BY COLLEEN CAVANAUGH//
Welcome to Just Riffing, a column where I pick guitarists I admire or find interesting in some way and then write about them. This week, I have a question. What do a B.A. in political science from Harvard and making really weird noises have in common? Why that would be Tom Morello of course.
Morello is best known for being the founding member of Rage Against the Machine, a true hallmark of the 90s. RATM is a seamless fusion of rap, rock, punk, funk, and revolutionary political lyrics, which some people (*cough cough* Paul Ryan) still do not get. Just goes to show conservatives have zero critical thinking skills. A few months ago, I witnessed Morello explain the power of a general strike to a confused eighth grader in his Instagram comments; he’s a real dude, but we already knew that.
Morello’s musical CV expands way beyond Rage though. After de la Rocha left the band, the remaining members joined forces with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden to form the very successful Audioslave. He has also explored his acoustic, folk side under the name The Nightwatchman. He’s collaborated with a ton of other notable musicians, including the project Street Sweeper Social Club with Boots Riley, who is a rapper, screenwriter, and director of the critically acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You. Morello has made several appearances, live and on talk shows, playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, as well as contributing to the studio recordings of his fairly recent albums. Now, he’s back where he started, as RATM reunited and had a tour planed for 2020… but we all know what ended up happening there.
Let’s get down to business. Tom Morello, first and foremost, is a riff god. He writes the catchiest, most fun riffs you’ve ever heard or played. Seriously, learning any RATM or Audioslave song on guitar releases a burst of serotonin into my brain like nothing else does. He credits Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath for his love of riff-rock. And these riffs get their unique kind of heaviness from the fact that Morello almost exclusively stays in the neck pickup position. Single coils on guitars like his Telecaster lend a springiness that differentiates itself from something like a double humbucker you hear in most metal.
Morello doesn’t just play the guitar like you’re “supposed to,” he plays every part of it. I mean, the solo in “Testify” is just him pressing the unplugged end of a guitar cable into his hand while using a wah and whammy pedal. Using weird methods to get equally weird noises is characteristic of his sound. Another example of this is the intro to “Cochise,” where it sounds like helicopter rotors, but it’s actually him tapping a pen on the strings with a little added delay. Finally, there’s the famous record scratch sound where he uses a slide and a kill switch in unison. A lot of toggle/kill switch plus tapping as well.
Surprisingly, for someone who is at times very effects heavy, Morello doesn’t have a ton of pedals. It’s more about how he uses them than it is about having a different pedal for every possible thing. There’s an MXR Phase 90 (only for the intro of “Killing in the Name”), an EQ for boost, a long and short delay, DigiTech Whammy, and wah. Sometimes he even uses the crappy pedal DigiTech made trying to replicate his sound. Highly suggest this rig rundown, where he tells every anecdote and plays every solo you want to hear.
Last, but not least, Morello has some iconic guitars, and most are heavily modded. There is a core three I’d like to talk about. First, the Fender Telecaster, aka the “Sendero Luminoso,” aka The Shining Path, aka the Marxist-Leninist party in Peru condemned as terrorist by the US. Every single song he has ever written in Drop D is played on this guitar. Second, the Mongrel Custom, aka “Arm The Homeless.” This was a custom build that Morello got ripped-off on. He hated it and changed it numerous times, until one day he just decided to settle on what he had and that would be what he worked with. Third, his signature Fender Stratocaster, aka “Soul Power.” Black, Mirrored pick guard, Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the bridge, Ibanez double-locking tremolo, and, as always, a kill switch. There’s also a nylon acoustic that he wrote most of the early Rage songs on for fear of being too noisy in his apartment building. Amp wise he always goes back to a Marshall JCM800 head and a Peavey cabinet. He never changes his settings.
Out of all of the remarkable things he has done, perhaps the most impressive is wearing his guitar that high up and still looking cool.