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Black Sabbath Amp Settings Guide

Black Sabbath Amp Settings Guide

Black Sabbath Amp Settings Guide: Tony Iommi’s Hand of Doom and a Sound for the Ages

When I ask my guitar students about which metal bands they know and which ones they like the most, they almost always talk about Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Slipknot, and others. Only a few mention Black Sabbath, so I always use that opportunity to teach them more about the real grandfathers of heavy metal!

Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi, their guitarist, paved the way for thousands of players who would fall in love with their heavy riffs, and every metal band that would come later has undoubtedly been influenced by their immense legacy.

Tony’s sound is heavy and full, but it does not have any overwhelming bass frequencies. On the contrary, he was always on the search for more treble. He is known for playing Laney amplifiers, and his most popular guitars are Gibson SGs that have either P90 or humbucker pickups.

In this Black Sabbath Amp Settings Guide, I will show you every little secret that you must know to harness the power of Tony Iommi’s monumental guitar tone!

Bottom Line Up Front

Black Sabbath are often hailed as the grandfathers of heavy metal, and Tony Iommi’s massive guitar sound has definitely contributed to that legendary reputation. His tone is fat and distorted, but it always sounds trebly and crisp, instead of dark, muffled, or mid-scooped.

As for his sonic tools of choice, you’ll generally see him playing Gibson SGs with humbuckers or P90s, depending on the era you’re looking into.

He used Laney amplifiers for most of his career, very light gauge strings (008s and 009s), and few effect pedals, mostly treble boosters and overdrive pedals to kick the front end of his high-powered amps.

Start with the following amplifier settings if you are pursuing a Black Sabbath-inspired tone. Set the Gain to 7, Treble to 7, Middle to 6, and Bass to 5.

After that, test it out with your guitar’s volume and tone at 10. Make any small adjustments that you see fit to your amp’s EQ and to any pedals that you might be using.

A nice way to use your gear in a setup like this is to use your guitar’s volume knob at 10 for lead sounds and back it up a little for rhythm parts.

Black Sabbath Amplifier Settings: Your Launch Pad for a Monstruous Sound

Fender Amplifier

I came up with these amp settings for you to use with an amp that can deliver a good amount of overdrive and saturation on its own, but if you don’t have that, you can compensate by using a good dirt pedal. There will be a few excellent suggestions later in the guide.

I used a Laney Ironheart IRT30 combo that I was able to borrow from a friend, and I liked it so much that I am now craving for an amp that has a great distortion sound, as I’ve mainly had amps that were focused on a good clean sound, such as my Fender Blues Junior and my Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb.

In any case, I would still be able to get a good Black Sabbath tone with those amps if I paired them with the right overdrive pedals (more on that later as well).

Start with the following settings:

  • Gain: 7
  • Treble: 7
  • Middle: 6
  • Bass: 5

The reasoning behind these numbers is that you want a full sound, hence the Middle past half. The Gain at 7 is meant to give you enough saturation for lead and rhythm, so you can control that with your guitar’s volume knob, or with an external dirt pedal.

The Bass is at 5 because we don’t want the tone to be overwhelmingly bassy. Lastly, the Treble is high because Tony Iommi’s sound tends to be very focused on the high-end frequencies.

In any case, this is a starting point and you should make adjustments to it once you get to try it with your own rig.

Try not to have too much gain, it is better to need a little more than having too much distortion.

Be careful with the bass, you don’t want your guitar to sound muffled or lacking clarity. If you listen to Sabbath’s records, you’ll notice that the guitar cuts through the mix in every song.

What Makes Up a Great Guitar Tone?

What Makes Up a Great Guitar Tone

Guitarists spend hours talking about tone. We love to discuss which pedal sounds the best, which guitar design is superior, which amplifier brand rocks the most… The list goes on forever. But what exactly makes up a guitar tone that can blow everyone’s mind?

