Black Sabbath
If Tony Iommi wasn’t already recognized as the almighty king of the gloom-and-doom riff, then his playing on the Paranoid album would forever secure that honor for him. The left-hander pretty much invented the school of heavy metal guitar on songs like “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” and the title track. He created the style and sound when he placed mutilated fingertips (the ends of his right-hand middle and ring fingers were severed in a freak accident) against the neck of an SG running through a Laney stack.

Using the word created, however, might be a trifle too sophisticated in describing what Tony did. Though he did spend some time in trying to refine guitar tones, hardly any thought was given over to the actual writing of the songs. He says it was “Just something that came out of me.” And what finally emerged in September 1970, were 42 minutes of the darkest and dingiest riffs that anyone had ever heard.

Trying to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Black Sabbath, Paranoid was released barely six months after the Birmingham quartet’s self-titled debut shook the world. This one would become the group’s only No. 1 album in England and would break into the American Top Ten. Not bad for an album that was never played on U.S. radio. It would eventually become the biggest seller in their entire catalog.

Sometime around 1995, I sat down with the stringmaster and asked him about all things Paranoid. By this time, the amiable Brummy had recorded 18 albums under the Black Sabbath banner. Save for the on-and-off again appearances of Geezer Butler, Tony was the sole original member remaining. But his recall was pretty amazing; he talked about everything from lyrics and arrangements to Les Pauls and pedals.

And it was obvious that this second album still meant a lot to the legendary SG southpaw.

“For its time, we didn’t realize the stuff we were writing. We just thought, ‘Well, let’s try it this way.’ It was purely four guys from the back streets of Birmingham saying, ‘Let’s have a go; let’s do something really heavy and sort of rough.’ There was no sort of smoothness; it was all the rough edges, just banging it out and see what happens. And you know, that’s what people wanted.”

Black SabbathWhen the Black Sabbath album did so well, did it make you second-guess what the next record should sound like?

We didn’t have a lot of say in it at that point. When the (first) album was done and there was the inverted cross and the picture of the woman, that was all obviously done to go with the name of the band. It brought all other things with it as well, as far as people thinking it’s all satanic and whatnot, which was understandable. That was the image that was presented as far as the record company was concerned and we liked it.

There were marketing people, but we did really start to develop the image of the band. And with the songs, that was our darker side. I think when the album first came out, people were very frightened of us. A lot of people wouldn’t even talk to us because they really were fearful of us. I didn’t know this for a long time but we found this out. People would say, “God, we were really frightened to meet you.”

Was there any kind of conscious attempt at cultivating that sort of satanic image present on the first album?

It was weird stuff, you know, all the demonic stuff and everything else. As far as I was concerned, Black Sabbath were working class kids that were pretty talented. We listened to TV, the media, and heard through the grown-up world how everything looked great and how great the British were. I didn’t get it. That wasn’t what was going on where I was coming from; I don’t think that was going on where Ozzy was concerned either. So that started in our early music. There was literally a volcano of feelings that came out. Energy. It was the only way to let it out.

I think Ozzy said it one time, too, and I’m of the same nature: “If you weren’t in a rock and roll band, you’d be in jail.” There was a sanity in the music.

What were the first writing sessions like?

We started writing when we were on the road and we were being closely watched. The songs came pretty quickly. A lot of the songs were written in the Aston Community Centre, a small rehearsal room we rented out for about a pound a session.

Tony Iommi and Ozzy OsbourneDid Ozzy participate in the writing process much?

You know, Ozzy is an interpreter; he breathes in the music and spits it out. And I think that’s his greatest gift; he’s just so incredible like that. A lot of times you would look at the lyric and go, “What the hell is this about? What are you writing here?” And that’s the truth of it. Ozzy is so imaginative and such an incredible translator. He’s very witty, a very bright person. That component fit my playing.

Was every lyric idea that Ozzy or Geezer brought in a good one?

Everybody was an individual. It had been like that right from the very beginning. So, no, I didn’t love everything Ozzy brought in, and I don’t think Ozzy loved everything I did. There were things that not all of us liked. There were ideas that I had, and I can remember many times not having the ideas accepted. Which was OK, it was like, “OK, I love you guys enough to have that kind of refusal.”

Did you ever come up with lyric ideas?

I never got involved with the lyrical side of it. It was always difficult for me. My thing was doing the music and that was enough. I didn’t want to but I was the only guy who was coming up with the music. So the last thing I wanted to do was lyrics as well.

But were you the final word on all the music tracks and arrangements?

I know there’s always been a leaning towards me as being the possible candidate as a power player or whatever. But I believe this as the truth: When we all agreed upon a track for Paranoid, it was because we all liked it. And not because it was something that I had to have my way on. We mutually agreed on the music.

How did you feel about your playing?

