Although Morello keeps a fresh musical mindset, he’s also got a vocabulary of hard-honed technique and old-school stage moves that provides a foundation for his quest to be “the new Hendrix.” Photo by Annie Atlasman
You mentioned that you jammed with Gary Clark Jr. Is jamming something you like to do? I ask, because it sounds like your approach, in general, is more compositional.
Recently, I’ve gotten back to playing a lot of exploratory guitar shredding. I just played a couple of shows in Brazil where 70 percent of the shows were instrumental music. That’s the thing: Back when I was practicing eight hours a day, I was doing two or three hours every day of just pure improvisation. In my shows that I’ve been doing for The Atlas Underground, I’ve returned to that a lot. Sitting around at home, I really like to focus my creativity on songwriting, riff writing, and trying to translate big ideas through the amplifier, but lately I’ve really been enjoying getting back to improvisational shredding my ass off. Like, I’ll put up a seven-minute backing track of the solo section from “Mr. Crowley” and just jam over that. It’s just so much fun. [Laughs.]
Talk about finding your voice, developing unorthodox techniques, and advice to new players.
I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 17. The only other guitar player that I ever heard of that I liked, who started that late, was Robert Johnson, and he had to make a deal with the devil to get that—and I wasn’t going to do that. I had to knuckle down and practice. When I was 17, I started practicing an hour a day every day. Then it went to two hours, then four, then eventually eight hours a day without fail—partly because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and partly because it was my way of catching up.
But even through all that, for years, I was amassing technique and becoming a very competent musician, but I really wasn’t an artist. It really wasn’t until the beginning of Rage Against the Machine, where I self-identified as the DJ in the band, that I started looking at the guitar in a very different way. I was no longer practicing Phrygian scales. I was practicing the eccentricities in my playing, the mistakes in my playing. Recognizing that the electric guitar is a relatively new instrument on the planet—it’s just a piece of wood with six wires and some electronics. You can manipulate it in a lot of different ways. Once I had that revelation, I was off to the races. I was unconstrained by the conventions of whether it’s Chuck Berry playing or Eddie Van Halen playing or whatever, and started making up my own vocabulary of sounds to build songs around.
How did you practice that?
Some of it was looking at the instrument with very innocent eyes and going, “What if somebody just handed you this thing without saying you have to put your finger on this fret?” I’d go, “Okay, along with this guitar came an Allen wrench. I know that you’re supposed to use it to unlock these things so you can tune the strings, but what if I rub on the strings or whack it against the strings while I’ve got a wah-wah pedal on?” That’s how [Rage Against the Machine’s] “People of the Sun” was written, and it was written in about two-and-a-half minutes. I would use the toggle switch as a way of fretting notes, and that just made the guitar sound like a crazy keyboard. Then I added the DigiTech Whammy pedal, and all of a sudden you could sound like a Deep Purple distorted organ or like the production on a Dr. Dre record. I just kept going. I would listen to whatever sounds were around me and try to play them. If it was a lawn mower outside or a helicopter overhead or a trip to the zoo, I would try to practice that stuff. Even if I couldn’t make it sound like a lion or a paper shredder, if you’re practicing lions and paper shredding rather than blues scales, you’re going to be thinking about music in an entirely different way.
Did you also try to find a different voice in effects?
No. Not usually. I have imposed these conservative parameters on my gear. On the one hand, I’m not very technically savvy. I’m not scrolling through apps in order to find things. I continue to find a huge sonic diversity in a very limited number of pedals.
Every once in a while, I’ll throw … like on the last Prophets of Rage record I played a thing called a [Way Huge] Swollen Pickle, which I liked, so I got into that for a couple of songs. There’s also an old DigiTech Space Station. In the mid ’90s, DigiTech basically tried to steal all of my sounds and put them in a pedal and called it the Space Station [laughs]. I got one of those and I started stealing some of their sounds back.
Watching you play, especially with Rage Against the Machine, it looks like you let the other members of the band do the heavy lifting in terms of making it heavy. Do you find that the less you play, the heavier it is?
