You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the famous “Paranoid” guitar riff from Black Sabbath, the English rock band from Birmingham. The signature sound would not have existed had it not been for Tony Iommi, the only constant member of the band and a prominent guitarist who has often been cited as a pioneer of heavy metal.
Tony Iommi (February 19th, 1948) was born in Birmingham, England’s industrial heartland, as the only child of Anthony Frank and Sylvia Maria Iommi, who were of Italian descent. Members of his family played the accordion and initially he had plans to play the drums, but he preferred the guitar and at the age of 13 he bought his own. Tony was also adept at multiple martial arts, which he learned because the neighborhood he resided in was not very safe. He was left-handed and had played in other bands like “The Birds and Bees”, even making plans to go on a tour with them.
His true calling was as a guitarist, but at the age of 17 he was working in a sheet metal factory. He claims ‘it was a boring job’, although he liked welding. On his last day of work he was reluctant to go, but his mother convinced him to finish his job properly, after all, that is what mothers do.
That day, he had to work a big machine that cut metal sheets, much like a guillotine. He hadn’t been trained how to use the machine properly and was manually sliding the metal sheets along the conveyor belt when the cutter caught Iommi’s two fingertips on his right hand, slicing them off.
This would be a terrible blow to the guitarist’s playing skills and he was very depressed after the accident, believing he would never play guitar again. Even though he had the option of switching hands and playing right-handed, he dismissed it as it would take too much time and would change his style.
The factory manager visited him in the hospital and told him the story of Django Reinhardt, the renowned jazz guitarist, as an act of encouragement. Reinhardt was a Belgian-born French guitarist of Romani descent. He was a major contributor to jazz and he, much like Iommi, lost his fingers on the left hand in an accident. He only played with two fingers, which required very specific tuning of his guitar strings.
After hearing this story, Iommi was inspired to continue playing the guitar. He stuck plastic tips on his fingers to compensate for his injury and started to rework his technique to better fit his condition.
In any case, he decided to continue playing left-handed. But, this method had its downside – he couldn’t feel the strings as he pressed them down. He also had difficulty bending them, as they were too thick, so he had to make his own light gauge guitar strings. Sometime in 1970 or 1971, the first light gauge strings were manufactured by Picato Strings. Iommi also enhanced his skill by using his little finger more than before the accident.
Iommi began tuning down his guitar as far as three semitones below the standard E tuning. While loosening the strings made it easier for Iommi to play, this also made the guitar sound more heavier and more aggressive, pioneering a totally new feel to rock ‘n’ roll. The essential Black Sabbath album, “Master of Reality” integrated this low tuning to create a masterpiece, and its release was a pivotal point in the history of rock.
While the unfortunate accident had cost Tony Iommi his two fingertips, his example paved the way for many musical acts to follow suit, turning a bad thing into a good thing. If it wasn’t for Iommi’s mother convincing him to go to work on his last day, we wouldn’t have “Into the Void”, “Sweet Leaf”, “Children of the Grave” and other classic heavy metal songs, making Iommi’s mother half responsible for the birth of heavy metal. As if more emphasis on the saying “listen to your mother” was needed.