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I hope by now you’re all experimenting with anything and everything that comes to mind when it comes to “honing your tone!” This month, we’re going to jump into the land of light strings and heavy sounds. You may recall that last month I used Paul Kossoff as our tonal reference point to illustrate how he used slightly heavier strings to get his particular sound. This month, we will look at Tony Iommi’s vast influence on heavy metal and ultimately compare him to others in the genre.
In my opinion – and I’m certainly far from alone with this view – Tony Iommi can be crowned as the inventor of heavy metal guitar, both because of his unique feel and his heavier-than-thou sound. Although this may be an understatement, his sound has been the reference point for heavy metal’s musical development ever since Black Sabbath’s debut album hit record stores way back in the fall of 1970 (although it doesn’t seem all that long ago to me).
Did you know that Tony Iommi uses a ridiculously light gauge of strings? By “ridiculously,” I mean they are much lighter than most other guitarists would even consider using. When I ran into Black Sabbath in the early ‘90s, Tony was using a set that was gauged .008-.008-.010-.016w-.024w- .032w. Yes, you read it correctly – he uses a wound .016 D string! When coupled with his liberal use of dropped tunings, things become even more twisted.
However, this special combination of detuning and ultra-light gauge strings on his Gibson SG, played through massively distorted Laney amps, was a big part of the tonal equation. Additionally, by the time Black Sabbath’s sophomore effort, Paranoid, hit the shelves, Tony was using replacement pickups made by a fellow Englishman named John Diggins. These pickups were among the first to feature an increased number of windings around the bobbins, and they had more than the standard number of pole-pieces (six), if I recall correctly. In fact, Carvin’s current humbuckers are very reminiscent of Diggin’s custom pickups.
Detuning tends to sacrifice treble and this is where a treble booster comes in handy. Iommi used one of these units in Sabbath’s early days. At that time, many British guitarists were exposed to, and therefore tended to use, the Dallas Rangemaster for their treble boosting needs – Rory Gallagher in particular was known to use one. Treble boosting was one of the first non-time-based effects and as such began life in the Vox AC30 combo amps of the later ‘50s and early ‘60s. These treble boosted combos (i.e. the AC30 Top Boost) would be used at first by Hank B. Marvin of the Shadows, and eventually by the Fab Four as well. Keep this in mind while we go back to Tony Iommi’s uniquely derived style.
I would feel remiss in our tonal discussion if we glossed over an unfortunate accident that further distinguished Iommi from his contemporaries. Early in his life, while Tony was working in a factory, two fingertips on his right hand were truncated. This traumatic event was almost enough to drive him away from the instrument, but a friend convinced him to carry on, turning him onto Django Reinhardt in the process (who also lost some fingers in a campfire accident). As a result, he had to overcome the fact that he was going to have challenges playing the guitar – eventually using soft, plastic fingertips to fret the strings (he was left-handed). His perseverance is staggering, let alone his level of success. In a way, Iommi could be considered the Django of his genre.
I recall seeing Black Sabbath play at the Fillmore West in San Francisco during their first U.S. tour and clearly being able to see what was going on with his fretting hand. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the various prosthetic fingertips he used throughout the different stages of his career have contributed to both his technique and his sound. When I first heard of Tony’s string gauge choice, I immediately wondered how much (if any) feeling he had under his “thimbles,” and also how much control he would need to keep his strings from going out of tune.
Last month, we discussed how a string’s mass affects overall sustain. In Tony’s example, we can see how super-light string gauges, a very calculated touch and massive amounts of amplifier gain worked to his advantage. Detuning has gained popularity in modern rock genres like “numetal,” with most new guitarists reaching for heavier gauges to accommodate their dropped tuning needs. However, this will not sound the same as Tony’s lighter gauge choice. As you’ll recall from our last column, heavier strings die off much more quickly than lighter strings, and using Black Sabbath’s sonic output as a reference point, we can obviously hear that Iommi has sustain galore; it just keeps going until he commands it to stop.
Next month, we’ll discuss the use of treble boosters and their effect on tone, and offer up more advice about how to put this information to good use. After all, this is about finding your own signal path.
Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (www.sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today