Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Heaven And Hell

by Greg Prato

On the "Iron Man" riff, the definitive Black Sabbath song, and how Ozzy and Dio compared as songwriters.

Throughout the course of hard rock/heavy metal history, you can pinpoint certain years that – for various reasons – saw the release of an abundance of what would go on to become classic albums. And towards the top of the list would have to be 1980.

That year alone saw the release of AC/DC's Back In Black, Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard Of Ozz, Judas Priest's British Steel, Iron Maiden's self-titled debut, Rush's Permanent Waves, Van Halen's Women And Children First, Motörhead's Ace Of Spades, Saxon's Wheels Of Steel, and Scorpions' Animal Magnetism. And of course, Black Sabbath's Heaven And Hell.

The first album to feature Ronnie James Dio behind the mic (having replaced Ozzy the year before), Heaven And Hell succeeded in re-establishing Sabbath as one of the genre's very best – especially after the group had suffered a rough, unfocused patch towards the end of the '70s. And the following year, they proved that H&H was no fluke when they issued another superb LP, Mob Rules.

In 2021, both albums were reissued as remastered/expanded editions to mark their 41 and 40 year anniversaries. To celebrate this occasion, Sabbath co-founder, guitarist Tony Iommi, spoke to Songfacts about both the Dio and Ozzy eras, and recounted how he came up with one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the songwriting compare to when Dio was the singer in Sabbath as opposed to Ozzy?

Tony Iommi: It was different. With Oz, we tend to jam usually, and then Ozzy would sometimes be in the room, sometimes he wouldn't. And sometimes he'd hear something and go, "Oh yeah," and start singing something to it. It depends on what periods.

We'd play and come up with a format for a song, and then he'd listen to it and start coming up with a melody. With Dio, he was a little bit more involved because he played an instrument [bass] and was more musical.

And that's not knocking Ozzy, because Ozzy was great at what he did, but Dio was a little more involved. I could sit down quietly and play something to Ronnie, and he'd say, "Yeah, I like that." He'd start singing, and then go, "Can I go through a change now? What about that note there? Oh yeah, that's good." We'd work together and bounce back with each other.

Songfacts: What's the definitive Sabbath song from the Dio era?

Iommi: I think "Heaven And Hell," because that was on our initial album, and that track has stood the test of time. Even Ronnie, when he went out on his solo thing, he'd always play "Heaven And Hell." It became a very popular song.

Songfacts: And then obviously, the song and album title would be re-used as the band's name when Ronnie rejoined in 2006.

Iommi: That's right. I didn't feel it was right to go as "Black Sabbath." I suggested to the others that we don't play any of the old Sabbath stuff. We had enough material to go out as Heaven And Hell and do all the stuff we'd done with Ronnie, which is what we did, and it worked really well.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some of the more uncommon tracks from the Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules albums. What do you recall about writing "Wishing Well"?

Black Sabbath, 1992: Vinny Appice, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, Tony IommiBlack Sabbath, 1992: Vinny Appice, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi
Iommi: I just came up with a riff in LA when we were in a rehearsal and we just put it together as a song. "Wishing Well" and "Walk Away" were probably my least favorites of what we'd done with that lineup. It was done just the same as the others: play a riff and get on from there.

Songfacts: "Lonely Is The Word."

Iommi: I just ended up playing this riff and Ronnie started singing this melody. I thought, This is great. And as soon as he'd sing a melody, you'd know where to go next. And it was the same with Oz, really – when he'd sing a melody, you could see where to go next on the song, and that's how we worked them.

I enjoyed that guitar solo because it was a different mood and was more bluesy, which is my background, really.

Songfacts: "Voodoo."

Iommi: They were all done the same way: I'd play a riff, Ronnie would sing to it, and then we'd put other parts to it. We built the songs up. I wouldn't sit down on my own and come up with a whole thing.

