I realised that last time I forgot to say one of the important things about Black Sabbath. It’s this: that they achieved their greatness not despite, but because of, their limitations. Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t really sing. Tony Iommi, evaluated technically, was very limited compared with Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore. Geezer Butler wasn’t really a bassist at all, but a guitarist — he had no real idea of what a bassline is supposed to sound like. Put all that together and what you get is … somehow magical.
A big part of this is down to the industrial accident that took the tips of the middle and ring fingers of Tony Iommi’s right hand. Since he plays guitar left-handed, that was his fretting hand. The accident left him with cumbersome technique, unable to fret full chords, forcing him to use root-and-fifth-only power chords. To make fretting easier, Iommi tuned his guitar down, changing its tone. Both factors contributed to the distinctively doomy Sabbath sound.
Similarly, Butler’s lack of experience as a bassist was converted from a bug to a feature. Not knowing how to create a bassline that complemented the guitar riff, he simply mirrored it — sacrificing musical richness, but compensating by a gain in power.
Then we come to Ozzy. All you can really say about him is that he is such a terrible, whiny singer that his voice is utterly distinctive. You can’t even begin to confuse classic-era Black Sabbath with any other band. (Amazingly, Ozzy would go on to front another superb metal band with a very different sound … but that’s a story for another day.)
I find all this fascinating. It reminds me of nothing more than my very early adventures in computer-game graphics. Working on a VIC-20, I was constrained to designing user-defined characters in an 8×8 matrix. This kind of thing:
There’s something paradoxically liberating about working within such tight strictures. The limited set of choices clarifies the creative process, and facilitates creating something that has clarity. Then it becomes a matter of combining the simple components you’ve created into a greater whole — whether that’s a matter of different kinds of 8×8 user-defined characters moving around a screen, or putting guitar, bass and drums together with vocals.
So for me, the lesson of Black Sabbath is that old favourite, Less Is More.