Black Sabbath

How Tony Iommi created the iconic riff for Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’

‘Iron Man’ is the second single from Paranoid, the second album by English heavy metal legends Black Sabbath. Released on 7th October 1971, ‘Iron Man’ remains one of the Birmingham band’s most enduring creations. The riff and the lyrics are the two main reasons for its exalted status in the annals of rock history.

Frontman Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics are unforgettable. The narrative tells the story of a man who travels into the future to save humanity after witnessing a vision of destruction. However, upon returning to the present, the titular hero is turned to steel by a magnetic field. His attempts to warn humanity of its impending doom are thwarted by his metallic appearance, leading them to mock him. Iron Man feels bitter and alone and plots his revenge on the human race. In a sudden twist of fate, it is this that actually causes the apocalypse he had initially envisaged.

You may be surprised to find out that the inspiration for the song did not stem from the band’s desire to deliver a warning to humanity amidst the mire of the nuclear arms race and Cold War. Rather, that Osbourne felt guitarist Tony Iommi‘s classic riff sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about”. The title would eventually become ‘Iron Man’, with bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler writing the lyrics around the title. 

There has also been extensive debate on how the classic, distorted vocals at the beginning that say “I am Iron Man” were created. One rumour abounds that Osbourne sang into a metal fan to get the sound. However, it is more likely that his voice was run through one of the early types of modulators. Interestingly, the modulator was used to create the metallic voice of the TV supervillain of the day, the Daleks on Doctor Who. 

Guitarist Tony Iommi also used a similar effect on the guitar solo for ‘Paranoid’. It is also worth clearing up at this point, that the ubiquitous Marvel Universe character bears no relation to Sabbath’s, regardless of what the MCU’s nerdy sticklers for easter eggs would tell you. In a 2021 interview with Songfacts, guitarist Tony Iommi revealed how he created the song’s most defining feature, the riff. As he has mentioned at points before, the “riffmaster” explained that his riffs just pop into his mind, as if by magic. 

Iommi recalled: “I was in a rehearsal room, and Bill started playing this boom, boom, boom. He started doing it, and I just went (sings bending string bit before the song’s riff) and came up with this thing and thought, That’s cool. Bill kept playing it, and I just went to this riff.”

The heavy metal legend then explained: “Most of the riffs I’ve done I’ve come up with on the spot, and that was one of them – it just came up. It went with the drum, what Bill was playing. I just saw this thing in my mind of someone creeping up on you, and it just sounded like the riff. In my head I could hear it as a monster, so I came up with that riff there and then.”

Iommi also ascribed ‘Iron Man’ the status of being one of the most important from the whole of the Osbourne period of the band. He stated: “I always relate to ‘Black Sabbath.’ And ‘Iron Man.’ A lot of people say ‘Paranoid’, but the song was written as a filler for the album – it was never intended on being anything else. But it became a single because it was a short song, and because it became what it did, most people knew us because of ‘Paranoid‘ in them days.”

‘Iron Man’ is just one of many classic songs from Paranoid and the hallowed Ozzy Osbourne era of Black Sabbath. Given that we have reminded you of the song’s iconic earworm of a riff, why not revisit it?

Listen to the unmistakable ‘Iron Man’, below.

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