TONY IOMMI: The Riff Master

First of all, I don’t believe Black Sabbath were the first Heavy Metal band. They didn’t just come up with that out of the blue. There’s no such thing as spontaneous generation. There was a process of bringing Metal to life. But I agree that they were responsible for shaping Metal the way we all know it. Therefore, among all bands of that period the late 1960 and the early 1970, Sabbath were a very important band which was giving the directions, and that’s why it may be considered one of the most influential bands, but not the one. But that’s another matter. I’ll be back to that soon.

Well, let’s face it, technically speaking Toni is no wonder. But, he’s one of a kind, a rare breed of guitarists that you say the name by the first notes he plays. No whammy bar, not fast even for that time, no hidden harmonic structures, no different scales only the very well know pentatonic, no effects at all simply pure overdriven amplifier and an SG guitar. What’s the secret of this guy? What made him so influential?

The answer is simple. Simplicity. And complexity.

Tony Iommi is a guitarist from the English blues lineage. That’s how he learned to play, that’s the music he used to make before Black Sabbath, in a band called Earth. That’s very important to mention because Tony will apply all those influences to his guitar playing.

Black Sabbath are derived from a band called Earth, but somehow during Earth shows, the musicians noticed that nobody was interested in listening to the blues they were playing. And they turned up the volume. And up, and up, until getting that overdriven amplifier distortion. Moreover, they liked the effect. Toni must have thought: “Hum, I can use that!”. That’s the beginning of Iommi’s legacy. Now we can get started.

Black Sabbath’s early songs are technically and harmonically very simple. Let’s summarize this way: a blues harmonics construction over the pentatonic scales, standard tuning, a lot of volume and distortion, solo improvisation, an insane singer singing with the voice of a madman, a bass following the guitar riffs, and a very creative drummer. And that’s all? No, not really. Then where’s the catch?

Let’s make it simple in only one word: riffing!

Tony Iommi’s riffing

Tony Iommi’s riffing is unique. That’s for sure. He learned how to deal with the distortion and to get a great overcome of it. How was that?

I’m going to stress out this way: pentatonic scales combined with power chords.

Iommi noticed that if he went down the major E string applying the pentatonic scale, he would get the best outcome in terms of heaviness. And the more stressed the note, the better. Sabbath’s songs are of a clear riff noting. He did that applying the pentatonic scale to the E string mostly. “Electric Funeral” is the best sample of that. Note that he stress the compass first notes in the main riff and he runs down the E chord.

There’s another thing. I’m not sure if Iommi was the first guitarist to make riffs using the power chords, but for sure he was the first in getting the better results. He used the same technique: going down the E string with pentatonic, but making power chords to a stronger effect.

That gets very clear in “Iron Man”:

Tony Iommi’s improvisation

Unlike most guitarists of his time, that used to build up solos setting layers of notes in order to kind of writing a story, Iommi used to improvise in his solos. But, there’s a catch in it. It wasn’t a simple improvisation. When applying the pentatonic scale, he used to change the first mode by the fifth, I mean, instead of using the natural one that would be the first mode; he changed it to the fifth mode. That’s how he’s got his peculiar solo sonority. Note that Tony rarely used the upper notes in the guitar neck; he’d rather use the down ones to get some peculiar guitar squeaks. Moreover, sometimes he used to add a finger tremolo to the notes to highlight some preferred notes.