What hurt me was all the critique I got about my playing. It’s like, “God, OK, slam the band if you have to, but give me some credit here.” You know? Ozzy worked his ass off every night and so did Geezer; we worked really, really hard. We didn’t screw around with this thing. We were a hard-working band and at least credit that. You know, even if you don’t like the music. The music was very misinterpreted in the early years.

Tony Iommi and Ozzy OsbourneWere you conscious of the guitar sounds you were trying to create? Or did it really not matter to you?

Every time I’m questioned about this, it’s been confusing for me. It’s just something that came out of me that was totally different because it was like doomy and the riffs were a bit frightening. And you know, it was something that I felt. It’s really a mystical thing.

I was always trying to improve the guitar sound all the time and for many years I worked on that. For Paranoid, I was using basically the SG and the Laneys. Everybody else was using HiWatts and Marshalls but I liked Laneys. I really didn’t have an idea for a specific tone. But I thought I got a good guitar sound on that album; I was happy with it.

Were they any specific settings you used?

Basically, I set the presence, middle and treble on 10 with no bass whatsoever. The guitar volume was usually set on full and the three-way toggle switch was set on the up position for chording and in the treble spot for soloing.

Any other pedals or devices?

For treble boost, I used a Rangemaster unit that had been reworked by my roadies. I used a wah-wah, a Rotosound box, and various boosters and phasers. For some of the solos, I used a Fender amp.

What was so special about the Laneys?

First of all, they were free! They gave them to us. Secondly, I liked working with them to get the sound I wanted from them. I never rested; I always kept trying to get it better or get this to do that. It used to drive everybody else mad as well ’cause I’d always want to get out for soundchecks. I always had to try this and that. That’s the way I was because I was always trying to improve the sound. And I would never accept that that’s how it’s gotta be and that’s it, you know? That’s probably why it got me in trouble, trying to get guitar companies to do this and do that. A nightmare. I tried to get them to make me an amp with a preamp. When I got the Laneys, I used to overload the inputs to give it more boost. That’s how I got those sounds on Paranoid.

Your choice of an SG was also a little bit off the beaten path inasmuch as everybody else was playing Les Pauls and Stratocasters.

Yeah, that’s right. I could never use a Les Paul because it was too big for me, too bulky in the back. It never felt comfortable. But I did use a white Les Paul. I did “Paranoid” on a Les Paul, an old one. And I used a black Les Paul, a Black Beauty, just to try something different than the SG. But that was the first and last time I used a Les Paul. I could never get the hang of it; I always wanted to but I could never do it. I could never get that sound that everybody else used to get. I remember there was this kid who used to jam with us around that time and he used one of my Les Pauls and plugged into my amp and he got that Les Paul sound. I thought, “Bloody hell!”

I used to use a Fender. I actually started the first album with a Strat. We worked on “Wicked World” but it went wrong and I had this SG, which I had never used. It was just sitting there and I thought, “Oh, I’d rather use this.”

Was it a stock Gibson?

I replaced the pickups with specially built low-feedback pickups. I also put polyurethane on the neck, which resists corrosion of the wood and helps prevent the frets from wearing away. The frets themselves were filed down and I replaced the plastic tuning pegs with metal ones. I had a bridge built to raise the strings higher than usual; the height of the bridge prevented the lightweight strings from constantly rattling against the fretboard.

After all of this work to the Gibson, did you actually go through any type of practice regimen to prepare yourself for the sessions?

No, I just can’t do that; I just cannot practice, I get bored. I sit down and I’ll play for a little bit and I’ll get fed up. I can’t seem to learn anything on my own. When I’m around everybody else, I can. That’s how I came up with the stuff for Paranoid. When I was writing for the album, it was OK. It was fine.

For some of the songs on the album, I’d play rhythm and go straight into the solo. And then maybe I’d do some chords behind it afterwards. And then other times I’d try the guitar solo but what I didn’t want to do was keep doing them and doing them and doing them. I wanted to keep the freshness of it.

Black Sabbath ParanoidParanoid was originally going to be called War Pigs?

Yeah, that’s right. Geezer would write [the lyrics] and Ozzy would write them and we’d sit down and listen and go, “Yeah, that’s cool, that’s OK.”

Of all the songs on the album, and for that matter, of all the songs you’ve ever done, “Iron Man” is still the heaviest riff of all time.

Bill may have played something and I just reacted to it. But I’m not sure, I really don’t know. I don’t remember whose title it was; it may be Geezer’s, I would think.Geezer did write a lot of lyrics and I wrote the guitar licks but without Bill and Ozzy that song would have never happened. I think it came at rehearsal. It was one of those occasions where I said, “I’ve got a riff, I’ll come up with something.” Then I just built it, worked on it from that. A lot of that stuff came fairly quickly; it just sort of happened.

As if the songs had lives of their own?

