Hit the Tone! Black Sabbath’s Paranoid

Hit the Tone! Black Sabbath’s Paranoid

Hasn’t enough been said about this record already?

Well, we hope not. Still, it never hurts to celebrate (on its 50th anniversary) a fundamental album in the history of metal and adjacent genres. Yes, folks: without Paranoid (without the first four Black Sabbath albums, actually), the long-haired dudes in high school would have only heard the (relatively) slow blues of Blue Cheer. With all due respect to Blue Cheer, these four British freaks were something else: no other band had ever sounded so disturbed, so possessed (if you will), so blunt and concise at the same time. Without Paranoid there would be no heavy metal, but also no thrash, no sludge, no doom, no stoner rock, no grunge. Black Sabbath brought together spirit, charisma and an absolutely uncontested way of approaching each instrument (as we will see throughout the article) in an album that is undeniably important in the history of human culture. In this Hit the Tone we’ll be discussing the reasons why Paranoid sounds the way it does and how you can recreate that sound without having to bite off a bat’s head (unless you want to). Here we go! 🦇

Let’s start with the guitar: the importance of the Monkey

 

The story is well known: shortly before the gestation of Paranoid, Tony Iommi met someone who provided him with a left-handed Gibson SG. Iommi decided to modify it a bit: he went to the famous guitar maker John Birch‘s shop and fitted it with the famous Simplux pickups:

The other pickup was also rewound and coated with metal. The neck, too, was finished with a layer of polyurethane lacquer, making it easier to move between frets, and a zero fret was added. Last but not least, we can’t forget the decal of a monkey playing the fiddle. Iommi used this glorious Frankenstein (among other guitars) in Paranoid, Master of Reality (1971) and Vol. 4 (1972). Later, by the way, he stopped using it and sold it to the museum at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Although the Monkey guitar is made upon request, given its exclusive character and its prohibitive price, we will discuss the other guitars that Iommi used on the album, as well as possible alternatives.

Iommi says that for the second Black Sabbath album he wanted to try something different. Since he had been playing Fenders (Stratocaster, mainly), in this case he opted for Gibsons. His relationship with the Les Paul was short, as he never felt completely comfortable with it. His great guitar, the one which everyone associates with this British guitarist is, without a doubt, the Gibson SG, one of the most versatile guitars in the world: it’s good for unleashing a storm and accompanying a picnic. In fact, the Signature that Iommi developed with Epiphone is inspired by the SG:

In any case, to emulate the sound of Black Sabbath, it will always be advisable to use two humbucker pickups, which will provide us with more force and power than single-coil pickups.

 

Iommi had the pickup switch set to the upper position (rhythm) for riffs and to the treble for solos like the one you hear above.

Pedals from Hell

To emulate the sound of Tony Iommi you’re going to need several pedals. Don’t panic: you won’t have to spend hours tweaking knobs but a booster, a wah wah and a phaser will be of great help.

The booster (above you have the Catalinbread Naga Viper and the Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra increases the guitar signal just before it reaches the distortion threshold. The wah wah (Fulltone Clyde is the one you have up here modulates a specific frequency band within the sample, resulting in the characteristic sound that you can sense from its name. A phaser (Walrus Audio Lillian in the pic above) is an effect that firstly splits the signal of the guitar and then sends a clean signal and a second one with the phase shifted. Finally, the pedal mixes the two signals, which cancel each other out and generate a sound-sweeping effect.

 

Take Iron Man, for example. As we were saying, Tony Iommi used to put the pickup selector on the treble. To strengthen that feeling, he boosted the high frequencies by increasing the volume of his signal (see the solo in this song). To do this, we’ll set the boost (or gain) knob to either 4 or 6 o’clock. If our booster is somewhat more complex and allows us to select which frequencies to boost, we will obviously select the high frequencies. In addition, the slight oscillation that we hear at certain times is due to a phaser. Iommi used it to give some character and darkness (and paranoia, of course) to his guitar, but he didn’t abuse it: we are talking about a subtle use of this pedal, placing the knobs at a medium level at most.

And you’ll say we forgot about the wah wah. Well, no! Listen to the intro of Electric Funeral. See, there it is! The wah wah is a pedal that is much more about the dynamics we use than the actual settings. In this case, Iommi uses it in the riff between verses (when Ozzy isn’t singing) in time with the kick drum. It also accentuates the last notes. Yes, super well executed!

Let’s make that sound big, for Satan

To show you we’re not lying, we’ll put it in Iommi’s own words: “On Paranoid I basically used an SG and the Laney. Everybody used HiWatts and Marshalls, but I liked the Laney with 12-inch cabs”.

Although he also used Fender amplifiers for some solos (because of their nice brightness), Iommi immortalized the combination of Laney heads (pictured above, the LA100SM and the LA30BL) and 12″ cabs (pictured below, the LA212 and the IRT412A Ironheart).

Throughout the record, the amplifier configuration is the same: bass at 0, middle, presence and gain 1 to 10, to generate a crisp sound, with the natural overdrive of tube amplifiers.

Before we conclude with the guitar section, we must remember a couple of things. I’m sure you know the story of when Tony Iommi had an accident at work, cut off a couple of his fingers and had to relearn how to play with a small prosthesis he made himself. Well, some people say that heavy metal came out of that accident: in his relearning, Iommi was forced to minimize the hooks and focus on the rhythm.

