Tony got his first guitar at 13. Before that he played the accordion, alongside many of his family members. In his late teens, he worked in a sheet metal factory. Around that time, a band invited him to tour Europe with them.
On his last day of work, before the tour, he went home for lunch. He told his mom he wasn’t going back. She wouldn’t have it, though. His mom told him to return to the factory, and not let his employer down.
Management assigned Tony a new task that afternoon. He had to operate a massive machine he didn’t know how to work. Pushing metal in and out, the machine slammed down and hit his fingers. As he drew his hands back, he pulled off the ends of his fingers. Blood gushed everywhere. Doctors told him he’d never play again.
While recovering, a manager from the factory visited Tony. In spite of Tony’s protests, he forced Tony to listen to a record of Django Reinhard. Tony relented and, upon listening, admitted that the playing was good. The factory foreman then explained, “You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire.” At that moment, Tony realized he too could learn to play, once again.
Tony’s fingers were sensitive, which made relearning the guitar painful. This forced him to get inventive. He melted a plastic bottle into thimbles, and put them on his damaged fingers. This was cumbersome, as he couldn’t feel the strings. Plus, strings were heavy at the time. So, Tony made his own sets of strings, out of lighter gauge banjo strings.
Because of his disability, he needed to find crafty ways to make his sound seem bigger. His solution was to tune his guitar down. (The slack in the strings also made them easier to bend.) He then plugged the guitar into the bass input of his amp, to give it more oomph. Aggressive, raw, fat, and full of gain—Tony created a whole new sound.
In 1968, Tony (Iommi), Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward created Black Sabbath. Only 3 years earlier, a 17 year old Tony almost gave up the guitar. He didn’t though. In turn, the band pioneered heavy metal music, inspiring countless future musicians. Some might think that accident was a cruel act of fate. I just wonder if there would have been a “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” or “War Pigs,” if not for his brief misfortune.
Want the truth? The truth is that you might not be any good. The truth is that the thing you’re making might be awful. The truth is that your weird quirks might drive people bonkers… or not. Maybe you’re just ahead of your time. Maybe your audience hasn’t been born yet. Maybe your quirks will help shape your unique voice. The truth is that no one knows.
History is awash with stories of people who were told they’d never succeed—and those who met an obstacle. Some just didn’t listen, though. Instead, they kept going. As for you, it’s not your job to know whether you’re “fated” to do something. It’s also not your job to predict the future. Your job is to keep making work you care about. Let history figure out the rest.
Hat tip to Richard Campbell for observing that the poetic irony in all of this: that an unfortunate incident with metal resulted in the birth of heavy metal.
Want more? Check out the full list of articles, learn about this blog, or grab a book. Here’s what I’m doing now, and what I don’t do. I hold free weekly office hours. Alternatively, you can hire me for more involved engagements, via smashLAB.