Tom Morello the polymath

By Tom MacIntosh

Today at Guitars Exchange we would like to take a look at the life and times of New Yorker Tom Morello, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, actor, writer, and political activist who earned global fame through his stint with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, among other projects.

Born Thomas Baptiste Morello on May 30, 1964, in Harlem, he was raised by his mother Mary Morello, a schoolteacher in Libertyville, Illinois. As a teenager he became seduced by both rock music and politics, and would go on to marry the two together through his creativity and talent as a gutsy guitarist and activist. His first foray into the music world was as lead singer for a junior high school group called Nebula who did covers of bands like Led Zeppelin, B.T.O., and Steve Miller. He picked up his first guitar in 1977 and by 1982 he was a serious student of the instrument, developing his own style of heavy metal/punk, hip-hop riffs, and a vast array of sounds that make him instantly recognisable today. British weekly music mag Melody Maker describes him thus, “Guitarist Tom Morello wears his guitar high up to wring every sound out of it, Falling bombs, police sirens, scratching - he can do them all”.

The road to stardom began in ‘82 when he formed his first outfit called Electric Sheep with bass player Adam Jones, who would later form part of the Californian rock band Tool. He penned many of the band’s material, which was politically charged and provocative. He gets his political edge from his parents, “My mother founded the Parents For Rock And Rap organisation, which was an anti-censorship lobby. My dad was a freedom fighter for Kenyan independence (part of the Mau Mau guerilla movement), and then became his country’s first ambassador to the UN. And my great uncle was Jomo Kenyatta – the first president of Kenya. So I very quickly picked up on political activism and fighting for the rights of others, (Metal Hammer, 2006). They performed their own stuff with titles like Salvador Death Squad and Five Buck Whore, mixing the politics in with a little saltier approach.

In 1991 he would form a new band, one that would vault him into ‘rock god’ status, Rage Against the Machine (RATM), a name which clearly drives home what they were going after, political anti-authoritarian messages in metal style. The band comprised Zack de la Rocha lead singer, Tim Commerford bassman and vocals, Brad Wilk on drums and Morello with his axe. Their eponymous debut album Rage Against the Machine peaked at #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, and #45 on US Billboard 200. It was considered the first crack at merging metal and hip-hop, or rap with a kick-ass lyrics of attitude and resistance. The iconic photo on the album’s cover is of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting the Vietnamese government for their treatment of Buddhists, which sets up the contents graphically, yet perfectly. Three highlights on the record  were tracks Know Your Enemy, Killing in the Name, the Zeppelinesque Wake Up, each high-octane numbers that still get plenty of radio airtime today. (triple platinum sales figures). Their 2nd release Evil Empire (1996) also went platinum 3 times, featuring the hit Bulls On Parade, where Morello displays his scratching effect by toggling between 2 pickups while rubbing his hands across the strings of likely his main weapon of choice at the time, a guitar called ‘Arm the Homeless’, a hybrid with a Stratocaster body, a Performance Corsair neck, 2 Seymour Duncan JB pickups, and a chrome original Floyd Rose tremolo.

Their 3rd package was The Battle of Los Angeles, (1999), was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album. It houses gems like Calm Like a Bomb, which was used in the sci-fi film The Matrix: Reloaded, Sleep Now in the Fire and Testify, whose videos were directed by documentary Oscar winner Michael Moore. It sold over 420,000 copies in its first week. Their 4th and final studio record was Renegades (2000) released after the band split up. It is a slick record containing covers by Bob Dylan (Maggie’s Farm), the Rolling Stones (Street Fighting Man), Iggy Pop (Down the Street) and Bruce Springsteen (The Ghost of Tom Joad) to name a few. It went platinum in 5 weeks.  

The 3 remaining band members, Wilk, Commerford, and Morello then stayed together and became Audioslave with singer Chris Cornell from Seattle rockers Soundgarden. They kept the material deliberately non-political, releasing 3 records, the self-titled Audioslave debut (2002), which went platinum in 2006, Out of Exile (2005) with hit singles Be Yourself, Your Time Has Come, and Doesn’t Remind Me which was Grammy nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance, and Revelations, featuring the singles Wide Awake, and Shape of Things To Come, both on the soundtrack of Michael Mann’s movie Miami Vice (2006). They also put out a DVD of their trip as the first American rock band to play a free concert in Cuba (2005).

