Heaven & Hell
by Tony Iommi
from the pages of Guitar World Online
"Never Say Die" (Aug. 1997)
Overcoming overwhelming odds, and the right way to play "Paranoid"
At long last, Guitar World proudly presents this first instalment of a new
column by the Godfather of Metal, the inimitable Tony Iommi. For nearly three
decades, Iommi has been the mastermind behind the legendary and often
groundbreaking heavy guitar-driven riffs of the bastard sons of British hard
rock, Black Sabbath.
Hello there! Welcome to my first Guitar World column. I'm looking forward to
sharing with you in these pages my thoughts on playing, equipment and the music
business. Actually, this isn't the first time I've written a column - I used to
do one many years ago for an English music magazine called Beat Instrumental. I
did it for about eight months and it was great fun, and I'm sure this one will
NEVER SAY DIE
Although my handicap has received quite a bit of press over the years, a lot of
people are very surprised when they find out that I'm missing two fingertips
from my fretboard (right) hand. (I'm a lefty.) After all, that is a fairly
serious affliction for a guitarist. Specifically, I lost the tips of my middle
and ring fingers in an accident I had at work - they got caught in a piece of
machinery. Ironically, the day the accident happened was my last day at that job
before turning professional musician, as I was all set to go to Germany on tour
with a band. The timing couldn't have been worse - not that there's ever a good
time to cut off the ends of two of your fingers!
As you can imagine, it was an awful experience and I went through a terrible
period of depression because I was convinced that my guitar playing days were
over for good. I went to dozens of different doctors and hospitals and they all
said, "Forget it. You're not going to be able to play guitar again."
While I was down in the dumps though, a friend of mine, who happened to be my
foreman at work, brought me a record of [world-renowned Gypsy jazz guitarist]
Django Reinhardt who, at the time, I'd never heard of before. My friend said,
"Listen to this guy play," and I went, "No way! Listening to someone play the
guitar is the very last thing I want to do right now!" But he kept insisting and
he ended up playing the record for me. I told him I thought it was really good
and then he said, "You know, the guy's only playing with two fingers on his
fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire." I was
totally knocked back by this revelation and was so impressed by what I had just
heard that I suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again.
I tried playing right-handed for a while but that didn't work out for me so I
bandaged my two damaged fingers together and started playing lefty again using
just my first (index) and little fingers. I then decided to go a step further by
trying to bring my two injured fingers back into the game. What I did was this:
I melted down a "Fairy Liquid" [an English dishwashing detergent] bottle, made a
couple of blobs of the plastic and then sat there with a hot soldering iron and
melted holes in them so they'd fit on the tips of my injured fingers, kind of
When I got the caps to fit comfortably, I ended up with these big balls on the
ends of my fingers, so I then proceeded to file them down with sandpaper until
they were approximately the size of normal fingertips.
It took me quite a while to get them exactly right because they couldn't be too
heavy or thick but had to be strong enough so they didn't hurt the ends of my
fingers when I used them. When I had sculpted my "thimbles" to the right size
and tested them I realized that the ends weren't gripping the strings so I cut
up a piece of leather and fixed pieces to the ends of them. I then spent ages
rubbing the leather pads so they would get shiny and absorb some oils and would
help me grip the strings better. I filed down the edges so they wouldn't catch
on anything and it worked!
Once I had done this it took me quite a while to get used to bending and shaking
strings with those two fingers because I obviously couldn't feel anything. It
was difficult to even know where my fingers were and where they were going. It
was just a matter of practicing and persevering with it, using my ears to
compensate for my lost tactile sense.
In the years since my story was publicized more than a few musicians who have
had similar afflictions have told me that my "never say die" attitude has
inspired them to keep going. However bad something may seem at first, you've got
to try to overcome it because sometimes the "impossible" is possible. It was
really depressing at first, but after hearing Django, I just wouldn't accept
defeat. I was sure there had to be a way around my problem.
PARANOID: THE RIGHT WAY
Anyway, that's enough about my missing fingertips! Let's finish up this first
column with some music. Over the years a lot of guitar magazines and books have
transcribed my "Paranoid" main riff but nearly all of them did so incorrectly.
They invariably get the notes right but the position on the neck is always
wrong. I saw one recently that made the same old mistake. Nearly everyone (most
professional transcribers included) assumes that I play the E5 power chord that
the riff is based around on the 5th and 4th strings at the 7th fret. Well, I
don't! I play the chord on the 6th and 5th strings at the 12th fret. I play it
here because, to my ears, the E5 power chord at the 12th fret definitely sounds
darker and more ominous than the 7th fret grip. (Compare both figures by playing
them back-to-back and you'll hear exactly what I mean.) So, the correct way to
play the opening riff to "Paranoid" is as shown in FIGURE 9.
Regarding the three grace-note hammer-ons that occur on the 5th string at the
very beginning of the riff-they're definitely played by "feel" and will sound
wrong if you perform them too quickly or too slowly. To get them right, listen
to the recording carefully a few times until you've memorized the way that part
of the riff sounds. Like the saying goes, "if you can hum it, you can play it!"
See you on the road with the OzzFest and on this page next month.