Knowing how your rig works and what you have to add, remove, or adjust to get closer to the sound you have in your head is more than halfway through the journey of bringing it to life. In summary, I believe that the tone of an electric guitar is affected the most by these:

  • Guitar Body Type: Solid Body, Semi-hollow Body, Hollow Body
  • Pickup Choice: Humbuckers, Single-coils, P90’s, Goldfoils, etc
  • Amplifier Type: Solid State, Tube Amp, Plugin/Emulator
  • Amplifier’s Settings: Volume, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence
  • Effect Pedals: Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz, Modulation, Time-based Effects, etc

As you can see, the amplifier settings are only a small part of this equation, but rather than feeling overwhelmed, you must be excited to explore and experiment with as many variables as you can in your hunt for the tone you’ve been desiring for so long.

Aside from doing your research in terms of gear, it is important to listen to the musicians you’re trying to emulate as much as you can.

Do this while paying attention to every detail. Is the sound very saturated, or does it seem to have a moderate amount of gain? Do you hear a lot of bass, or is it more focused on the high-end?

Lastly, there is something that having all the gear in the world wouldn’t help you with: the player’s technique. The most important part of nailing someone’s sound is to play like them as much as possible.

This means you should study how they approach everything they play. The riffs, picking style, if they prefer using legato or picking every note, and so on.

Fortunately, this kind of studying involves listening to records and watching live performances of your favorite artists, so get started as soon as you can!

Tony Iommi’s Tone: Roaring Amps for Heavy Riffs

Tony Iommi's Guitars
Image from Fandom

Guitarists can be very particular about their rigs, and while some like it simple and straightforward, others like to craft intricate and complex setups that require several cables, pedals, and different types of connections.

Tony Iommi does not overcomplicate, and even though he uses a few pedals in the studio and during live performances, it is nothing compared to the complexity of some other guitarist’s rigs.

This is great, as it means you can focus more on the guitar and the amp, rather than a jumbo-sized pedalboard.

For a Black Sabbath-inspired tone, you will need to have a guitar with relatively high-output pickups, which means no single coils. Humbuckers or P90 pickups would be ideal.

Laney amps have been the preference of Iommi for years, so it would make sense to find something in that field. As for effects, a good overdrive and a treble booster should be more than enough.

Tony Iommi’s Guitars

When you pull up a video of a Black Sabbath live performance, the most likely thing to see is Tony Iommi playing a Gibson SG or one of his custom-made guitars that resemble the SG shape. This is not to say that he has never played other guitars, but these are the ones that he is most associated with.

1965 Gibson SG Special “Monkey”

This is one of Tony’s most iconic guitars. He traded a right-handed SG he had for this one, and then it was heavily modified. The most significant changes were the new Simplux pickups (similar to P90s), a neck refinish, a zero-fret, and the monkey sticker that makes this one easily identifiable.

Tony used this guitar on 3 Black Sabbath albums: Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (1971), and Vol. 4 (1972).

Tony Iommi with his 1965 Gibson SG Special “Monkey”

John Birch SG Custom

This is one of Tony’s most famous custom guitars. It was built in 1975 by John Birch. Some of its most prominent features include a 24-fret  neck, John Birch Magnum pickups, an ebony fretboard, and a stainless steel pickguard.

Tony used this guitar for albums such as Technical Ecstacy (1976), Never Say Die (1978), Heaven and Hell (1980), and Mob Rules (1981).

Tony Iommi playing his John Birch SG Custom

Tony Iommi’s Amplifiers

Tony has been an avid user of Laney amplifiers for a very long time. In fact, although I’ve seen many people playing these amps over the years, I have always associated the brand with Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath.

Laney Supergroup

Mr. Iommi is one of Laney’s most recognizable players, and he’s used several iterations of the Laney Supergroup amplifiers during his career.

The first one was the original Laney LA100BL. Later on, the LA100SM Supermod came along, and this one really seals the deal when it comes to achieving a vintage metal tone.

