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Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, and the Gibson SG

Updated on March 12, 2019
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

The father of heavy metal music, Tony Iommi, and one of his SG guitars.
The father of heavy metal music, Tony Iommi, and one of his SG guitars. | Source

Tony Iommi, the Father of Heavy Metal Music

Very few musicians ever get to be called the father of a major musical genre. Thinking back to earlier in the last century, before Tony Iommi became the father of heavy metal music, there were two persons who became fathers of a musical genre. Bill Monroe, the great mandolin player became the father of bluegrass, and then later on, Chuck Berry became the father of rock and roll.

These musical forms always branch out. You could think of the branches as children,and further down the line, grandchildren. Tony Iommi became the father of heavy metal, and what was heavy metal but a child of rock and roll? Rock music, of course, was merely a child of the blues. And so it goes.

There were other guitarist who were working during the same time as Iommi who also had done things which could be considered metal. Jimi Hendrix, using a very raw and dirty sound, sometimes did things which could be thought of as metal. Jimmy Page with a few songs from the first Led Zeppelin album definitely was in the metal ballpark. Then there was Ritchie Blackmore working in Deep Purple. Before long Blackmore was absolutely a metal guitarist.

So what is it that makes Iommi the father of heavy metal music? Iommi and Black Sabbath sought to make music which literally sounded scary. Nobody else was attempting this at all. Because of the injuries to Iommi's fretboard hand, he was playing the guitar with slacked strings, and this, along with heavy distortion, aided in creating a darker sound. His persistent, slow and ominous riffs, those were what made Tony Iommi the father of heavy metal music.

Notice Tony Iommi's fingerboard hand, and the false fingertips.
Notice Tony Iommi's fingerboard hand, and the false fingertips. | Source

Tony Iommi and Overcoming Injury

Tony Iommi is the only person who was continuously a member of Black Sabbath for nearly five decades. The band Black Sabbath is very much over now. At this point, we fans have to all take some deep breaths, and look back in appreciation at just what this band was. It was Tony's band.

Tony grew up in Birmingham, England, and one year behind him in his school was Ozzy Osbourne. Tony initially had wanted to be a drummer, but decided on the guitar instead. Always with the mustache, Tony had badly cut his upper lip in a fall. He had been chased by some other children. Tony grew a mustache to cover the scar, and he learned boxing, judo, and karate. Mr. Iommi has always been a very proactive man.

The biggest story of Tony's youth came one day when he was seventeen years old. He was working in a factory, and because another employee did not come in to work that day, Tony was asked to operate a metal cutting machine. He'd never worked the machine before. He wound up cutting off the tips of two of his fingers on the hand he used to fret notes on the guitar.

For young Tony Iommi, this appeared to be the end of all of his hopes and dreams of being a musician. For persons like myself, who've never suffered a physical injury which looked like the end of all future hopes, it's hard to imagine just how psychologically devastating this would be. Despite it all, and with the inspiration of the amazing Gypsy Jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, Tony soldiered on.

He'd fashion fasle fingertips for himself. Anyone who's ever even attempted to play the guitar can imagine how awkward this must have felt. It's frightfully difficult enough to play with undamaged hands, and yet Tony Iommi became one of the most famous and successful riffmakers in music history.

A much younger Iommi, master of the heavy metal riff.
A much younger Iommi, master of the heavy metal riff.

Tony Iommi is the Ultimate Riff Master

Metal Hammer magazine ranks Tony Iommi as the greatest guitarist of all time. Classic Rock magazine ranks him the sixth greatest of all time, and over at Rolling Stone, he's the twenty fifth. Guitar World, a magazine I subscribe to, and find more relevant for the subject than the others, has Tony as sixth on the list of greatest.

Magazines are one thing. A lifelong fan like myself is yet another thing. But what do actual peers of Iommi say about Tony? Gene Simmons of Kiss says Tony created the riffs that launched an army of guitarists. Ronnie James Dio called him the ultimate riff master. Astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen, Brian May says Tony is the true father of heavy metal. Eddie Van Halen simply says the heavy metal genre wouldn't exist without him.

Black Sabbath was always Tony's vehicle for music, and they've sold over seventy million records. Tony Iommi's net worth is in excess of one hundred and forty million dollars. These are huge numbers, and the legacy is even larger. He's done almost every last bit of it with either a Gibson SG, or one of his other SG guitars.

