Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)
Chapter 6. Why don’t you just give me the finger?
So, as I said, it was my very last day at work. There was this lady who bent pieces of metal on a machine, and I then welded them together. Because she didn’t come in that day, they put me on her machine; otherwise I’d have been standing around with nothing to do. I had never worked it, so I didn’t know how to go about it. It was a big guillotine press with a foot pedal. You pulled this sheet in and put your foot down on the pedal and then this thing came down with a bang and bent the metal.
Things went all right in the morning. After I came back from my lunch break, I pushed the pedal and the press came straight down on my right hand. As I pulled my hand back as a reflex I pulled the ends of my fingers off. Stretch your hand out then line up your index finger and your little finger and draw a line between the tops of them: it’s the bits sticking out from the two fingers in the middle that got chopped off. The bones were sticking out of them. I just couldn’t believe it. There was blood everywhere. I was so much in shock it didn’t even hurt at first.
They took me to hospital, and instead of doing something to stop the bleeding they put my hand in a bag. It quickly filled up and I thought, when am I going to get some help, I’m bleeding to death here!
A little later somebody brought the missing bits to the hospital, in a matchbox. They were all black, completely ruined, so they couldn’t put them back on. Eventually they cut skin from my arm and put it over the tips of my injured fingers. The nails had come straight off. They put a bit of beard back in one of them so that the nail would grow, they skin-grafted it and that was it.
Then I just sat at home moping. I thought, that’s it, it’s over with! I couldn’t believe my luck. I had just joined a great band, it was my very last day at work and I was crippled for life. The manager of the factory came to see me a few times, an older, balding man with a thin moustache called Brian. He saw that I was really depressed, so one day he gave me this EP and said: ‘Put this on.’
I was going: ‘No, I don’t really want to.’
Having to listen to music was certainly not going to cheer me up at that point.
He said: ‘Well, I think you should, because I’ll tell you a story. This guy plays guitar and he only plays with two fingers.’
It was the great Belgian-born gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and, bloody hell, it was brilliant! I thought, if he’s done it I can have a go at it as well. It was absolutely great of Brian to be thoughtful enough to buy me this. Without him I don’t know what would have happened. Once I heard that music, I was determined to do something about it instead of sitting there moping.
I still had bandages on my fingers and so I tried playing with just my index finger and my little finger. It was very frustrating, because once you’ve played well it’s hard to go backwards. Probably the easiest thing would have been to flip the guitar upside down and learn to play right-handed instead of left-handed. I wish I had in hindsight, but I thought, well, I’ve been playing for a few years already, it’s going to take me another few years to learn it that way. That seemed like a very long time, so I was determined to keep playing left-handed. I persevered with two bandaged-up fingers, even though the doctors said: ‘The best thing for you to do is to pack up, really. Get another job, do something else.’
But I thought, bloody hell, there has got to be something I can do.
After thinking things through for a while, I wondered whether I could make a cap to fit over my fingers. I got a Fairy Liquid bottle, melted it down, shaped it into a ball and waited until it cooled down. I then made a hole in it with a soldering iron until it sort of fitted over the finger. I shaped it a bit more with a knife and then I got some sandpaper and sat there for hours sandpapering it down to make it into a kind of thimble. I put it on one of my fingers and tried to play the guitar with it, but it didn’t feel right. Because it was plastic it kept slipping off the string and I could barely touch it, it was so painful. So I tried to think of something I could put over it. I tried a piece of cloth, but of course it tore. I used different pieces of leather, which also didn’t work. Then I found this old jacket of mine and cut a piece of leather off it. It was old leather, so it was a bit tougher. I cut it into a shape so that it would fit over the thimble and glued it on, left it to dry and then I tried it and I thought, bloody hell, I can actually touch the string with this now! I sanded down the leather a bit too, but then I had to rub it on to a hard surface to make it shiny so it wouldn’t grip too much. It had to be just right so you could move it up and down the string.
Even with the thimbles on it hurt. If you look at my middle index finger, you will see a little bump on the end of it. Just underneath it is the bone. I have to be careful because sometimes if the thimbles come off and if I push hard on a string, the skin on the tips of my fingers just splits right open. The first ones I made fell off all the time. And it is trouble then; one of the roadies crawling about the stage, going: ‘Where the hell has that gone?’
So when I go on stage I put surgical tape around my fingers, dab a little bit of Superglue on that and then I push the things on. And at the end of the day I have to pull them off again.
I’ve only lost the thimbles a couple of times. I virtually live with the bloody things when I’m on tour. I keep them with me all the time. I’ve always got a spare set and my guitar tech has one as well.
Going through customs with these things is another story. I have the thimbles in a box and they search your bag and go: ‘Ah well, what’s this? Drugs?’
And then, shock, it’s fingers. I’ve had to explain it to customs on several occasions. And they go: ‘Whoah.’
Putting my fake fingers away in disgust.
Nowadays the people at the hospital make the thimble for my ring finger. They actually make me a prosthetic limb, a complete arm, and all I use is two of its fingertips that I cut off it. I asked: ‘Why don’t you just do me a finger?’
‘No, it’s easier for us to give you a whole arm.’
So you can imagine what the dustman thinks when he finds an arm in the bin. The thimbles I cut off it look like real fingers; there’s no leather on the ring finger one, I can play with the material it’s made of. They are too soft sometimes, so I leave them out in the air for a while to harden, or I put a bit of Superglue on them to give them the right feel again. Otherwise they grip the string too much. It’s a process that takes ages.
The home-made thimbles used to wear down, but these days the casing lasts; it’s only the leather that wears out. Each thimble probably lasts a month, maybe half a tour, and when they start wearing out I have to go through the whole thing again. I still use the same piece of jacket I started with all those forty-odd years ago. There isn’t much of it left now, but it should last another few years.
It’s primitive, but it works. You’ve either got to pack it in, or you’ve got to fight and work with it. It takes a lot of work. Making them is one stage, but trying to play with them is another. Because you have no feeling. You’re aware of this lump on your fingers, so you really have to practise at it to get it to work for you.
Part of my sound comes from learning to play primarily with my two good fingers, the index and the little finger. I’ll lay chords like that and then I put vibrato on them. I use the chopped off fingers mostly for soloing. When I bend strings I bend them with my index finger and I learned to bend them with my little finger. I can only bend them with the other fingers to a lesser extent. Before the accident I didn’t use the little finger at all, so I had to learn to use it. I’m limited because even with the thimbles there are certain chords I will never be able to play. Where I used to play a full chord before the accident, I often can’t do them now, so I compensate by making it sound fuller. For instance, I’ll hit the E chord and the E note and put vibrato on it to make it sound bigger, so it’s making up for that full sound that I would be able to play if I still had full use of all the fingers. That’s how I developed a style of playing that suits my physical limitations. It’s an unorthodox style but it works for me.