The Laney LA-Studio amplifier is also meant to capture this sound, although it is designed with the studio in mind. It features several adaptions that make it easier to capture the essence of Iommi’s sound in the studio.

Tony Iommi playing Laney Supergroup amplifiers

Tony Iommi’s Effect Pedals

Tony Iommi does not use a lot of effects, and most of the pedals he uses regularly are meant to boost his overdriven sound for added compression, sustain, and treble.

He might use a modulation effect like phaser or chorus sporadically, but I wouldn’t focus on that when building a pedalboard for Black Sabbath tones.

Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster/Analogman Beano Boost

Tony is famous for using the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster as a means of obtaining his signature tone. However, he lost it in the late 70s, and he had the people over at Analogman build him a clone of that circuit.

This pedal would eventually become the Analogman Beano Boost, which you can purchase directly from his website.

Analogman Beano Boost Treble Booster

How to Replicate Black Sabbath’s Sound Using Modern-Day Gear

Although Tony mainly uses vintage guitars, custom-made instruments, and amplifiers that are either no longer available or very expensive, the music industry of today has many affordable options that can get you sounding like Black Sabbath for a much friendlier price.

After all, the way you tweak and use your gear, as well as your guitar technique are the things that will have the most impact on your final tone.

The following gear suggestions will certainly steer you in the right direction, but you can’t overlook the importance of listening to Tony himself as much as you can and always trying to adjust your playing to slowly get closer to his approach.

The Guitars: No Single Coils Allowed

In terms of guitars, the most logical choice is to go for something that has humbuckers or P90 pickups. If it is an SG or shaped like an SG, bonus points for looking the part more!

No need for anything like whammy bars or fancy mods. Tony even disconnected his Tone controls because he always has them on 10.

Epiphone SG Standard ’61 Reissue

Epiphone SG Standard '61 Reissue

The Epiphone SG Standard is a solid choice for whoever wants the classic look of this body shape that has been around since the early 60s without busting the bank.

It is light, the access to the upper frets is even better than on a Stratocaster, and the pair of humbuckers will respond well to any overdrive or distortion pedal you throw at it.

Some of its main features include a mahogany body, a mahogany neck, an Indian laurel fretboard, and a pair of Twin ProBucker humbuckers.

This is my most budget-friendly suggestion, as the next ones are a bit more specialized, albeit more expensive as well.

Sweetwater Music – Epiphone SG Standard ’61 Electric Guitar – Vintage Cherry

Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Special

Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Special

For true fans of the Hand of Doom, you can get a re-creation of one of Tony Iommi’s most iconic guitars, the one he’s called “Monkey”.

This Epiphone SG is loaded with a pair of Epi Pro P90 pickups that capture the character of his early riffs, as well as several other improvements in comparison to the SG Standard.

Apart from the pickups, the features I’d highlight from this guitar are the Orange Drop capacitors, high-quality CTS pots, the adjustable wraparound bridge, and the Grover Rotomatic tuners. It also comes with a hardshell case.

Sweetwater Music – Epiphone Tony Iommi SG Special Electric Guitar – Vintage Cherry

Gibson Tony Iommi SG Special

Gibson Tony Iommi SG Special

For the most hardcore fans with a sizeable budget, Gibson has also remade the “Monkey” SG Special with all the perks and details that the original guitar has, down to the sticker that Tony has on the front of his.

If you are after the sound of Black Sabbath in the 70s era, this guitar will instantly take you closer to that ballpark, as it is tuned to do exactly that.

The frets on this guitar are perfectly dressed by a Plek Pro machine, meaning that the playability on this instrument is off the charts. This one also comes with a hardshell case.

Sweetwater Music – Gibson Tony Iommi SG Special – Vintage Cherry

The Amplifiers: Loud, Saturated and Heavy

In the amplifier department, you’re looking at volume, saturation, and enough headroom so that you can push it further with your overdrive and/or treble booster of choice. Aside from the suggestions I present below, there are many Laney amplifiers that aren’t being manufactured anymore that would suit this role perfectly, such as the GHL100.