It was a bad day for the great Fender guitar company, but a great day for Gibson. Tony Iommi was a Stratocaster man originally, but he switched to his Gibson SG when the neck pickup of his Strat failed during the recording of the eponymous Black Sabbath debut. For our purposes here we will have a look at Tony's Gibson and Epiphone SG guitars.

Gibson Tony Iommi SG Custom guitars.
Gibson Tony Iommi SG Custom guitars.

Gibson Custom Tony Iommi SG Guitars

Gibson Custom Tony Iommi SG guitars are very expensive. Very few were ever produced, although I believe Gibson Custom Shop is perfectly willing to make one for anyone with the money to have them do it. Most of these are always going to be right handed, and this is for the obvious reason that most people are right handed. There are certainly left handed models available.

Most of these guitars are black. The red ones are harder to find. All of them are at prices beyond what you'd pay for most reissue Les Paul models, and as time goes on, you shouldn't expect the prices to come down. I'm looking at one online for more than twelve thousand dollars. Besides being created in honor of the father of heavy metal, what's so special about these guitars anyway?

The Tony Iommi pickups are one of the major features of this guitar. This are high output pickups, although passive, and meant entirely to produce a lot of thick distortion, just like you love to hear when you listen to Black Sabbath. The same pickup is at the bridge and the neck.

The second major feature of this guitar is visually obvious, it's the Tony Iommi fingerboard, with those lovely cross inlays as the fingerboard positioning markers. The fingerboard is also a two octave board, and this means two additional frets, for a total of twenty four. Almost every one of these guitars has an ebony fingerboard, but there are also units with rosewood fingerboards.

There is a very attractive custom inlay on the headstock, a dark graphite nut, and then the tuning machines are locking ones, manufactured by Sperzel. Would you like a bit of extreme guitar trivia? I've got it right here for you. When Gibson built one of these guitars for Tony himself, it was built with the four control knobs, but only two of the knobs are active. These Gibson Custom guitars, however, have four active controls, two tones, and two volumes.

Gibson Custom Tony Iommi SG features:

  • 24 fret fingerboard with cross fingerboard positioning marker inlay
  • Tony Iommi custom wound humbucker pickups
  • Engraved headstock
  • Locking Sperzel machine heads

Tony Iommi and the Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Custom.
Tony Iommi and the Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Custom. | Source

Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Custom

Epiphone is one of the most undervalued brands in the entire world of guitars. It's a brand with a long and proud history, and yes, they do make some very inexpensive guitars. Those are great for beginners or hobbyists, but Epiphone also produces professional level instruments at amazing prices. One of the best examples of this is the Tony Iommi SG Custom.

"This guitar sounds like I want it to sound on stage," said Iommi of his Epiphone guitar. "I play it at home in the studio as well. It uses my signature pickups, which we worked on for quite a while over the years. It's got a great fretboard with a really nice feel. And, it's just a really classy looking guitar."

For under one thousand dollars, this Tony Iommi Epiphone SG is an absolutely fantastic purchase. It's got the exact same Tony Iommi humbucking pickups as the Gibson version which costs many times more. This guitar also has an ebony fingerboard. You are not going to find many electric guitars with Gibson pickups and an ebony fingerboard for under a grand.

That bound ebony fingerboard and those cross inlays look fantastic, and of course here too you get the two octave, twenty four fret board. Tony's guitar, as seen in the photo, has a lot of inlay on the headstock. The production instruments do not have that inlay, but other than that, are identical.

One thousand Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Custom guitars were initially made. At present the only ones available are used. I'm seeing major distributors, on their websites, stating they plan to have more of these guitars in stock soon. What that tells me is Epiphone intends to produce more of the Iommi guitars. I hope that is true, and you should too. We'll wait and see.

Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Custom features:

  • Limited edition electric guitar designed to Tony Iommi's specs
  • Two Gibson USA Tony Iommi Signature Humbuckers
  • 24-fret neck for a two-octave range per string
  • Bound ebony fretboard with iron-cross inlays
  • Classic SG mahogany body and neck
  • Hand-signed certificate of authenticity included

Gibson SG Standard in ebony finish
Gibson SG Standard in ebony finish

Gibson SG Standard

The Gibson Iommi model is way out of your price range, and the Epiphone isn't widely available. You may even just want an SG that says Gibson on the head-stock. Well, it's all understandable, and so what are you going to do?

