute concert, playing four songs with close friend Bryan May and the members of Queen and other artists.
In 1996 rumors began about an original Sabbath get together and in 1997 the original Black Sabbath line-up was reunited, playing a tour and releasing the ‘’Reunion’’ live album. A Grammy award followed the reunion for the song ‘’Iron Man’’ as the Best Metal Performance. The second Grammy Black Sabbath won in 2014 for the song ‘’God Is Dead’’.
In 2007 Tony Iommi gathered another historical line-up with Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Vinnie Appice under the Heaven And Hell moniker, also playing a tour and releasing the new studio album ‘’The Devil You Know’’.
Tony Iommi’s first official solo album (actually his first solo album was in 1986 but the record company insisted it be released under the Sabbath name) ‘’Iommi’’ was released in December 2000. A significant number of well known rock musicians were invited to record. According to Tony, he had long played a role in Black Sabbath recording each album with one singer, one bassist and one drummer, that he just wanted to try something different. The track ‘’Who’s Fooling Who” was recorded with Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward. Other musicians involved were: Henry Rollins ( Rollins Band ), Phil Anselmo ( Pantera, Down ), Billy Corgan ( The Smashing Pumpkins ), Dave Grohl ( Foo Fighters, Nirvana ), Billy Idol ( Generation X, solo career ), Ian Astbury ( The Cult ), Skin ( Skunk Anansie ), Peter Steele (Type O Negative), Serj Tankian ( System Of A Down). All the music was written by Tony Iommi in collaboration with producer Bob Marlette. Tony's close friend Brian May of Queen also took part.
In 2002 Tony Iommi featured in the Queens's Golden Jubilee celebration, appearing with Ozzy Osbourne and playing the song ‘’Paranoid’’. Tony also received an Ivor Novello nomination for Black Sabbath song ‘’Changes’’ in 2003.
In 2004 Tony released his second official solo album ‘’The 1996 Dep Sessions’’ with Glenn Hughes (vocals and bass) , Jimmy Copley (drums), Don Airey, Geoff Nicholls, Mike Exeter ( keyboards). Although released in 2004 the recordings had been made in 1996 and most of Tony's fans had become aware of them through a bootleg called ‘’Eighth Star’’. Most of the tracks on the album are well structured ballads in hard rock style with the immaculate electric and acoustic guitar work by Iommi.
Tony and Glenn Hughes had agreed to continue working together during recordings of ''The 1996 Dep Sessions’’ and the result was the album ‘’Fused’’ released in July 2005 with Kenny Aronoff on drums. Modern sounding can be traced in the album. It was well received by critics and became one of the best selling albums in the UK. Tony Iommi himself modestly called it ‘’strong’’.
Black Sabbath was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and a year later – to the USA Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008 Tony Iommi was awarded a star on the Birmingham Walk of Stars.
In October 2009 the Armenian government awarded Tony with the Order of Honour for his work on the Rock Aid Armenia charity for earthquake victims.
In 2011 Tony Iommi and Ian Gillan organized a supergroup called WhoCares which also includes Nicko McBrain ( Iron Maiden, drums ), Jason Newsted ( ex-Metallica, bass), Jon Lord ( Deep Purple, keyboards), Linde Lindstrom ( HIM, guitar). The project released a charity single ‘’Out Of My Mind / Holy Water’’ raising funds for build a musical school for children in Gumri, Armenia. The project subsequently released a full album entitled ‘’WhoCares’’ of rare recordings to further the cause. Tony was involved in other charitable projects as well. He took part in Bryan Adams’ benefit guitar auction raising funds for tsunami victims, and Gibson company’s auction Rock The Cure for breast cancer research.
In 2009 Tony had been experiencing considerable pain with his right hand finger joints. Doctors recommenced stem cell treatment which consists of taking immature cells that have the ability to change into other types of tissue, even bone. Tony said he had been in pain after experiencing problems with his right hand caused through bone to bone contact through the cartilage wearing out. Following treatment he said it was now just a matter of waiting but even after six weeks the improvement had been considerable. He added that he had been glad that he had taken that route instead of opting for surgery. Tony had his hand strapped up with a kind of anatomic bracelet for some time. In his own words, he did not wear it because he was not able to play the guitar, but to be able to respond to his fans’ handshakes!
Tony Iommi wrote his autobiography ‘’Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell With Black Sabbath’’ which was published in 2011 and became very popular among his fans and all fans of guitar music. He also appeared as the leading his own musical program ‘’Black Sunday’’ on radio station Planet Rock.
