Black Sabbath: Tony Iommi's 10 Greatest Guitar Solos

Updated on July 26, 2019
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Tony Iommi (second from left) with Black Sabbath, early 1970s
Tony Iommi (second from left) with Black Sabbath, early 1970s | Source

A Guitarist for the Ages

Tony Iommi wrote the riff for "Iron Man"—that alone puts him in a class of heavy metal pioneers with very few peers. Add to that every other mind-bending song that Sabbath recorded in the their half-century career, and you're approaching god-level status.

But, we're not here to talk about his song/riff writing. We're here to unpack 10 of Tony Iommi's greatest guitar solos. His best solos are aggressive, tangled messes of brilliance and phrasing, and this list favors those that take the most twisted approach to the whole concept of hard rock/heavy metal guitar playing.

I hope this article starts a lot of arguments. Disagree with me? Please let fly in the comments below!

Tony Iommi's 10 Greatest Guitar Solos

  1. "Dirty Women"
  2. "You Won't Change Me"
  3. "Warning"
  4. "The Devil Cried"
  5. "Lonely Is the Word"
  6. "Neon Nights"
  7. "Rock and Roll Angel"
  8. "Die Young"
  9. "Snowblind"
  10. "Shock Wave"

Source

1. "Dirty Women"

Album: Technical Ecstasy

Release Year: 1976

So, here's where I expect to see the most blow-back from Sabbath fans. I know I'm pretty much going it alone here, since this song is from Technical Ecstacy, which was (generally speaking) an example of what happens to a band when they do too many drugs and not enough songwriting. That said, there are some great moments on Technical Ecstacy (after all, it is a Black Sabbath album). One of the album's greatest moments is the short solo in the middle of the song "Dirty Women." First of all, there's the main riff (one of the catchiest Iommi has ever written) that comes in halfway through the song and sneaks in under the solo, providing a solid foundation for the multiple melodies that he unreels. Then, there's the slow, dramatic bit that comes before and after the solo, setting it apart from the rest of the song. The solo itself is multi-tracked, a favorite Iommi trick. He could play the same improvised-sounding solo identically more than once, and sometimes recorded the two versions on top of each other causing his guitar to sound like it has a digital-delay. (Another great example of this Iommi technique can be heard on the song "War Pigs".) On "Dirty Women" the two solos are equal in the mix. And, although they wander away from each other, they always circle the same theme and general melodic sense (it's truly beautiful), before that seismic riff returns full-bore. And, as if that weren't enough, there's a cool coda that puts multiple guitar parts together, and it's right up there with Jimmy Page in "Ten Years Gone."

"Dirty Women"—Solo at 1:50

2. "You Won't Change Me"

Album: Technical Ecstasy

Release Year: 1976

"You Won't Change Me" is another epic song from the second-to-last album with Ozzy, Technical Ecstacy. I'm not a huge fan of this song, partly because I think the lyrics are pretty goofy. For example, the line "I'm just a man, and I am what I am" reminds me of Popeye! But, the solo on this song is brutal. It sounds like he's seriously pissed-off about something. It includes more notes than you can possibly keep track of, all with his trademark sharp bite, spewing out across the song's heavy, yet lazy background chords. And then, near the end of the song, he comes back and does it again. Back when this came out, lots of us heard this and pretty much gave up playing guitar for weeks, if not forever.

"You Won't Change Me"—Solos at 3:25 and 5:30

3. "Warning"

Album: Black Sabbath

Release Year: 1970

"Warning," from their 1970 debut album, caused people's jaws to drop around the world. It's raw, ugly, powerful, and features some of the most fearless guitar playing of all time. Blues in essence, but with a full-on heavy rock attack, "Warning" showcases Iommi's stoner guitar tone and the tangled style that would come to be an instantly identifiable quality of his.

After Ozzy totally misses the low note in the line, "Just a little bit too strong," the master, Iommi, saves the day by tearing into an epic solo. "Warning" has about 20 different parts and pieces, and somehow they all fit together. Iommi just doesn't stop blazing throughout the whole song.

"Warning"—Solo at 3:20

4. "The Devil Cried"

Album: Black Sabbath: The Dio Years

Release Year: 2007

This is not actually a Black Sabbath song, but a track on the self-titled album by Heaven and Hell (the band is basically just Black Sabbath with Dio singing and Vinnie Appice on drums). Iommi knows how to set up a solo, and when it's time for the solo in "The Devil Cried," it's like Iommi took all the blue notes he could find and twisted them into one long wail. It's a really beautiful solo. It's both lyrical and tragic, while still being tied to that heavy main riff like an angel to a stone.

