Tony Iommi

Tony Iommi turns 65 on February 19. The Black Sabbath rifflord is a legend of rock guitar, having a huge influence on heavy metal and all riff-rock for over four decades. The title of his autobiography, Iron Man – My Journey Through Heaven and Hell, is also well-named: Iommi recently had to undergo cancer treatment to finish recording the new Black Sabbath album due summer 2013. 

You’ll know the numerous classic riffs Tony Iommi has written. But what about the man himself? Here are 10 things you may not know about Tony Iommi.

He grew a mustache because of spiders and fireworks

As a child, Iommi was scared of spiders. A boy neighbor – “Bobby Nuisance, which is the right name for him,” recalled Iommi in 2011’s book Iron Man – collected large spiders, and once chased Iommi down the street with them. “I was s**tting myself and running down this gravel road when I tripped, so all the gravel went into my face and along my lip. The scar is still there now. The kids even started calling my Scarface, so I got a terrible complex about that.” Later, Iommi even had a “sparkler” firework go off in his face. “As soon as I could, I grew a mustache.”

And yet, here’s Sabbath at 1974’s California Jam with Iommi clean-shaven.

He lost his fingertips on his last day of work

Most know that Iommi lost the tips of two fretting fingers in an industrial accident. But it was actually in the final hours of his final day working. The young Tony was a welder, joining together components that a fellow woman worker bent into shape. But the woman wasn’t in work that day, so Iommi had to take over the pressing machine. He’d never done it before, and this was last afternoon at the factory. He didn’t even want to return after lunch, but his mother insisted.

An afternoon accident then ripped the tips off his middle and ring finger: “The bones were sticking out of them. There was blood everywhere. I was so much in shock it didn’t even hurt at first.”

Iommi likes jazz

When he injured his fingers, gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt became a huge inspiration. The Belgian had badly burned two of his fingers in a fire, but continued playing, and his never-say-die example gave Iommi the inspiration to continue. Iommi is also a keen fan of Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery – listen to the middle-8 guitar octaves of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”

Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was one of his best friends

“John was a good friend, best man at my first wedding, and he liked us,” says Iommi. “Sabbath jammed through “Supernaut” [from 1972 Sabbath album Vol. 4] with John on drums once. John loved that track. Though we ended up just jamming 12-bar blues at the end. “Supernaut” got too complicated for John! He was going all over the place.”

Iommi “Invented” Ultra-Light Gauge Strings

After Iommi lost his fingertips he had to apply thimbles to extend his two damaged fingers. Originally, he self-made the thimbles with the plastic bottle caps of Fairy dishwashing liquid (think Dawn, in the U.S.) His thimbles are now leather. But regular strings were still too painful too play. He bought banjo strings and used the lightest for B and high E. “This way, I managed to get rid of the low E string, using an A string instead.” Iommi tried to persuade string manufacturers to make such a “complete” set but most told him, “Nobody’s ever going to buy them.” He wasn’t successful until the U.K’s Picato company agreed in 1970.

Iommi’s strings had a .008” gauge for the top E. Jimmy Page, Brian May and Billy Gibbons have all since used .008” top E strings. Compare that with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pete Townshend and Malcolm Young from AC/DC who all use (or used) .012″ or heavier.

Iommi says he’s been told by producers that he needed a set of thick strings to get a big sound. “I’ve never used a set of thick strings and I do have a big sound.”

For D# (root) tuning, his gauges are .008, .008, .011 (unwound), .018 .024, and .032. For C# tuning, he uses .009, .010, .012 (unwound), .020, .032 and .042.

Iommi is a motorhead

Iommi is a car lover. When he got his driving licence in his late teens, he immediately bought an MGB sports car. He crashed it soon after, though, smashing into trees. “It all happened in slow motion. It sounds mad, but I saw three figures come down, one to the left and two to the right, like angels. And I thought, this is it… Everyone who saw the car said, ‘you should have been killed.’”

His young and reckless driving didn’t deter him. He later bought a Maserati, a Lamborghini, a Rolls-Royce and numerous other flash autos. He later sold his Rolls-Royce to Osbourne, even though Ozzy couldn’t even drive. Ozzy’s then-wife would drive the singer around, with Ozzy’s dogs in the back.

Iommi blew up Richard Branson’s fish!

Ozzy Osbourne is always known as Black Sabbath’s crazy one. But Iommi has had his moments. With new vocalist Ian Gillan, Sabbath recorded 1983’s Born Again album at The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, owned by record-mogul Richard Branson. For reasons only known to the ex-Deep Purple singer, Gillan wanted to stay in a marquee outside the residential studios. Seeking fun, Iommi and the rest of Sabbath got together spare pyrotechnics from their band’s last tour and put them around the singer’s canvas abode. On detonation, they successfully destroyed Gillan’s garden hideout, but his tent was pitched near Branson’s private lake – Iommi’s firebomb stunt also killed / maimed many of Branson’s prize carp. “He was not happy at all,” Iommi remembers, with typical dryness.

Black Sabbath

Iommi was asked to write the score for “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

Tony got as far as reading the script and meeting with producers of the 1984 slasher movie, but his manager then asked for a higher fee as it disrupted his Sabbath work. The project fell through. But one track written, “Nightmare,” turned up on Black Sabbath’s 1987 album The Eternal Idol.

Iommi Has Recorded With Over 20 Singers

In Jethro Tull, it was Ian Anderson. In Black Sabbath, it’s been Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Ray Gillen, Glenn Hughes and Tony Martin. On his 2000 “solo” album Iommi, he wrote and recorded with Henry Rollins, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, Dave Grohl, Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, Billy Corgan, The Cult’s Ian Astbury, Type O Negative’s Peter Steele, Billy Idol and Ozzy. For Rock Aid Armenia’s version of “Smoke on the Water,” Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Free’s Paul Rodgers sang. You can add quite a few others, such as Cathedral’s Lee Dorian – Iommi guested on their 1995 album The Carnival Bizarre. Iommi still reportedly still has unreleased Iommi tracks with Corgan, Idol and Anselmo. Weirdest singer? Iommi once auditioned Michael Bolton to front Black Sabbath, after Dio had finally left.

His Friendship with Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy and Tony’s relationship has sometimes been tense, but they remain close friends through their music and good humor. As Ozzy joked over Iommi’s recent cancer scare, “If he dies, I’ll kill him.”

Have a look at the Epiphone Tony Iommi G-400 and Gibson’s Tony Iommi Signature Humbucker pickup.