Legendary Guitarist & Sonic Mastermind
Throughout his 20-year recording career, Tom Morello has been charting new sonic territory. From his groundbreaking electric-guitar techniques with Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave to his contemporary folk as The Nightwatchman, Morello is an artist above all else. Tom graciously invited us to his studio, where we spoke at length with him about his career, writing process, surprisingly modest rig and much more. Best of all, we asked Tom your questions, read on and see if yours was selected.
By Ara Ajizian, Musician's Friend Managing Editor
MF: How has your rig changed over the years, from the start of Rage Against The Machine or even before?-Alex Bond
TM: I've had the same rig since prior to Rage Against the Machine, with my band Lock Up. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. One of the things that has helped me creatively and helped my imagination is to have some things just be carved in stone, which has been my gear. It's the same head. It's the same cabinet. The newest piece of gear that I have on my board is an original DigiTech Whammy pedal that I got in 1991. There's a sense of comfort in not worrying about gear anymore, I'm going to worry about trying to get sounds and music out of the gear that I have.
MF: What was the journey like getting to that point?
TM: It was a rough and rocky road. Having read metal magazines growing up, I knew that a Marshall must be a part of my future, so I bought this Marshall half stack, which was my pride and joy, and these pedals that I liked very much. And then all my stuff was stolen out of my car here in Hollywood. I went to a now-defunct music store called Nadine's Music and bought the stuff that they had, which was a Marshall 2205 50-watt channel-switching head, a Peavey 4x12 cabinet, and a couple of the pedals to replace the (stolen) EQ and delay. At first I didn't like the sound. Frustrated over a couple of years of trying to dial it in, one day I spent about five or six hours in front of it until I literally gave up and marked my amp. This is as good as it's going to get. Those same markings are on the amp and I've used them for every show and record since.
MF: Do you keep up with new gear at all?
TM: I've never been a gearhead ... I have difficulty changing a battery. When Lock Up first got signed, we got a paltry check to go buy gear. I thought I needed a rackmounted unit in order to sound good. I could barely get the thing out of the box, and when I did finally plug it in, my tone got worse by about 70%. And so I just swore that off. I'm not really interested in new gear. I know that's disappointing to gearheads ... I'm sorry.
MF: Your sound certainly lends itself to something a gearhead would create.
TM: People are often surprised when they hear about what a very limited setup I have. It's literally four effects pedals and a 50-watt head, a single coil pickup ... that's the entire setup. In the early days of Rage Against the Machine, I was basically the DJ in the band. Up until that point, I had wanted to sound like my favorite guitar players that's what "good" guitar playing sounded like to me. Then came this revelation that good guitar playing is when you sound like yourself, and I really began to discover who I was as an artist, as a guitarist and a musician. I took the blinders off and I no longer needed to be shredding scales. It could be something that perhaps you've never heard before that's crafted into a song.
Tell me about your go-to guitars.-Pete Samra
TM: The "Arm the Homeless" guitar was originally made at a guitar shop I will not mention. It was the worst, most expensive custom-made guitar of all time. Bankrupted me and sounded like s**t. So I was saddled with this thing and over the course of a few years, replaced everything on it except the piece of wood. There have been five necks on it, countless pickup configurations, whammy bars and electronics. Until I just ... I basically gave up. I was unable to make it sound like three Randy Rhoads playing simultaneously.
And then the Telecaster, which was the guitar that I used on all of the Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave drop D songs. I couldn't do that (drop tune) with the locking nut on the "Arm the Homeless" guitar, so my roommate at the time traded me his Mexican-made Telecaster for my Marshall head. That's the "Killing in the Name" guitar, the "Freedom" guitar, "Testify" ... all those jams are written on that cheap Telecaster.
MF: What made you decide to branch out with Audioslave and incorporate other guitars?
TM: In Audioslave I made a conscious decision to explore different sounds and textures, and to be much more open to using different guitars. I got the "Soul Power" guitar a stock Fender that I jimmied with a little bit which replaced the "Arm the Homeless" guitar. With the exception of two Les Pauls, my entire guitar collection was worth about 400 Canadian dollars. But I got a couple of nice Les Pauls ... we did some drop-B (tuning) on the Audioslave records and I thought, "What might it be like to have a singing, sweet tone for a change?"
MF: Are there any guitars you have in your collection that you keep for sentimental reasons?
TM: I have the first guitar I ever bought, for $50. It's a Kay guitar. I bought it because it fit my first main criteria: it had the most knobs and was the cheapest. No matter what you do, you cannot put it in tune. But it has a prominent place in there.
