Frank Anthony "Tony" Iommi (/aɪˈoʊmiː/; born 19 February 1948) is an English guitarist, songwriter and producer. He is best known as the lead guitarist and one of the four founder members of the pioneering heavy metal band Black Sabbath, and has been the band's sole continual member and primary composer for nearly five decades.
While working in a factory as a teenager, Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand in an accident; an event which crucially affected his playing style. Iommi briefly left Black Sabbath's forerunner, 'Earth', in 1968 to join Jethro Tull, after which he returned to Black Sabbath in 1969, recording their self-titled debut album. In 2000, he released his first solo album Iommi, followed by 2005's Fused, which featured his former bandmate Glenn Hughes. After releasing Fused, he joined Heaven & Hell, which disbanded after Ronnie James Dio's death in 2010.
Iommi was ranked number 25 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".
In 2011, he published his autobiography, entitled Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath.
Frank Anthony Iommi was born in Birmingham, the only child of Anthony Frank and Sylvia Maria Iommi (née Valenti, born in Palermo). His mother's family were vineyard owners in Italy. The family were Catholic but rarely attended mass. The family home in the Park Lane area of Aston also housed a shop which was a popular meeting place in the neighbourhood. The family living room doubled as the shop's stockroom. His mother ran the shop while his father was a carpenter by trade.
Born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, Iommi attended Birchfield Road School, where future bandmate Ozzy Osbourne was also a student one year behind him. At age 8 or 9, Iommi fell and badly cut his upper lip as another boy chased him. As a result, he gained the nickname "Scarface" which caused him to become self-conscious of the scar, and he eventually grew his trademark mustache as a means of covering it.
At about age ten, Iommi began working out and learned judo, karate, and later boxing as a means of protecting himself from the local gangs which congregated in his neighbourhood. He became so good at boxing that he envisioned a future as a bouncer in a nightclub, thus avoiding a career in a boring factory job. Iommi initially wanted to play the drums, but due to the excessive noise he chose the guitar instead as a teenager, after being inspired by the likes of Hank Marvin and The Shadows. He has always played guitar left-handed. After completing school, Iommi worked briefly as a plumber and later in a factory manufacturing rings. He states that at one point he worked in a music store but quit after being falsely accused of stealing.
At the age of 17, Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand in an industrial accident on his last day of work in a sheet metal factory. Iommi described how he "... was told 'you'll never play again. It was just unbelievable. I sat in the hospital with my hand in this bag and I thought 'that's it – I'm finished. But eventually I thought 'I'm not going to accept that. There must be a way I can play'." After the injury Iommi considered abandoning the guitar entirely. However, his factory foreman played him a recording of famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, which encouraged him to continue as a musician. As Iommi would later write:
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.
Inspired by Reinhardt's two-fingered guitar playing, Iommi decided to try playing guitar again, though the injury made it quite painful to do so. Although it was an option, Iommi never seriously considered switching hands and learning to play right-handed. In an interview with Guitar World magazine, he was asked if he was "ever tempted to switch to right-handed playing." Iommi responded:
If I knew what I know now I probably would have switched. At the time I had already been playing two or three years, and it seemed like I had been playing a long time. I thought I’d never be able to change the way I played. The reality of the situation was that I hadn’t been playing very long at all, and I probably could have spent the same amount of time learning to play right handed. I did have a go at it, but I just didn’t have the patience. It seemed impossible to me. I decided to make do with what I had, and I made some plastic fingertips for myself. I just persevered with it.
In any case, he decided to continue playing left-handed. To do so, he fitted homemade thimbles to his injured fingers to extend and protect them; the thimbles were made from an old Fairy Liquid bottle – "melted it down, got a hot soldering iron and shaped it like a finger" – and cut sections from a leather jacket to cover his new homemade prosthetic, which created two technical problems. First, the thimbles prevented him from feeling the strings, causing a tendency to press down very hard on them. Secondly, he had difficulty bending strings, leading him to seek light-gauge guitar strings to make it easier to do so. However, Iommi recalls that such strings were not manufactured at the time, so he used banjo strings instead, until around 1970–71 when Picato Strings began making light-gauge guitar strings. Furthermore, he used the injured fingers predominantly for fretting chords rather than single-note solos. In 1974, Iommi told Guitar Player magazine that the thimbles "helped with his technique" because he had to use his little finger more than he had before the accident. Later, he also began tuning his guitar to lower pitches, sometimes as far as three semitones below standard guitar tuning (e.g., on "Children of the Grave", "Lord of this World", and "Into the Void", all on the album Master of Reality). Although Iommi states that the main purpose of doing so was to create a "bigger, heavier sound", slackening the strings makes it easier to bend them.
