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10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Tom Morello

BY
MATT BLACKETT
May 8, 2014
Although he claims his musical career is based on playing the same two strings on the same two dots,
Tom Morello isnt exactly what youd 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 6string work with Rage, Morellos 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 Cant Stop the
Bleeding).
Although he had his technique down (thanks to an exhaustive practice regimen at Harvard), Morello didnt 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 weve
come to know and love as the real Tom Morello was finally free to rear his funky head. From the get-go, Morellos
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 Morellos 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 youll 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 hes 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 its 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 isnt the point. The point is that if you have a
strong sense of self and some confidence in what you believe, you wont be swayed by flavor-of-the-month labels or
radio stations. Youll 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
dont stand for something, youll 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 thats it. Thats 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, Ill tell you what I did when I encountered that problemI 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 didnt particularly love the tone, but it wasnt going to get any better. So I marked those
settings and said, Now Im done. This is my sound. And those settings are the same ones that I used in todays
rehearsalas well as on every record and at every show Ive 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 doesnt
sound so tired anymore, does it?
3 Dont 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. Its not about being clean,
proper, or correct. Its about being unique.
4 Keep It Simple, Stupid
In addition to being an acronym for one of Morellos 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 its just one note? Lots of ways. Take a look at Ex. 1. The first bar is a droppedD 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 its 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, dont 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 theres beauty in simplicity. Remember theres power in it too.

5 Think Inside the Box


When it comes to riffage, says Morello, Im 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, youll see that theres a lot of truth in his claim, particularly
when hes 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. Dont 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 hes 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 openG 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 dont clash as much, even with violent distortion. This
is not only a cool sound, its also a great way to free yourself from whats 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 thats richly
satisfying to me, says Morello, the ones are huge and unrelenting. Its not really a rule, but youd be a fool to stray
from itits good enough for James Brown! Superbad.
8 Bring the Noise
Morellos rep as the preeminent sonic anarchist of his generation is well deserved. When asked why, he had this to
say: Its 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 Morellos 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 decaythey come in at full blast and cut off just as abruptly. To get started,
youll 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 youll hear is sixteenthnotes spitting out in a way that is impossible with a pick. Once this feels comfortable, try Ex. 5b. This is similar to
Morellos Know Your Enemy lick. Because your picking hand is busy working the toggle, youll 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-ofcenter sounds to make simple parts fresh and vibrant.

9 Dont Fear the Major Third


Despite the fact that Morellos work relies heavily on the minor pentatonic scale, he frequently works in majorsounding phrases in tunes such as Rages Killing in the Name and Audioslaves 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 couldnt deviate from that minor scale. But theres this Zeppelin song called
'Out on the Tiles,' and that riff flirts with a major tonality. I tried to learn it, and I couldnt, because I refused to think
outside that minor pentatonic scale. It couldnt be those notes. Those notes dont kick ass! Then I realized thats 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,
lets remember what Morello said back in 2000: Dynamics are a big part of the heavy factor for us. Theyve become
an innate part of the songwriting processthe 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. Its 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 its 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 youll 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 dont add some of your own trip,
youll 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 youll be paraphrasing the soothing, mellow lyric at the songs end: With all
due respect, I wont do what you tell me.

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