Wednesday February 28th, 2001
Tony Iommi flies solo
by Lisa Sharken
Back in the late Sixties, in Birmingham, England, guitarist Tony Iommi united with bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Ozbourne and drummer Bill Ward to form a group they called Earth. By í69 the band changed their name to Black Sabbath and their mystical stage antics, together with their dark, tuned-down heavy rock music played at ear-splitting volume, soon became legendary. The trademark sound and style they developed-which became known as heavy metal-has been emulated for generations, becoming a primary influence on many í80s and í90s metal and grunge bands, including everyone from Metallica to Smashing Pumpkins to Godsmack.
The original lineup recorded seven studio albums between í70 and í78, including Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master Of Reality, Vol. 4 , Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, and Never Say Die. A greatest hits compilation, We Sold Our Soul For Rock And Roll, was released in í76. In í79, the original Black Sabbath split when Osbourne departed. However, the band continued making music and touring. They underwent several lineup changes, with Iommi keeping the fire burning, eventually as the only remaining original member. Nevertheless, no incarnation of Sabbath or any of the membersí own endeavors has ever matched the eternal legacy of the bandís original lineup.
When the original Sabbath reunited to perform together at the Live Aid concert on July 13, 1985 and then again for the encore of what was supposed to have been Osbourneís farewell performance with his solo band in í92, the response was tremendous. Although Osbourne has achieved considerable success with his own records, it was clear that Sabbath fans longed to hear the classic tunes being played by the original members who wrote and recorded them-and that the fans still crave more.
The original four members had reunited several times-at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, then again for the encore of what was supposed to have been Osbourneís farewell performance with his solo band in í92. Again, Sabbath reunited for two sold-out shows at their hometown of Birmingham, England on December 4th and 5th, 1997. Both shows were recorded and tracks from the second show were released as a double-live album, Reunion, the original lineupís first full-length concert since í79. The disc includes 16 live Sabbath classics along with two new studio tracks, "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul." The original Sabbath lineup also returned for a headlining tour in support of the live disc, and later, to participate in the Ozzfest tour the following year.
For the first time since 1969, Iommi recently stepped out of his distinguished Sabbath role to venture down another path. He wanted to try something in a different format, but didnít necessarily want to create a solo band. Instead, he came up with the idea of collaborating with a variety of vocalists and to bring in different musicians on each track. The result is the first-ever solo album from the godfather of heavy metal, Iommi [Divine Recordings/Priority].
Guest vocalists included on the star-studded disc are Henry Rollins, Billy Idol, Skin of Skunk Anansie, Foo Fightersí Dave Grohl, Panteraís Phil Anselmo, Serj Tankian of System Of A Down, Ian Astbury of the Cult, Type O Negativeís Pete Steele, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Ozzy Osbourne. Corgan and Steele played bass on the tracks they recorded, and Grohl played drums on his track. Additionally, Iommiís long-time friend Brian May added guitar parts to the tracks with Grohl and Astbury.
Iommi spoke with us about the making of his solo album and described how the project came to fruition. The southpaw SG icon also revealed how he relied on a Les Paul to shape the rhythm tones on each track.
How did the idea come about for a collaboration with many different musicians?
I had discussed doing a compilation with different people. I wanted to use different vocalists and make the album different from what people would have expected me to do. I had been in the Black Sabbath role for so long, where I was doing albums with one singer, bass player and drummer, so I just thought about trying something different. Over the years, I had met all the people who performed on the album.
Who were some of the musicians that took part in the project?
Matt Cameron, Kenny Aronoff, Dave Grohl, John Tempesta, Jim Copley and Bill Ward were the drummers. Bass players were Terry Phillips and Laurence Cottle, who is basically a jazz player and heís done a few things with me in the past, but heís not known in the rock world. Billy Corgan played bass on his track and Peter Steele is playing bass on his track, as well. Brian May played on a couple of tracks, too-the ones with Dave Grohl and Ian Astbury. I had to get Brian on-heís one of my oldest friends, so if I had made an album and not asked him to play on it, heíd be cursing me! I was really impressed with the way that everyone worked and the speed at which they work. The professionalism and the excitement they generated was fantastic. You donít really know what to expect when you go to put something together like this. It could be a nightmare. A majority of the time, Iíve been known to be a nightmare! I didnít know what they had expected either. But we all really clicked and we got on really well. It came together with absolutely no problem.
How was the material written?
I collaborated with everybody, really. But I wrote the bulk of it with Bob Marlette, the producer. We got together and put ideas down first. Over the first period, we had to kind of figure out where we were going with this. We had also never worked together before, so we had to feel each other out. I didnít know anything about what he had done and he didnít know anything about what I had done. It was a bit of a shot in the dark, so we had to see what would happen.
How did you hook up with Bob?
