I was listening to Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights” over and over again with my son, and I was thinking about how different it seemed compared to the first eight Black Sabbath albums. It’s really proto-thrash, I think. Interestingly, the construction isn’t out of the norm for Tony’s writing-with the heavy E-string presiding over the entire construction. But it’s really fast, and that difference in tempo reminded me of some Dehumanizer demos of a song called “Bad Blood.” They played it through at different tempos, and I marveled at how distinct each version seemed. That was an early inspiration for my theory about how Iommi is a composer. The song was almost independent of tempo. Its construction sustained all of them.
Then as I listened to the solo in “Neon Knights,” and he really shreds in a way that seems new for him on this one (and I recall watching him play it live and being amazed), I thought I noted a similarity between this solo and his solo in “NIB.” The tempos for the songs were different, but the “Neon Knights” solo seemed almost like a reversal of the “NIB” solo (that is, the beginnings are reversed. “NIB” starts at the Iommic second and climbs to the middle of Em pentatonic; “Neon Knights” starts mid-Em pentatonic and descends, picking up the Iommic Second the first time on first ascending element). The difference-and the similarity-lay in the use of the major second-an F# added to the Em pentatonic scale, in this case, at the ninth fret on the A string. In “NIB,” he adds it in the beginning. In “Neon Knights,” he descends to the major second and used it as a transition. Then, as I watched some videos of these solos, I recalled the “Age of Reason” solo I had studied awhile back. Again, he uses Em pentatonic with the major second added. Further, he seems to choose this particular note as a location for innovation in his solos. It seems like something a composer would do.
Then it hit me: “NIB,” “Neon Knights,” and “Age of Reason” use varied tempos but the solos use the same scale. And then it hit me harder that what Iommi does in these solos indicates an evolution in his composition and playing. And then it hit me hardest that the use of the Iommic Second forms a control factor that might provide a basis for comparison across these solos, allowing the innovative practices to appear in relief.
I’m going to add sample videos of guitarists covering the solos in question. These videos will be worth a thousand words apiece-three times the total for this essay. For the purposes of this essay, I suggest that you confine your viewing to the solos only. It may be hard to do, as they are all quite excellent.
“NIB,” off the album Black Sabbath (1970), seems to follow a standard tempo. The ascension from the distinctiveness of the major second to the twelfth position might be described as stately, increasing in speed but not departing too far from the song it belongs too, prompting the player in Sample #1-Nick Didkovsky-to refer to this solo as a “beautifully constructed piece of music.”
Sample #1: The video below is Maestro Didkovsky’s lesson for this solo. The solo occurs in full from :16-1:00.
The solo-which is about 44 seconds long-proceeded from the bridge riff and the uses trills incorporating the major second at the ninth position (:24-25) and ascends to the E minor pentatonic at the twelfth, returns to the major second and trills again (:42-44), and ultimately employs licks frequently used in early Black Sabbath solos (such as “Black Sabbath,” “Paranoid,” and “Fairies Wear Boots”).
“Neon Knights,” off Heaven and Hell (1980), has a much faster tempo. The 44 second solo follows accordingly. While the recording is down-tuned one-half step, the scale is the same and played in the same position as “NIB.” The “Neon Knights” solo begins “in the middle” of E minor pentatonic and descends fairly leisurely to the major second where the ascent begins. The solo speeds up almost continuously as it proceeds and contributes to the hurtling, thrashy vibe of the song. While the solo goes higher than the E minor pentatonic a couple of times, most of it remains within E minor pentatonic (with a blues lick or two). The techniques characteristic of Iommi’s earlier work give way to pure speed for most of this solo. Again, however, like the use of trills in “NIB,” Iommi returns to the major second three times in this solo, and each time, it adds distinctiveness to the overall composition.
Sample #2: The video below-featuring Ricardo Monteiro-offers a great close-up of the solo, which transpires from 2:04-2:48.
The first usage is at 2:14 where the note is used as part of an ascending progression (kind of like “NIB”). Then from 2:32-34, there is a really interesting descent toward the major second that “unfolds” in a slowing cascade setting up perhaps his fastest shredding ever, shredding that uses the major second as a staging area. As you see in the video, Ricardo descends to the major second, plants his index finger there, and the whirlwind of notes begins. As the shred continues, the major second appears once more-caught in passing again during the final build-up. In this solo, the major second seems to be almost thematic-a little extra there, there. Plenty of players can play Em pentatonic fast as lightning. I’m not sure nearly as many think to feature the major second. This seems like the mark of a composer.
“Age of Reason”
“Age of Reason,” off the album 13 (2013), features a much slower tempo than the other two songs, although the tempo changes numerous times over the course of the song. In terms of the solo, the song itself is at its slowest when the solo occurs. In terms of texture and nuance, this solo is among the best in all of Black Sabbath-different speeds and techniques accumulated over a lifetime of composition, a solo that could only proceed, perhaps, from the same mind as “NIB” and “Neon Knights.” I’ve written elsewhere about the feeling of the solo, and will just note here that the anguish and turmoil reflected in it are greatly enhanced by the use of the major second.
Sample #3: The link below features guitarist Aaron Kipness in a 2014 performance of “Age of Reason” by New York Black Sabbath tribute band Into the Void. The 56 second solo transpires from 4:56 to 5:52.
The first instance of the major second occurs from 5:06-10. As in “Neon Knights,” the solo descends or unfolds toward the major second and then “spins” a bit before transitioning back to the twelfth position. The second occurrence is from 5:35-37 and constitutes the darkest moment in the solo. It’s also the only moment here under examination when the major second becomes the center of a final moment for a segment.
So, these data suggest that the major second stands as a theme in Tony Iommi’s composition of guitar solos. The placement of elements centered on this note indicates a greater than chance probability of design. Across the years and the tempos and the styles, Tony Iommi has remained true to the first principle of the Iommic Second.
Written by Dr. Metal
Vinyl Analysis #4
Acknowledgements: First, let me express my admiration to Nick Didkovsky, Ricardo Monteiro, and Aaron Kipness for their fine playing. Special thanks to Maestro Didkovsky and Dylan Pruiett, School of Rock-Lubbock, for advising me in music theory and being patient with me as I learned how to talk about what I was talking about.