By Blackett, Matt
Guitar Player , Vol. 42, No. 5
ALTHOUGH HE CLAIMS HIS MUSICAL CAREER IS BASED ON playing "the same two strings on the same two dots," Tom Morello isn't exactly what you'd call a one-trick pony. With his groundbreaking band Rage Against the Machine (as well as his subsequent group Audioslave) he has famously and funkily squeezed a metric ton of awesome riffs out of what might appear to be a limited batch of notes and a caveman-simple rig.
Morello was drawn into playing guitar in his native Illinois by a love of music that spanned Kiss, the Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, the Clash, and Black Sabbath. He would later be heavily influenced by the technique of Randy Rhoads and the hip-hop stylings of Dr. Dre. Along the way he graduated from Harvard with a degree in political science, all the while practicing and getting his chops together in the billion-note '80s where it was, as he puts it, "Shred or get off the pot." And shred he did, with his band Lock Up, which enjoyed a small level of major-label success (though, because of the deal they had signed, Morello and his bandmates "could not afford Top Ramen"). Compared to his subsequent 6-string work with Rage, Morello's playing in Lock Up was relatively straightforward, with heavy riffs and melodic solos (although an early example of his trademark toggle-switch gating shtick can be heard in the tune "Can't Stop the Bleeding").
Although he had his technique down (thanks to an exhaustive practice regimen at Harvard), Morello didn't truly find his voice until he formed Rage in 1991. In many ways, Rage Against the Machine was the right band at the right time. Aside from being one of the originators of the hip-hop/metal hybrid that would rule the airwaves for years, Rage also showed the difference between a group of great musicians and a great band. With his killer rhythm section of bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk (whom Morello had met when Wilk auditioned for Lock Up), the guy we've come to know and love as the "real" Tom Morello was finally free to rear his funky head. From the get-go, Morello's playing was a textbook of how to dish out riveting, memorable riffs that are heavy as hell. He did it all with an acute sense of dynamics and an uncanny knack for producing one amazing tone after another. In fact, when the dust kicked up by his explosive guitar parts finally settles, Morello will probably be most remembered for his tones, textures, and timbres.
With a Tele or a humbucker-equipped super-Strat plugged into a 50-watt Marshall JCM 800 and five or so stompboxes, Morello throws down an unending stream of hooks that each embody what he calls "the big rock riff"--riffs such as "Bulls on Parade," "Killing in the Name," "Sleep Now in the Fire," and many others. But Morello's other big contribution to the guitar lexicon has been his incredible ability to create and manipulate bizarre, otherworldly noises and seamlessly incorporate them into his bands' grooves. Bloops, bleeps, bagpipes, and stuttering explosions of sound are just a few of the sonic weapons that he has at his disposal. Check out the solo (?) to "Bulls," where Morello turns the tables on the turntablists by scraping his left hand on the strings as his right feverishly works his toggle switch. Watch him rub the low strings with a hex wrench on "People of the Sun." And listen to the sound he calls "termites" in the song "Born as Ghosts" and you'll see why players as diverse as David Tom, Joe Satriani, and John Scofield were all quick to name Morello when asked who they thought was doing creative guitar work.
When Rage broke up, Morello continued to kick ass with Audioslave, and lately he's been gigging as his folkie alter ego, the Night-watchman. This lesson, however, will focus on his badass Rage riffery with some choice weird-noise advice thrown in for good measure. So plug in, dial up a meaty neck-pickup rock tone, and get ready to testify, because it's not healthy to suppress your rage. …