100 Favorite Guitarists: #60 Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave)
Tom Morello is a mixed bag of emotions for me as I don’t much care for the way he carries himself, but the second I hear his guitar playing, my attention becomes rapt following each twist and turn he weaves into his playing. Morello does indeed have the skills of a technician, evidenced by some amazing speed and impressive use of hammer-ons to develop tense musical scenes. But the main appeal of Morello’s guitar playing is just how damn unique it is. Seriously, no one makes their guitar sound the way he does. The large part of this comes from an inventiveness in the tools he uses, calling to mind “People of the Sun.” An undoubtedly cool song, the sound the guitar is making at the beginning of song, that strange modular scratching terminating in a rather processed screech was achieved by running an allen wrench over the strings, an act not unlike the use of the violin bow that other guitarists may take up but showing a less refined yet creative attitude towards achieving a certain type of dissonance from the instrument. And this type of strange implementation does not stop here as I would also say that Morello is among the few guitarists to use his effect pedals in such interesting ways. Many guitarists are hesitant in their use of effect pedals believing that it destroys the purity of the guitar’s sound, but for others, including myself, the effect pedal is a way to open up the familiar instrument with a new vibrancy or frequency that matches the message of the music. Morello takes this to an extreme degree, capturing the intensity of his music by making alien noises, just on periphery of the guitar sound, yet unsettling in their proximity to it. On the song “Cochise,” Morello implements a digital delay, using the short clipping cycle to simulate the sound of helicopter overhead which may a small touch, but adds to the drama of the song and adds a certain degree of dramaturgy to the work, setting the mood and setting of the song as one of conflict, the sounds of helicopters overhead signaling the impending death swooping down upon them. The main meat of the song is played largely with a wah pedal, constantly thumping up and down, drawing a rather psychedelic vibe to itself through the thick gain, adding both fluidity and a sense of confusion to the the phrasing of the riff. Nearly every song he plays on the electric inhabits this, finding the unique tone for the song itself rather than having a stand-by tone that works across the board. Because of this, his guitar playing is so distinct from song to song, whether it be using the phaser to give an other wordly vibe in stacatto, using a chorus to draw out the trebley vibrations of a well execute slide on the strings or using a talkbox to simulate the hiss and energy of a radio being played among the chaos. I know Morello primarily from his works with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and while you can tell it is him behind each group, his playing manages to range so differently especially in terms of songwriting. Built on a foundation of rapid down stroke riffs, his songs with Rage seem to come together as explosive bursts of energy. Each of his effects is built to add fuel to the fire of the rhythm section, adding his own rhythmic thrust with a decidedly funky beat to it. This works perfectly with the vocals, as the rapping delivery is met with the scratchiness of his sound, allowing an interplay of the two melodic instruments. With Audioslave, everything was always a bit calmer, though not necessarily more controlled. Instead of trying to portray fury in its rawest form, Morello instead had space to create these textured passages, often slowly dotted until they interplayed with themselves. Chris Cornell’s singing would come on top, but Morello’s solos could always find a way to be so much more expressive, so much richer in the way they built themselves. Throughout both groups, Tom Morello established himself as a rogue guitar genius, utilizing new sounds to make the guitar different with each breath.
The Equipment: Oh god. All his guitars have like a paragraph written about the way they have been modded, so I’m only gonna talk about his main standard tuning guitar, Arm the Homeless. Arm the Homeless is a self-assembled guitar with that phrase written on top of a blood body, along with a hammer and sickle, made from a Custom Performance superstrat body and 22 fret Kramer Carerra neck. The guitar contains a floyd rose tremolo and an EMG 81-85 set, an exceedingly popular pickup choice for heavy metal musicians and likely contributing to the heaviness of his sound. His main amp is a Marshall JCM800 50 Watt, on which he only uses the crunch channel. This is again a rather heavy metal choice, so I’m starting to read why the chaos comes through such much in Rage’s sound. He has scads of effects, of course, some of which include a Digitech Whammy Pedal, a Boss DD-2 Digital Delay, a Dunlop Crybaby Wah, an Ibanez Digital DLF Flanger, a MXR Block 90 Phaser, a DOD FX40b Equalizer (used as a boost), a Locobox Analog Delay and a Boss TR-2 Tremolo. This stuff is for the most part easy to find equipment with not too much botique thrown in, so if you want to simulate their sound, it shouldn’t be too hard.