There's another guitar that a lovely Make-a-Wish Foundation kid made for me. In Gaelic it says "Comrades Forever" on it, which is pretty cool. I use that on the Street Sweeper Social Club stuff. The guitar that I spent thousands of hours practicing on is there as well. It's a Gibson Explorer, which was my first real guitar that I got in high school. I've tried to put that guitar on every record I've made just for very sentimental reasons.
What advice do you have for players trying to forge their own unique sound?-Herb Steven
TM: Everyone has to find their own path. There are two roads you can go down as a guitar player. There's a road as a musician, and there's a road as an artist. And both of them can be very, very satisfying, but they're different. As a musician, you want to amass the technical ability to play the music you love and to write music at a certain skill level. When you cross over to becoming an artist is when you figure out who you are and what's inside you that you're able to share through your music. Take Angus Young or Twiggy Ramirez neither one of those guys may be asked to play concert violin, but they're artists. Some technical players who are phenomenal at what they do on the instrument may not be able to write a compelling song or have an artistic vision that is uniquely their own. It was always my opinion that the gear mattered less than your experience with the instrument, you know? Music is not something that's made by these special wizards or anything like that. Anyone can do it on any piece of gear.
MF: On the latest Nightwatchman album, World Wide Rebel Songs, you brought the electric guitar into the fold. Can you talk a little bit about how that project has evolved?
TM: Originally I wanted there to be a firewall between my electric world of Rage and Audioslave and the acoustic world. Now I feel comfortable playing whatever I want in any incarnation because I've already established The Nightwatchman as something that is different from Rage Against the Machine. I think that the songs on World Wide Rebel Songs lend themselves more toward some guitar shredding, and it's a very fun thing to do as well.
Does most of The Nightwatchman material get written on an acoustic guitar?-Kevin Brice Peto
TM: Throughout my entire career, I've written on an acoustic guitar with Rage, Audioslave much of it was written on a nylon-string acoustic guitar. When you have the small Hollywood apartment, you can't be cranking up the half stack to write your killer jams. So I always had a little RadioShack condenser mic and that acoustic guitar, and over time developed an intuition that if it sounds like this on the acoustic guitar, it'll sound like this in a stadium, and I learned to trust that over time.
MF: When you write a song on the acoustic guitar, are you also thinking about particular electric sounds that you want to incorporate?
TM: When it comes to some of the more otherworldly noises, that always happens in the electric realm. I won't be sitting there on an acoustic guitar going, "Hmm, how does this C minor chord become a herd of rampaging rhinos?" Those are two separate things.
I used to keep a thing called a noise chart because I would often come up with these exotic sounds and then be unable to remember how I created them. I had cassette tapes full of these frustratingly wonderful ideas that I couldn't re-create to save my life. So, I made a noise chart where I'd write them all down.
MF: Are you able to focus your songwriting to whatever project you're currently working on?
TM: I always focus my songwriting for a specific project. For example, with one of the Street Sweeper records, I had just got a new steel-string acoustic guitar. I sat down with that guitar and said, "I'm going to write all of this record on this particular guitar." I like those constraints.
Where does the inspiration come from for your leads/solos?-Jason Edwards
TM: The inspiration for the leads and solos comes from two places. One is more traditional: my favorite guitar players, from Albert King to Randy Rhoads to David Gilmour to Steve Vai. When I was amassing technique as a teen and 20-something, practicing eight hours a day, 365 days a year, those were the visions of shreddery that I had in my head. There was a moment at an early Rage Against the Machine show at a college in the San Fernando Valley. We were opening up for two cover bands, and each of them had a technically amazing guitar player. I was thinking, "If there's three shredding guitar players in one s****y gig on a Wednesday afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, do I really need to run that race?" I answered "no" and made a conscious decision to concentrate exclusively on the eccentricities in my playing, and the stuff that I might have used as a little flair. The toggle switch factored very much into that.
Once I did that, then it opened up that little pedal board in a very, very big way. And deconstructing the instrument to no longer be, "What mode do I employ here?"
Now it's just a piece of wood with some wires on it, and a few electronics that might be able to do other stuff when you put the wah pedal on. That felt so liberating, like the heavens opened up.
MF: There are times throughout your career where a song may feel like it calls for a wailing, blues-based solo ...
TM: And I ruin a perfectly good time for you! (laughs)
MF: Let's just say there's a healthy level of unpredictability to your solos. Is that a conscious decision that you make, to avoid the "traditional" route?
