10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Tom Morello

May 8, 2014

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 Torn, 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 Nightwatchman. 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. To grab a piece of Morello magic, first you gotta...

1 Keep It Real 

Morello is famous for his left-leaning politics and his activism on behalf of the downtrodden, and his conviction comes through in every note he plays. When you think about guitarists such as Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Phil Keaggy, John Lennon, or even Ted Nugent, you see they all hold (or held) strong beliefs and they can articulate how those beliefs inform their music. Whether you agree or disagree with Morello isn’t the point. The point is that if you have a strong sense of self and some confidence in what you believe, you won’t be swayed by flavor-of-the-month labels or radio stations. You’ll also be less susceptible to the insecurities created by the competitive-guitarist shred sweepstakes, which is a major impediment to doing your own thing. So remember: To thine own self be true. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

2 Go With What  You Know 

Morello has used the exact same gear (with subtle variations) practically forever.

In addition to the aforementioned guitars and amp, he sticks an Ibanez flanger, a DOD EQ, a Boss delay, a Digitech Whammy pedal, and a CryBaby wah in the effects loop and that’s it. That’s pretty much always been it and yet he gets an unreal amount of sonic blood out of that turnip. His decision to limit his gear choices originally grew out of frustration but ultimately set him free. When asked what guitarists could do if their tone was stuck in a rut in the November 2005 issue of GP, Morello replied: “Well, I’ll tell you what I did when I encountered that problem—I gave up. For years, I tried to find this perfect tone I had in my head. Then, one day, I spent a few hours fiddling with my gear, and I decided that I didn’t particularly love the tone, but it wasn’t going to get any better. So I marked those settings and said, ‘Now I’m done. This is my sound.’ And those settings are the same ones that I used in today’s rehearsal—as well as on every record and at every show I’ve ever played. When I stopped worrying so much about tone and started worrying about music, the problem went away.”

As much as we all love futzing with gear and getting new toys, a limited palette can quite often spark creativity. Rather than buying your next tone to inspire an idea, create that tone with what you have right in front of you by using your same old gear in a brand new way. Attack the strings differently, work your tone knob in time with the music, knock on the back of the neck as you fret chords, blow on the strings instead of strumming them. That D-A change doesn’t sound so tired anymore, does it?

3 Don’t Always Go for the Good Stuff

Morello deliberately shies away from gear that is too pretty or too perfect. When presented with a guitar that had a fancy-shmancy whammy system on it, he insisted it be replaced with a comparatively low-budget model. Why? Because he depended on the rattles and noises that the cheaper unit produced to create his funk-rock soundscapes. What does this mean to you? Well, think about it this way: Anyone can play a power chord, but only you can play a power chord and then add whatever weird quirk your guitar possesses, like making a howling noise by picking your trem springs. Or picking behind the nut or bridge on an oddball instrument for a sound that no Strat or Les Paul could duplicate. Or tapping your pick on a microphonic metal pickup cover. And speaking of microphonics, if your pickups are squealy, make the most of it by screaming into them with some delay and distortion. It’s not about being clean, proper, or correct. It’s about being unique.

4 Keep It Simple, Stupid

In addition to being an acronym for one of Morello’s favorite bands, this phrase is also a mantra of sorts for his riff creation. Many of his most famous parts are super simplistic, with some using just one note. The trick then becomes, how do you make a part interesting if it’s just one note? Lots of ways. Take a look at Ex. 1. The first bar is a dropped-D version of the crushing octave intro to “Bulls on Parade.” (Tip: Transpose this up to the key of F if you want to jam along with the recording.) The shifting accents create a hypnotic pile-driver effect that makes it feel like it’s not in 4/4, but it is. Hit these notes as hard as you possibly can. Bars 3 and 4 approximate the verse in “War Within a Breath,” but rather than split the riff between a low bass note and a high Whammy pedal screech, we cover that four-octave jump ourselves as notated. If the stark, open quality of these disparate Ds gets old for you, don’t resort to playing more notes. Bring these two notes back to life by flanging, phasing, delaying, whammying (bar or pedal), or otherwise mutating them. We all know there’s beauty in simplicity. Remember there’s power in it too.


5 Think Inside the Box 

“When it comes to riffage,” says Morello, “I’m all about the 1st and 3rd fingers and the 3rd and 5th frets.” He makes it sound so easy, but if you examine a bunch of Rage riffs, you’ll see that there’s a lot of truth in his claim, particularly when he’s in dropped-D tuning, as we are in Ex. 2. This phrase would be equally at home in a Black Sabbath song and it features some classic Morello-isms, such as the huge single-notes broken up by carefully placed muted “chucks,” chromatic power chords, and blues-scale descent at the end. Don’t rush it. Down-tempo dirges like this need to simmer and seethe.

6 Think Outside the Box  

Despite his deep knowledge of “proper” guitar playing, Morello is at his best when he’s at his most twisted. A glorious example of this can be heard in the tune “Voice of the Voiceless.” The intro features a droning bagpipe sound where a Mixolydian melody flits and jumps over a G pedal tone. Morello produced this timbre with his trusty Whammy pedal, but not in the most conventional fashion. “I laid down in front of my amp and got my guitar feeding back on the open-G string,” he told GP in July 2000. “With the feedback wailing, I played the melody by using my right hand to rotate the pitch preset knob on the Whammy pedal. You can still hear the open G droning. Those big jumps are me accidentally hitting the two-octave setting.” Ex. 3 is a bitchin’ approximation of the “Voiceless” tone sans Whammy pedal. Borrowing a favorite technique of fellow iconoclast Matthias Ecklundh, we hit a G harmonic at the 12th fret of the G string and, while that sustains, we fret and pick the accompanying melody on the high E. Because of the different timbral makeups of harmonics and fretted notes, the overtones don’t clash as much, even with violent distortion. This is not only a cool sound, it’s also a great way to free yourself from what’s “normal” and approach the guitar in a different way.


