Tony Iommi’s 10 best riffs

By Sergio Ariza

Tony Iommi is the most important guitarist in the history of ‘Heavy’, a genre that he created and defined with his monumental riffs for Black Sabbath. The Lord and Master of the Riff forged a new genre with his SG, becoming the key point of reference for all who came after him. These are our 10 favourite riffs from one of our favourite guitarists.  

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath has better songs but almost none as legendary. This song, and this riff, says a lot more about the band than almost any other. It is dark, threatening and terrifying, like a tolling bell. Later it was repeated in the genre until it became almost a parody but here is its inception – the same year of Woodstock – when these boys were in no way for peace and love (the drugs, however, did not repel them…) Like in the majority of Sabbath’s songs, Iommi adds in various riffs within it, but the opening one is the one that continues to freeze the blood and that saw the light, like the rest of the album, on Friday the 13th of February 1970.  



Some critics insulted Sabbath’s record calling it "just like Cream! But worse". It might be that N.I.B.’s riff sounds similar to Sunshine Of Your Love, but one would have to be very closed-minded to see this as a mere copy. Sabbath took what Cream and Hendrix started to new places. Iommi always sounds darker and heavier (when all is said and done the word that defines his style is heavy) than Clapton; it is obvious that he also came from the blues but his nexus with that music is much less evident. This riff is so good that that the only thing that Ozzy has to do is sing his melody to have another unarguable classic. The whole of the first album is recorded with a Gibson SG for right-handers, which Iommi played upside-down. The curious thing is that the guitarist had a Fender Stratocaster as his main guitar but he broke it during the recording, which forced him to use the SG, the model that would accompany him through his life.


War Pigs

Immediately after finishing the recording of their first album Iommi met a right-handed guitarist who had an SG for a left-hander; so they didn’t wait a moment in doing a swap - and this is how Iommi ended up with his most legendary guitar, the 1965 Gibson SG Special, which he would call 'Monkey' (because of a sticker), and with which he would record his main master works, starting with the immortal Paranoid, on which he used a Laney amplifier. This album opened with the song that was going to give serve as a title, War Pigs; a song that is an encyclopedia of the riff in itself. It opens with a cavernous and muscular, tough and heavy, riff, that gives way to an electrifying burst on which Ozzy Osbourne starts to sing about “generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”. But that isn’t all; later, together with Bill Ward, he continues spitting sufficient riffs to fill an entire album. But incredibly, this is only the beginning…  


Iron Man

Black Sabbath’s songs are constructed on Iommi’s gigantic riffs, which served as a base for the lyrics of Geezer Butler; while Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne added the cherry on top. In order to carry on, the band needed Iommi to continue delivering those cathedral-like riffs. So the band used to tease him by saying that he was incapable of doing anything better than the previous. That was how, during a rehearsal, Iommi found the definitive riff, Ward was playing something when something went click in his head and the RIFF emerged, one that meant the only option was to surrender, one that sounded, according to Ozzy’s definition, "like a big iron bloke walking about". Of course, being Iommi, he finished it off with other marvel riffs from his catalogue to show the lads that the fountain was far from running dry.



Normally the ‘Godfather’ of Heavy Metal wouldn’t be linked to punk, but listening to the most famous song from their discography it is impossible not to see a parallel between this simple riff, inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown, with the aggression and anger of the 'no future' movement. This song is the musical equivalent of a cavalry charge, which was composed in a few minutes, right at the end of a recording, at a moment when they realised that they were a little short of songs. As a curiosity this is one of the few songs from the ‘classic stage’ in which he doesn’t use his SG Special. In fact Iommi has said that he recorded this with a white Les Paul; it seems most likely that, instead of one of the original models from the 50s, he could be referring to a 62 or 63 Gibson Les Paul/SG Custom with which he appears in some of the photos during the album’s recording.


Sweet Leaf

A dry cough gave way to one of those gigantic riffs that Tony Iommy produced with such ease, and the rest of humanity couldn’t. Sweet Leaf entered like a bull in a china shop and showed that Black Sabbath still sounded tough and hard, and that after a masterpiece like Paranoid - which had placed them on the alterpiece of the fathers of heavy metal together with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple - Master of reality advanced stoner rock and grunge by two decades, while top groups like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden used Iommi’s tricks on various of their own songs.


Children Of The Grave

The guitarist, who lost part of two fingers when he was young, suffered when he played, so he decided to drop the tone of his guitar various tones to make it easier for himself, making the resulting sound so much more cavernous and muscular, and darker still than the black tones to which they had accustomed us, with the best example being Children Of The Grave, a song that was one of the favorites of Ozzy who always played it in his own solo concerts after he was fired from the band.



Vol. 4
was like a great cocaine festival in Los Angeles, with half the budget going on white powder and the group wanting to call the album Snowblind (a much more appropriate title). But, despite everything, the ideas continued flowing, and Iommi continued on a run. Despite the fact that Supernaut became ‘the moment of glory’ for the great Bill Ward when played live, it was another of those songs with a monstrous riff by the guitarist. So much so that the song was the favourite from the band of two legends like Frank Zappa and John Bonham. Apart from the riff the solo isn’t bad either.


Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

With the Vol. 4 tour things had got to a point in which the dangerous lifestyle of the band was starting to have its effect. Tony Iommi collapsed after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, after spending various days on a strict diet of cocaine. The leading composer was without ideas and the band decided to leave Los Angeles, where they were going to record again, for England, and rent Clearwell castle (that had already been used by Led Zeppelin and Mott The Hoople) to make their fifth album. It was in that gothic environment (in which there were no lack of ghosts, according to Iommi), specifically in the dungeon, where the Master of the Riff pulled out of his sleeve the one that opens Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; the moment which, according to Butler, saved the band. But that song, one of the group’s best, has a lot more. On the one hand, it has a bridge that is evidence of the musicality of a band that is sometimes accused of being monolithic. Also it has the heaviest riff of the band that enters when Ozzy shouts that “the dreams become nighmares, heaven into hell”.  

Symptom Of The Universe

Not content with having created the Heavy Metal genre, Tony Iommi gave life to Thrash with the riff of Symptom of the Universe, included on the band’s sixth album, Sabotage. It is clear that (as is common for him) Iommi adds in a number of different parts again, finishing with a delicate acoustic 'jam' after that apocalyptic start.

For all those who want to revere the guitar that built Heavy Metal; the SG 'Monkey' can be enjoyed at the Hard Rock Cafe museum in New York.