“Right at the beginning I was told by the doctors: ‘You won’t be playing the guitar.’ But I believed I could do it, and I did.” – Tony Iommi.
Tony Iommi’s reintroduction to playing the guitar was a story much like that of the phoenix rising from the ashes. The lead guitarist for the heavy metal band Black Sabbath, Iommi had lost the tip of his middle and ring fingers as a teenager in a tragic accident at the factory he worked at, and the future looked bleak.
When the doctors gave him the news that he would never be able to play the guitar again, Iommi was shattered. Anyone who plays the guitar, especially if they are right-handed, would know how important those two fingers are to play the intricate guitar tracks that require playing multiple strings in a short span of time. Naturally, for Iommi, all hopes were lost. Or so he thought. It just so happened that one day, his friend played him a recording of the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt – the one unknowingly responsible for reigniting the guitarist in Iommi. Reinhardt, incidentally, had also been the victim of a terrible fire which caused injury to his hand. He played with only two fingers on the fretboard hand. This was a revelation to Iommi, and it inspired him to pick up his guitar again.
Of course, the injury impacted his playing style immensely. For the initial years, he fitted thimbles to his injured hand. However, his using metal tips was technically challenging. Having metal tips meant he couldn’t feel the strings and therefore didn’t realise how hard he was pressing on them. He also couldn’t bend the strings because of the thimbles. All-in-all, playing the guitar that way was quite a struggle. It was only around 1970-71 when the company Picato String began making light-gauge guitar strings, making it easier for Iommi to start experimenting more flexibly, that his life changed. It is true that his injury caused him a lot of pain, and he had to put in more effort than most to make himself be comfortable on the guitar, but he used all the inconveniences in his favour. He later spoke on how the use of the thimbles “helped him with his technique” because he had to adapt to using his little finger more than what he used to do pre-injury.
For this feature, we take a deep dive into the sound of Tony Iommi’s isolated guitar tracks on Black Sabbath’s single ‘Paranoid’. Black Sabbath, the now-iconic British heavy metal band, formed in 1968, with Ozzy Osbourne on the vocals, Geezer Butler on bass, Tony Iommi on the guitar and Bill Ward on the drums, revolutionalised rock music. The band’s output was a step towards revolutionising heavy metal forever. Their 1970 record Paranoid was that genre-defining album, and the first single off the album was ‘Paranoid’, after which the album was named.
The track featured Tommy Iommi on rhythm and lead guitars, pushing the song to new lengths. Geezer Butler, the band’s bassist, commented on the making of the song, saying: “The song ‘Paranoid’ was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.” Iommi was one of the prime composers of the band’s music, as well as a songwriter. Since joining the band, Iommi came up with the technique of detuning his guitar (primarily to ease the pain in his fingers), something Butler also adapted from him. With all these mind-blowing adaptations and modifications, Tony Iommi’s isolated guitar for ‘Paranoid’, even as a stand-alone track, is a treat for the ears.
Here’s the guitar solo for you to listen to.