Eager to get back into politics, he went solo and acoustic for a character he invented, called The Nightwatchman, whom he describes as “the black Robin Hood of the 21st century...a reaction against illicit wars, a reaction against first strikes, torture, secret prisons, spying illegally on American citizens. It’s a reaction against war crimes, and it’s a reaction against a few corporations that grow rich [off] this illicit war while people beg for food in the city streets. In 2007 his persona released his first solo album One Man Revolution, singing of bitterness and revenge that refer to the world in turmoil.


His 2nd release under his alter ego was The Fabled City (2008) built on what he calls “two templates: Dylan and Hendrix” both acoustic and electric, together with a band he put together called the Freedom Fighter Orchestra which includes Carl Restivo/guitars/vocals, Eric Gardner/drums, and Dave Gibbs/bass. He went on the Tell Us The Truth tour with such names as Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers, Jill Sobule, Boots Riley of the Coup and Mike Mills of R.E.M. The aim of the 13 city tour was to raise public awareness about the failure of major media outlets in the U.S. to do an honest job covering the news. He explains, “Media consolidation needs smashing and globalization needs unmasking. When presidents lie and politicians lie, it is the job of the press to expose those lies. When the press fails, the gangstas come out from hiding…”.

Morello also hooks up with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the 25th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden, performing The Ghost of Tom Joad, Badlands, London Calling by the Clash, and (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher alongside the ‘Boss’. He also replaced Stevie Van Zandt on Springsteen’s 2013 Wrecking Ball Tour in Australia (having appeared on 2 tracks for the studio recording). The relationship between the two would flourish again on the Boss’ 2014 album High Hopes where Morello plays and sings on 8 of the 11 tracks.  

Regarding his gear, the list of guitars is as long as the beach, beginning with the aforementioned Arm the Homeless frankenstein, then his love for the Fender Stratocaster ‘Soul Power’, which was an Aerodyne Strat, his Ibanez Talman Custom, used in his Audioslave days, a Gibson EDS-1275 played on The Ghost of Tom Joad (RATM version), and let’s not forget his first electric guitar, a Kay, with its SG style body, which he bought for $50 while his mom picked up the bill for the amp. His pedalboard is a coterie of dazzling tools, a Boss TU-3 Chromatic tuner, Digitech Whammy WH-1, and a Dunlop Cry Baby Classic GCB95F, to list a few, and his amps have almost always been Marshalls, the JCM800, but he has been seen using a Peavey VTM.

Another side of Morello is his tireless activism, fighting against the censorship of rock music with warning labels promoted by Parents Music Resource Center. The band’s protest was to refuse to play at the Lollapalooza concert in 1993 by going naked on stage with their mouths covered by duct tape and send feedback loudly through their instruments for almost 15 minutes. He is also a member of the International Workers of the World, also known as ‘Wobblies’. He and his fellow artists sued the American Government for using their music for torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Prison, saying “Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured - from waterboarding to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts - playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney's idea of America, but it's not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me”. He has performed for several Occupy Movement venues from Nottingham to Chicago, and finally formed the political group Axis of Justice with co-founder Serj Tankian from the Armenian-American heavy metal band System of a Down, whose purpose is “to bring together musicians, music fans, and grassroots political organisations to fight for social justice”.

Tom Morello is also something of an actor, appearing in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Voyageur (episode Good Shepherd, very appropriate). He has been in documentary films such as Sounds Like a Revolution, Iron Maiden: Flight 666, and Chevolution, about Che Guevara.

And why stop there?, he has written a 12-issue comic book series for Dark Horse Comics called Orchids, about “a teenage prostitute who learns that she is more than the role society has imposed on her”.

Morello’s current musical/political adventure is another supergroup Prophets of Rage, built on former members of RATM and Audioslave, but also included are Chuck D (Public Enemy), DJ Lord, and B-Real from the hip-hoppers Cypress Hill. As he put it in Rolling Stone Magazine, “We're an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing!”.

Finally the infatigable artist has released his latest solo album called Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground (2018) with collaborations from people like Marcus Mumford, RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Gary Clark Jr., Killer Mike, Pretty Lights, Steve Aoki, and Vic Mensa.

Mr. Tom Morello is indeed the complete package. His eye sees it all, his voice says it all and his deft touch on our favourite instrument is pitch perfect.