Tony Iommi: Never Say Die

Who inspires you when you need motivation? What face do you envision when you need a kick in the butt? I think of Tony Iommi, co-founder and lead guitarist for Black Sabbath. 

Let me tell you something about this guy. 

When he was a teenager and aspiring guitar player in the 1960s, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a factory accident. It sure looked like his guitar-playing days were over.

As he later told Loudwire magazine, “I went to the hospital and they cut the bones off and then they said, ‘You might as well forget playing.’ God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”

So what did he do? He adapted to a two-fingered guitar playing technique. He fitted his damaged fingers with homemade thimbles so that he could still use them on fret chords. 

“It worked,” he told Loudwire, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them . . . and it was painful.”

He also slackened the guitar strings, which made it easier to bend them. All these changes added up to a different sound, the heavy metal power chord, that would make him one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history and contribute to a long run of success for Black Sabbath that included 70 million record sales. Rolling Stone would rank him Number 25 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List.

Now let me tell you something else about Tony Iommi. 

Let’s fast forward to 2013. Black Sabbath was a legend. Tony Iommi had accomplished everything. He could have rested on his laurels. But instead, he went back into the studio with the band to record 13, the first album Black Sabbath had recorded in many yearsThe album become a critical and commercial success. Black Sabbath went on tour to promote 13, which is when when my family and I saw them in concert one night. Well, Tony Iommi took over that stage. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he looked like a cross between the Road Warrior, the Terminator, and one of the Nazgûl as he wielded his guitar like a weapon. He didn’t preen like Jimmy Page or mug like Keith Richards. He just shot one power chord after another into the air like roman candle bursts from hell.

Oh, and you know what? He was doing this show in between lymphoma treatments.

Here is how he described that tour four years later to the U.K. website Mirror:

After we released the album we went on tour and played 81 shows in 28 countries. I really enjoyed it, but it was tough. After the illness I got really tired. Every six weeks I had to fly home for treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull, just outside Birmingham.

I was hooked up to a drip and given an antibody that sort of coats the cancer cells and stops them spreading. Then I had to be home for two or three weeks recovering before I could join up with the band again. We had to plan the whole tour around my treatment.

Unbelievable. Get hooked up to a drip. Rest. Then go onstage and become a guitar god. But he had no other choice because that’s how he rolls. As he told the Mirror website, “I could be here another 10 years or just one year – I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over. ’”

I’ve never seen such a unmitigated display of strength onstage. Tony Iommi inspires me all the time. Who inspires you?