One of the things that I find, that’s attributed to the “heaviness” of my riffs, is a lot of them are played on a single-coil pickup. That is counterintuitive to a lot of guitar players who think it’s got to be the gnarliest tone ever. You listen to some of the Zeppelin records where Jimmy Page is playing that on a Telecaster. Or he’s playing it on the rhythm pickup through a small amp on the Les Paul. A lot of it has to do with the player’s right hand and the rhythm section. And, fortunately, I’ve been playing with Timmy [Commerford] and Brad [Wilk], who are one of the heaviest rhythm sections of all time. Tim’s bass tone would often sound like two basses and four guitars playing all at once. I’d have my guitar playing, like, “Killing in the Name”—that’s played on a Telecaster. “Freedom”—that’s played on a Telecaster. The riff from, “Cochise,” from the Audioslave catalog, that’s played on a single-coil pickup. And those are pretty heavy-ass riffs, but it’s looking at the guitar in a different way.
How did you get your rhythm chops together?
Metronome is very important to getting your time together—though how I learned rhythm chops, when I was doing my eight hours a day, two of those hours every day was just playing along with the radio. I would randomly switch stations and whatever station I landed on, I would try to be in the band. If it was a classical station, then I was forced to try and play along with Bach or Mozart, and if it was a New Age station, I’d have to play along to whatever major 7th jazzy chords were going along, or if it was a metal station I’d have to fit in with Sepultura. To me, that was a great learning tool—trying to fit into a lot of different environments—and that helped my rhythm playing a lot.
Do you recommend people do that as well?
I think it’s a tremendous education, and you don’t need any preparation. Whatever level you’re at, you just put on—today people may rely more on streaming services or whatever—but to challenge yourself by going outside of your comfort zone. If your comfort zone is metal, then spend three days just playing along with bebop music. If your specialty is blues, spend three days playing along with EDM or classical music, and try to figure it out. Pretend that you were parachuted into that set and what are you going to do? For me, it really helped a lot and it challenged me. Another great learning tool, especially for beginning players, is write your own songs. When I taught guitar and when I had people come for their first guitar lesson—who had never played a chord before—I would teach them two chords and the first thing I’d have them do is write a song. It’s no longer, “Oh my gosh, I have to work hard for three years before I can be in a band.” No, you don’t. You can write a song today. You learn a G chord and a D chord and now you and Bob Dylan have songs that are similar [laughs].
Do you use non-standard tunings?
Drop D is a big part of my repertoire and a big part of my riffing heaviness. I’ve fooled around occasionally with drop-B tuning, if you want to go even lower and heavier.
What do you enjoy about working with other guitar players?
A lot of times, I’ve been very selfish in the bands that I’ve been in, where I like to take up all of that midrange myself. But I had a great experience playing on and off for six years with the E Street Band. They have a number of guitar players and it was really great to, first of all, learn from them. Nils Lofgren is really wonderful—to watch the way he plays. To trade solos with Bruce Springsteen, who’s a very accomplished lead guitar player—emotional lead guitar player—and then Steve Van Zandt as well, who has his own unique style and has played some all-time classic-solos on those Springsteen records. That was really great, to fit in with those guys.
Talk about Springsteen’s guitar playing.
He’s a really good guitar player. I mean, of course, we all know he’s a great songwriter, but as a beginning point, if you want to check out Bruce Springsteen’s guitar playing, the entire Darkness on the Edge of Town record is a guitar tour de force, and his solos, those Telecaster piercing emotional solos on that, are timeless. That’s all him.
You’re on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. When is Iron Maiden getting in?
Well, they should’ve been in a long time ago, as should Judas Priest and Motörhead and Thin Lizzy—the list goes on. I will say this, since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has let me in—I complained about it so much they finally let me in the room—we’ve seen Rush, Kiss, and Stevie Ray Vaughan in the Hall, so I’m doing the best I can.
Which era of Maiden do you prefer, Paul Di’Anno or Bruce Dickinson?I love them both. I’ll say this: My favorite Maiden record is Piece of Mind, but my favorite Maiden song is “Wrathchild.” I got one foot in each camp.
Live from the Teragram Ballroom, Audioslave rages against Donald Trump. Tom Morello’s solo at the 2:52 mark displays his ability to build a melody out of rhythm playing with his DigiTech Whammy pedal—a technique that won him attention with Rage Against the Machine’s first single, “Killing in the Name,” in 1992.