In November 2011 ( 11/11/11 ) in the legendary club Whisky A Go Go Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and Ward got together to announce a reunion and tour by Black Sabbath. At the same time, the writing of a new album was promised. Two months following this Tony was diagnosed with the early stages of Lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes, a type of cell that forms part of the immune system. Following treatment which consisted of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy his prognosis is claimed to be good. Despite undergoing an unpleasant treatment Tony continued to work on a new album. However, the tour which had been arranged two or three months previously took place but not with Tony.
In May 2012 he played a benefit concert with Black Sabbath at the 02 Academy in his native Birmingham, raising funds for Help For Heroes charity. The next appearances was the Download Fest in the UK followed by a concert at Lollapaloosa Fest in Chicago USA in August.
We can call Tony Professor now, as he received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts (Hon Darts) from Coventry university 19 November 2013. The degree has been awarded "in recognition of his contribution to the world of popular music; in particular being recognised as one of the founders of heavy metal music and one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time".
Very successful studio album “13” saw light in June 2013 to immediately reach No. 1 on the UK Charts after its first week of sales, and No. 1 on the US Billboard Charts. Tony with his Sabbath mates received Double Gold Disc Award in Canada in 2013 for sales of "13," and a year later, Platinum Disc Award for "13" and following DVD "Live...Gathered In Their Masses”. Still undergoing an intensive chemo and radiotherapy, Tony managed to make another worldwide tour, from Australia to USA, Latin America and later Europe, gathering millions of fans under Sabbath banner, and initiating a real Sabbath revival.
2014 sees our Tony and his Sabbath honoured with their second Grammy in the "Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance" category at the 56th annual Grammy Awards for the track "God Is Dead?", and later got another Ivor Novello award. Currently Tony is busy with Black Sabbath with their "The End" final tour 2016-2017, and participating on many music and charity projects.
Tony Iommi is not only respected and admired by his fans but even more so among his peers, many of whom acknowledge his tremendous contribution to music. Tony has a permanent place on the lists of the Best Guitarists of All Time. He took the first place on the list of Best Heavy Metal Guitarists of Guitar World magazine. He also took the first place on the list of guitar manufacturer Gibson. Recently Tony was awarded by Classic Rock (multiple awards 2010 - 2013), Metal Hammer ( Golden Gods Award 2010 - 2013), Revolver (2013-2014) and Kerrang (2012) magazines.
The most of guitarists of modern rock as James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton (Metallica), Max Cavalera (Sepultura), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society), Phil Anselmo, Dimebag Darrell (Pantera), Pepper Keenan (Corrosion Of Conformity), Jerry Kantrell (Alice In Chains), Mike McCready, Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam), Marty Friedman (Megadeth), Rob Cannavino, Bobby Gustafson (Overkill), Kerry King (Slayer), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), Rocky George (Suicidal Tendencies), Uffe Cederlund (Entombed), Rick Hunolt, Gary Holt (Exodus), Bruce Kulick (Kiss), Paul Gilbert (Mr.Big), Adam Siegel (Infectious Grooves), Marco Hietala (Nightwish), Ross the Boss (Manowar), Scott Ian (Anthrax), James Murphy (Testament), Gus G. (Firewind), Dino Cazares (Fear Factory), Garry Jennings (Cathedral), Phil Cope (Witchfinder General), Joe Satriani, Slash and many others recognized Mr. Iommi as their major influence and inspiration.
Unlike many other British artists who have sought residence abroad for tax reasons, Tony has always said that his home is Birmingham and he will never leave it. Apart from visits to the United States for the purposes of recording albums he has remained absolutely true to his word.
When it comes to Tony Iommi as the person, the writer knows him quite well. A wonderful sense of humour, and a practical joker who keeps everyone on their toes, there is nothing pretentious at all about him and unlike some of his colleagues, he doesn't hide himself away but goes openly about his business, something which causes him to be stopped constantly for his autograph.
A social drinker, one of Tony's favourite foods is curry. On tour, as many of his fans know, it is quite usual for him the afternoon before a gig to slip out to where the bands transport is parked and where several hundred fans are usually gathered, to spend an hour or two chatting with them and signing autographs. Tony really is a nice person who deserves all the success his hard work and genius has brought him.
According to guitarist Brian May CBE, ‘’Tony Iommi is the real father of heavy metal, a constantly evolving genius, a master of riffs and one of the greatest people in the world!’’
Now who could possibly follow that?