7 Bring the Funk 

For a guy who cut his teeth on punk and rock, Morello knows a lot about old-school funk and R&B and how it filtered into the rock genre through players such as Jimi Hendrix, Sly and Freddie Stone, and Eddie Hazel. During our lesson in 2000, Morello played the riff in Ex. 4, inspired by the live version of “Testify.” Another of his awesome dropped-D salvos, this starts with a very Jimi-approved 7#9 chord before throwing in box- pattern single-notes, one-finger power chords, and a funny little double-stop bend at the end. Really lean on each downbeat. “In all the music that’s richly satisfying to me,” says Morello, “the ones are huge and unrelenting. It’s not really a rule, but you’d be a fool to stray from it—it’s good enough for James Brown!” Superbad.

8 Bring the Noise 

Morello’s rep as the preeminent sonic anarchist of his generation is well deserved. When asked why, he had this to say: “It’s a wide-open road. Once you get off the beaten path of chords and notes, any noise can be its own microcosm of songwriting. There is a deep library of songs that go from G to C. There is not a deep library of songs that use a toggle switch and a wah pedal. The possibilities are limitless with just those two things. Add an Allen wrench that you use to bang on the strings, and your options grow exponentially. I love that.”

One of Morello’s best noise tricks is his use of toggle-switch gating to create violent, on/off tremolo effects and robotic bursts of sound that have no attack or decay—they come in at full blast and cut off just as abruptly. To get started, you’ll need a guitar with two pickups and separate volume knobs. Turn your neck pickup volume to zero and keep your bridge pickup on ten. Switch to your neck pickup and hammer the E whole-note in Ex. 5a. Now move your toggle switch back and forth in the thirty-second-note rhythm indicated at the top of the staff. What you’ll hear is sixteenth-notes spitting out in a way that is impossible with a pick. Once this feels comfortable, try Ex. 5b. This is similar to Morello’s “Know Your Enemy” lick. Because your picking hand is busy working the toggle, you’ll have to hammer or pull all of these pitches.


One more cool toggle-switch riff can be found in Ex. 5c. This one jumbles the rhythm, so pay attention to the “actually played” staff to achieve the syncopation in the “actual sound” staff.  A perfect example of how Morello uses left-of-center sounds to make simple parts fresh and vibrant.


9 Don’t Fear the Major Third 

Despite the fact that Morello’s work relies heavily on the minor pentatonic scale, he frequently works in major-sounding phrases in tunes such as Rage’s “Killing in the Name” and Audioslave’s “Your Time Has Come.” Morello explained the difference between playing massive riffs in a minor key versus a major key in the November, 2005 issue of GP.

“It took a real commitment on my part to even explore the difference,” he said, “because I used to think that minor-key heavy was the only kind of heavy. You couldn’t deviate from that minor scale. But there’s this Zeppelin song called 'Out on the Tiles,' and that riff flirts with a major tonality. I tried to learn it, and I couldn’t, because I refused to think outside that minor pentatonic scale. It couldn’t be those notes. Those notes don’t kick ass! Then I realized that’s what Jimmy Page was playing, and I thought maybe those notes can kick ass.” Try the dropped-D riffs in Ex. 6 on for size and dig how they can be happy and slamming at the same time. These are reminiscent of the live version of “Down Rodeo.” (The Rage song actually sounds a half-step lower, as the guitar is tuned to dropped-Db.) The space created by the rest and the rhythmic scratches lets the groove breathe, and the juxtaposition of the major third and the creepy b9 (Ab) keeps the riff from being too pretty. In the words of Morello: “Even when I throw in some major-key notes, I always come back to the minor home where true heaviness lies.”


10 Bring It  Home

The tune that got it all started for Morello has to be “Killing in the Name,” off the first Rage record. In the space of a few bars we get to hear Morello blur the distinction between major and minor, slam greasy, dropped-D power chords, and employ the extreme dynamics that give the song its depth and power. Before we examine the notes themselves, let’s remember what Morello said back in 2000: “Dynamics are a big part of the heavy factor for us. They’ve become an innate part of the songwriting process—the quiet parts that build the tension that triggers this huge release that makes 100,000 kids jump up and down.”

The tune opens with huge D power chords that lead into a disturbing bass figure that jumps between the root and the b9. It’s over that bass line that Morello plays Ex. 7a , a line that not only contains the major 3 but also the major 7. Repeat that three times, adding the bend on the fourth pass. Although it’s not notated, the guitar and bass then do a few bars of root/b9 (D to Eb) quarter-note triplets before kicking into the main groove in Ex. 7b. (For the sake of continuity, this is notated as a faster 4/4 tempo, although the drums are actually playing a half-time feel.)

Morello plays the part wide open in the intro and then pulls it back in the verse, picking more lightly and using light palm muting on the power chords. In a later verse he plays the chromatic-flavored blues run in the second ending. Jam along with any of the youtube videos of “Killing” and you’ll hear how Morello fleshes out the other sections with big power chords, funky, muted chucks, and a Whammy pedal rave-up for the solo. Once you get a feel for the structure, make sure you throw in your own techniques to keep it original. (If you don’t add some of your own trip, you’ll be a mere cog in the very machine against which you claim to rage, which would suck.) Mix in your personality over the “Killing” groove and soon enough you’ll be paraphrasing the soothing, mellow lyric at the song’s end: “With all due respect, I won’t do what you tell me.”
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