It would always be in a rehearsal. And certainly with Vinny [Appice, who replaced Bill Ward in 1980] – with a different style of playing – it threw a different way of playing different riffs. It worked great for those songs in the way Vinny played, to throw me into another way of how I'd play the stuff.

Songfacts: "Country Girl."

Iommi: Well, "Country Girl" was one that did cause a bit of a problem. We started playing the riff and wrote the whole thing, and then Ronnie sang this melody about a country girl. I thought, That's a weird thing to sing about. Geezer [Butler] and I didn't agree with it, and Ronnie went, "What's wrong with it?" It sounded a bit odd, really, him singing about a country girl!

But again, we got to like it. The initial song riff came up and then Ronnie had put the melody line to it.

In this photo by Richard Galbraith, Iommi shreds while Ronnie James Dio does his famous hand gesture, which he started doing when he joined Sabbath (Ozzy did a peace symbol, so Dio wanted his own signal). The gesture is a variation on the sign language symbol for "I Love You," often referred to as "devil horns." Gene Simmons tried to trademark it in 2017, but he was far from the first to use it: John Lennon threw the sign on the "Yellow Submarine" single in 1966. Dio, who did it with his thumb inward and fingers pointed at the crowd, said he learned it from his grandmother.

Songfacts: Sabbath's 1972 album, Vol. 4, was also recently reissued. How did the song "Supernaut" get its title?

Iommi: That would be down to Geezer. Geezer came up with some great titles – really unusual titles. As he did with the lyrics. He was really good at that. I can't remember where he got that from, but it was his idea.

Songfacts: How did you come up with the riff for that song?

Iommi: I had a wah-wah going and started playing this riff, which was "Supernaut." Everybody liked it, and we made it into the song.

That's how we always went about the Sabbath stuff – I always played something and the others would have to go, "Oh, I like that." If nobody said anything about it, we'd just carry on and do something else. It always had to be somebody going, "Oh, I really like that," because I can keep playing riffs.

You don't always know yourself because you think, Is that a good one? I like it, but does everybody like it? And then when they say, "Yeah, I like that," then you know that's it. All these songs came about that same way.

Heaven And Hell, 2007: Tony Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Vinny Appice, Geezer ButlerHeaven And Hell, 2007: Tony Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Vinny Appice, Geezer Butler
Songfacts: What's the definitive Sabbath song from the Ozzy era?

Iommi: I always relate to "Black Sabbath." And "Iron Man." A lot of people say "Paranoid," but the song was written as a filler for the album – it was never intended on being anything else. But it became a single because it was a short song, and because it became what it did, most people knew us because of "Paranoid" in them days.

Songfacts: You just mentioned "Iron Man." Please tell the story of how you came up with the song's classic guitar riff.

Iommi: I was in a rehearsal room, and Bill started playing this boom, boom, boom. He started doing it, and I just went [sings bending string bit before the song's riff] and came up with this thing and thought, That's cool. Bill kept playing it, and I just went to this riff.

Most of the riffs I've done I've come up with on the spot, and that was one of them – it just came up. It went with the drum, what Bill was playing. I just saw this thing in my mind of someone creeping up on you, and it just sounded like the riff. In my head I could hear it as a monster, so I came up with that riff there and then.

March 1, 2021
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Further reading:
Black Sabbath Songfacts
Fact or Fiction: Black Sabbath
Interview with Craig Goldy of Dio
Interview with Zakk Wylde

Photos: John McCurtrie (1), Richard Galbraith (3)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Lisa Fury from Minnesota God bless Tony Iommi..Your riffs have rocked thru my mind for many years now...Godspeed darling musician.
  • Bettyann F. from VaThis interview gave me insight into the band's creative process, which was really cool. Iommi you are a legend. Paranoid's popularity in my neighborhood was tied into the first lyrics "Finished with my woman, cause she sure dont help me with my mind" How Classic for disenfranchised youth to sing this at the top of their lungs when it came on. And when I first heard that intro to "Iron Man" my mind clamored EUREKA!!! Theres gold in them there hills!!!! ROCK ON Iommi!!
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