Iommi reflected in 2016 saying that his greatest regret is losing his fingertips.
It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did. It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with. It affects your playing style; you can’t feel the strings, and there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors: “You won’t be playing guitar.” But I believed I could do it, and I did.
Iommi had played in several blues/rock bands, the earliest of which was the Rockin' Chevrolets from 1964 to 1965. The band had regular bookings and when they were offered work in Germany, Iommi decided to leave his factory job to take up the opportunity. From 1966 to 1967 Iommi played in a band named The Rest. It was in The Rest that Iommi first met future-Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, who performed drums and vocals in the band.
From January 1968 until July 1968 Iommi was guitarist in Mythology, with Ward joining a month later in mid-February. In May 1968 police raided the group's practice flat and found cannabis resin, which resulted in fines for the band members. Most significantly, the incident made it quite difficult for the band to secure future bookings as most club owners avoided bands they viewed as drug users. Mythology subsequently split up after a gig in Silloth on 13 July 1968.
In August 1968 at the same time as the break-up of Mythology, another Birmingham band called Rare Breed also broke up. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne joined with Iommi and Ward after the duo responded to an advert in a local music shop proclaiming "Ozzy Zig Needs Gig – has own PA". Requiring a bassist, Osbourne mentioned his former Rare Breed bandmate Geezer Butler, who was subsequently hired along with slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips and saxophonist Alan "Aker" Clarke. The six-piece band were named the Polka Tulk Blues Band. After just two gigs (the last of which was at the Banklands Youth Club in Workington), Phillips and Clarke were dismissed from the band, which soon after shortened its name to Polka Tulk.
Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne renamed the band Earth in September 1968. They carried on under this name until December 1968 when Iommi briefly departed to join Jethro Tull. However, after only one performance (an appearance on "The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus" in which the band mimed "A Song for Jeffrey", which Ian Anderson sang live), Iommi was back with Earth once more.
Concerning his brief working relationship with Jethro Tull vocalist Ian Anderson, Iommi said:
I learned quite a lot from him, I must say. I learned that you have got to work at it. You have to rehearse. When I came back and I got the band (Earth) back together, I made sure that everybody was up early in the morning and rehearsing. I used to go and pick them up. I was the only one at the time that could drive. I used to have to drive the bloody van and get them up at quarter to nine every morning; which was, believe me, early for us then. I said to them, "This is how we have got to do it because this is how Jethro Tull did it." They had a schedule and they knew that they were going to work from this time till that time. I tried that with our band and we got into doing it. It worked. Instead of just strolling in at any hour, it made it more like we were saying, "Let’s do it!"
In August 1969, after being confused with another group named Earth (who had minor success in England), the group renamed themselves Black Sabbath. His factory accident affected the Black Sabbath sound; by 1970 Iommi had detuned his guitar from E to E♭ (a minor second down), and from 1971's Master of Reality album, had detuned it further to D♭ (a minor third down), to ease the tension on his fingers. Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler did the same to match Iommi. Sabbath was among the first bands to detune, and the technique became a mainstay of heavy metal music. Iommi combined blues-like guitar solos and dark, minor-key riffing with a revolutionary high-gain, heavily distorted tone with his use of power chords, a modified treble-boosting effect-pedal and a Gibson SG.
