Rage Against the Machine: Tom Morello’s BEST Guitar Moments
Published on 08 January 2024
Have Rage Against the Machine split up? It certainly seems so, judging by two recent events. Firstly, there was Tom Morello’s incendiary acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where only he turned up to the band’s induction ceremony. In between moments in his rabble-rousing speech, he uttered the words “Don’t wait for us: Rage is not here, but you are!”, which is pretty telling.
Then, an Instagram post from drummer Brad Wilk seemed to confirm, in pretty blunt terms, the facts as they are:
So, without them issuing a formal press statement, that’s about all we can go on. The band have been a combustible entity for some time, and now with bassist Tim Commerford’s cancer treatment ongoing and vocalist Zach de la Rocha’s leg injuries, it seems that stages would be far from their present-day lives anyway. Whether these recent comments refer to another temporary hiatus (it’s more than common in the band’s timeline to see them do nothing for YEARS) or a more permanent full-stop is unclear, but the future doesn’t look too great for Rage.
In that case, since we are all fans here at guitarguitar, I thought it was high time to celebrate the abstract greatness of Tom Morello. Truly, no other guitarist in recent decades has done as much to redefine just what is possible with an electric guitar, so let’s take five and revisit some of his most glorious moments of inspired madness.
Before that, a brief word on his gear - not in any great detail today - to put into context how hard he makes his equipment go, and how far he can stretch it all to make these incredible, un-guitarlike tones!
Tom Morello - Gear Snapshot
Tom Morello’s attitude to gear is quite refreshing. In a career that spans over 30 years, he has - for the majority of his professional life - stuck to the same setup. Now and then you’ll see a different pedal on his board for a while, or the brief use of a different guitar, but overwhelmingly, his rig has remained unchanged. Remarkable, given what comes out of it! He makes the most of every effect, so let me briefly go through this with you.
Firstly, he has three main guitars and a few backups:
- Arm the Homeless: a ‘frankensteined’ superstrat made with Performance parts, two EMG active humbuckers and a Floyd Rose tremolo. Also, there’s the all important ‘toggle switch’, a Les Paul-style toggle that acts as a kill switch, turning on and off the whole signal.
- Sendero Luminoso: a stock Fender American Telecaster, permanently tuned to Drop-D. Listen closely to certain Rage tunes in drop-D (Wake Up, Killing in the Name) and you can easily identify this guitar. No toggle switch!
- Soul Power: a black Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster, with Floyd Tremolo and toggle switch added. This is what the Fender Tom Morello Signature Strat is closely based on.
- Ibanez Custom AS200: a custom built 335-style in red & black, with built-in effects and toggle switch
- Ibanez Custom Talman: a custom built with Kenyan flag graphic and added Floyd Rose tremolo
- St George Goya Rangemaster : a pawn shop guitar tuned to drop A (listen to ‘Calm Like a Bomb’ to hear this one) with added toggle switch, of course!
The first two are his main guitars, and you do see him playing others (I’m sticking to Rage here, not so much Audioslave etc) but for today, these are the ones!
I won’t add a heading for amplifiers, because he has stuck to the very same head and cab since forever: a Marshall JCM800 head and a Peavey 4x12 cabinet. As we’ll see in a sec, he gets all of his gain from the amp, too: no distortion pedals!
As I mentioned, you’ll occasionally notice the odd Phase 90, BOSS TR-2 Tremolo or other pedal sneaking into Tom’s board for a little while, but the enduring line up looks like this, in order:
- Dunlop GC95 Crybaby (today, there is also a signature Tom Morello Crybaby)
- Digitech Whammy pedal (his is the first WH1 model)
- BOSS DD-2, with a DD-3 added later on (both set to different times)
- DOD FX40B Equaliser (every frequency boosted equally to give him a flat boost for solos)
- Ibanez DFL Flanger
All of that goes into the effects loop of his Marshall - yes, including the wah! (it makes a massive difference to the sound) - and he has said on camera before that he exclusively uses the neck pickups of his guitars. Tom tends towards gauge 9-46 strings and purple Tortex Jazz picks in 1.14mm gauge.
Tom Morello’s Greatest Guitar Moments
Right, on to some music! Rage Against the Machine have notable guitar moments in practically every song, so choosing the ‘greatest’ is pretty subjective. I’ve gone for the moments that basically thrilled me the most, and I’ve definitely not leaned on the more obvious bits. These days, even local pub bands will knock out a version of Killing in the Name, (which I’d not have expected as a kid) so that tune’s famous whammy pedal solo (it’s a pentatonic scale with the swooping octaves controlled from the Whammy pedal set to +2 octaves) seems like it doesnt need included here. As for the rest, let’s go!
People of the Sun - Allen key for New Concepts in Guitar Playing
The main riff to People of the Sun from the Evil Empire album sounds pretty straightforward, but how do you nail that tone? Well, start by losing your pick and instead grabbing an allen key! You don’t fret any notes: the pitches are achieved by scraping the allen key on the strings (A string for verse, low E for chorus) in between the pickups.
Morello found this technique accidentally when adjusting his guitar using the tool: it hit a string, made a cool noise and his bandmates encouraged him to develop it. Five minutes later, a new song and an entirely new way to play the guitar!
