The Accident That Created Heavy Metal
The Story Of Tony Iommi: Black Sabbath
When most artists encounter hardship they buckle, when the geniuses of the world encounter struggle they innovate.
A seventeen-year-old Tony Iommi was on the path he had always dreamed of, as a young English guitar player. where most of his friends were doomed for a life of factory work, Tony was scheduled to go across Europe on the first tour with his band the burden beast. But on the very last shift at his job in an industrial steel mill, it came crashing to a halt.
An accident permanently damaged the hand
in which he needed to play the instrument he loved. For most people, they would have packed it in right there and taken it as a sign that maybe the guitar wasn't the right path.
Instead Tony embraced the struggle. He worked around his limitations and invented an approach to still play the instrument. The byproduct, Tony discovered a whole new sound coming from the guitar. That byproduct just so happened to be the creation of a whole new genre in rock music "heavy metal".
It was the mid-1960s, in a smog riddled industrial town in central England, a teenage Tony Iommi was finishing his last shift as a welder before he quit the blue colour life to pursue a dream of rock and roll stardom. His band was set to fly to Germany, he barely could believe it.
It was his very last afternoon when he was told to go work on this massive metal flattening machine for the first time. His co-worker who normally worked that machine was a no-show and there was no one else to do it. Tony had to push the metal into where it was being flattened. But what caught him off guard, was the intense force of the press.
"As I'm pushing the metal through into this machine, it just came down like that on my finger bang and I pulled my arm back, and as I pulled it back I pulled the ends off the fingers," says Tony at interview. Later at the hospital, Tony received devastating news. The doctors told him they couldn't repair the ends of his fingers and that his guitar playing days were now over. The shock sent Tony into a depression.
As time went by, his efforts to play through the pain were fruitless. But it was a gift from his former manager at the factory that shifted his mindset. The manager brought him a Django Reinhardt EP, noting that the famed jazz guitarist became a legend on the instrument despite only having the use of two of his fingers. It gave Tony an idea.
"So I made my tips. I got a washing up bottle, a plastic bottle and melted them down into a ball. Then I got a hot soldering iron and would drill a hole out in it and fit it over my finger. So there's this big ball on my finger" says Tony.
It took a lot of painful hours getting used to the force on his fingers. But the two new fake fingertips meant Tony could play the guitar again. To be able to have a better grip on the strings, he cut up pieces of an old leather jacket of his and glued them on the tips. Now that Tony was getting a decent feel with his new fingertips, he encountered two new limitations to his guitar playing.
One was that regular guitar strings were too heavy and hard to press down on and two, was the loss of dexterity in his fingers. To combat the string issue, he put thinner banjo strings on his guitar. And to make it even easier to play, he turned them down. With the inability to move his fingers fast, Tony had to relearn the guitar from scratch. His makeshift fingertips meant, he needed to make the most of the open strings and simple chord shapes.
All these changes had the added effect of making his guitar sound different than usual. He said - "And that's I think, what made me sort of come up with the sort of Black Sabbath thing, the sound because trying to make them sound bigger to fill in for the full chord that I couldn't play anymore".
The combination led to an aggressive, raw and fat sound. An invented sound that would become part of the framework for Tony's next band Black Sabbath. And an invented sound that some call the birth of heavy metal.
Losing his fingertips was devastating but in hindsight, it created something new. it provided him with a whole new mindset. a whole new way to look at guitar playing. Tony created something new. Something fresh, something good out of what some other people would say a tragedy.
It's funny what life throws at people. How adversity can cripple some and how it inspires others. How Tony could have looked at losing his fingers as a sign to quit his guitar playing and focus on something else. But instead, he looked at it as a new challenge, a new opportunity to innovate.
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