You get a Gibson SG Standard. Tony's guitars are usually in black, but he's got red ones too. Red and ebony finishes are the most likely finishes you'll find on an SG anyway. The SG is a rock and metal machine.

The major problem with an SG Standard is the fingerboard. It's not a problem at all, but it's twenty two frets, and so, is two frets less than the two octave board on the Iommi guitars. You don't get the awesome Celtic cross inlays either, but the SG Standard is a much more versatile instrument than Iommi's.

High output pickups, like the Iommi pickups, are not needed at all to get the Iommi sound. In fact, on some of Tony's most used guitars, he's not using humbucking pickups at all, but instead, custom P-90s. There is so much which can be done with an amp and pedals now, getting Iommi's tones can be achieved in other ways.

Another of the major elements of the Iommi sound is he often plays from a down-tuned SG. What is down-tuning? Iommi slacks the strings from standard tuning, quite often, in order to achieve a more sinister tone. Another part of downtuning for Tony is, he's got two damaged fret-board fingers, and the lesser tension on the strings makes playing more comfortable.

I always feel like vintage output pickups are more versatile than high output ones. More coil winding, and you can lose something from your highs and mids. Vintage output pups give you more ability to color your tone with your amp, pedals, and the controls on the guitar itself.

The SG Standard I'm showing here features the Gibson 61t and 61r set. These are classic PAF pickups, in the same mold as the originals by Seth Lover. These 61s are called so because Gibson extensively analysed what they were using in the SG in 1961. These are the truest replications of what was used that year available.

My personal thoughts are these definitely push the amp more than standard Burstbuckers or '57 Classics, especially in the SG.

Gibson SG Standard in Ebony features:

  • Comfortable, lightweight mahogany body
  • Fast mahogany SlimTaper neck; 24.75" scale length
  • Bound rosewood fingerboard with acrylic trapezoid inlays
  • Plek'd fretboard for effortless playability
  • 22 cryogenically treated medium frets
  • 1.695"-wide Tektoid nut
  • Lightweight aluminum Tune-O-Matic Bridge and stop-bar tailpiece
  • Classic black Top Hat knobs
  • Locking Kidney tuners
  • Chrome-plated hardware
  • Humbucking pickups 61R neck; 61T bridge
  • 2 volume, 2 tone controls; 3-way toggle selector

Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne - Black Sabbath.
Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne - Black Sabbath. | Source

The Black Sabbath Debut

I'm 45 years old now. I have fallen in love with a lot of music in my lifetime, but I've never loved a band more than I love Black Sabbath. I went for several years in a row, maybe close to a decade, to where I had to listen to some Sabbath every single day, or my mind just wasn't going to be right that day.

Over seventy million Black Sabbath albums have been sold world wide, and so the adoration is very widespread. Once they were known as the Polka Tulk Blues Band, and later they were known as Earth. Then there was a film named Black Sabbath, and it stared Boris Karloff. The boys in the band were inspired by this, and they changed their name and their direction.

The eponymous debut album would reach the eighth place in the U.K., and would go to number twenty three on the Billboard charts. This was not only the very first heavy metal album, but the song Black Sabbath, would become what was also considered the very first Doom Metal song.

Bells, rain, thunder, and a few double tracked guitar parts were the only things which kept the album from being completely live in the studio. They recorded the thing in just twelve hours. Transcending the clearly seen blues base and psychedelia, the album became something more than those things. This was not just new material, but a new form of music.

Timeless Classics of Heavy Metal

The band would go immediately back to work in the studio for a follow up album. Black Sabbath would become a band which produced legendary albums, and songs, but the songs would never be what you would consider 'hit' songs, and Paranoid, the title track of the second album would be the closest thing to a hit single they would ever have.

Paranoid, the album, would contain three of the most well known songs in the band's cannon. War Pigs, and Iron Man are songs which are as close to being folk songs as any heavy metal songs could be. What am I even talking about? How could a heavy metal song be anything like a folk song? Well, what I mean is these are songs which will certainly live not just past the lifetimes of the persons who created them, but probably past the lives of their very grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

The title track was an afterthought. The entire thing was written and recorded in roughly twenty five minutes. The band's song creation process was perfected with Paranoid, and it all started with Iommi's riffing. The song would reach number four on the U.K.'s charts, their highest charting hit.

