Tony Iommi is heavy metal’s original Iron Man, a guitarist whose early recordings with Black Sabbath minted an unforgettable sound — as dark, powerful and permeating as a wizard’s curse.
This Saturday, February 19, Iommi celebrates his 63rd birthday. While Iommi’s gear has undergone changes over the years, his choice in guitars — Gibsons, and mostly SGs, including his signature model Epiphone G-400 — has remained as constant as his ability to weave some of the boldest, most evil sounding solos and tracks ever recorded.
What’s the secret of his literally monstrous tone? In 1969 and 1970 Iommi was experimenting to find a signature sound during the making of both Black Sabbath and Paranoid when he hit on the combination of Gibson SGs and Les Pauls teamed with a high-gain amp, specifically Laneys, to set him apart from all the six-stringers blasting through Marshalls and Hiwatts at the time.
First, he tuned his guitars down to allow for greater flexibility and to create a darker instrumental voice. Rolling the tone pots back on his instruments and turning the mids, treble and gain up to 10 on his amps, Iommi created a basic sound that was entirely unique, varied only by the positions of his pick-up switch — full rhythm up for chords and full lead down for solos. Treble was an essential part of his tone crafting as well, and he employed a Rangemaster treble boost box to enhance highs.
By the time Paranoid was cut, Iommi’s signal chain also included a wah pedal, a Rotosound rotating speaker emulator, a phase shifter and a variety of signal boosting distortion boxes. With enough gain from an overdrive inclined distortion pedal, it’s possible to emulate his sound at home or on stage with even small amps, although a 2x12 cabinet with a high-gain head is ideal to rock out like a banshee while wailing through Black Sabbath classics like “Paranoid” and “War Pigs.”
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