One of the most influential guitarists of the past 25 years, Tom Morello's sonic wizardry, heavy hitting riffs and decisive political edge is nothing short of revolutionary. After spending years honing his instrumental skills and working various odd jobs in Hollywood (including a stint as a male stripper by the name of Meat Swinger Morello), Tom Morello joined forces with the radical vocalist Zach de la Rocha and bandmates Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford to create the incomparable Rage Against The Machine, who turned music on its head with their firebrand style of socially conscious rap-metal in the 90s.
As well as going on to play with the hard-rock supergroup Audioslave, Morello has had an extremely successful career as both a guitarist and political activist, performing frequently with Bruce Springsteen and appearing on talk shows across America to discuss political justice in the increasingly unbalanced nation. Following the release of the incendiary debut album from his current project Prophets of Rage, a group comprised of his Rage Against The Machine bandmates and fronted by Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real, we thought it would be fitting to take an updated look at the tools used by Tom Morello to create his unconventionally iconic guitar tone.
CUSTOM ‘ARM THE HOMELESS’ GUITAR
Possibly one of the most iconic guitars of the past 25 years, Morello’s famous ‘Arm The Homeless’ is a whacky Frankenstrat comprised of a random body decked out with parts from various shredder guitars of the 80's, including a knock off graphite Kramer neck and an Ibanez Edge tremolo. Fitted with active EMG pickups, what really makes this guitar stand out is its distinctive hippopotamus paint job, with the slogan ‘Arm The Homeless’ scrawled across the body in red paint. While it’s been Morello’s most used guitar since his pre-Rage Against the Machine group Lockout in the mid-80's, Morello claims it took a while to come to terms with the mishmash of parts lumped into guitar form, telling Music Radar, “At this point, I gave up and said, 'OK, it's never going to sound like what I hear in my head, so I'm going to stop worrying and fucking around, and I'm just going to play music … When I made the decision to stop searching for a sound that just didn't exist in that guitar, and I just started creating, I learned to take the sounds the guitar had and found ways to make music that I liked with them.”
Morello’s dedicated drop D tuned guitar, this 1982 Telecaster, dubbed Sendero Luminoso and given a custom paint job, was acquired in a trade with a roommate back in the 80's, which he discusses in the video below. “He needed a Marshall head and I needed a guitar that I could tune down, play grunge-worthy heavy riffs with … Killing in the Name, Freedom, Testify, all those that are in drop D, played and written with the band on this.”
Elsewhere in the same video, Morello discusses several other guitars used throughout his career, including his first guitar, a $50 Kay SG copy, a Gibson Explorer used frequently as a teenager, and a plywood ST George Goya Rangemaster copy purchased for $40 in Toronto, which was used to record the Grammy Award winning Rage Against the Machine song ‘Tire Me.’
FENDER ‘SOUL POWER’ STRATOCASTER
Following the demise of Rage Against The Machine in the early 2000's, Morello sought a new instrument to play with his new group Audioslave, comprised of Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and his bandmates from Rage. Essentially a modded US made Aerodyne Strat, the ‘Soul Power’ guitar features a Floyd Rose style tremolo, a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails bridge pickup, and a custom toggle kill switch, frequently used by Morello to make his signature stuttering guitar solo sound.
Modified with extra knobs to control built in wah, echo and distortion effects, this Red and Black Ibanez Artstar was used by Morello frequently throughout his tenure with Audioslave, and also sees extensive use with his new project Prophets of Rage.
Inspired by folk singer Woody Guthrie’s iconic ‘This Machine Kills Facists’ guitar, Morello emblazoned this black Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar with the slogan ‘Black Spartacus,’ as well as a custom emblem near the bridge that combines the Socialist hammer and sickle with American, Italian and US flags. ‘Black Spartacus’ acts as Morello’s main steel string acoustic when playing solo with his folk influenced side project The Night Watchman.
Another guitar frequently used for The Night Watchman, this Ibanez nylon string is fitted out with a cutaway and an electric-acoustic preamp for live use. Morello has also inscribed the slogan ‘Whatever It Takes’ with a black star underneath the bridge to coincide with The Night Watchman’s socio-political edge.
For the entirety of his career as a popular musician, Morello has played through a Marshall JCM800 2205 head with a Peavy 4x12 cabinet which he acquired after having his gear stolen from the back of a van in the 80's. After trying out several different rack units and head/cab combinations, Morello decided to stick it out with this rig, telling Premier Guitar, “I was at rehearsal and I spent at least four hours tweaking knobs just a hair this way and a hair that way to a point where I felt the sound was reasonable, and I marked those settings. This happened in ’88 or ‘89 and those markings are the same ones I’ve used to this day. They are the same markings/settings I used at every show and [on] every record I’ve ever made.”
While it’d be easy to assume otherwise given the amount of crazy tones he manages to wrangle from his guitar, Morello actually doesn’t use many effects pedals, tending to rely upon his own knowledge of effects manipulation and external tools to come up with his signature sounds.
In the above image, you can see Morello’s longstanding pedalboard, comprised of a MXR Phase 90, DOD FX40B Equaliser, BOSS DD-2 Digital Delay, DigiTech WH1 Whammy, BOSS TR-2 Tremolo and a Dunlop Crybaby Wah-Wah, all powered by a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power Plus Power Supply.
A renowned master of sonic wizardry, Morello is also well known for creating crazy tones with unconventional objects, ranging from his DJ ‘Scratch’ solo in ‘Bulls on Parade’ to him removing the input jack from his guitar and rubbing it on the steel of the guitar to create static in the solo for ‘Testify.’ In this video courtesy of Guitar World, he explains how he uses a pencil in conjunction with a delay pedal to create the helicopter effect that opens the Audioslave song ‘Cochise,’ once again demonstrating his outside-the-box creativity and intuitive work ethic that makes him stand out as one of the finest guitarists of the modern era.