War Pigs came about due to Geezer Butler's desire to write a song about a Satanic Christmas. And what could be more Satanic than war? Myself, I once worked with a Vietnam War veteran, and did for years, we talked about music constantly, and the man was so very thrilled that I was a Black Sabbath fan, and he talked about his admiration for the band, and for the song War Pigs.

A Briefcase Full of Cash for Drugs, and Master of Reality

Working hard and fast, just six months after the release of Paranoid, Master of Reality would be recorded. The band had been given a briefcase full of cash with which to acquire drugs. And all manner of substances were used. Bill Ward wondered how many great ideas they simply forgot about, for being used up, and out of it.

It took less than two months for the third album to be certified as gold in the US. It's long past double platinum now. Critics had hated the first two Black Sabbath albums, and the critical response for the third one was no better at all. The first three albums, however would set the blueprint for heavy metal music, and possibly be the most adored, in general, by fans.

Critics would describe Black Sabbath as the worst of the counterculture, and served on a plastic plate. A Black Sabbath concert was described as having all the joy of a Gestapo interrogation, and it was said they served up cheap doom for drug addled teens.

Constant touring and recording, along with the substance abuse, had taken their toll. The four musicians needed a rest, and they would decide to take one, and then take their time on the next project.

Black Sabbath and Satanism

Old scratch was referenced often in the music of Black Sabbath, and this was from the beginning of the band. Nativity in Black famously had the lyric, 'My name is Lucifer, please take my hand.' The only real problems with any of this were when people took it too seriously. The songs were stories, they were not meant to be more than that.

If one looked backward a bit, this referencing of the devil was not something started by Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath was merely taking such imagery and lyrics in the logical direction set by the major bands before them. The Beatles had featured Aleister Crowley on the cover of their Sgt Peppers album. Not long afterwards The Rolling Stones were singing Sympathy for the Devil.

Anyone other than an atheist, and having lived a bit on our spinning orb, would know drugs can be used to glimpse beyond the normal things we see. All these rock and rollers were famously using substances. The zeitgeist of the day called for both drugs and exploring occult ideas, whether in actual practice, or simply in musical and lyrical imagery. Black Sabbath would add despair, lots of despair, to the mysticism and substance abuse.

Even space travel would be a subject of a Sabbath song. There is little doubt, however, that cosmic evil, interfering in the lives of man, had never been addressed so thoroughly by anyone. But what about cosmic good? In what seemed an about face, the band would also seek to dispel rumors of actual Satanism with the surprisingly Christian themed song, After Forever.

Lets Record in a Dungeon

If things were weird, they'd just get weirder. Cornucopia was said to have been written by sitting in a room, just doing drugs. Not getting along with the record producer became a theme, but that wasn't original at all. Snowblind was an ode to the abuse of cocaine, and this substance, something I can only personally associate with abject misery, was the driving force behind Black Sabbath.

No one was burned out yet though, and this period is where the music I like the best was produced. Everything was dependent on Tony Iommi. If Tony couldn't come up with a great riff, then the rest of the band was more or less just sitting around and waiting on the man. Well, what to do? How about recording in a castle's dungeon? What a great idea! The band went to Clearwell Castle in The Forest of Dean.

It was in the dungeon where Iommi fashioned the riff for the song Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and this would be the title track from the album which finally did start to win over the music critic journalists. It was called an extraordinarily gripping affair, and then even a masterpiece, and essential part of any heavy metal collection. It would be the band's fifth consecutive platinum album.

The spooky cover to the 1973 groundbreaking classic, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
The spooky cover to the 1973 groundbreaking classic, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

Literally Sabotage

Sabotage was released in 1975. This is possibly my very favorite Black Sabbath album, and not because I was actually alive by then, but because something about it spoke to me during a time in my life when everything seemed confusing.

Rolling Stone said the album was easily the best since Paranoid, and possibly the best the band had ever produced. People were saying things about a magical chemistry they had. Osbourne would sing, Am I Going Insane. Black Sabbath would add a keyboardist, and produce two more albums. Technical Ecstasy was not especially good, but Never Say Die was, in my opinion, very underrated.

