Top 10 Tony Iommi Guitar Solos
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is arguably the most important player in the history of heavy metal. His awesomely heavy riffs served as the basic blueprint for subsequent bands, and of course, Sabbath’s dark imagery and presentation presaged basically every other metal act.
Iommi’s importance as a riff-maker often overshadows his impact as a lead guitarist. The musician lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand — his fretting hand — in an accident at a sheet metal factory when he was just 17 and had to learn to compensate by extending those fingers with thimbles that he developed himself. His playing is based in the blues, and much of what makes Iommi’s playing so special is how he integrated his love of basic blues forms with an inimitable sense of tone and phrasing — as you’ll see in our list of the Top 10 Tony Iommi Guitar Solos.
Iommi is essentially a blues player at heart, as “Wicked World” aptly demonstrates. This track from Black Sabbath’s couldn’t-get-any-more-classic first album opens with some guitar licks that would have been at home on an early Led Zeppelin album. The song takes a turn through heavy riffing and a clean finger-picking section before returning again to the unaccompanied electric blues figures — a nod to the Black Country of England, from which Sabbath and Zeppelin both hailed.
“Turn Up the Night”
There’s no denying the power and influence of Iommi’s playing during the early Ozzy Osbourne era of Sabbath. But he also continued to grow as a player, assimilating new influences as he went along. “Turn Up the Night” saw Iommi experimenting with tapping, which allowed him to employ faster, legato phrasing that would have made his younger self exclaim, “Wow! How did you do that?” His perfect use of a wah-wah pedal is just the icing on the cake.
“Fairies Wear Boots”
Iommi showed that he didn’t have to play fast to be effective with “Fairies Wear Boots.” Another track with the signature sound of Sabbath’s Black Country roots, its main guitar theme is a very simple melodic statement that segues into some blues improvisation that’s a perfect fit for the space. That main lick returns at the end of the song before Iommi wraps it up with some simple repeating licks that have been mimicked countless times by subsequent musicians. That influence qualifies it as one of the Top 10 Tony Iommi Solos.
“Children of the Grave”
“Children of the Grace” is a paradigm for half of the metal songs on Earth. Its hard-driving track — interspersed with doom-ful slower sections — launched scores of imitators. Iommi’s astonishing solo break is fast, melodic and compositionally perfect for the track. The guitarist multi-tracked the solo, weaving in and out of unison and harmony and departing from that to play two essentially parallel solos that blend into one seamless whole.
Much of Iommi’s early playing featured lots of trills, often to add texture to an otherwise straight phrase. “N.I.B.” employs that technique, as well as the guitarist’s penchant for overdubbing multiple parts, for a solo that’s textbook Iommi. Performed over the top of a drum and bass backing track, the solos in this song are aggressive and exciting, but also melodic and perfectly-crafted. The result is a master class in metal composition.
The sessions for Black Sabbath’s fourth album were rife with rampant drug use, and while we’re certainly not advocating drugs, it seems to have worked in this limited instance. This ode to cocaine features one of Iommi’s most lyrical guitar solos in the middle, punctuated by screaming deep bends and slurred, descending chromatic runs. He kicks up the energy a notch with a series of trills and rapid repeating licks to heighten the tension for the outro fade.
A widely misunderstood anti-war anthem aimed at the conflict in Vietnam, “War Pigs” centers around an appropriately dark riff. The siren that begins the track is a stark reminder that the members of Black Sabbath grew up in a country beset by air raids. Iommi’s solo is another trill-laden, multi-tracked masterpiece that employs his whole bag of tricks. You have to listen in headphones to truly appreciate how the guitarist flies his parts all over the track.
“Supernaut” centers around a supercharged riff that was a favorite of both Frank Zappa and Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. The riff is undeniably cool, especially when it splits into harmony, while the solo is perhaps the ultimate example of how Iommi used trills in sequence to fill up a lot of sonic space and create musical tension. For this track he superimposed ascending and descending runs of trills over a heavy riff to make it sound like guitars were exploding in all directions, which surely makes it one of the Top 10 Tony Iommi Guitar Solos.
“Iron Man” features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in all of rock music history, as well as perhaps the single most important riff in heavy metal. But the song’s often-overlooked solo is pure Iommi magic, with the bright, punchy tone, melodic phrasing and pure sonic aggression that made Sabbath so groundbreaking. Iommi pulls the licks straight from his blues roots, marrying them with some almost cinematic themes for a track that’s like a blues jam at the Gates of Hell.
“Paranoid” was arguably the first heavy metal pop song. Though it’s indisputably heavy and dark, it’s also short and radio-friendly, with a melody that lends itself to singing along. Another example of how the guitarist doesn’t overplay, Iommi recorded his lyrical, sparse guitar solo straight through the amp, then colored it with effects at the mixing board to obtain the impossible-to-replicate fuzz effect that brings it in at the top of our Top 10 Tony Iommi Guitar Solos.