Black Sabbath is generally agreed upon as the first heavy metal band. They laid down the blueprint for the sound that would define the genre and its sub-genres.
At the center of that sound is Black Sabbath’s legendary guitarist Tony Iommi. This is why knowing how to recreate his sound is an important skill for any metal guitarist.
So, today I want to go over a few amp setups and the settings to recreate the sound that spawned an entire genre.
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Tony Iommi’s Amps
Iommi started out playing Marshall amps, specifically a 50-watt Marshall Plexi. This was the amp he used before Black Sabbath and during the recording of the first album.
These are excellent vintage amp heads. Combined with a 1936V Extension Cabinet you should be as close to the debut album’s sound without using Iommi’s actual amp.
This combination might be a bit too expensive for most people. Fortunately, the Marshall Code 50 comes with Plexi modeling at a much more affordable price. The Code 50 also has the ‘60s and ‘70s models that let you shape your sound even more to get a vintage sound.
Marshall also, in recent years, released their Studio series. These amplifiers are designed to recreate those classic vintage Marshall tones in smaller enclosures.
Of these, the Studio Vintage 20C, with its built-in 10-inch speaker, is the closest to the classic Sabbath sound. It was designed to mimic the tone of a classic Marshall Plexi, then known as the Super Lead.
Be aware that vintage-voiced amps tend to drive at higher volumes than modern amplifiers, and tend not to have separate gain controls. The Studio Vintage, for example, only has volume controls for its two channels.
Guitar players in the 60s and 70s, to achieve that beautiful saturated tone, would “bridge” the two channels by connecting a short patch lead from one channel to the other. We’ll elaborate on how to dial in the classic rock tone of your dreams in the amp settings section below.
Another alternative would be the Vox AC30 since Iommi also played one from time to time.
Later on in his career, Iommi moved over to Laney which was also from Sabbath’s hometown of Birmingham. He started with the Laney LA100BL before eventually settling on the Supergroup.
The Laney LA100SM paired with the LA412 is the ultimate combination to recreate Tony Iommi’s sound. Just like the Marshall amp setup, this Laney setup might be a bit out of reach for a lot of guitarists.
In that case, the Laney Lionheart series of amps are just as awesome as the Supergroup without the heavy price tag. The Laney L20H and the LT212 are the ones I would go with here.
These are all the ideal amps you want to use, but any amp that provides a nice and beefy overdrive should be fine to use. If you’re going with a combo amp, I would say go with at least a 50-watt one to make sure the sound is big enough.
Guitars, Strings & Tuning
While playing the same amps with the same settings will get you pretty close to Iommi’s tone, you can get even closer with a few tricks.
An Epiphone SG Custom is the guitar of choice for Tony Iommi and is the obvious choice if you’re looking to emulate his sound. This is a fantastic guitar at a surprisingly affordable price.
Epiphone even has a Tony Iommi signature SG model, with P90 pickups to capture the classic snarl and crackle of early Sabbath recordings.
Iommi is famously missing parts of his fingertips because of a work accident. This makes heavier strings uncomfortable for him to play. This means that he plays lighter gauges like 8s or 9s.
And lastly, Tony Iommi also detunes quite a lot. He tunes down to at least D# and sometimes even as low as C#.
Tony Iommi Amp Settings – Get that Black Sabbath Tone
Now that we have a good idea about his guitars and the right amp setup, we can start to dial in Iommi’s sound. This is actually a bit more straightforward than you might expect.
Tony Iommi has a very full and beefy tone. This wasn’t just a stylistic choice, but also served a practical function. Because he was the sole guitarist in Black Sabbath, he had to make his guitar sound bigger and fuller so that Sabbath’s overall sound didn’t feel empty.
To achieve this big and full sound, you simply have to fatten up your bottom end and midrange. In other words, you just turn up the bass and mids a bit.
The trick with Iommi’s tone is to not make it too bass-heavy or a bit muffled. The best way to do this is by keeping your frequency range fairly level. Nothing is really set higher than anything else, except for the bass which can be set slightly higher as needed.
Iommi also doesn’t crank his settings much apart from the gain. His settings are set just past halfway at around 6, with the gain hovering somewhere between 7 and 8. If you find the tone isn’t quite as fat, turn the bass up to 7.
Tony Iommi Amp Settings in Numbers
- Bass – 6 (7 if the tone is a bit thin)
- Mids – 6
- Highs – 6
- Gain – 7/8
For a heavier tone:
- Bass – 7
- Mids – 7
- Treble – 6
- Gain – 7-8
For Plexi-Style Amps
If you’re trying to capture Tony Iommi’s mammoth tone on a vintage-style Marshall amp, don’t despair at the lack of a gain knob. You should have one “normal” and one “high treble” channel with a volume knob for each.
Simply “jump” your “normal” and “treble” channels by putting one end of a patch cable in each. Run your guitar signal path into either channel. On a typical “four-hole” Marshall Super Lead-style amp, you should have one hole spare. I personally like plugging my Les Paul into the high treble channel with this setup.
Here’s the real trick: Marshall EQ knobs work best at full blast with this technique. Set Bass, Mids, and Treble to 10.
Then use your two volume knobs as a de facto EQ. Sounding a little muddy? Turn up your high treble channel. A little too brittle in the high end? Turn up the normal channel. Most Marshalls have a saturation sweet spot somewhere between 4 and 6 on the volume knob.
Tony Iommi’s Pedals
To truly push your tone into Iommi levels and get that same big and heavy tone, there are a few pedals that will help you out.
The first is an overdrive pedal, specifically the Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra, which is modeled after the Laney Supergroup and Rangemaster Treble Booster used by Iommi.
With this overdrive pedal, you’ll know that you’re getting as close to a Black Sabbath-like sound as you possibly can.
To boost your sound further, the Catalinbread Naga Viper is a great pedal to boost your guitar’s signal before it goes to the amp. Giving you control over both the frequency range and the amount of gain, you can increase the low end and overdrive to get a heavier sound.
And that’s it, the sound that became the blueprint for an entire genre can easily be recreated with a Marshall amp and some minor setting adjustments.
Having arguably invented the genre of heavy metal, Tony Iommi’s playing and tone certainly defined its sound – a very heavy, distorted, and ‘demonic’ sound that would go on to inspire every metal band that would follow, either directly or indirectly.
It’s the sound that birthed an entire genre of music and formed the basic foundation of that genre.