Boss Katana 50 MkII Combo

Boss Katana 50 MkII Combo

I thought it would be sensible to include an affordable solid-state option for people who don’t want to buy a tube amp for the maintenance that it will eventually need, the added weight, among other things.

The Boss Katana 50 is an extremely versatile combo amp that can nail warm, jazzy clean tones just as well as it can pull off saturated tones that could easily be used to record heavy metal guitars.

It also comes with a lot of decent-quality effects, and you can expand on its versatility and playability by acquiring a dedicated footswitch to change between presets.

Sweetwater Music – Boss Katana-50 MkII 1 x 12-inch 50-watt Combo Amp

Laney Ironheart IRT30 Combo

Laney Ironheart IRT30 Combo

I borrowed a Laney Ironheart IRT30 from a friend and I put it through its paces for a few days. I have always been more used to having “clean platform” amps like the Fender Deluxe Reverb, so it was pretty fun to experiment with an amp that can put out some serious distortion.

I can also see why Tony Iommi would enjoy this kind of amplifier, as not only it has a great overdriven sound on its own, but it also reacts musically to dirt pedals and treble boosters, which was what I mainly tested on it.

Although my Gibson SG does not have P90s, it was almost screaming while I played all the Sabbath riffs I could remember.

This amp features two channels, a complete EQ section, and other nice additions such as an onboard wattage control and an XLR-DI input for convenient recording sessions.

Sweetwater Music – Laney Ironheart IRT30-112 1 x 12-inch 30-watt Combo Amp

Laney Supergroup LA30BL Head

Laney Supergroup LA30BL Head

If you’re more of a head and combo kind of player, the Laney Supergroup LA30BL could be the perfect amp for you. It does not have a huge wattage like a 100W head, so it will probably be more usable in most contexts, such as rehearsals and gigs in smaller spaces.

This vintage-inspired Class AB amp features an all-tube design, powered by a combination of 12AX7A and EL34 tubes. You can jump the several inputs just as you can in a Marshall Plexi to get more overdrive out of the channels, and I’d highly recommend you try it out.

Additionally, you can pair this head with different cabs with different speakers to obtain varied results and see what works best with your guitar and pedals.

Sweetwater Music – Laney Supergroup LA30BL 30-watt Tube Head

The Effect Pedals: A Simple, Effective Push into Riff Land

Pedal-wise, you’re in luck. My best recommendation is to find a good overdrive or distortion pedal to push your amp’s front end, especially if that amp does not have a dirty channel.

Tony Iommi has been using treble boosters as a signature part of his tone, so we can’t overlook that either. Aside from that, it comes down to personal preference. Here are a few of my top picks.

Laney Black Country Customs TI-Boost (Tony Iommi Signature)

Laney Black Country Customs TI-Boost

The inclusion of this pedal here is not due to the Tony Iommi name exclusively. This treble booster will get you in that Black Sabbath-esque ballpark very quickly, as it is inspired by the Dallas Rangemaster circuit that Iommi has relied on for decades.

Aside from the sonic properties that instantly take you to Sabbath land, it has a few modern improvements that will even let you improve upon the initial idea you have.

The original Rangemaster lacked the possibility to shape your tone precisely, but this stompbox comes fully equipped with Drive, Low, High, and Volume knobs, as well as a 3-way Middle toggle switch.

All of this comes inside a virtually indestructible metal enclosure with true-bypass silent switching. Even if you’re not going after Tony Iommi’s tone, this is an excellent tool for riff-making in general.

Sweetwater Music – Laney Black Country Customs TI-Boost Tony Iommi Signature Boost Pedal

Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra Overdrive

Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra Overdrive

Catalinbread is known for making high-quality pedals, some of them inspired by specific amplifiers or rigs that famous musicians have used on certain occasions.

