Tony Iommi is the sort of guitarist that needs no introduction. If you play anything resembling rock or metal, chances are you owe a thing or two to the man Eddie Van Halen called “The master of riffs.”
Tony Iommi virtually invented the sound of metal with his heavy, down-tuned riffs, but you might be surprised to find out that some of the heaviest tones in rock history were made with one of the lightest guitar string sets you’ve ever heard of.
As with many great things, the heavy tone of Black Sabbath was born out of tragedy. At seventeen, Iommi was working in a metal shop between gigs. In a freak accident, the index and middle finger of his right, fretting hand were cut off—at the time it probably seemed like Iommi would never play the guitar again.
But Iommi was determined to find a way to keep doing what he loved. He had prosthetic finger caps made that would enable him to keep playing the guitar. But even with the prosthetics, the tension of a normal electric guitar in standard tunings caused Iommi a lot of pain, and when you’re playing one to two hour shows every night, any discomfort can lead to some serious problems.
Iommi’s answer to this problem was two-fold. First, he started down-tuning his guitar, to D# and C# standard. This lowered the tension against his fingers, making it easier for him to play for longer periods of time.
Iommi and the rest of Black Sabbath found out that these lower tunings also made the music sound heavier, and an entire genre of music was born.
But even with the drop tunings, the tension using standard strings was too much. So, Iommi created a custom set of strings to address the problem.
Tony Iommi’s Custom Guitar String Gauges
Iommi has two main guitars for D# and C# tunings, and he has a custom set on each:
D# Standard: .008 – .008 – .011 – .018w – .024 – .032
C# Standard: .009 – .010 – .012 – .020w – .032 – .042
These string sets are light by any standards, but especially so when you consider that’s he’s tunings the guitars down below standard. Still, no one can argue that the riffs that come out of Iommi’s amps are as heavy as anything out there.