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How Tony Iommi wrote the riff for Black Sabbath song 'Symptoms of the Universe'


There’s a humbleness to Tony Iommi that belies his huge impact on the history of heavy metal. The lead guitarist for the genre’s undoubted forefathers, Black Sabbath, Iommi, can be charged with creating some of the most wholly adored unholy riffs of all time. But, despite the fame, fortune and fashions, if you were to meet the axeman, you’d find him as usual as your local labourer down the pub.

In fact, before becoming a rock monster, that’s exactly what Iommi did. Working in an industrial plant, he almost railroaded his entire career with the guitar after an accident saw him lose the tip of his finger. It would have stopped most performers, but Iommi just plodded on, clear in his devotion to his passion which would soon become a profession. He achieved that success because Iommi has authentic talent. It means he came up with some of the most recognisable riffs in history without so much as a second glance.

Louder Sound spoke with the Black Sabbath man and, like the rest of us, was keen to know how he conjured some of his finest tunes, namely, the highly heralded ‘Symptoms of the Universe’. Taken from 1975’s Sabotage, the track was a foundational stone in the construction of rock and roll as we know it, paving the way for heavy metal to dominate the eighties in America. But, the riff just, sort of, happened.

“Oh my god, it was a long time ago. I can’t remember, to be completely truthful,” confirmed Iommi. “I imagine we would have probably been in rehearsal.” If that makes the creation of the track feel a little nonchalant, that’s because it was: “Generally, yeah. Sometimes I’ve come up with stuff at home and taped it just to remember it, but I don’t really work things out as such.”

“Dare I say it, but yeah, I’ve not had much trouble coming up with riffs,” continued the rock legend. “Now I’ve said it; I’ll probably never come up with another one. But I’ve got hundreds of them from over the years on various CDs. Some of them go back to the original Sabbath, some from the Dio era, bits and bobs from when [Deep Purple’s] Ian Gillan or [former vocalist] Tony Martin were in the band. I don’t even know what’s on there. I keep threatening to sit down and listen to them all one of these days when I get the chance.”

During the progression of the song, there are hints at a reem of further sub-genres of metal. Was Iommi playing to those wishing to see a prog-rock-jazz infiltrate the mainstream? “No, that was just us jamming together,” Iommi confirmed. “It was something I came up with, and Geezer [Butler, bass] and Bill [Ward, drums] followed, and then Ozzy came in. But then a lot of Sabbath’s stuff went to places you didn’t think they would go.”

During the conversation, Iommi also revealed that he saw no competition in the rock stars that surrounded the seventies, saying he didn’t feel as though he had to compete with anyone: “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.”

One riff we can certainly hand over to Iommi is the powerhouse tune on the Black Sabbath song ‘Symptoms of the Universe’. You can listen to that track below.