Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)

Chapter 7. A career hanging off an extra thin string

Since I had my accident, I’ve had to rethink the whole thing, from the thimbles to how I play to the guitar itself. I can’t pick up any guitar and start playing it; it has to have the right strings and has to have the right weight of strings. I had all these problems from day one. And it was worse then, because at the time there were no companies making light gauge strings. There were no companies you could find to work on a guitar either, so I had to do it all myself.

I was still playing a Fender Stratocaster at the time. I took that guitar apart countless times, trying to make it comfortable, filing the frets down, getting the strings to the right height. As opposed to normal people who still have the ends of their fingers, I can’t feel how hard I’m pressing down on my string very well. I tend to really press hard, because if I don’t the string will just flick off. I needed very thin strings, because bending thick strings was too hard for me.

The lightest gauge strings you had at the time were eleven or twelve; they were heavy because it was still in the style of the popular Play in a Day guitar tutor Bert Weedon’s thick strings. That’s what everybody had. They only made one set of strings, one certain gauge. I was the first to come up with the idea of making light strings, simply because I had to find a way to make the guitar easier for me to play. The heavy strings would just rip the leather off, I wouldn’t have the strength in my fingers to bend the strings, and it would hurt. The people in the music shops would say: ‘You can’t get any lighter. These are it.’

And I would say: ‘Well, are there any other strings that are thinner?’

‘No, apart from banjo strings.’

‘Give me some of those then.’

I used the two lightest banjo strings as the B and the high E strings on my guitar, which meant I could drop down the gauge on the remaining guitar strings to make them lighter. This way I managed to get rid of the thick low E string, using an A string instead. And that worked for me. Out of necessity I had invented the light gauge strings, combining banjo and guitar strings.

It was trial and error tuning the guitar, because if you tune an A down to E, the string tends to rattle on the frets. It was an art tuning it, and it was an art playing it.

Later on, when we had our first album out and the band was doing well, I went to guitar string companies trying to persuade them to make the lighter gauge strings. Their way of thinking was incredibly conservative: ‘Oh, you can’t do that. They’ll never work! They would never be harmonically right.’

I said: ‘Rubbish! It does! And I should know, because I use them!’

And then they’d say: ‘Nobody’s ever going to buy them! Why would anybody want that?’

They were all in such agreement about this that even I started thinking: maybe they don’t, maybe it’s just me who wants them because it makes me able to play and bend the strings. Eventually the people at Picato Strings in Wales said: ‘Yeah, we’ll give this a go.’

This was in 1970, maybe 1971. They made the first set of light gauge strings for me. They worked, they were great and I used them for many years. Of course, then all the other companies jumped on the bandwagon, guitarists all over the world started using them and light gauge strings became popular. But to this day people still say: ‘You won’t get a full sound.’

I’ve even worked with producers who have told me that I’ll need to use a set of thick strings to get a big sound.

My response to that is simple: ‘I’ve never used a set of thick strings and I do have a big sound.’