Black Sabbath made their name with their self-titled debut, "Black Sabbath", released on 13th February 1970 but the Brummy lords of Heavy Metal really hit their groove with their fourth album, "Vol. 4", released on 25th September 1972.
The classic Black Sabbath lineup of Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, Bill Ward on drums and Ozzy Osbourne on vocals produced a classic album - but not without significant input from Iommi. When rehearsals began in Birmingham, the rest of the band spent the majority of their time at a local pub while the band's guitarist was left to come up with the creative goods. So when the decision was made to relocate to LA (mainly for cost reasons), he could have been forgiven for thinking things would improve.
But drugs - cocaine in particular - had a strong grip on the band at this point, as not so subtly demonstrated in the credits of "Vol. 4" ( "We wish to thank the great COKE-Cola Company of Los Angeles") and track "Snowblind", in which Ozzy whispers the refrain, "cocaine!". In fact, it's rumoured that the band spent more money on coke during the "Vol. 4" sessions than they spent making the album itself!
"We were all fucked-up bad," said Ozzy in an interview with Classic Rock magazine. "Dealers coming round every day with cocaine, Demerol, morphine, everything round the fucking house."
Iommi's signature sound reached new heights on "Vol. 4", with his down-tuned power chords, dissonant bends and articulate trills dripping in harmonics plain to see, alongside lighter acoustic moments.
But Iommi's sound had its roots in the first album, the self-titled "Black Sabbath", where his relationship with Gibson SGs on record began...
When the neck pickup of his Fender Stratocaster (the one he used during his blink-and-you'll-miss-it stint in Jethro Tull, as featured in Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus in 1968) packed up during the session, Iommi turned to a guitar he'd purchased in Birmingham in 1967, a right-handed guitar which left-handed Iommi had to play upside down. Ever since then, he's been closely tied to the futuristic looking axe, which became a cornerstone of his classic sound.
Later, Iommi swapped this SG for a left-handed SG, which has become known as "Monkey" due to the sticker of a monkey playing a fiddle he stuck on the body.
Iommi's "Monkey" guitar, a 1964 Gibson SG Special, was used as his main guitar on Black Sabbath's second, third and fourth albums: "Paranoid" (1970), "Master Of Reality" (1971) and "Vol. 4" (1972). The original Gibson P90 in the bridge was rewound, and the neck pickup was swapped for a custom "Simplux" P90-style neck pickup wound by John Birch - the aim being to reduce the propensity of the Gibson version to squeal with feedback.
Birch also filed down the frets and applied a zero fret, built a new bridge with Iommi's favoured light string gauges in mind, and added a coat of polyurethane lacquer to the neck to improve playability.
It's All In the Fingers
Iommi's infamous accident at the factory where he worked in Birmingham, resulting in him losing the tips of two fingers on his right (fretting) hand, played a monumental role in the sound he developed in Black Sabbath - and consequently the entire metal genre.
Having created his own prosthetic fingertips by melting down a plastic bottle and gluing on part of a leather jacket to the ends of the plastic stubs for grip, he strung his guitar with banjo strings as they were lighter than the available guitar strings at the time.
Although Black Sabbath's first two albums were recorded in standard tuning, by the time of "Vol. 4" Iommi was tuning down to C# to reduce the tension on his fingers. These days, everyone's at it but back then his doomy, down-tuned riffage was a gamechanger.
What Amp Did Iommi Use On Vol. 4?
Iommi struck a deal with fellow Brummy amp company Laney, who supplied him with amps from the time of Black Sabbath's first album until the late 1980s.
During his Laney years, Iommi rarely changed his setup, although he did switch from the Laney LA 100 BL "pre-Supergroup" used on "Black Sabbath" and "Paranoid" to (some sources say) a Laney Klipp on "Master of Reality" and then the Laney Supergroup from the time of the "Vol. 4" sessions.
According to a 1974 interview (as relayed by GuitarPlayer), Iommi used 6 Laney 4x12 cabinets fed by 4 100-watt EL34 amps channelled by plugging V-cords into the “normal” outputs of the heads. Nice setup!
Tony achieved as much amp drive as he could by cranking the mids and highs on his amps, but it was Iommi's Treble Booster which made all the difference...
Iommi is famous for using a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, although it's not so well known that it was modified. Nobody - not even Tony himself - really knows the details of the mods but there are theories that it was made into a full-frequency boost.
Iommi used the Rangemaster to boost his Laney amps up until 1979, when it was accidentally thrown away by his tech, John Stillwell, during the "Heaven and Hell" sessions.
That's really the only pedal Iommi used at this time, although you will find him linked to the Tycobrahe Parapedal wah, which he came across while touring in the early '70s.
The Tycobrahe Parapedal featured two distinct frequency peaks from its unique twin-pot design, and also included a dive-bomb effect. Iommi often set the wah sweep to a sweet spot and left it there for a cutting, mids heavy tone.
Iommi's Guitar Gear: Vol. 4 (1972)
Left-handed 1964 Gibson SG Special, "Monkey"
Modded Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster
Laney Supergroup 100W EL34
Laney 4x12 cabinets
Get Iommi's Black Sabbath Vol. 4 Sound
Of course, a Gibson SG with P90s will get you closest of all to Iommi's sound, however you could use another guitar with P90s or even some low-output humbuckers to get you in the ballpark.
There are also a number of signature guitars from both Epiphone and Gibson available, so if you're dedicated to emulating Iommi's "Paranoid", "Master of Reality" and "Vol. 4" sounds then it's worth checking them out.
Original Laney Supergroup amps are pretty pricey these days, but you can pick up Laney's modern-day recreations, such as the new Laney LA Studio. If you want to be as accurate as possible, how about the LA 100 SM, a 100W handwired, point-to-point replica of the Supergroup with added Master Volume.
Of course there's the Laney Black Country Customs TI Boost and Analogman Beano Boost, both of which have been developed with Iommi to replicate his modded Rangemaster. However, there are alternative - and equally impactful - Treble Booster-style pedals, offering characterful boost for your amp's preamp stage, giving you that Iommi-like chunk when partnered with a '60's or '70s-style valve amp.
[product=signal-cheyne-oberon-germanium-boost] Handbuilt in France, The Oberon Germanium Boost comprises a single knob and a 3-way toggle, making it a simple but effective tool in your pedalboard arsenal. A built in charge pump reverses polarity of the power supply, ensuring your modern power plays nicely with the old-school NOS germanium transistor. [/product]
[product=tate-fx-hot-coals] The Tate FX Hot Coals is a Rangemaster-style germanium boost, made with NOS UK military-spec germanium transistors and NOS USSR germanium diodes for temperature stabilisation. Based on the classic Dallas Rangemaster, the Hot Coals takes the best parts and expands on it - notably including a toggle to switch between the classic treble-boost and a fuller-range setting for those occasions when you don't need all that treble. It's your one-stop shop to raucous Iommi riffage. [/product]
[product=formula-b-fuzz-rangers-anniversary-edition] The Fuzz Rangers Limited Edition combines Rangemaster and Fuzz Face circuits for an awesome all-in-one pedal. The Boost circuit is based on the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, with silicon BC549 transistors to reduce compatibility problems (polarity, power etc) with the Fuzz circuit. Uniquely, there's a toggle switch to shift the Boost emphasis between Low, Mid and High frequencies, making it more flexible than a traditional Rangemaster. With the option to run the Fuzz and Boost channels independently, it's an incredibly flexible pedal for your pedalboard, but where it gets interesting is that there's also a toggle to set the direction of the signal. You can choose whether to run the Boost into the Fuzz, or vice-versa. The results differ dramatically. [/product]
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