Ch. 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 lefthanded. 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.

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Tony Iommi is synonymous with heavy rock, having more or less invented the genre single-handedly with the dark and doom of Black Sabbath.

Born on February 19, 1948, in Birmingham, England, Iommi picked up the guitar after being inspired by the likes of Hank Marvin & the Shadows as a teenager. By 1967, Iommi had played with several blues-based rock bands, and formed a group (Earth) with three old acquaintances from his school days — bassist Terry "Geezer" Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and singer John "Ozzy" Osbourne.

But Iommi's musical career was nearly derailed prematurely when he suffered a horrible accident at a sheet metal factory, when a machine sliced off the tips of the fingers on his right hand. Depressed and figuring that his guitar playing days were behind him, a friend turned him onto guitarist Django Reinhardt (who lost use of two fingers in a gypsy caravan campfire accident), inspiring Iommi to give the six-string another go, with soft plastic tips attached to the ends of his fingers.

Shortly thereafter, Iommi received a tempting offer to join Jethro Tull's band in 1968, which he reluctantly accepted. After only a single performance with Tull (playing the track "Song for Jeffrey" on the Rolling Stones' never-aired TV special "Rock & Roll Circus"), Iommi split from Tull to return back to his pals in Earth.

With another band already playing around England by the name of Earth, Iommi & co. were forced to change their name, taking "Black Sabbath" from the American title of the classic Italian horror movie “I Tre Volti Della Paura”.

With the name switch came a change in musical direction — the band would explore dark lyrical subjects, while the music would be repetitive, plodding and heavy. In the process, Sabbath created the blueprint for heavy metal with such incredibly influential, all-time classic releases as their 1969 self-titled debut, 1971's Paranoid and Master of Reality, 1972's Vol. 4, and 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, becoming one of the world's top hard rock bands in the process. Iommi's guitar playing propelled such metal standards as "Black Sabbath," "N.I.B.," "Paranoid," "Iron Man," "War Pigs," "Into the Void," and "Children of the Grave," which boast some of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history.

But by the mid- to late '70s, constant touring and drug abuse began to fracture the band, leading to Osbourne’s exit in 1979. After keeping the Sabbath name alive with several inspired non-Osbourne releases, including the Ronnie Dio albums - 1980's “Heaven & Hell” and 1981's “The Mob Rules” – which re-established the band’s commercial success, Iommi then shifted the band’s focus to Europe and recorded a number of albums with Tony Martin, including “Headless Cross”, and undertook ground-breaking tours to Russia and all parts East.

The original Sabbath line-up reunited for highly successful tours in the late '90s, making new Sabbath fans out of a whole legion of people too young to have caught the band in their '70s heyday. A Grammy Award followed the “Reunion” tour when the track “Iron Man” (recorded at the Birmingham NEC and taken from the tour’s live album) won in the Best Metal Performance category in 1999.

And although a few Sabbath albums from the '80s and '90s could have arguably been considered Tony Iommi solo albums (1986's Seventh Star was labelled a Sabbath album at the last moment by Warner Bros.), he issued his first true solo release in the form of 2000's “Iommi”. The ten-track disc, which was very warmly received by both the press and the public, featured many of rock's top names lending their vocal talents including Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, Phil Anselmo and Ozzy Osbourne, among others.

The following year Iommi returned to touring, with Black Sabbath as the headline act at 2001’s Ozzfest. The band earned a second Grammy nomination for the track “The Wizard” from the live album “Ozzfest 2001: The Second Millennium” that followed the tour.

On 3rd June 2002, he joined Ozzy to perform “Paranoid” in front of the Queen, the Royal Family and 12,000 members of the public on the lawn of Buckingham Palace at a concert to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

As one of the writers of “Changes”, Iommi received his first Ivor Novello nomination when the song competed in the category Best Selling UK Single following the 2003 cover released by Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne.

The early part of 2004 was spent in the studio working on solo projects, including putting the finishing touches to material recorded with Glenn Hughes in Birmingham in 1996, which was picked up by Sanctuary Records for an autumn release under the title “The 1996 DEP Sessions”. In between this, Tony and the 3 other members of the original Black Sabbath line-up reunited as the headline act for summer 2004’s Ozzfest in the USA.

The touring continued in 2005, with a Black Sabbath tour of Europe starting in June (including a notable performance at the UK’s Download festival), and another headline slot at Ozzfest from July to September. The Iommi solo album ‘Fused’ was also released in July 2005. Featuring Glenn Hughes on vocals and Kenny Aronoff on drums, the album was recorded at Monnow Valley studios in Monmouth, Wales in late 2004 under the production skills of Bob Marlette who had produced Tony’s first solo album back in 2000.

Black Sabbath were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in November 2005. The band were inducted by Queen guitarist Brian May, and performed ‘Paranoid’ at the ceremony at London’s Alexandra Palace. In March 2006, Metallica inducted Black Sabbath into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York. Throughout all of this, Tony was also working on his radio series ‘Black Sunday’ for the UK’s Planet Rock station.

In late 2006, Tony reunited with Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice to record three new songs for the CD Black Sabbath: The Dio Years which was released by Rhino in April 2007. In the month leading up to the release, the foursome did a tour of Canada under the moniker ‘Heaven & Hell’ which ended with a special show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. A tour of the USA followed in April & May, followed by European summer shows and a UK arena tour in November 2007.

At the start of 2008 the band began working on a new Heaven & Hell studio album, however, during the summer this was put on hold while the guys played under the 'Metal Masters' banner with Judas Priest for 17 shows across the US. To coincide, Rhino Records released a box set of the complete works with Ronnie James Dio, re-mastered and with extended liner notes. The bands new album “The Devil You Know” was released in April 2009 through Rhino / Roadrunner reaching No.8 in the USA billboard charts. After the positive reaction to the new material the band toured the next 4 months covering South America, Europe and North America.

6 responses to “Excerpt from Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell With 
Black Sabbath

  1. Jeffro says:

    Bad ass. Who got Tony Iommi on here? Joe? Painfully interesting story about the digits, particularly the visual of what exactly got hacked and how you evolved as a guitarist because of this incident. And yes, I’m going to finish my comment with: oh my God, Tony Iommi is on TNB!

  2. J.M. Blaine says:

    Iommi on TNB
    makes me very happy indeed.

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  6. Varg says:

    I doubt Tony would have created heavy metal with all his digits intact. Exerting greater effort with the thimbles made him create a denser, heavier sound with the strings, thus initiating a fateful event in music history: the birth of heavy metal

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