Thus (well, after thousands of hours) his characteristic way of playing was born, supported by the combinations of guitar, pedals and amplifiers we have told you about above, but also by two details that are worth remembering: medium-hard picks and super light strings (from .009 to .042 calibre). These details will not save your life, but they will bring you a little closer to our hero’s style. And now all you have left to do is to tint your glasses. 😎


You’re next Mr. Butler!

It’s often said that Geezer Butler‘s legendary bass sound has more to do with the way he attacks the notes and moves his fingers than with any particular tool. To emulate his sound, you must have remarkable finger movement (which doesn’t have to mean great speed, it’s a good sense of rhythm) and focus your activity on the upper part of the fretboard (especially from the 10th fret). From there, things will be easier.

Geezer Butler used a Fender Precission with flatwound strings, which provide a deep sound (roundwounds were not imposed on the bass until the 1980s), but as we said, that’s not the most important thing. Before going to the pedals, a little nerding out: Butler, together with EMG, developed some passive pickups, the Geezer Butler PHZ, which stand out for their warm sound that could compensate the use of, for example, roundwound strings.

An overdrive, a soft distortion, will help us to dirty the signal before it reaches the amp. In songs like War Pigs we hear the bass with that soft overdrive distortion (amount of distorted signal and clean amount) at 11 o’clock, for example. The rest of the knobs would be in a medium position.

Yeah, yeah, we know that this song is not from Paranoid, it’s from Black Sabbath [1970], the debut album, which actually just celebrated its 50 year anniversary on February 13th! But there are those who say that on that record Geezer Butler became the first bassist to apply a wah wah to his instrument. That’s why, every time this effect is talked about in a bass context, Butler is mentioned.

Without going any further, one of the most coveted pedals by bassists looking for a ’70s sound is the wah wah that our Butler developed together with Dunlop, the Geezer Butler Cry Baby Wah. Like Iommi, the bassist uses the effect in time with the kick drum.

Let’s talk about heads & cabs

Along with his characteristic playing style, another determining factor in Geezer Butler’s sound comes from projecting it through the amplifier. That’s why the midrange knob will always be at least a quarter of the way higher than the other frequencies. If any of the other frequencies escape us, we must avoid the high frequencies at all costs, because the bass will sound too loud.

Obviously, when we talk about seventies sounds, we are talking about tube amplifiers. In order to generate distortion in these amps, you had to play very loudly (another characteristic of Butler’s rhythmic vigour). That’s why we sometimes used overdrives, so that the signal reaches the amp with some dirt with out having to burn your fingers on every song! Oh, by the way: the two beauties you see above are the Ashdown Head Of Doom-Geezer Butler and the Ampeg Heritage SVT-CL.

As for the cabs, there’s not much to say: a good 12″ beast (like this Ampeg SVT-212AV or this EBS Classic-112CL) will do just fine:

Oh, almost forgot: here are some secrets about a riff that might sound familiar


And to the drums… Bill Ward!

“There were no metronomes, and everybody came in and played, and that’s how it was. No more, no less, so Tony and I had to work very hard on the rhythmic base.” That’s Bill Ward, the man who made that beast called Black Sabbath push forward. When he talks about Paranoid, the Brit usually says that there are mistakes in his drumming, that he didn’t know much about microphones, but the reality is that if you’re a drummer and you want to play heavy metal, you have to play this record. In War Pigs, after the initial small blues jam, Ward displays his magic: a combination of bass drum and crash followed by eighth notes of hi-hat. It’s amazing how something so seemingly simple works so well. Later on, through syncopated sounds, Ward creates the perfect atmosphere for Iommi to shake off the anxiety and for Ozzy to get his rocks off.

Each track is a perfect simple-but-controlled, minimalist drum lesson. In his own words: “We were going to the same place at the same time, and it was one of our characteristics as a band, we were totally opposite to Led Zeppelin, who used air as sound”. At the beginning of Iron Man, a slow kick drum (22″) takes over. “It was about emulating something that walks threateningly toward you, a giant or something,” Ward said. In this live version of Rat Salad you can see some of his most common tricks: accentuated hits that finish off very long rolls (in the solo) or flam taps separated by kicks.

As for the equipment itself, Bill Ward used Ludwig‘s epic kits with 22″ x 14″ drums (or similar), 14″ x 5″ snares, 12″ x 9″ toms, 18″ x 16″ floor toms; Zidjian cymbals, 14″ hi-hat, 18″ crash and 22″ ride.

One last thing. After all, Satan knows that if a time machine existed, you could be right here:


Conclusion

The main conclusion that underlies this review of Paranoid is the exploratory zeal that the four members of Black Sabbath had. They may not have been great connoisseurs of the technology they had in their hands (actually, no band at the time was compared to the hardware mastery that was standardized in later decades), but that constant search led them to turn the blues into something completely new. Tony Iommi said that he never stopped thinking about how to manipulate his head and his guitar to get the sound he wanted. And it’s true that it may be daring to aspire to create something the size of Paranoid, but that momentum and dedication only depends on each one of us. The rest is usually excuses.

Article originally written by Santini Rose in Spanish


👇 Check out our Hit the Tone Video Tutorial for “Paranoid” below 👇

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Joe started playing the guitar when he was 10 and has been using it as a songwriting tool ever since. He is passionate about melody and harmony and admires musicians who create these in unique ways. Check out his alternative / indie projects Best of Feelings and Zef Raček.