By the late 1970s, Black Sabbath was suffering from substance abuse, managerial problems, and touring exhaustion. In addition, the band's slow, blues-driven riffs were outmoded against the rising generation of metal bands such as Judas Priest and Motörhead. After the albums Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! were critically panned, Iommi and Butler decided that Sabbath needed a fresh start so, in the summer of 1979, they fired Osbourne and replaced him with Ronnie James Dio, the former vocalist for Rainbow. With Dio, Black Sabbath produced Heaven and Hell, an album that attempted to update Black Sabbath's sound for the 1980s and include the soaring vocals that characterised the NWOBHM (New wave of British heavy metal) scene. Halfway through the 1980 tour, Bill Ward dropped out due to alcohol problems and displeasure with the direction that Dio was taking the band. He was replaced by Vinny Appice. With Iommi and Geezer Butler the only original members, this line-up produced Mob Rules. Dio quit the following year to begin a solo career, so Sabbath went through a revolving door line-up for the next decade with a succession of frontmen – Ian Gillan (formerly of Deep Purple), Glenn Hughes, Tony Martin and Ray Gillen. After Ian Gillan departed the band in 1984, Geezer Butler left as well. With Sabbath in effective hiatus, Iommi recorded his first solo album, entitled Seventh Star. The album featured Glenn Hughes (also formerly of Deep Purple) on vocals, but due to label pressures, it was billed as a release by "Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi."
In 1992, Iommi appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, playing four songs with the remaining members of Queen and other guest artists. Geezer Butler also returned to Sabbath that year. In the following year Iommi teamed up with fellow Black Country band Diamond Head and co-wrote the song "Starcrossed (Lovers in the Night)" for their 1993 Death and Progress album. At Osbourne's "farewell" concert at Costa Mesa in 1992, Dio refused to perform and abruptly left the band. As a result, Rob Halford was recruited to perform as the vocalist for two gigs (Halford also sang at one of the dates on the 2004 Ozzfest tour, when Osbourne couldn't perform due to bronchitis). Following Osbourne's solo set, the show concluded with the other members of the original Black Sabbath line-up joining for a 4-song reunion.
Black Sabbath went on to record two further albums with Tony Martin before the original line-up reunited as a touring band in 1997. While Bill Ward played at the two initial reunion shows at Birmingham NEC in December 1997, he was not present for the following two reunion tours, his second absence due to a heart attack. Ward was replaced by Mike Bordin and then Vinny Appice.
On 11 November 2011, the original band members announced that they were reuniting and recording a new album, although Bill Ward did not participate and Brad Wilk took his place at drums for the sessions. The new album, 13, was released in June 2013.
In 2000, Iommi released his first proper solo album, titled Iommi. The album featured several guest vocalists including Ian Astbury, Skin, Henry Rollins, Serj Tankian, Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, Phil Anselmo, Peter Steele and Ozzy Osbourne. In late 2004 Iommi's second solo album was released, entitled The 1996 DEP Sessions. This album was originally recorded in 1996 but was never officially released. However, a copy with a drum track by Dave Holland was available as a bootleg called Eighth Star. Glenn Hughes performed vocals on the album and he furthered his collaboration with Hughes with the release of his third solo album, Fused. Released on 12 July 2005, John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff completed the trio on the album.
Since 1989 Tony Iommi was involved in the Rock Aid Armenia project. In October 2009 Iommi and his colleague Ian Gillan were awarded the Orders of Honor – Armenia's highest order, which were delivered to them by the Prime Minister of Armenia for their help after the Spitak earthquake. They formed the supergroup WhoCares and recorded a single called "Out of my Mind", which was released 6 May 2011 for the benefit of the music school to be built in Gyumri, Armenia. In January 2012, when Iommi was announced to have early-stage lymphoma, the Armenian Prime Minister sent a letter of support: "We know your spirit is strong as ever, and we do believe the genius of your inspiration that guides you through the work on the new Black Sabbath album will transform into a boost of strength and energy that you need now, when things look tough".
In October 2006 it was reported that Iommi would tour with Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward again, but under the name Heaven & Hell. Later it was announced that Ward had decided not to participate and Vinny Appice was hired as his replacement. Rhino Records released The Dio Years (under the 'Black Sabbath' moniker) album on 3 April 2007. The album showcased older tracks with Dio and also included three brand new songs recorded with Dio and Appice.
