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Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on Eddie Van Halen: ‘He Was Always an Inventor’

“He was so humble and so nice,” the guitarist says of his onetime tourmate and longtime friend. “He was just genuinely a great person”

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi pays tribute to his friend Eddie Van Halen.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP; Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

Since his earliest days playing music, Eddie Van Halen was a Black Sabbath fan. “We played just about every Black Sabbath song,” he once recalled in a Guitar World interview, looking back to a time when he wanted to name his band “Rat Salad,” after a Sabbath song title. “I used to sing lead on every Black Sabbath song we did — things like ‘Into the Void,’ ‘Paranoid,’ and ‘Lord of This World.’” So when Van Halen got the opportunity to open for Black Sabbath in 1978, Ed was ready. So were Black Sabbath.

Van Halen’s playing on the band’s self-titled debut turned Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s head well before the band joined them on the road. “I just don’t know how he could play like that,” Iommi says. “Nobody can play like him.” After the tour, they became close friends, going out to dinner with each other and occasionally jamming in the studio. Iommi was in touch with Van Halen right up until the guitarist’s death earlier this week. “This week’s just been horrible,” Iommi says, as he looks back on their decades-long friendship. “I can’t stop thinking about it, to be honest. It’s very, very sad.”

What were your first impressions of Eddie?
I can’t remember if I heard the record first or saw them live. I must have heard the record, knowing they were on tour with us. But God, he was an amazing guitar player. I’d never heard anything like it. Like, “Bloody hell, what’s this?” Well, he was the first to do that. As a band, they were so alive and fresh. They were so good.

Ed’s such a lovely guy. We really got to know each other well on that tour. He used to come around to my room most nights after the show. Or I’d go around to his room and we’d sit there talking. We used to have such a great time together. We really spilt our hearts out with each other.

What would you talk about?
Do you really want to know? [Laughs] I’m not gonna mention that actually. [Pauses] No, we used to chat mostly about guitar, amps, sounds, and music. But we met so many times; we’d just talk about different stuff just like you do with your mates.

Ozzy Osbourne told us that Van Halen were a hard act to follow on that tour.
They were very good. They were very energetic. You’ve got David Lee Roth there, jumping up in the air and doing somersaults, and God knows what else. And the way they’d run around the stage, of course, it was the complete opposite to us; we, like, stood there when we went on [laughs]. But they were just a very, very excellent band. You knew then that they were gonna make it. There’s no two ways about it. They just got something that nobody else was doing at that time.

Did you jam with Eddie at all on that tour?
I think we played guitar in the room a couple of times, but most of this was after the gigs. We’d finished the show and go back to the hotel, and we’d arrange to meet in my room or his room or in the bar and have a chat. Very rarely played. I think we played a couple, three times on that tour. We all got on very well. Bill [Ward] used to chat with Alex, and I’d be with Eddie. It was always a very close thing with Van Halen.

What impressed you about Ed’s playing?
He was just unique. When he came out with the way he played, it was a style that I’d never heard, and it blew your socks off. It was so good. And of course, he’s never gone backwards. He’s always gone forward and improved and improved. As years have gone by, his technique has developed more and more.

What I like about Eddie, he was always an inventor. He’d always want to come up with something new. He worked hard to develop his own amplifiers. And he’d work on his own guitars as best he could to make them feel comfortable to him. He was always very much an innovator with a bunch of things.

That’s something you two had in common. You both fixed up your guitars.
Well, we had a lot in common. We in Black Sabbath were older than them, but we had a lot in common. So he used to ask me things about what we’d been through. We’d been through the stuff that they were about to go through when they first started. He used to ask a lot of questions, and you’d sort of answer them. “You’ve got to expect this,” and “This is going to happen and that.” He was interested. He always wanted to be interested in stuff. He was such a nice guy. I’m just devastated. I can’t believe it.