Know Your Enemy - Authentic Synth Tones from a Guitar
This famous cut from Rage’s debut album features an intro that sounds so convincingly like a synth - or a heavily modified ‘studio trick’ - that lots of guitarists don’t realise how simple it is to achieve.
For this, you need a Whammy pedal (or other harmoniser) set to give you a harmony of a 5th. You also need the famous toggle switch to chop those notes up, because there’s no picking here at all: it’s a series of hammer-ons following a typical Blues scale pattern. It’s the harmony and the chopping that takes this far away from standard guitar playing, and is not only an awesome intro but an excellent contrast to the high voltage riff that follows.
Bulls on Parade - Ultimate Wah, Ultimate DJ
Is the Bulls on Parade intro riff Rage’s best? It’s definitely up there, but it’s the following wah riff and then ‘DJ’ solo that I’m here for. This simple wah riff - a second fret octave chord (actually an F since the guitar is tuned to Eb) with steady, consistent wah rocking - is a prime example of how gnarly the wah can sound by placing it in the FX loop rather than ‘in front’ as usual. I get the feeling Tom may have connected it this way in error and then just liked the resulting sound!
The guitar solo is something else indeed: there are no real notes played at all! Instead, Morello slides his left hand up and down the strings (not unlike a pick scrape but of course sans pick) and utilises his toggle switch to chop out a sharp rhythm. All of this makes his guitar sound uncannily like a DJ scratching a record.
It’s one thing to play this, but to come up with the idea in the first place? That’s the real genius of Tom Morello!
Mic Check - “It’s a DJ! It’s an Alien! No, it’s a cow!”
Mic Check is sonically interesting from the first note onwards, but let’s focus on the bonkers guitar solo, since we’re here to celebrate these extraordinarily abstract Morello odysseys of sound!
The Mic Check solo starts with an expanded version of the DJ scratch technique we just looked at. This time, Tom uses a metal slide across the strings between the pickups instead of his hand. After this, it’s a section of (what I hesitate to call) the ‘normal’ DJ technique, with his left hand again, though there is now a short delay on the signal too.
After that, it seems to be a combination of quite heavy and specific tremolo arm technique along with the wah, making it sound kind of like an alien, with the occasional cow ‘moo’ in there too!
Sleep Now in the Fire - Shutting Down Wall Street with Feedback
Rage Against the Machine famously shut down trading on Wall Street when they performed for this song’s official video. Good effort! Armed with a distinctly MC5-quoting riff, this is as direct and specific as Rage get. The riff may be a little second-hand by their standards, but there’s no denying how effective it is when the band comes in like a neutron bomb!
True to form, there’s a guitar solo on here that is as head-scratching as it is attention- grabbing. Have a look at the video and you’ll see Morello in the familiar toggle-switch-and-tremolo-arm stance, but this doesn’t explain the main ingredient: it’s feedback, controlled in pitch by the tremolo arm, and syncopated by the toggle switch.
Once again, it’s simple as hell when you know how, but until then, it’s a thrilling and random noise that you’d never think to create on your own. I also reckon that Tom sometimes goes to the bridge pickup after all, at least for his solos. I could be wrong, but some of these sounds just work easier in that setting!
And yes, video director Michael Moore did all get arrested after making this: the rioting and aggro from the police is not ‘for effect’. “No money was harmed”. Legends.
No Shelter - Funk From Hell, Followed by Godzilla Guitar Sounds
Rage Against the Machine are maybe not the first band you’d consider going to for a Hollywood Godzilla movie soundtrack, but when they were indeed commissioned to add a new song to the soundtrack, we got this belter!
Taking this odd opportunity as a chance to get their message out to thousands of monster-loving non-Rage fans, their blistering track No Shelter mixes an irresistible funk groove (that wah sound again) with a suitably chunky chorus bearing the refrain ‘There’ll be no shelter here, the frontline is everywhere’, followed by the incendiary line ‘See the world through American eyes: bury the past, rob us blind and leave nothing behind’. All of this in a tune for a Matthew Broderick monster movie!
Talking of monsters, Morello summons his own during a surprisingly simple - but no less effective - series of wah-wah howls that represents a giant city-wrecking lizard pretty well.
War Within a Breath - Abrasion as an Artform
My final choice today is the last track from Rage’s third record, The Battle of Los Angeles. Rage often keep their most molten moments for their end song (Freedom, anyone?) and this one pushes the trademark dynamic of breakdown/ferocity into the red.
It’s the verses that impress me the most, sonically. I can really hear Morello’s Public Enemy influence come through strongly here, with an atonal collage of sounds made with whammied open strings and high-pitched notes that almost sound like alarms going off behind Tim Commerford’s brilliantly minimalistic wah-bass.
The band also employ one of their most time-honoured tricks towards the end: the song is about to wrap things up, when out of nowhere, Morello’s guitar kicks back into life, calling the band back in for one last rabble-rousing smash and blast before they call it a day.
There’s an intensity here that’s even higher than their other tunes, which is saying something, considering that ‘volcanic’ is this band’s default setting.
Tones on Parade
Those were my favourite Morello moments: were any of your favourites in there? As I said before, practically every Rage song has something cool and innovative going on, so I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it all here. If anything, I’ve maybe given you a taste of it, and you’ll now proceed to listen to each of their records and refamiliarise yourself with just what a potent force this band was. Or is! Who knows?
"There is no revolution without songs"