Frank Anthony “Tony” Iommi is best known as the lead guitarist and one of the four founding members of the pioneering heavy metal band Black Sabbath, and has been the band’s sole continual member and primary composer for nearly five decades.
At the age of 17, Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring finger of his right hand in an industrial accident on his last day of work in a sheet metal factory. Iommi described how he “… was told ‘you’ll never play again. It was just unbelievable. I sat in the hospital with my hand in this bag and I thought ‘that’s it – I’m finished. But eventually I thought ‘I’m not going to accept that. There must be a way I can play’.” After the injury Iommi considered abandoning the guitar entirely.
However, his factory foreman played him a recording of famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, which encouraged him to continue as a musician. As Iommi would later write:
My friend said, “Listen to this guy play”, and 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 for me. I told him I thought it was really good and then he said, “You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire.” I was totally knocked back by this revelation and was so impressed by what I had just heard that I suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again.
Inspired by Reinhardt’s two-fingered guitar playing, Iommi decided to try playing guitar again, though the injury made it quite painful to do so. Although it was an option, Iommi never seriously considered switching hands and learning to play right-handed. In an interview with Guitar World magazine, he was asked if he was “ever tempted to switch to right-handed playing.” Iommi responded:
If I knew what I know now I probably would have switched. At the time I had already been playing two or three years, and it seemed like I had been playing a long time. I thought I’d never be able to change the way I played. The reality of the situation was that I hadn’t been playing very long at all, and I probably could have spent the same amount of time learning to play right handed. I did have a go at it, but I just didn’t have the patience. It seemed impossible to me. I decided to make do with what I had, and I made some plastic fingertips for myself. I just persevered with it.
In any case, he decided to continue playing left-handed. To do so, he fitted homemade thimbles to his injured fingers to extend and protect them; the thimbles were made from an old Fairy Liquid bottle – “melted it down, got a hot soldering iron and shaped it like a finger” – and cut sections from a leather jacket to cover his new homemade prosthetic, which created two technical problems. First, the thimbles prevented him from feeling the strings, causing a tendency to press down very hard on them. Secondly, he had difficulty bending strings, leading him to seek light-gauge guitar strings to make it easier to do so.
However, Iommi recalls that such strings were not manufactured at the time, so he used banjo strings instead, until around 1970–71 when Picato Strings began making light-gauge guitar strings. Furthermore, he used the injured fingers predominantly for fretting chords rather than single-note solos. In 1974, Iommi told Guitar Player magazine that the thimbles “helped with his technique” because he had to use his little finger more than he had before the accident.
Later, he also began tuning his guitar to lower pitches, sometimes as far as three semitones below standard guitar tuning (e.g., on “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of this World”, and “Into the Void”, all on the album Master of Reality). Although Iommi states that the main purpose of doing so was to create a “bigger, heavier sound”, slackening the strings makes it easier to bend them.
Iommi reflected in 2016 saying that his greatest regret is losing his fingertips.
It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did. It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with. It affects your playing style; you can’t feel the strings, and there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors: “You won’t be playing guitar.” But I believed I could do it, and I did.