Actually, it was through Rob Halford. He introduced me when they were working on Robís album. Rob suggested I try working with him, too. So we arranged to get together and just threw some ideas down to see where we were going. We wrote about 15 songs. We had to get used to the way that we each worked because some people may prefer to work night and day, while some may only want to work for an hour. So we first had to figure out how we each preferred to work. I prefer to work for a few hours and then go home. As soon as we established that, we were doing alright. So we pushed aside the first 15 tracks we wrote and then started talking about singers and where we wanted to go with it. The first person who came in was Henry Rollins. I played him some stuff while he was in England, checking out the Sabbath rehearsals. I played him the tracks we had and he decided that he really liked one in particular and decided that it was the one he wanted to do.
Did Henry write the lyrics for the track he sang on?
Did all of the singers write their own lyrics?
Yes. All of the singers wrote their own lyrics. I wanted it that way because you canít bring singers in of their caliber and say, ďI want you to sing this and use these lyrics.Ē I didnít want to do that. I wanted their parts and personalities added to this record. I wanted them to be themselves and thatís why I chose them in the first place. I wanted their character-what makes each of them so recognizable-on the tracks.
Was the music already written for each singer to add lyrics or was there further collaboration to make each song come together?
I think it was almost half and half. Iíd have ideas down for each of the singers to listen to, but it was all subject to change, based on how things went. Everyone quite liked what they were doing, so we worked it out in the way that we wanted to do it. But some of it was started totally from scratch, like the Billy Corgan track. We had no idea what we wanted to do when he walked in. We just started jamming. He was playing bass and I came up with a riff that he liked, so we just started working from there and worked the song up. We put the track down live, that same day. Weíd only played it a couple of times through before we recorded it, so it really kept us on edge. Then while I was putting on more guitar parts, Billy was writing the lyrics.
Were most of the songs tracked live or were the parts built up individually?
They were all done a bit differently. On certain tracks we all played together, but on others, we built them up individually.
Which guitars and amps did you use to record the tracks?
I used the same setup for the whole album. I used my Laney amplifier and Laney cabinet. The amp is my Laney signature model, which is a 100-watt amp. It worked fine for everything. If I wanted a quiet passage, Iíd just turn the amp down, as opposed to going into a different amp. Years ago, when Iíd done other albums, Iíd use all these different amplifiers for different sounds-one for the loud bits and one for the quiet bits. This time, I used the same amp and the same guitars, which were all Gibson guitars-two SGs and two Les Pauls.
Most people certainly wouldnít expect you to be playing a Les Paul!
They donít! Gibson made me a one-off Les Paul from a special piece of mahogany. Itís such a nice piece of wood! Itís got a maple top and just the natural wood is fantastic. I used it on this album with a heavier set of strings than I usually use-.010-.046. I use .009-.042 on some guitars and .008-.032 on others, so the .010s are quite heavier. I used the Les Pauls on certain tracks. Iíd do a track with the SG and then do a track with the Les Paul, just to give it a contrasting sound. It wasnít my idea to do it that way, but it gave it a good sound.
Did you use the SG and Les Paul combination on all of the tracks?
Yes. I used a Les Paul on all of the tracks, along with an SG for the rhythm parts and then for the solos, it was always an SG.
Do you usually use the neck or bridge pickup?
I mainly use the bridge pickup, but rarely use the neck pickup, except maybe if Iím trying to do something jazzy. All of my SGs have my signature model Gibson pickups in them, but the Les Paul had the stock pickups in it. I am going to replace them with my signature model pickups because Gibson just started doing them in gold.
What are your preferences for your guitarís neck shape, frets and the setup?
I like a thinner neck than the regular Gibson because itís easier for me to hold. I like 24-fret necks, too. I also prefer thin fret wire, like the old í61 Gibson-type fret wire. I donít like the chunky type. I like the action to be set low.
Does the gear you use in the studio differ from your stage gear?
Itís exactly the same, which is brilliant, because I donít have to carry amps around anywhere. I can just tell Laney to send a few amps over and Iíll have exactly my sound. I do carry my personal guitars though.
How do you set the controls on your amp?
I donít have it full up. I have the drive up to about 7 and the master volume up to about 7, too. The other controls-the tone controls-are quite responsive, so theyíre set at about halfway. I used to turn everything full up years ago on the original amplifiers and I used to use a treble booster to drive the input. Iíd turn everything full up and turn the middle off. Now I have that treble booster built into the amp.
What effects do you use in your live rig?
I use a Pete Cornish pedalboard, but I donít use many effects. Iím using an old Tycobrae wah pedal. I have several of them and the company didnít make that many, so Iíve bought up all the ones I could find. Iíve probably got about eight of them. I use a Korg rackmount delay, which I think is the old SDD1000 model. As long as I can hear it and it gives me the right sound, I donít care which one it is. I also use a Boss chorus pedal. Itís trustworthy. Additionally, I have a Korg DL8000R multi-tap delay for chorus effect, a Peavey Addverb III and I use a Boss or DigiTech octave divider. I run the effects in separate loops with a Drawmer LX22 Compressor. 15 years ago, I used a lot more gear, but Iíve really cut it down. I do have backups of everything, so Iíve got about three of each of the delays and choruses. Mike Clement, my tech, has it all setup so itís ready to go if I need it.
