There are few guitarists who can claim to have had as a big an influence on rock music as Black Sabbath’s unfathomable guitarist, Tony Iommi. Not only the man with the axe, but Iommi was also the figurative brains behind the band. He handled most of the band’s sonic construction. 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.” However, what he usually did was create the kind of riffs and solos that not only defined Black Sabbath but set the foundations for countless other artists, even cementing the place in the history books for heavy metal. Below, we’re revisiting six of Iommi’s greatest solos for Black Sabbath as proof of his genius.
“Black Sabbath never used to write a structured song,” Black Sabbath lead singer Ozzy Osbourne once said of Iommi’s influence on the band. “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.”
On many occasions were Sabbath fans left without hosiery and below are six of the finest. Iommi is now rightly considered one of the greats which, when looking back, it’s hard to disagree with. Not only did he create a brand new sound and perfect a new genre but he did it while missing the end’s of two pivotal digits on his right hand. He lost them in an industrial accident during his final working day at a sheet metal factory.
Iommi may well be right up there with likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, battling it out for greatest guitarist ever, but, in truth, the guitarist has only ever seen himself as his main rival. “I was in competition with myself,” he recalled to Metal Hammer. “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.”
There’s certainly no mistaking who is behind these riffs and solos. Below, we’re bringing you six solos to prove Tony Iommi is a genius.
Tony Iommi’s best Black Sabbath solos:
‘Fairies Wear Boots’
Taken from 1970’s seminal album Paranoid, ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ showcases Iommi’s wild talent right from the off. It proved that what Iommi did better than most heavy metal guitarists that followed him, was pace his solos with deliberate patience. As the main conductor of Sabbath’s songs, Iommi’s lead line tows the rest of the band behind him.
It’s a riff that allows Sabbath’s blues roots to shine through and Iommi’s skill is given ample room to showcase itself. It’s a comparatively simple guitar composition, using a returning lick and the repetition that Iommi would become famed for, the guitarist pulls of the greatest trick of all — being memorable. Those final moents of Iommi’s guitar have been replicated for decades since and it’s a reminder of Iommi’s foundational work.
Another classic from 1970’s Paranoid, the titular track has always been revered by music critics as one of the first heavy metal songs to truly break into the collective conscious. It’s hard to recognise a darker, heavier song to do so before this one and, although Iommi’s guitar reflects the nature of the song, it also provides the crack in the door to let the light, and subsequently the audience, in.
The track is a short, somewhat radio-friendly, effort and can even produce one of the few sing-a-long moments for Sabbath. Perhaps influenced by Messrs Hendrix and Page, Iommi doesn’t just become a part of the background with his riffs. Instead, he uses a narrative structure to become as integral as the vocal melody and lyrics, often using his axe to become the leading figure on stage. But it wasn’t just on stage that Iommi shone and, on this song, you can hear the incredible studio rendering that turned his solos into masterpieces.
‘Turn Up the Night’
Though it certainly was Iommi’s most fruitful period, the guitarist wasn’t only a searing soloist during Black Sabbath’s early days. After Osbourne had left the group and the heavy metal founders carried on without him and with Ronnie James Dio, they were able to have a potent career, thanks to Iommi. The guitarist ensured that their signature sound remained intact and on ‘Turn Up the Night’ from 1981’s Mob Rules proves it.
One of the more impressive slower soloists, by the time the new decade of the eighties presented itself as the moment heavy metal was about to explode, Iommi tried to catch up with his competitors. Those rival guitarists had been consistently speeding solos up for years and on this song, Iommi matches them by switching to a tapping technique. It allowed legato phrasing to enter his lexicon and, as the cherry on top of the electrified cake, it gave Iommi a more delicate use of his wah-wah pedal. It’s one of the guitarist’s most complete displays and confirms his authority as one of the best guitarists of his generation.
The rumours are that Black Sabbath snorted so much coke during the making of their fourth record Black Sabbath Vol. 4 that few members of the group can remember recording it at all. In fact, the band usually say that the bill for their extra-curricular habits dwarfed the making of the album. However it came about, ‘Snowblind’ is one of the best songs on the album and it’s all thanks to Tony Iommi.
It’s also probably the moment to see the connection between drugs and Sabbath at its most obvious. Not only is the song an ode to the drug, but it’s also clearly apparent in Iommi’s playing. Iommi’s solo reads like a story as it bends and descends with the twisted glee of the devil taking you to hell. Of course, some repeating licks make his point, and even an energy-switching screech arrives here and there to shake things up. It’s the kind of solo that permeates their entire catalogue.
There’s no doubting that 1970’s Paranoid was the moment that Tony Iommi truly excelled as a guitarist. It’s why the songs from that LP dominate our list. But while some songs are good, ‘Iron Man’ is one of the best. It not only features one of the most instantly recognisable riffs in history but one of the most important too. But, we’re not here for riffs, and Iommi’s solo is an overlooked gem.
Though Sabbath have become known for their darkness, the band’s guitarist was actually very happy to create colourful and beaming solo lines. It allowed him to interplay with the content the band produced and set his guitar as another figure in the story being told. The blues are woven through much of Iommi’s best work but it’s incredibly clear on ‘Iron Man’ how much of an influence those players form the sixties were on the Sabbath guitarist.
One of the most devastating songs Black Sabbath have ever released, it was ‘War Pigs’ that signalled Sabbath were a tour de force and not to be taken too lightly. The group not only used the song to set their anti-war position but also for Iommi’s searing licks to be given the room they deserved.
It’s easy to forget that Iommi, Osbourne and the rest of the band grew up in war-torn Britain, where air raid sirens were a near-daily event. It’s clear, however, on the first bars of this track as sirens whirr and Osbourne’s vocal screeches. But Iommi is still the main conductor of the song. Trills fall out of the airwaves like so many bombs and land with the same explosive power. The real joy of Iommi’s performance on this song is not how commanding he is but how intricately woven int the tapestry of the song his solos are.