Tom Morello is a guitarist like no other, and he made his name in a band like no other. The cap-wearing, Telecaster-toting maverick’s sound augmented Rage Against the Machine (RATM) and made the rap-rock outfit one of the most memorable and beloved of the past thirty years.
Morello formed RATM with frontman Zack de la Rocha in 1991. Standing out from the bland guitar acts of the ’90s, they went on to be at the forefront of music and politics, something that has resulted in their longevity. This was confirmed in 2009 when the band’s iconic single ‘Killing in the Name‘ beat X-factor winner Joe McElderry’s cover of Miley Cyrus song ‘The Climb’ to the UK Christmas number one spot.
As well as being the guitarist of RATM, Morello’s work has been extensive. He formed supergroup Audioslave in 2001 with the late, great Chris Cornell, and gave us mammoth riffs like ‘Cochise’. He also joined the supergroup Prophets of Rage in 2016 alongside RATM and Audioslave bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, B-Real of Cypress Hill and DJ Lord and Chuck D from Public Enemy.
Morello didn’t stop there, either. He has toured as part of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, played acoustically as the Nightwatchman, and formed Street Sweeper Social Club with MC Boots Riley.
In 2002. he co-founded the non-profit organisation Axis of Justice with System of a Down (SOAD) frontman Serj Tankian. Its goal is to bring together music lovers, musicians and grassroots progressivism to fight for social justice as one. The idea came to both Morello and Tankian after Audioslave and SOAD played Ozzfest 2002 and witnessed audience members promoting symbols and imagery of racial hatred. Thus, the two came together, and they continue their fight today.
Born in Harlem, New York but raised in Libertyville, Illinois, Morello is of Italian-American and Kenyan family. Due to being one of the only mixed-race kids in his small Illinois town, and coming from educated parents, Morello became interested in music and politics from an early age. He became the first person from Libertyville to enrol in Harvard University on a social studies course.
It was after university, when he moved broke to Los Angeles, that he recalled the time: “When I graduated from Harvard and moved to Hollywood, I was unemployable. I was literally starving, so I had to work menial labour and, at one point, I even worked as an exotic dancer. ‘Brick House’ (by the Commodores) was my jam! I did bachelorette parties and I’d go down to my boxer shorts. Would I go further? All I can say is thank God it was in the time before YouTube! You could make decent money doing that job – people do what they have to do.”
He would play guitar in the LA band Lock Up from the mid-80s until 1991. Their sole album Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes was released by Geffen Records in 1989, but by 1991, Lock Up would have ended. He met freestyle rapper Zack de la Rocha, and before too long RATM was formed. They drafted in Rocha’s childhood friend Tim Commerford to play bass and drummer Brad Wilk, whom Morello had met when the former auditioned for Lock Up.
By 1992, the band had signed to Epic Records, and later that year they released their self-titled debut album, and the rest, as they say, was history. The band would go on to be one of the most influential groups of the ’90s. Given the band’s all-encompassing, urban sound, they have duly influenced everyone from nu-metal to hardcore punk to rappers such as Dizzee Rascal and Denzel Curry.
The band – and its members – became influential for their strong socialist message, but Morello’s unique guitar sound also fed into this. His distinctive and innovative style uses feedback, unconventional picking patterns, tapping, and heavy guitar effects. Morello particularly loves the DigiTech WH-1 Whammy, which colours most of his memorable guitar moments.
So on his 57th birthday, join us as we list a selection of his isolated guitar tracks that prove Tom Morello‘s genius.
Tom Morello’s greatest isolated guitar tracks:
‘Killing in the Name’
Lead single off the band’s debut album, ‘Killing in the Name’ is a protest song in all its glory. It was written about revolution against authoritarian abuses of power. Widely regarded as the band’s magnum opus, it is carried by Morello’s signature guitar, which is tuned down to drop D. The punchy guitar ballasts the song whose lines include, “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” and “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”.
Morello actually wrote the riffs while teaching a student the drop D tuning, he even paused the lesson to record the main riff. The band would get to work crafting the song the next day. Morello remembers ‘Killing in the Name’ being largely a creative effort. He combined his signature Telecaster tone with “Timmy C.’s magmalike bass, Brad Wilk’s funky, brutal drumming and Zack’s conviction”.
The uncensored version of the song contains the word “fuck” 17 times and has drawn controversy at many points over the years. The song also features Morello’s crazed signature DigiTech WH1-Whammy solo.
‘Bulls on Parade’
The second song from the band’s second album Evil Empire (1996), ‘Bulls on Parade’ is classic RATM. Featuring Morello’s trademark, dirty, sound, it also features heavy use of the way pedal. The song has a violent yet funky feel.
If anything, this is the song that marks Morello out as a guitar genius. The song was popularised by the guitar solo which has a “vinyl scratch effect”. Morellos achieved this groundbreaking sound by toggling between the two pickups on his guitar, one on and one off. He then rubbed his hand on the strings over the pickups to create the sound of someone scratching a vinyl disc.
Morello said he went for a “sort of ‘Geto Boys’ sound,” in a menacing turn and he sure achieved it. The isolated guitar track only serves to convey the brilliance of Tom Morello. Both Morello’s guitar and Commerford’s bass were tuned down a half step to E♭. Morello also cocked the wah-wah pedal fully in the treble position to create a sound that was reminiscent of Houston’s notorious 5th Ward. This gave the song its gangland-style riff.
On the UK CD single release of ‘Bulls on Parade’, Zack de la Rocha explained: “The wall that Germany fell and the US Government was busy building another one between the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Since 1986, as a result of a lot of the hate talk and hysteria, that the Government of the United States has been speaking, 1,500 bodies have been found on the border; we wrote this song in response to it.”
Released in 2000, ‘Testify’ is the third single from RATM’s third album The Battle of Los Angeles (1999). Morello’s dynamic guitar sound augments the angry political message of the song. Again, he uses drop D, and in the verses, the metallics, sweeping sound of his guitar sounds so sci-fi it could quite easily have been pulled from the soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
In ‘Testify’, Morello uses a wide variety of effects and techniques. He sets his DigiTech Whammy pedal to harmonise a minor 7th above the note played, and the delay is set to a short slap-back setting, creating a reverb-like sound.
In classic Morello fashion, for the guitar solo, he unplugs the lead from his guitar’s jack and taps it against the bridge, whilst using his whammy and was pedals, creating that iconic squeal. Morello uses this technique to improvise live. The most notable of these came in 2016 when he joined Jane’s Addiction to play ‘Mountain Song’ and Morello utterly destroyed the solo with his signature tone.
The music video for ‘Testify’ was directed by lauded filmmaker Michael Moore. In keeping with the sci-fi guitar tone, the video features a group of aliens who “plot to conquer Earth!”. It then shows a montage of clips showing the two 2000 US Presidential Election candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore as having the same views and policies on critical issues.
The video demonstrates the perceived lack of choice in the US political system. This is made most clear when the pictures of Bush and Gore are strewn together, creating a “mutant” that “appears as two but speaks as one”.
The video also mentions the Gulf War, the death penalty, the military-industrial complex and poverty to name but a few. The video concludes with a quote from American activist Ralph Nader: “If you’re not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you.”