How many guitars do you generally take out on the road?
Probably about six or eight, but I use two throughout the show. We use different tunings because some of the albums were played in different tunings in the early days. We never went by the rules and just tuned the way that sounded right for that track or that album. Weíve always tuned a half-step down, but on the Paranoid and Black Sabbath albums we tuned to pitch. On Master Of Reality we tuned down three half-steps. We didnít have any rules, because everybody else made the rules up. We just broke them!
How have your preferences for gear changed over time?
I have been pretty faithful to Laney for amplifiers. I love the sound and since weíve done my signature model amp, I donít have to look anywhere else. Theyíve done exactly what I want. Iíve tried different amplifiers over the years. I originally started out using Marshall amplifiers and then I switched over to Laney. I used the Laneys for quite a while and then started trying other amps like a Boogie 300-watt head, which I didnít like because it was too large sounding. Then I went back to Marshalls again, then went back to Laneys. The Laney amplifiers I use now are designed the way I would want to have an amplifier sound. We worked on getting the sound right where I wanted it, so theyíve got a lot more highs and theyíre very loud. There are a few other changes from the original model amps, including the way itís wired up.
As far as the rest of the gear goes, with the effects, if someone comes up to me and asks me to try something, Iím not closed-minded. Iíve got so many things in my rack in my studio, but I have no idea what it does. Iíve got walls of stuff that people have given me to try over the years, but I havenít gotten around to a lot of it. But onstage, I donít use that much stuff because I just donít need it.
As for the guitars, Iíve always used the SGs. Over the years, Iíve some different ones-some that were custom-built by the Gibson Custom Shop and by private builders. As a lefty, itís always been difficult to find guitars I like, so I usually have them custom made.
Has your idea of the ultimate guitar tone changed much over time?
Yes, it has changed a great deal. Iíve always been fiddling around with sounds, since the beginning. But now I donít mess with it much. Iíve tuned into the sound that I like and thatís why Iíve been using the same stuff for years. Iíve got my own signature guitars and amps now and I get the exact sound I want. I like my sound to be really crunchy and have a bite to it. My sound from the í70s was perhaps a bit more muffled and fuzzier than it is now. The sound I want now is a sound thatís solid and powerful.
Has your technique changed in any way over the years?
For all the Sabbath stuff, I think my playing is pretty much the same. On this new album, Iím doing a lot of chords and riffs in the same sort of way, so it probably hasnít changed at all. As far as soloing goes, I havenít ever worked out a solo before I recorded it. I couldnít work out a solo to save my life! If I sat down to do it, Iíd be there all day. I have to do it as we go along. With this album, Iíd put the track on, play five or six solos-or 10 solos, if I have to-until I come up with something that works. We usually end up picking one of the first two or three that I played. Those things just come at an instant usually sound best.
Does working with different musicians and different singers affect the way that you attack the guitar?
Absolutely. I felt like I had a lot more freedom on this album. When you work with one singer and the same group of musicians, you learn how each person works and where their limits are. But on this album, I had no idea who I was dealing with and no idea what theyíd be able to do. So I could put a riff down and I may be have been stretching them to come up with something, but theyíd want to try it. It felt really good that way because it allowed me to put down what I wanted to and for the different musicians to put down what they want to.
How have your tastes in music changed?
Iíve held onto a lot of the same basic tastes. I still like Frank Sinatra and listen to his music. Iíve got a jukebox in my bar at home with a variety of music in it and I tend to put all í50s or í60s music on and stuff like James Taylor. Iíll listen to anything, really. I like all different kinds of music, but thatís usually what Iíll put on when I want to listen to music. I canít say I donít like rap, because Iíve just done a track with the Wu Tang Clan. They asked me to put a riff down for them. I must say, Iíve never done anything like that before. Itís different, but I wouldnít ordinarily listen to something like that-no disrespect to them or other rap artists.
Do you make it a point to keep up with musical trends?
I like to keep up with what other bands are doing. People will give me albums and Iíll listen to them. As I said, I like to listen to all different kinds of music.
Is there any chance of a solo tour?
Iíd like to bring out as much as we can, but of course, itís going to be a big project, if we can do this.
Maybe you could do something like an Iommifest, where all of the bands on the bill include members who played on your album.
That could be fun! Geezer mentioned doing a Sabbathfest and having all the lineups that weíve had in Sabbath and everyone who played on the album. That would be really wild.
Are there any plans for a new Black Sabbath album?
Weíve left that open. It would be nice to do something again.