The Sabbra Cadabra is meant to capture the very essence of Iommi’s core rig components: a late 60s Laney Supergroup’s preamp, and a Dallas Rangemaster booster.

They’ve managed to cram these two prized ingredients in a compact stompbox that will take your rig straight into heavy riff territory.

This Made in USA pedal is made to last, and it packs several useful tone-shaping tools, such as a Range knob that lets you go from treble boosting to full-range frequency boosting.

Sweetwater Music – Catalinbread Sabbra Cadabra Clearwell Edition Overdrive Pedal – Sweetwater Exclusive

Pro Co RAT 2 Distortion

Pro Co RAT 2 Distortion

Although this pedal isn’t as spot-on as the last two that I’ve presented, I figured it would be useful to have a more “general” distortion pedal option, especially for players whose amplifier does not have any kind of dirty channel.

The RAT is one of the most versatile distortion pedals around, due to its ability to go from a smooth distortion sound to a raging wall of harmonics that will stand out in any context you decide to use it in.

This version of the pedal has a few improvements in comparison to its vintage counterparts, namely an LED to let you know when it is engaged and a more reliable on/off footswitch for added longevity.

Sweetwater Music – Pro Co RAT 2 Distortion / Fuzz / Overdrive Pedal

Catalinbread Naga Viper Treble Booster

Catalinbread Naga Viper Treble Booster

The Naga Viper Treble Booster is another option put out by Catalinbread that was inspired by the mythic Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, made famous by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.

I don’t think it would make sense to have this and the Sabbra Cadabra on the same board, but I’d suggest you try both of them if you can, and see which one suits the rest of your rig the most.

It has three knobs: Range, Boost, and Heat. These control the frequency response, the amount of gain, and the pedal’s output, respectively.

Sweetwater Music – Catalinbread Naga Viper Treble Boost Pedal

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Black Sabbath’s Amp Settings

Question: What kind of guitar strings does Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi use?

Answer: Tony Iommi has been an advocate of low-gauge strings for decades. Even though most guitarists tend to use heavier gauges when they play in lower tunings, Iommi prefers using .008 or .009 string sets, depending on how low he’s tuning.

Question: Does Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath use any effect pedals?

Answer: Tony Iommi likes to keep it simple when it comes to his gear. He is known for using the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, which he later replaced with the Analog Man Beano Booster, which is essentially a clone of his previous pedal. Aside from that, he’s used a few distortion pedals, and a few modulation effects in the studio, but nothing that particularly stands out.

Question: What amp settings should I use to sound more like Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi?

Answer: The most adequate amp settings should account for the room where you’re playing, the guitar’s pickups, and the amp itself, but the following should be a great starting point: Gain at 7, Treble at 7, Middle at 6, and Bass at 5.

Closing Considerations About Black Sabbath’s Amp Settings

After analyzing thoroughly what makes up a unique guitar tone, you should understand that having adequate or even perfect amplifier settings is not guaranteed to land you the sound of your dreams. Regardless, it is an indispensable part of the equation that no one should be overlooking.

The “Black Sabbath Sound” can be achieved by pairing a guitar with humbuckers or P90 pickups into a British voiced amplifier such as a Laney, and hitting it with a good quality treble booster.

Tony Iommi is known for looking to add more treble to his sound, and many people make the mistake of boosting their low frequencies to achieve a fuller-sounding tone, but that is going in the opposite direction.

When dialing in your amp for a tone inspired by Black Sabbath, start with the following settings and then adjust as necessary: Gain at 7, Treble at 7, Middle at 6, and Bass at 5.

Lastly, I can’t help but remind you to always listen to your favorite guitar players with open and critical ears. Try to decipher what their tone has that yours hasn’t, and think about what you might be able to adjust to bridge that gap.

Nailing this and their approach to techniques like picking, string bending, and vibrato is more than half of the journey.