TM: Yeah. Often in the studio I would know that I was on the right track when I'd look in the control booth and the producer and the band would all be just shaking their heads going, "Oh no," or laughing. But I've never tried to make crazy noises for the sake of making crazy noises. It all makes sense musically in my head. People always say you should play for the song. Well, who the f**k's supposed to decide what the song is other than the people who write it and perform it? Vernon Reid once described that as the, "What the f**k?" factor. You're sort of listening to it like, how could that possibly be? How rude of that guy to drop that in the middle of my nice Audioslave song? (laughs)
It's not from a point of view of thinking, "I don't want to be gratuitous or play the expected." Having a different sonic palette for a number of years, I hear music in a different way than a traditional guitar player might. One of the ways that I developed was in Rage Against the Machine there are no chord changes, right? The harmonic interplay that a rock or country or jazz guitar player might use to express emotion in the music isn't there. It's like hip hop music, or James Brown music. The riff repeats and it's either an F sharp, or it's in E, or it's in D the whole time through. And at first, that was frustrating to me because it sort of neutered all of my chops the things that I had been practicing in my dorm room. But it then became a very interesting challenge. If you're going to have, say, 10 guitar solos on a record without one chord change, you're going to have to do something else to make those interesting and unique, and stand apart from one another. And that's where I lost my mind and just started making non-traditional sonic choices.
MF: Hendrix lamented the fact that although he played with his teeth because it's what he felt at the time, it became an expectation that he'd do it all the time. People looked at it as a gimmick. As you've created your own signature sounds and techniques during your career, did you ever have those worries?
TM: I would never worry when I came up with a new idea like the scratching on the guitar or some of the toggle switch stuff that it would become a gimmick because for me, that's how I was hearing music. But it is sometimes expected. A lot of the improvised sonic mayhem whether in the studio or live has become kind of codified. Like, "Oh, the audience goes crazy when you do A into B." There's a temptation to lose an improvisational spirit and just say, "That's going to work, you're going to win every night if you do that." That's something I do fight against because on the one hand, you want to feel like you're really out there exploring each time. I like that feeling of trying to land on your feet. On the other hand, there are some stock tricks some silver bullets that you know are going to work every time. So, it's a temptation.
MF: Are there solos that you feel obligated to recreate as you did on the record? Or is it all out the window when you're onstage?
TM: Certainly with Rage, I feel like I can play anything that I want in any solo section. I like to mess around with them sometimes very dramatically from what's on the records. There are a couple of exceptions, like in "Bulls on Parade" when that scritchy-scratch DJ solo comes in I want to hear that every time! That's exciting. "Killing in The Name" as well. I play pretty close to the script on that one because it's such an integral part of the melodic content of the song.
MF: Your days of eight-hour practice sessions are well documented. How has your practice regimen evolved since those days?
TM: It's very different now than it was when I was slaving away eight hours a day with no social life whatsoever. That commitment was born of something I believe unhealthy that was latent within me. Now practice is always creative. It's songwriting. The only times when it's athletic are if there's a recording session coming up, or a Rage Against the Machine South American tour. I will sit down again and go back. The finger memory is there, so it doesn't take long to get back up to technical par.
What are some of the challenges you still face as a player at your level?-Dan Bayer
TM: The challenges are now in pushing myself as a songwriter and as a guitar player to honestly express myself. Also, not falling back on comfortable patterns, whether it's chord progressions in The Nightwatchman world, or scritchy-scratchy solos in my rock stuff. One way that I do that is I constantly shift between musical environments and working with different people. If it's scoring Iron Man, that's a very different environment to play guitar in, and in that, I learn things that I'm able to bring into my Nightwatchman world. Or scoring my comic book, Orchid that's a whole different world of composition, which is mainly keyboards and finding orchestral sounds on the guitar, which I can then bring into my Street Sweeper world or Rage Against the Machine.
MF: What advice would you give to players as far as practicing is concerned?
TM: The most valuable piece of advice that anyone gave me was a high school friend who was a more advanced player than I was. He said, "If you want to get better, play at least an hour a day, every day." At the time we would jam on the weekend for six hours, and I might practice some chords once or twice after I had done my homework. I said, "I'm going to try that," and I really felt my playing rise. It gave me confidence that this works, and that encouraged me.
