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Tom Morello: “I enjoy embracing limitations. I’ve had the same guitar setup for the entirety of my career“

Tom Morello
(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)

His work with Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave and Prophets Of Rage has made him one of the most influential rock guitarists of his generation. And for the readers of Total Guitar he has a simple message.  

“It’s lesson time,” Tom Morello says. “So wash your hands and tune your guitar. But if you have to pick  one or the other... wash your hands!”

Once you can play something 150 times perfectly, you can move on...

“It was a very fateful day when I learned how to alternate pick properly. While I was self-taught, I would occasionally take myself to a guitar shop in Highland Park, Illinois, if I wanted to learn a song – where a hippie stoner teacher would show me my favourite Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath songs that I couldn’t figure out on my own.

I had one lesson with Michael Angelo Batio. It was a lesson that changed my life and led me to able to play solos like Take The Power Back and #1 Zero many years later

“One day he was off sick and so I got sent to a room with the other guitar teacher, who was Michael Angelo Batio... The famous four-necked guy before he was famous! I had one lesson with him. He sat me down and told me to play something. I scrambled my way through some leads, trying to show off and sounding very hackneyed.

“He said, ‘It sounds like you want to play fast but you don’t know how!’ and I said, ‘That’s accurate, sir!’ So he wrote a series of exercises on one sheet of paper – fundamental picking exercises using quadruplets and triplets in different modes. 

“He forced me to start slow and said once I had mastered the exercise, I could click the metronome up by one and eventually move on. I believed what he told me and it was a lesson that changed my life and led me to able to play solos like Take The Power Back and #1 Zero many years later.”

Create an alternate vocabulary of sounds to tell your own story...

“I began playing late, around 17 years old, and I’d never heard of another guitarist who made albums using noises in that way. Except for Robert Johnson, who had to sell his soul to the devil to get good! Given my Catholic upbringing, that wasn’t really an option, so I had to put in my 10,000 hours. 

I self-identified as the DJ in the band and stopped looking at the guitar as this hallowed instrument on which there was only one way to get good

“Most of that time was spent emulating my heroes like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, then later on Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen. I realised that if you put in the hours, you can actually get into the same ballpark as those players. But what I didn’t have was my own voice on the instrument.

“It was really in the beginnings of Rage Against The Machine where I self-identified as the DJ in the band and stopped looking at the guitar as this hallowed instrument on which there was only one way to get good. Instead, it became a piece of wood, with six wires, a few electronics, a couple of knobs and a toggle switch that could be deconstructed.

“Anything on that guitar was fair game, from the Allen wrench used to change strings to the guitar jack to even the pickups themselves. I started manipulating the instrument to create my own alternate universe of noise. You might not even need the guitar, like when I hit the cable against my hand going through a wah. Why not circumvent the whole thing!”

Look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration...

“Once I had the blinders off and realised the parameters of rock and roll guitar playing were not just Chuck Berry to Eddie Van Halen, I started practising sounds – whether that was DJ scratching or wild boars rutting at the zoo or the helicopters overhead. 

“Even if I couldn’t exactly mimic those sounds, practising non-guitar noises led my playing in an entirely different direction. It felt like that lane was open. There was no one else in it. I started constructing a whole sonic world out of these barnyard animal noises, old war films and Public Enemy records.” 

Use delay to create an infinite guitar assault...

“It was at that same guitar shop in Highland Park where I purchased a delay pedal. I remember that feeling when you first plug in that first effects pedal you ever get, cranking all the knobs to maximum to make this wild and insane blizzard-like cacophony... It’s so exciting! 

“Then you buy the pedal and come home, dialling in a more subtle sound like a slight slapback or nuance to the mood. I never lost that original feeling. I wanted to carry cranking that shit up to see how wild it could get. 

“On songs like Revolver, which has an introduction that I used to call ‘The Forest Comes To Life’, I had a custom-built Ibanez with this crazy noise-generating pickup in it. I would scroll through these bizarre macaws, squawks and jaguar howls using the delay cranked to maximum. 

“The tapestry was like a forest coming to life! For Cochise, that was a really hard slapback delay – for each note you play, there’s an instant doubling of it. By tapping a pen or pencil against the strings in rapid succession while muting them and moving the Whammy pedal up and down, I found a sound exactly like the police helicopters circling over Los Angeles.” 

Train your ear through random improv...