The band started an American tour in April 2007 with Megadeth and Down as opening acts. The tour finished in November in England with the prospect of an album to follow in 2008. During this period the band's show at the New York Radio City Music Hall was released as both a live DVD and CD with a vinyl release in the UK in 2008. During the summer of 2008 the band embarked on the Metal Masters Tour along with Judas Priest, Motörhead and Testament. The band's first and only studio album, The Devil You Know, was released on 28 April 2009.
In November 2008 Iommi had a star revealed on the Birmingham Walk of Stars. Dio died of stomach cancer in May 2010, and on 14 June 2010, Iommi announced that Heaven & Hell would perform a one-off tribute to Ronnie James Dio at the High Voltage Festival, London on 24 July 2010. This was the band's last performance under the name.
Iommi has been married four times.
During the mid-1980s Iommi was briefly engaged to rock musician Lita Ford. He co-produced her album The Bride Wore Black, which to date remains unreleased. Ford said in a 1989 Kerrang! interview that "there's a certain amount of bad blood between Tony and I" due to her breaking off the engagement. (See Ford's 2016 biography, Living Like a Runaway, for details of the abuse that finally convinced her to leave.)
On 19 November 2013, Iommi received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts degree from Coventry University. The honorary degree came "in recognition of his contribution to the world of popular music", and recognised "his role as one of the founding fathers of heavy metal music and his status as one of the industry's most influential figures", the university said.
In early 2012, Iommi was diagnosed with the early stages of lymphoma, for which he underwent successful treatment. Black Sabbath's 2013 tour dates were arranged so that Iommi was free to return to the UK once every six weeks to have an antibody administered. On 3 January 2014, in a New Year message, Iommi announced that he would be finishing his regular treatment some time that year. A few months later, Black Sabbath announced that due to Iommi's health issues, they were undertaking their final tour. As of 11 August 2016 Tony Iommi announced that his cancer was in remission.
According to a report in Rolling Stone magazine from 9 December 2016, Iommi revealed that he was due to have an operation to remove a lump from his throat. In an early 2017 interview with the UK radio show Planet Rock, Iommi explained that the lump wasn't cancerous.
Iommi said in 2016 that he believed in God and was a Catholic, but that he had not attended church services since childhood. In January 2017, a choral work by Iommi entitled "How Good It Is" – with lyrics inspired by Psalm 133 – received its debut performance at Birmingham Cathedral. Catherine Ogle, the Dean of Birmingham, said, "This is a most wonderful gift Tony offered to the cathedral."
Tony Iommi is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. In 2005, Metal Hammer magazine ranked him number 1 on the poll of the "Riff Lords", praising his "highly distinctive style of fretsmanship that's economical yet crushingly effective". In 2007, Classic Rock magazine ranked him number 6 on their list of the "100 Wildest Guitar Heroes". In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 25 in their list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time". Joel McIver ranked him the 6th greatest metal guitarist of all time. In 2012, readers of Guitar World ranked Iommi the 7th-greatest rock guitarist of all time. Editors of the same magazine ranked him the greatest heavy metal guitarist of all time.
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has said: "Tony managed to turn his physical impairment around into something that makes him one of the guitar legends – if not for his dexterity of playing but at least for the fact that his contribution to rock music is a unique one". Gene Simmons of Kiss regards him as "the man who came up with the riffs that launched an army of guitar players"; and Ronnie James Dio called him "the ultimate riff master".
Furthermore, Iommi is recognised by many as the main creator of heavy metal music. Brian May of Queen considers him "the true father of heavy metal", Eddie Van Halen states that "without Tony, heavy metal wouldn't exist. He is the creator of heavy!" and James Hetfield of Metallica, who was profoundly influenced by Iommi, defines him "The king of the heavy riff". Rob Halford, vocalist for Judas Priest, when filling in for Ozzy Osbourne during an August 2004 concert in Philadelphia, introduced Iommi to the audience as "The man who invented the heavy metal riff". Michael Amott of Carcass and Arch Enemy considers Iommi his "guitar hero" and the world's greatest guitarist "because he invented the heavy tone and evil riff". According to Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, "Iommi is the reason heavy metal exists".
