Rock’s biggest “DJ” proves that, though his gear hasn't changed since the early ’90s, he still can rip out fresh ideas with ease and flair.
During the unrivaled axeman’s solo tour supporting his 2018 album The Atlas Underground, PG’s Chris Kies stood amazed as Tom Morello revealed the tricks that fortified a legacy of riffs in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Plus, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee member (yes, he knows that Iron Maiden needs to be inducted) breaks down how he’s still aiming to shoot the instrument into the future.
The guitar that’s probably most associated with Tom Morello has to be his Frankensteined “Arm the Homeless” “super strat” that he’s had since 1986. Morello admits the story on the guitar’s evolution is murky, but the only thing from the original custom-order instrument is its body. He apparently spent upwards of two years trying every combination of pickups, necks, electronics, and trems to appease his tonal aspirations, but finally settled on honing his craft through practice rather than gear lust. The final conglomeration of parts have been in place for 30 years and includes a set of EMG pickups, a knock-off graphite Kramer neck scooped up from the bargain bin at Nadine’s, and an Ibanez Edge trem/bridge. And as they say, the rest is history. For this one, he uses Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinkys (.009–.046, for all vibrato-equipped guitars) and always grabs Dunlop Tortex Jazz III picks.
In a 2018 interview with PG, Tom Morello asserted that the single-coil was a big part of his heavy sound: “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.” Enter another longtime mainstay of Tom Morello’s—a run-of-the-mill 1982 Fender Telecaster coined “Sendero Luminoso.” He wanted to start writing/performing songs in drop-D tuning, but all of his other guitars at the time had a locking nut, so he traded his roommate for the Tele and Morello had to part ways with a 50-watt Marshall. The Tele is completely stock (aside from the stickers) and to maintain similar string tension to the “Arm the Homeless” he goes with Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys (.010–.046).
When it’s time for Tom Morello to cover Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or digging back into the Nightwatchman (his acoustic troubadour alter ego) catalog for “The Garden of Gethsemane,” he grabs this Ibanez GA60SCE-14-01.
All of Tom Morello’s gear was stolen in after a Valentine’s Day gig back in the ’80s and he had to scramble to replace everything before an upcoming session. He went to his neighborhood shop to buy anything they had, and what they did have was this Marshall JCM800 2205 50-watt head and a 1987 Peavey 4x12 cabinet with Celestion G12K-85 speakers. (On this short winter run, he opted to leave the Peavey at home in California and used a Marshall 1960B 4x12.)
Tom Morello quickly bonded with the 50-watt Marshall and once he found a sound he could work with, he etched in the settings and has left them the same ever since.
When PG asked Tom Morello if he ever tries to find inspiration in new effects, he mentioned trying to take back his sound: “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.” If you’re catching a theme here, Morello doesn’t change his gear much and his pedalboard is no exception (aside from the aforementioned plagiarizing Space Station)—it includes a MXR Phase 90, two Boss DD-3 Digital Delays (one longer for solos and one tighter for rhythms), original DigiTech WH-1 Whammy, Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby wah, and the DigiTech Space Station XP300. Everything runs off the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus and relies on two Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuners (acoustic/electric).