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Tom Morello “Hacks” His Guitar, and We All Watch

Tom Morello’s innovative use of his guitar gives an entirely new definition to “making music.”

There are players that revolutionized the way we play guitar. There are players that advanced the way we think about the guitar. Then there are those that abandon convention, demand a revolution, and change everything that the guitar can be. Tom Morello has ascended through this evolution and pressed further than any modern guitarist into a domain that demands playing the instrument without playing it by any traditional definition.

You might know Morello from a series of major band projects including, Rage Against the Machine, Audio Slave, Prophets of Rage, and his solo project, The Night Watchman. For all intents and purposes, Morello is the rhythm and lead guitarist of all these gigs. Yet, whether it’s in Rage or Slave, Morello almost never strums a chord or lays down a lick. His approach to guitar is simply to play the whole instrument in ways it wasn’t designed to be played and to explode the confines of modern rock in the process.

To put Morello’s style in context from the perspective of gear, it’s worth recalling the then controversial comment Morello made in a Red Bull TV interview back in 2016. As the modern pedal craze was on the rise, Morello proclaimed, “My take on gear is that it doesn’t matter—at all—ever—in any circumstance…it’s creating music with whatever wires and pieces of wood you have. That’s a creative, intellectual, and emotional exercise.”

At the time, the internet freaked out with blogs, vlogs, forums, and posts about why gear does matter. But the real question we should ask here is not a universal one for all players. Rather, it’s a focused and particular one: “Why doesn’t gear matter to Tom Morello?”

While Tom answered this question to some degree in the Red Bull piece, one thing he didn’t touch on is his playing style. I would argue that, though Tom’s rig is stripped down by some standards, having a ton of gear doesn’t matter because he exploits the guitar’s creative and sonic potential by playing it in almost unthinkable ways.

So what is it that Morello does to not play the guitar? Here’s three proprietary Morello hacks.

Mimicking record scratches by combos of string friction and whammy bar manipulation.

One strategy that you’ll see Morello undertake to accompany the tight rhythm section of Rage is to aggravate the strings horizontally to generate a basic scuff and scratch sound. Toss in a bit of Floyd Rose locked in tremolo manipulation for pitch modification, and you’ve turned your six-string into a set of turntables.

Unplugging the guitar completely and using signal noise as sonic base.

You know that obnoxious sound you get when your patch cable plug touches too much metal and your amp is cranked? We all hate it but Morello loves it. One strategy you’ll see him deploy is using long bursts of that metallic circuit buzz to lay down a foundation sound that he then manipulates with a Digitech Whammy or wah pedal. In this respect, Morello might have a guitar strapped on but he isn’t playing it at all!

Frantic flips of the pickup toggle switch to generate an extreme tremolo.

Morello’s main electric guitars almost always have a three way toggle switch, something you like you might find on a Les Paul. Rather than use this to casually alternate between pickup options, Morello uses it as a tool for creating an intense pulse tremolo-type sound. With this in-your-face echo generated, Morello once again optimizes the guitar without playing it in any way your instructor taught you.

Morello’s style is an excellent example of maximizing the gear you have and blowing the doors off of the ways you can play it. In the end, some of the best ways to play your guitar turn out to be not playing it at all!

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