Why Tony Iommi’s Two Fingers Were Cut Off
Tony Iommi for Gibson Guitars - GibsonTV / Youtube
Before embarking on the legendary journey with Black Sabbath that would establish them as pioneers of heavy metal and Tony as a guitar virtuoso, he lived a markedly different life—one that would significantly reshape his destiny.
The future heavy metal icon and Black Sabbath co-founder once labored in a metal factory, an environment where an accident would cut off two of his fingers and profoundly impact the trajectory of his life, and, in turn, the heavy metal sound of his band.
Featured in an episode of Raised on Radio, Iommi discussed a range of topics, including the creation of Paranoid as well as the journey that eventually led him to the formation of Black Sabbath.
The Godfather of Heavy Metal also opened up about the circumstances surrounding the incident that resulted in the loss of his fingers, a tale that has become the stuff of rock legend.
An absent co-worker led to the incident
Tony Iommi mentioned that he had previously been employed at a sheet metal work factory, engaging in welding tasks.
“I used to work in a sheet metal work factory doing arc welding and gas welding. They used to send the metal down to me to weld. The person do the press and bend it and send it to me,” the guitarist shared.
However, as Iommi recalled, on a specific day, the person responsible for these preliminary tasks didn’t report to work. In response to this absence, the manager instructed young Tony to take over the machine operations.
“One day this person didn’t come into work and the manager said, ‘Well you’ve got to go on the machine’,” Tony said. What really made this incident more infuriating, apart from a blatant safety issue, was that the fateful day was supposedly Tony’s last day.
“It was devastating, really”
Despite lacking knowledge of how to operate the machine, he was compelled to figure it out, leading to the eventual accident.
He explained that he had ventured onto the machine without understanding its operation, emphasizing that such actions wouldn’t be tolerated in present times due to safety standards.
As the “guillotine” of the machine came down on the future rock icon’s hand, he was a tad too late to pull it away from harm. Tony went on:
“As I push the sheet metal work through the guillotine come down on my hand. So as I pulled my hand back I pulled the ends of the two fingers off. So it was devastating, really.”
“I’m not going to accept that”
Iommi recounted being informed that he would never be able to play again, a statement that left him utterly disbelieving.
Sitting in the hospital with his hand encased in a bag, he initially resigned himself to the idea that his musical journey had come to an end. However, as time passed, he resolved not to accept such a fate, determined to find a way to continue playing. “That’s it – I’m finished. But eventually, I thought ‘I’m not going to accept that’,” Iommi recalled.
Following the injury, Iommi’s factory foreman played him a recording of the renowned jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Although listening to someone playing the guitar was the last thing he wanted to do, it did provide Iommi with the inspiration needed for him to persevere as a musician.
It turns out Reinhardt was also a victim of an accident involving his fingers. This was enough to knock back sense into the future heavy metal icon, that he was “suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again”.
The iconic Iommi finger thimbles
After attempting and failing to switch to right-hand guitar playing, Iommi persisted in playing the guitar left-handed, despite his injury. In order to facilitate this, he crafted thimbles for his injured fingers, extending and safeguarding them.
These improvised thimbles were fashioned from a melted-down Fairy Liquid bottle, shaped with a hot soldering iron to resemble fingers. To cover his makeshift prosthetic, he cut sections from a leather jacket.
After working around the problems with the strings and chords due to his new stiff fingertips, Tony was back to playing the guitar, not knowing that he was about to help invent the heavy metal sound.
In a 1974 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Iommi highlighted that the thimbles played a role in refining his technique, emphasizing increased reliance on his little finger compared to the period before the accident. Additionally, he explored alternate tunings for his guitar, occasionally dropping it as much as three semitones below standard tuning.
“It became a burden”
But it was not really a good ending for Tony himself, who, despite what he contributed to rock history, still felt some regret losing his fingers.
Iommi reflected on the consequences of the accident, noting that it evolved into a burden. He mentioned that some people attribute the accident to the invention of heavy metal, but for him, it served as a catalyst for creating a new kind of music.
“It became a burden. Some people believe the accident invented heavy metal. It helped me invent a new kind of music… Really, it turned out to be a good thing off a bad thing,” the guitarist shared.
Iommi went on, explaining, “It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with. It affects your playing style; you can’t feel the strings, and there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors: ‘You won’t be playing guitar.’ But I believed I could do it, and I did.”
The unmatched legacy of Iommi’s “heavy riff”
Regarded as one of the greatest rock guitarists in history, Tony Iommi has received numerous accolades and recognitions for his exceptional skills. In 2005, Metal Hammer magazine honored him with the top spot on the “Riff Lords” poll, commending his distinctive and economically effective fretsmanship.
Iommi’s remarkable contributions to music have not only earned him critical acclaim but also several prestigious awards and inclusions in “greatest” lists, such as the Gibson Les Paul Award at the Q Awards in 2015 and the Icon Award at the Kerrang! Awards in 2018, as well as being named by Rolling Stone as the 25th greatest guitarist of all time.
Moreover, Iommi is widely acknowledged as the primary architect of heavy metal music. Brian May of Queen credits him as “the true father of heavy metal”, while fellow guitar great Eddie Van Halen asserts that “without Tony, heavy metal wouldn’t exist. He is the creator of heavy!”
James Hetfield of Metallica, deeply influenced by Iommi, hailed him as “The king of the heavy riff”. During an August 2004 concert in Philadelphia, Rob Halford, the vocalist for Judas Priest filling in for Ozzy Osbourne, introduced Iommi to the audience as “The man who invented the heavy metal riff”.