“When I was putting in my 10 or 20,000 hours, I would always use two hours out of the eight hours a day for random improvisation. I would literally take the radio dial and spin it. Whatever station I ended up on, I would try to fit into – whether it was classical, jazz, new age, hip-hop or rock and roll. 

“I spent a lot of time jamming along to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, trying to feel my way into the vibe of those songs without any real jazz training. That’s one of my favourite styles of music and it’s really helped me in my playing. From Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery... They were huge influences on me, which is why the Settle For Nothing solo has so many chromatics and tabs out more like a jazz part.“ 

Use the right tool for the job, whatever it may be...

“When we were doing the demos for the first Rage Against The Machine record, we had an engineer called Auburn Burrell and I borrowed his Les Paul for the end part of Bullet In The Head, the big outro section. When we were going in to make the record, I had my Telecaster and Arm The Homeless guitar and we each had $600 to spend on gear. 

“I wanted a Les Paul to double my principle guitars. I saw it on the wall of West LA Music in Santa Monica Boulevard and it was exactly the same colour as Taco Bell hot sauce. The reason I know that is because Taco Bell was one of the main food staples of the squat I was living in. 

“I thought to myself, ‘That guitar looks exactly like the taco sauce we eat all the time!’ and that’s why I bought it. It was not a particularly expensive guitar and rarely stayed in tune, but it became the main overdub guitar for all my drop-D songs from that day forward – including Killing In The Name, the end of Freedom, the end of Take The Power Back and I used it just the other day on my newest recordings!” 

Get to grips with music theory...

“There was a brilliant book called The Guitar Handbook which really helped flesh out some music theory for me, especially in terms of knowing what to call the scales I was using. I had figured out 86 per cent of it on my own just from jamming so of course I was very surprised to find out that the feel and scales of different solos actually had names [laughs]. 

“For harmonic minor, I would say Randy Rhoads was the principal influence for me. He had one foot firmly planted in this classical minor key, almost violin-like proficiency and another in flat-out blues jamming to the nth degree. That always appealed to me.” 

Embrace your limitations instead of fighting them...

“One thing I’ve been falsely accused of doing over the years is using a million effects pedals. That’s not true. I use four... And one of them, rarely! 

“It’s basically the Whammy, the boost to go to 11 when I need to, the delay and the wah – and actually just the other day I released my signature Dunlop Cry Baby, which looks all revolutionary with red stars and sloganeering. It’s the exact internal workings of the pedal I bought when I was 18 years old and ended up on every single recording and live show I’ve ever played. And that’s it. 

I bought some expensive rack gear that I didn’t understand how to use. It was very complicated. By the time someone explained how to use it, I felt like it made my guitar sound worse

“Every crazy sound came from those. At first it was a matter of financial expediency. I didn’t have the money for pedals. When I got my first record deal in a band called Lockup prior to Rage Against The Machine, I bought some expensive rack gear that I didn’t understand how to use. It was very complicated. By the time someone explained how to use it, I felt like it made my guitar sound worse rather than better.

“I thought, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to stick with what I’ve got!’ I enjoy embracing limitations. I’ve had the same guitar setup, the exact same amplifier and pedals for the entirety of my career. I decided this would be my setup and I wouldn’t go crazy with buying new pieces of gear to seek sounds but rather plumb the depths of my imagination and creativity to take this limited setup and get the maximum I can out of it.”

The more you practise, the more you will enjoy practising...

“All I can do is pass along the information and inspiration that was given to me. If you want to get good – you have to practice at least an hour a day every day without fail. All three parts of that are important. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or have an exam in the morning, you have to do it without fail. 

“I found when I did that, I noticed my playing improving so much that it encouraged me to practice two hours a day every day without fail. Then four. Then six and eventually eight. Maybe my obsessive-compulsive nature helped...” 

Learn from and in front of others...

“You have to play with other musicians. That is key to learning and not becoming another YouTube basement shredder. Interacting with others will mean you will grow and learn a lot. Playing live is also very important. 

“Once my punk-rock band in Illinois had practised our songs to a tee, we felt very confident. Then we stepped in front of an audience and our combined abilities plummeted about 45% because we were so nervous. There’s nothing like live bullets firing to reveal what you can improve upon and provide that connection with the audience – which is the most important thing to create future inspiration.”

  • Tom Morello's Whatever It Takes is out now via Genesis Publications.