From Rage Against The Machine to Audioslave and now Street Sweeper Social Club (download some free tracks at ninja2009.com), Tom Morello has redefined what it means to be a guitarist in a band, while using minimal equipment to forge a huge sound and some wild sound effects. This is good news for the guitarist on a budget because the trick to sounding like Morello is not necessarily to spend thousands on gear.
Let’s first look at Morello’s signal chain. While he’s often photographed with his ‘Arm The Homeless’ guitar (a home-cobbled custom using parts from various manufacturers), a large amount of his rhythm work is recorded using a Fender Telecaster through a Marshall JCM800 head. He also used a few Les Pauls in Audioslave and continues to do so in Street Sweeper Social Club. You don’t need huge amounts of gain – in fact, in the rock world probably AC/DC are the only band who use a cleaner rhythm sound as Morello. Much of the guts and oomph of Morello’s sound is from overdriven power tubes, which add crunch and compression, rather than preamp distortion, which adds fizz and grit. The Telecaster is a notoriously trebly guitar so Morello typically uses the neck pickup, which thickens up the tone considerably. You don’t need to spring for a Tele to completely cop Morello’s tone (although it helps). Any neck pickup, be it single coil or humbucker, through a clean-but-crunchy amp should get you at least in the ballpark.
Morello’s pedalboard includes a Dunlop Crybaby Wah direct into the front end of the amp (sometimes with a tremolo pedal too), and a few pedals in the effects loop: A Digitech Whammy, a digital delay, and a flanger. The Whammy is the effect most closely identified with Morello. He typically sets it for either one or two octaves of pitch shift when the pedal is pressed down. This is how you get those wild squeals in the ‘Killing In The Name’ solo, as well as the smooth pitch glides in Audioslave’s ‘Like A Stone.’
Morello has several guitars which feature Ibanez Edge series vibrato bridges. The Edge is considered one of the best Floyd Rose-style bridges out there, because of its balance, smoothness, and easily serviceable removable knife edge pivot points. He’s also known to install kill switches in many of his guitars, so he can perform ‘stutter’ effects. If you don’t have a kill switch but you happen to have a twin-pickup guitar with individual volume controls for each pickup, you can fake this sound by simply turning down the volume of one pickup. Now when you flick the switch to the turned-down pickup it will cut off the signal until you flip it back to the turned-up one. This trick was also a favourite of Randy Rhoads, and you can hear Eddie Van Halen do it in ‘You Really Got Me,’ which was recorded not with his famous ‘Frankenstein’ parts guitar but with a butchered Ibanez Destroyer, a copy of a Gibson Explorer. In fact, Morello has been known to use a few Ibanezes in his time, including an Artstar hollowbody for ‘Guerilla Radio’ live, and a Talman with an Edge bridge and three lipstick single coil pickups made for him by Ibanez’s LA Custom Shop.