• OVERVIEW •
Aged 17, future Sabbath star Tony Iommi lost his middle and ring fingertips in a sheet-metal factory accident. His DIY ‘thimble-tip’ prosthetics – fashioned from a melted-down soap bottle and cut-up leather jacket – didn’t take to the tensions of vigorous lead playing too well, causing him to experiment with thinner strings and slackened tunings. Notably, he went ‘three frets down’ for most of 1971’s Master of Reality album – likely to increase the low chug as well as for general physical comfort (n.b. Iommi used Standard for the first couple of albums, lessening tension via lighter strings).
Since sampled by many in Sabbath’s wake – although Db has doubtless been in use for many generations before its Brummie incarnation: for example to fit lower voices, or break in new strings). I use it to play along with Hindustani sitar recordings: sitars tend to set the raga‘s root tone (‘Sa‘) around C#, and the slight buzz of super-slack strings can somewhat imitate the droning qualities of the tanpura, as well as easing the facility for fluid, acrobatic alankar (‘decorative’ raga ornaments).
Harmony: Dbm7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Iommi’s accident, which befell him on his last scheduled day of work at the Summer Lane factory, took place several years before the Polka Tulk Blues Band had even formed – let alone renamed themselves Earth, and, soon after that…Black Sabbath (chosen in honour of a 1963 Italian vampire film starring Boris Karloff). Though initially dejected (“a terrible period of depression…I was convinced that my guitar-playing days were over”), he soon found optimism via the visit of a friend (the factory’s foreman), who arrived with a Django Reinhardt record in hand:
“[At first] I went, ‘No way! Listening to someone play the guitar is the very last thing I want to do right now!’ But he kept insisting, and he ended up playing the record…I told him I thought it was really good, and then he said, ‘You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers…because of an injury [from] a terrible fire.’ I was totally knocked back by this revelation…and suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again.”
- ‘Finger Box’ Tale – Tony Iommi (2012):
“One day…they put me on this giant, guillotine-type press. I don’t know what happened, I must have pushed my hand in. Bang! It came down. It just took the ends off. I actually pulled them off. As I pulled my hand back…the bone was sticking out the top of the finger. I went to the hospital, and they cut the bones off, and [said]: ‘You might as well forget playing’. God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it…” (Tony Iommi)
Iommi initially tried swapping his natural lefty stance to play right-handed – but soon abandoned this venture (“If I knew what I know now, I probably would have switched…I probably could have spent the same amount of time learning to play right-handed…but I just didn’t have the patience”). After returning to his usual alignment, he started out by using only his undamaged digits, before experimenting with DIY prosthetics: “I melted down a Fairy Liquid [soap] bottle, made a couple of blobs of the plastic, and then sat there with a hot soldering iron…then proceeded to file them down with sandpaper…[but] realized that the ends weren’t gripping the strings, so I cut up a piece of leather“.
He describes how it took “quite a while to get used to bending and shaking strings…I obviously couldn’t feel anything. It was difficult to even know where my fingers were…It was just a matter of practicing and persevering with it, and using my ears to compensate for my lost tactile sense”. In the decades since, he has regularly credited his accident with “help[ing] to make me play a different style…I couldn’t play the proper chords: [so] had to come up with a different way of making a bigger sound“.
- Master of Reality – Black Sabbath (1971):
“Martin [Birch, Sabbath’s producer] was just so gullible. I got a piece of balsa wood…and carved a figure out of it. I wrapped it in a black rag, and kept it in my briefcase. One day at the studio I…made sure that the head of the little effigy was sticking out. And Martin saw it. He said, ‘What’s that?’, I went, ‘Oh, nothing’, and shut my case. Martin kept asking me about this thing for days. Eventually Martin said, ‘It’s me, isn’t it?’ He was bloody petrified!” (Tony Iommi)
Naturally, countless groups of the post-Sabbath era have also downtuned to Db – notably Slayer (Gemini), Pantera (Drag the Waters), Slipknot (Snuff), A Perfect Circle (Judith), Blink-182 (Obvious), and Nirvana (e.g. All Apologies: Cobain once described his group as sounding “like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath”).
Explored by many others too – e.g. Tim Lerch’s Low-Tuned Telecasters demo, and plenty of deep-winding jazz guitarist Jim Soloway’s output (e.g. Days of Wine and Roses). [n.b. Also see Wikipedia’s extensive list of Db-tuned tracks…although it’s very thin on sourcing, and inexplicably lengthy compared to all equivalent online listings. The few tracks I did haphazardly check all seemed plausible, but Wikipedia – while excellent for some areas of inquiry – is highly unreliable as a source of tuning info. So I can make no promises for the list in general…let me know what you can deduce!]
- All Apologies (MTV) – Nirvana (1993):
“We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded. We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough: people can relate to that…It’s a $20 junk-shop [acoustic on Polly]: I didn’t bother changing the strings, it barely stays in tune. In fact I have to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place.” (Kurt Cobain)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- C Standard (this -1): entering even slacker realms
- Terz (this +6): go three up rather than three down
- Godzilla: another Db-rooted tuning of epic strength
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Scents of Sabbath: aside from constructing his own fingertips, and using them to reshape heavy music forever, Iommi has also turned his creative vision to the art of perfume design – read more about his curious cross-disciplinary collaboration with Italian luxury perfume house Xerjoff (in his words: “Sergio [Xerjoff’s founder]…asked if I’d be interested in creating my own, which I certainly wasn’t expecting. I had no idea how that would work…[but] it’s something I’ve always been interested in, ever since the early days [of] Brut and Old Spice, which I’d always get given for Christmas”: the results are advertised as “an aromatic reminiscence of rock in the 60s and 70s…notes of bergamot, rum, Bulgarian geranium, rose, passionfruit, cinnamon, and patchouli, and a base of sandalwood, ambergris, vanilla, Tonka bean, caramel, and musk” – which, whether reflective of Sabbath’s surrounding vapours or not, certainly sounds evocative…plus, Iommi wrote a song about it: Scent of Dark)
- Injurious innovations: Invention isn’t always borne of necessity, but the perspective-shuffles imposed by physical calamity have often played huge, hidden roles in musical innovation – apart from the aforementioned case of Django Reinhardt (left with only two fully-functional fret-hand fingers after a campfire accident, leading him to adopt distinctive ‘vertical’ motions and 6th-chord shapes), notable instances include Brian Eno (who, while in hospital after a serious car accident in 1975, hazily absorbed a much-too-quiet record of 18th-century harp music his friend had put on amidst the background rain-patter: directly inspiring his vision of ‘ambient’ music), and George Russell (who, while bedridden with tuberculosis, developed his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation: a toweringly influential tome which helped catalyse the ‘modal jazz’ revolution) – and also check out Tony Meléndez, Johnatha Bastos, and Mark ‘Big Toe’ Goffeney, all of whom prove that being born with no arms is no barrier to getting good at guitar…
Header image: Butler, Iommi, Ward, & Ozzy (L>R) in 1970
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
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