The other thing is that it has to be playing. While I was very committed to developing technique, when I was doing eight hours a day it was like two hours of technique, it was two hours of theory, it was two hours of improvisation, and then it was two hours of "free swim," where I could either do more technique or I'd work on some funny sounds or whatever. Some of that felt like work, but a lot of it was really fun. The third thing is you get better when you play with other people, and you get much better when you play live. The way to get better is to bounce music off other people, and have your ears open, and to play live. I learned that it's great to play with people through doing it the wrong way. In my high school band, for example, we were a master of our six songs in the basement. When we actually played a gig, we were an absolute disaster. That thing you need to know as a guitar player, to put your guitar chord around the strap so it doesn't come out in the middle of a gig? You don't find that out when you're sitting in your basement. You're a s****y guitar player until you learn how to do that. I don't care if you've got Yngvie for days in your fingers. That's the kind of thing that and a million other things you learn in a live environment, the hard way. In that regard there's no such thing as a bad gig you can always learn.
MF: With your education and interests, I'm sure you could have done many things in your life career-wise. At what point did you know that music was it?
TM: I had a lot of interests as a young man, and music was one of them. I started playing guitar when I was 17. When I was 19 I was a freshman in college and it became clear to me that the other things I was involved in were interests, and that playing the guitar was a calling. It really felt like I did not choose it, it chose me. I'm a very rational, linear guy, but it did feel like it was some outside sort of spiritual presence. It's like, this is what is right for you. This is who you should be. And then I had to balance that with my studies, but the decision was made then. It was carved in stone at that point.
I was, in a way, stuck for three more years of college. I felt like I got into Harvard ... how am I not going to go? I had offers from some Chicago bands when I was 19 years old. I could have quit school and been too young to drink in these bars where I'd be shredding it up. That seemed like a good way to start, you know? But I stuck it out.
Had things not worked out, did you have a backup plan?-Trevor Mulharin
TM: Well, there's a great documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years. In it, there's a montage of young hair-metal rockers who the director asks, "If this doesn't work out, what's your plan?" Every one of them says, "There is no plan B. I'm going to make it." That was me, too. I moved out here (to Los Angeles) by myself with no plan B. Of course, I did have an Ivy League degree in my pocket, but I had no interest in that. I had an interview for some Harvard alum who was a film industry bigwig. He and I got along well, and he actually offered me a job for pretty decent money. I said, "No, thanks. I don't want to do that. I want to do this (play music)." I just needed a day gig in the mailroom!
MF: You've had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the biggest names in music. Is there anyone else you'd like to work with?
TM: I've been very fortunate to have done collaborations, some more successful than others, with a lot of my favorite idols as a kid, from Jimmy Page to Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. Even KISS, which was my first concert ... I did a thing with them. There's not a lot left on that bucket list. I had the good fortune to become friends and peers with some of the people whose records and cassettes I bought growing up.
MF: If you could play with one person, living or dead, who would that be?
TM: I wish that Randy Rhoads was alive. I named my first son Rhoads, because my wife is metal, too. He's someone that we sometimes think, "If that guy was still alive, we might know him!" He might be here jamming, right now. He was my favorite guitar player. His was the poster on the wall when I was practicing eight hours a day. He was a serious musician. I wasn't a partier. I had no desire to be famous or get chicks or have money or any of that. I wanted to be a great guitar player. That seemed like where Randy was coming from too.
MF: Who are some non-guitarists that influenced you?
TM: Some of the non-guitarists that influenced me were from the worlds of hip-hop and techno music. The Bomb Squad that made the Public Enemy records was one. The sound collages and the use of cacophony in their beats was something that was very influential. Jam Master Jay from Run-DMC, as a turntablist, was very influential to me. We were trying to do a live version of that in Rage Against the Machine. In the world of electronica, I love The Crystal Method and The Prodigy, two groups I really got into as I was exploring ways to make a left turn to make the guitar sound how the guitar's not supposed to sound. I'm really listening to try and approximate the textures and percussive nature of what those artists do. Also the way they manipulate arrangement is very different than a traditional rock band.
MF: What's on tap for you in 2012?
TM: 2012 looks to be a busy year. I'm going to tour extensively behind World Wide Rebel Songs. I've also got a lot in the works with the Occupy Wall Street movements musically, so I'm planning some touring and some songs and things to go along with that. Also, continuing to write and score my graphic novel, Orchid.
Tom Morello has created a signature sound and plenty of unforgettable riffs with an incredibly modest rig consisting of the same amp, cabinet and effects pedals he's had since prior to Rage Against The Machine.
In our exclusive interview, Tom discusses his storied career, his beginnings with the guitar, his minimalist rig, and much more!