The original Black Sabbath quartet was unraveling quickly, and substance abuse was clearly the cause of it all. Ozzy Osbourne would quit, rejoin, and later be fired. Despite how good Never Say Die really was, it took the album nearly twenty years to make gold status. Everyone in the band was abusing substances, but what Ozzy was doing was far beyond anyone else. He was living on the edges of what a person could do, and still survive. He'd stay just that way for many years to come.

As awful as it would seem that Black Sabbath would lose its fantastic singer, this would prove to be a wonderful thing not just for Black Sabbath, but for Ozzy Osbourne too. Ozzy would go on to start his fantastic solo career, and Black Sabbath would enter its second stage of life, with Ronnie James Dio as vocalist.

Ronnie James Dio, and Others

It was none other than the woman who would later, rather famously, become Sharon Osbourne who suggested Ronnie James Dio take Ozzy's place. Sharon's father was the band's manager, and he was doing all he possibly could to get Ozzy to rejoin the band. That wouldn't soon happen.

Ronnie James Dio's vocal style was completely different from that of Ozzy Osbourne, and he was a completely different type of person besides. The very sound of the band would change, and change a lot. To attempt to explain how and why they were different is difficult, but Ozzy would always follow Tony's riff. Ronnie James Dio would literally sing across the riff. Heaven and Hell was released, and everyone was excited about the new sound.

Neither Bill Ward or Geezer Butler were happy. And besides that, the two were not happy with each other. Both would leave the band at one point, or another, and Black Sabbath would become increasingly unstable. Mob Rules was recorded, and the critics hated it, saying the band was as flatulent as ever, and even dull witted.

Live Evil would be recorded across the great state of Texas. Ronnie James Dio hated the album, and would be accused of sneaking into the studio at night to change the recordings the band had worked on. From 1982 to 1997, Black Sabbath would go through more changes than I should bother to list here. Some people loved the music they created, some others did not. That there was little stability in the band's lineup made it difficult for a fan to stay locked into it all.

Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, and Vinny Appice - Black Sabbath.
Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, and Vinny Appice - Black Sabbath. | Source

The End

1997 would be a fantastic year for myself, and for fans of Black Sabbath. Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne would re-unite. Reunion was released, featuring remakes, and brand new material. Also that year Iommi would release a solo album, titled simply, Iommi. The solo album featured, among others, Ozzy Osbourne, and I've always felt it was seriously underappreciated as a recording.

Ronnie James Dio was still alive and well, and old feuds seemed like water beneath the bridge, and Black Sabbath, minus Osbourne and Warde,were also amenable to recording again with Dio, and that's just what happened in 2006. Instead of calling itself Black Sabbath, the alternate group, featuring Vinnie Appice on drums, went by Heaven and Hell.

Tony Iommi's health started to become a concern. He was battling lymphoma. In 2013 the original four members would record 13, and release the single God is Dead? They would do some touring, but a twenty fifth album was cancelled because all four persons in the band lived in a different nation, and getting together to do work was not easy to arrange. The End was recorded and released, and it had just eight tracks on it. February 2017 came, and the final Black Sabbath show was announced. The final song of this was streamed live, on the band's Facebook page.

All four original members of Black Sabbath are still alive and well. As for Tony Iommi, he's not ruled out creating more music, and he says this is because he simply loves to make music, and always has.

Tony Iommi received an honorary Doctorate from Coventry University in recognition for his contribution to the world of popular music. Specifically noted was his being the founding father of heavy metal music. Were it possible, I'd like to personally thank him for being a major part of creating music which has made my own life much more tolerable. Thanks for reading.

© 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Absolutely, Liz. It's hard enough to play one of those things well with everything going your way physically. I can hardly imagine it with damaged fingers.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      2 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Hey Thank You, Kaili. I still love to hear that stuff as much today as ever. I listened to their last album yesterday. I don't know what I'd do without that music.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 months ago from UK

      That's some comeback story after the injury to his fingers so early on. Many would have given up all hope of a guitar career then.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Great article! I heard "The Wizard" in 1970 and was hooked. I still put BS on when I want to listen to something really loud. Thanks for the backstory on Tony's guitars...he is such a fabulous musician!

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