"The Devil Cried"—Solo at 3:00

5. "Lonely Is the Word"

Album: Heaven and Hell

Release Year: 1980

This one might be a bit higher on some other lists. It's one of Iommi's longest solos, up there with "Warning," but in my opinion, it doesn't really share much else with that song. The problem for me is the song itself, which lacks drive and power, and goes so far as to blatantly steal a background motif from "Stairway to Heaven." That said, the solo is technically impressive, with a wealth of ideas and unusual moments. He pulls out some tricks and turns of phrasing that are unusual for him. In general, this solo is quite dramatic. There are very few other guitar players who can touch this, but even so, it's not his absolute best.

"Lonely is the Word"—Solos at 1:55 and 3:45

6. "Neon Nights"

Album: Heaven and Hell

Release Year: 1980

From their first album with Ronnie James Dio, this is just a kick-ass song with an equally kick-ass solo. The riff is solid and fast, nothing special, but the solo changes everything. Starting out slow and almost thoughtful, Iommi leads the solo through a few twists and turns before sending the whole thing hurtling down-hill. By the time the solo is on the way out, it's an unearthly tangle of notes and trills, a genius-level mess that no other guitar player has the balls, let alone the skills, to pull off.

"Neon Knights"—Solo at 1:50

7. "Rock and Roll Angel"

Album: The Devil You Know

Release Year: 2009

This is another track from the band Heaven and Hell. It's a heavy, and very slow, tune with a satisfying Iommi riff, and the usual lyrical silliness from Dio. He doesn't know what he's talking about, and neither do we, but it really doesn't matter what "we're on a caravan to superman" is supposed to mean—we're just waiting for the guitar solo, and it's a powerhouse. Beginning with an unearthly high note, this is Iommi in slow-burn mode. It's not a long solo, but it has his trademark drama in spades.

"Rock and Roll Angel"—Solo at 3:44

8. "Die Young"

Album: Heaven and Hell

Release Year: 1980

A track from Heaven and Hell, the first album with Ronnie James Dio singing in place of the departed Ozzie Osbourne, this album put Sabbath back in place as a ruling metal band (instead of the bunch of disoriented drug casualties they were starting to sound like). It's easy to fault Dio for his silly lyrics about swords, rainbows, and "fading away," but for some reason this album and the one after it, Mob Rules, has really aged well. The solos in "Die Young," which pop up as perfectly phrased tangled bursts, are a little murky in the mix. Iommi tended to layer on the effects, and once in a while it could bury the crispness of his attack. But, the solo he plays at the end of the song is fantastic. It's fast as hell and shows that Iommi still had plenty of power.

"Die Young"—Solo at 4:00

9. "Snowblind"

Album: Vol. 4

Release Year: 1972

Volume 4 is a lot of people's favorite Sabbath album, and it's easy to see why. There's a zombified quality to this record, kind of a sub-atomic heavy mix that makes many of the songs sound similar, but in a very good way. "Snowblind" (during which Ozzy, in case we missed it, comes right out and says "cocaine!" between verses), is basically just two murky power chords with a cool descending-chord bridge in the middle. That's where Iommi steps in with a lazy, yet murderous, old-school guitar solo. He's in no hurry, and he lets the heaviness multiply with every threatening note. Proof that you don't have to cram a zillion notes into each measure to make a world-class guitar solo.

"Snowblind"—Solo at 2:20

10. "Shock Wave"

Album: Never Say Die!

Release Year: 1978

The album Never Say Die wasn't a total triumph for the band. It was their last album with Ozzy, and the rise of punk rock had made Sabbath and bands like them look pretty stupid—as the movie Spinal Tap made painfully clear. Drugs and fatigue also took a huge toll on the band. Never Say Die didn't sound much like the Sabbath we knew and loved. There were too many awkward jazz-like moments, too few riffs, and the mix was overly bright. A few songs, like the title track and "Shock Wave," were definitely rock, but there are too many parts for my taste and, in general, the band sounds pretty cashed. But, then there's this berserk whiplash solo about half-way through that just completely kicks ass. This is one of the most brilliant moments of the band's later career, but it's been entirely overlooked.

"Shock Wave"—Solo at 2:40

What Do You Think?

Submit a Comment
  • Eastward profile image

    Eastward 

    4 weeks ago from Bangkok, Thailand

    Nice choices on Iommi's greatest solos and great context for each as well. It's pretty amazing to see bands and band members of Sabbath and Priest still putting out quality metal music and to know they've been at it longer than I've been alive!

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