He has been credited as the forerunner of other styles: Martin Popoff defines him "the godfather of stoner rock"; Jeff Kitts and Brad Tolinski of Guitar World assert that "grunge, goth, thrash, industrial, death, doom... whatever. None of it would exist without Tony Iommi". According to the Hawaii Public Radio: "it is hard to imagine Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains without Black Sabbath, and without Tony Iommi. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Metallica, Slayer, Pantera and essentially every metal band can be traced to the musical framework found in Iommi compositions". Many notable musicians count Iommi as a major influence on their own playing; some of them include Jeff Hanneman (Slayer), Dimebag Darrell (Pantera), Slash (Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver), Scott Ian (Anthrax), Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), and Nick Oliveri (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age). Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains was strongly influenced by Iommi's dark bendings, which he uses often. Andy LaRocque of King Diamond said that the clean guitar part of "Sleepless Nights" from the Conspiracy album is inspired by Iommi's playing on Never Say Die!.
Iommi's deep and heavy sound was partly born out of necessity—his "revolutionary signature sound" being the result of the accident and the subsequent downtuning by three semitones. He said that his "extreme volume" was likewise necessary, "because we were fed up with people talking over us while we were playing."
Built in Birmingham by luthier John Diggins sometime between 1975 and 1978, the guitar was first used for overdubs on the 'Heaven and Hell' album and later became one of Iommi's main guitars. The guitar is equipped with a 24 fret neck with custom cross inlays, four control knobs (three of which are functional), a disconnected second output jack, a hole for a master volume knob on the pick guard covered up with a black stopper and a highly distressed finish. He had two more built for him. One was made to the same specifications of his first Jaydee SG with a red finish. Another one was made and used during the Born Again era, which can be seen on the music videos for "Trashed" and "Zero the Hero." The differences are the finish, headstock, use of a stoptail bridge, and use of rail humbuckers, as opposed to the 18-pole humbuckers on his two other versions.
A 1965 Gibson SG Special in red finish fitted with a Gibson P-90 pick-up in the bridge position and a custom-wound John Birch Simplux, a P-90 style single coil in the neck position. The guitar became Iommi's main instrument after his white Stratocaster's neck pick-up failed during the recording of Black Sabbath's self-titled album.
The guitar was built by the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville after Iommi's specifications and finished in 1997. The guitar is one of two made as prototypes for the Gibson Custom Shop Limited Edition Iommi Special SG. The guitar features a neck with 24 frets and four control knobs, of which only two are active (much like his old Jaydee Custom guitar).
On 11 August 2010, Iommi announced on his website that this guitar was stolen from the RJD tribute show that Heaven & Hell performed at High Voltage on 24 July 2010. He is asking that anyone with information or leads let them know. He is offering a reward for its safe return.
A regular left-handed version of the SG fitted with two extra frets to give Iommi the full two octaves which he prefers. The guitar is equipped with his signature pick-up. Iommi was the first guitarist to have a signature pick-up designed and built by Gibson. He also has another model fitted with a Floyd Rose floating tremolo.
Iommi played a Fender Stratocaster that was spraypainted white by Iommi and his father during the early days with Black Sabbath. However, the neck pick-up malfunctioned during the recording of their first album, so Iommi quickly turned to his backup Gibson SG to finish the record. Currently Iommi owns two Stratocasters, one of which has been modified with his signature pick-up in the bridge position.
Custom built for Iommi by St. Moritz guitars, this is a replica of Iommi's Gibson SG "Monkey". It was used on the 13 album and for the tour.
Custom built for Iommi by BC Rich. Features include Dimarzio pick-ups, two built-in preamps, scalloped fretboard and Iommi's trademark cross inlays. This guitar can be seen in Tony's Star Licks Video, for Star Licks Productions along with a left handed BC Rich mockingbird.
A rare left-handed version of the jazz guitarist Barney Kessel artist model, built sometime in the first half of the 1960s.
Originally a regular right-handed version in red finish that was converted by Epiphone to a left-handed version to fit Iommi.