Yeah, because a lot of times, as far as I’m concerned, we didn’t even write the songs on Paranoid?we were conduits. We didn’t even know what the hell we were going to play. We’d sit down and write something and we’d maybe change a couple of things afterwards. So a lot of songs on that album were literally songs that were jams. I would come up with a lick and then Geezer did the words.

The arrangements of those songs were so stark but they had a lot of power.

Geezer played orchestrationally and so did Bill. I don’t classify Geezer as a bass player; I think he’s a poet. Honestly, I don’t think the only real musician in the band was me. Geezer is a fabulous bass player. When I played a lead, Bill would react angrily or emotionally somehow. Bill was always looking for the unobvious, filling the holes; he was all over the place, doing all kinds of things. And so was Ozzy. All those components went into writing “Iron Man” and the rest of the album.

It came down to the songs. We wrote great songs, we played very hard, and I think people knew we were sincere.

And that translated into a No. 1 album in England and nearly a Top Ten album [12] in the U/S. Do you remember touring in America [for the first time] to support Paranoid?

Not very well. We flew on the same aircraft as Traffic. Jim Capaldi [Traffic’s drummer] came over to Bill and talked for a while. Bill knew Jim off and on from the old days [Sabbath and Traffic were from the Birmingham, England area]. Jim was reassuring because he said, “You guys are gonna tear this place apart.” Traffic were really old-timers. They’d been to America before.

The first gigs that we played were schools and school halls, gymnasiums, that kind of thing. And we couldn’t play ’cause our equipment kept blowing up. We’d get past the first two songs and everything would blow up. We used Laney columns at that time. But we sorted out the equipment thing pretty quick.

Did the gigs get better?

Yeah, we ended up playing this big theatre in New York. Rod Stewart was playing there and it was in the days when promoters would throw everybody on the bill. Bill and Ozzy started to get pretty angry with the audience because they were just laying back in their chairs. And we’re on-stage and cranking and going crazy and everything.

Then we did the Fillmore East with Rod and that’s when we were getting quite popular because they were booing Rod Stewart. And we thought, “This is happening to us!” It was unbelievable. Sabbath just devoured. And then we did a little party gig at the Whisky and we knew that it was spreading because all around the area were cops and everybody was there. The club was packed and there was thousands of kids out on the street. It was total mayhem.

Playing “Iron Man” and all the songs from Paranoid really got to the kids?

Yeah, they did. Something was happening. Our energy was very strong. It was almost … anger energy. It’s like, “Get this, understand this, understand it if you can!” This is an abusive statement when one thinks about that. Back then it was, “Screw that.”

Did you pay any attention to what your contemporaries were doing musically? The same year Paranoid was released (1970), Zeppelin had recorded Led Zeppelin III and the Who had put out Live at Leeds. Were you anything like these bands?

No, Zeppelin were a rock band, a whole different ballgame. They were like a blues/rock band. They had acoustic things going on and Robert was singing about being in love. We were talking about Vietnam, war pigs, and everything else. We were in totally different places. Other bands started to emulate us, and I think the common thread was everybody felt the same way. Our music at the time was very opinionated, but it did offer choices. There was rage in the music and there was never any of this demonic crap. That wasn’t there. It was pure emotion, pure energy. And I think that person in his bedroom, that kid in his room at night, heard it. There was identification. We were a poor man’s band, a working class band.

How did the success of Paranoid affect you?

There was a sense of power: Sabbathmania, police escorts, the whole thing. When that happened, I felt it was a very dangerous sensation. It’s very dangerous because it’s an illusion and it really doesn’t exist?but it does exist at the same time. I think I naturally passed through it. I think we all naturally passed through it.

Your style of life must have changed.

I started to get involved in different things. I got into cars, Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, Ferraris. I think each of us had a Rolls Royce at that time. Then I started buying more musical instruments. I could get whatever I wanted at that time. But you did tend to lose a little of your incentive because nothing seemed to mean anything anymore ’cause you could get it so easy. The challenge had sort of gone out of it. I think that was a little bit of a downfall in some ways because we all went through a stage of having time off and wanting more time at home and taking it easier. I think that started settling in around the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album.

Was your main focus still on the band?

I always believed in the music; music has always come first in my life. Things were changing and we were getting into nicer studios. We had a bit of a following now, for sure, after Paranoid. You’d think you’d have a better sound but it didn’t always work like that. The more we’d get involved in messing with things and using better studios, the longer it would take. Somebody would want to use this new gadget and it would take us longer to do it. We got more into the technology side of it around Master of Reality. That’s when we really started to experiment in the studio.

Musicians still rave about the guitar sounds on Paranoid. When you really think about that second record, how does it make you feel?

We knew Paranoid was something different. We didn’t know if people would accept it. We didn’t know what people would think, but at that time we were satisfied. We were pleased with it because it’s how we felt when we made that album. And it was so close to us that we just hoped people would like it. Because it was a bit of a step, something different, something about supernatural things.