How did your friendship with Ed continue after that tour?
We never seen each other for a while, and then we saw each other in L.A. at some awards and then we stayed in touch again then. I’d call him up or he’d call me up. And we’d arrange to meet. Always, when I’d been in L.A., I’d be in touch, and him and his wife and me and my wife would go out for dinner. It was great. Of course, with this Covid thing, and not being able to be back in L.A., we stayed in touch by email. But it’s hard.

He had a hand in writing one of the songs on Black Sabbath’s Cross Purposes album, “Evil Eye.” How did that come about?
Well, when we were doing Cross Purposes, they were playing in Birmingham. Obviously, I went to see him, and we were rehearsing. I said, “You ought to come down to rehearsal if you want.” “Oh, can I?” I said, “I’ll pick you up from the hotel.” I said, “Let’s go and get a guitar.” We went down to the music shop in Birmingham. I said, “Can you lend us a guitar for Eddie?” And of course, they went, “Oh, oh, wha’?” [Laughs] So Eddie came in with me, and we got one of his guitars, his own model. And he came to rehearsal. We played some of the Sabbath stuff for him. One of his favorites was “Into the Void,” strangely enough. We played that and we went back to writing. I think it was “Evil Eye,” and I said, “Go on, you play the solo on this.” He did and it was really great. When we recorded it, of course, I tried to duplicate that, but I couldn’t [laughs].

You must have a tape of that solo somewhere still.
You know what, there is. I don’t know where it is amongst my lot, but there is one. I know I’ve got one. It was a real gem.

Did you ever attempt to play like Ed yourself?
Oh, God, no. I could never. The way he played, it was just second nature to him. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve just never been able to do that sort of stuff. We’re totally different styles all together. That was a very clever version of a guitar player, and he’s the one that started that, in my mind. He got so good at it. He was brilliant in bloody ’78, you know.

What are your favorite Van Halen recordings?
I like the first album. They used to play that on the tour every night; they played that whole album basically. And it sounded exactly the same. They were really good. But I always liked his playing. You can’t fault that. And the funny thing is, we were talking, and I didn’t realize. … I said, “I can’t read music.” He said, “I don’t either. It’s all off-the-cuff stuff.” He’d learned to play without music. I went, “Blimey. Same as me.”

Did he ever tell you much about his love of Sabbath? At one point he wanted to call Van Halen “Rat Salad,” after one of your song titles.
Yeah, they used to play Sabbath stuff. He did talk to me about it. He was a big fan. Basically, we were fans of each other, really.

He was such a humble guy. He would talk, “How did you play this song? Am I playing it right?” I remember when we jammed together and we started playing “Into the Void,” I said, “No, it’s not like that.” And he goes, “Oh, how’s it go?” And of course then he got it. But they used to play a lot of Sabbath stuff apparently.

You were such close friends. Were you in touch with him recently?
Yes, I had an email from him just before he went into hospital, I think. He told me about his throat. But he hasn’t been well for quite a while, has he? It’s amazing how he managed to fight all that for years now. I’m amazed how he was able to handle that.

Is there any way to measure Ed’s impact on music?
He’s had probably one of the biggest influences that you could have on people, from his generation onwards. He came up with something completely different. How hard is that, to come up with something different guitar-wise? I think he’s inspired so many people. There’s millions of people out there all trying to do that tapping stuff and play like Eddie and play Eddie’s solos. I think he’s had a huge impression on millions and millions of guitar players.

For all of his influence, he seemed like a down-to-earth guy, too.
Oh, God. He was such a lovely guy. He was really shy as well. We had some great times. And some of his emails he sent me, you’d almost want to cry. He was so humble and so nice. We felt for each other. We had this thing where we’d finish up the email, “God bless.” All the nice things. He was just genuinely a great person. He wouldn’t bullshit you or anything. And every time you’d meet him, he’d throw his arms around you and really show his affection. Really lovely bloke. He’ll be very, very missed.

From Rolling Stone US