When it comes to expert opinion on what makes a great guitar riff there are few who are more qualified to weigh into the debate than Black Sabbath’s rock god Tony Iommi. His choices are phenomenal.
Iommi is the curator of some of the best heavy rock riffs of all time. Together with the pulsating energy of the times, Iommi’s guitar helped make Black Sabbath one of the most revered rock acts of all time. They introduced audiences worldwide to heavy metal as we know it today and blew their minds.
As the band’s primary songwriter, Tony Iommi was the brains behind the majority of Black Sabbath’s music. While Osbourne would write vocal melodies and bassist Geezer Butler would write lyrics, the band hung on Iommi’s sound. The process was sometimes a frustrating one for Iommi, who has spoken in the past about how he felt the pressure of constantly creating new material: “If I didn’t come up with anything, nobody would do anything.”
On Iommi’s influence, Osbourne is later on record as stating: “Black Sabbath never used to write a structured song. There’d be a long intro that would go into a jazz piece, then go all folky… and it worked. Tony Iommi—and I have said this a zillion times—should be up there with the greats. He can pick up a guitar, play a riff, and you say, ‘He’s gotta be out now, he can’t top that’. Then you come back, and I bet you a billion dollars, he’d come up with a riff that’d knock your fucking socks off.”
At the start of 2019, Metal Hammer spoke with Iommi to find out what the master of the riff thought were some of the greatest riffs in history. On condition was that they couldn’t be ones that he had penned himself although he does also discuss that.
Iommi pondered the question at hand as it isn’t the easiest thing to drop off of the top of your head but he still gave it a good go: “There are so many great riffs out there from the past and up-to-date stuff. But you’ve got to have Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’. And of course, there are a lot of [Led] Zeppelin songs. Jimmy Page has some great riffs.”
He then discussed what is his favourite riff of his own immense back catalogue, to which Iommi couldn’t narrow it down to just one, stating: “Oh my god, that’s difficult. I like ‘Into The Void’. And I like some of the stuff we did with Dio – ‘Heaven And Hell’ was a good riff, ‘Neon Knights’. There’s so many I like. I like pretty much all the stuff we’ve done.”
Whilst the conversation stayed firmly on the topics of riffs, which is Iommi’s bread and butter, he was asked who he felt like he was in competition with during the heady years of Black Sabbath with his answer speaks for itself about his greatness: “Me. I was in competition with myself. I would always try to come up with more and more inventive ideas – different tunings, changing the amps, just fiddling about with the guitars really. I would constantly be trying to improve things and change things. I didn’t really listen to other people, just in case I started playing someone else’s riff by mistake.”
Iommi is one of the greatest sons of the guitar and even the great Jimmy Page, we are sure would feel honoured about receiving praise from someone of his immense stature.