By Tom Morello
Mr. Morello has spent over three decades melding music and political activism as a power guitarist with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with the acoustic chords of the Nightwatchman and in protests around the country.
Songs provided by Spotify
I didn’t choose to be a guitar player. It chose me.
It was on an ordinary afternoon in the spring of ’83, my freshman year at Harvard, that I trudged down to a small basement rehearsal room between some vending machines and a foosball table. With the neon lights blazing overhead I was crunching power chords and wailing pedestrian solos when I unexpectedly slipped into a higher gear and felt a moment of transcendent improvisational bliss. The skies parted and my future was decided.
I had received a calling. I had no choice in the matter. My other interests retreated. I would be a guitarist.
Now, my great-uncle Carlo did play violin for 40 years in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and my grandfather was a talented pianist, but here I was, clad in spandex, with the prison notebooks of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in one hand and a Gibson Explorer in the other, just another radical leftist heavy-metal dreamer in an honors major at an Ivy League school.
I started seriously playing late, at 17 years old. I had heard of only one guitarist who made records who began playing at such an advanced age. That was Robert Johnson, and he had to sell his soul to the devil to get good!
This is the third in a 12-week series of essays.
Sign up to get them directly in your inbox, for Times subscribers only.
My Catholic upbringing precluded that option, and so there was only one way to fulfill my calling. Practice my ass off. First it was two hours a day, every day, without fail, noodling away in an empty campus stairwell. Then four hours, then six, then eight! Every day. Without fail. Fever of 102, exam in the morning. Eight hours. Not seven hours and 56 minutes.
Two hours technique, two hours music theory, two hours learning songs, two hours freestyle jamming along with my favorite metal songs.
I’ve often reflected on this maniacal, perhaps somewhat unhealthy, practice regimen. Perhaps in a world in which I felt I had control over very little in the way of romance and race relations, the guitar provided a clarity of purpose where my will, which was not lacking, would be the sole determiner of success or failure. And no one was going to stop me.
Once saddled with this calling, though, I had to figure out how to use the damn thing to great purpose.
I loved metal but it was silly. I loved punk but they couldn’t play their instruments very well. I loved the fledgling genre of hip-hop but those artists rarely used guitars.
And was it possible to combine revolutionary politics with screaming electric guitar? Was it possible to make my guitar a divining rod for truth? An Excalibur of righteous fury? Well I sure as hell wasn’t going to find out in Harvard Yard.
So after graduation I packed my bags and moved to Hollywood. I brought my practice regimen with me, tirelessly running through scales and amassing technique. But to what end? I was technically proficient but sounded like every other million-notes-per-minute wannabe on the Sunset Strip.
My playing transformed with Rage Against the Machine when I began to identify as the D.J. in the band. With the rise of hip-hop, music pundits at the time were saying that the guitar was obsolete, because D.J.’s could make any sound a guitar could make with samples. I took it upon myself to try to make D.J.’s obsolete by making any sound they could make with my bare hands. After all, the electric guitar is a relatively new instrument. It’s just wood and wire that can be manipulated in a variety of nontraditional ways. By deconstructing the possibilities of that wood and wire, I took the first tentative steps to be an artist. Simply being a musician requires technique. Being an artist requires ideas. Now my eight hours a day were spent practicing the eccentricities in my playing. Make a mistake? Repeat it 16 times and make it the cornerstone of the song.
The toggle switch, the tuning pegs, the power jack, every inch of the guitar became fair game for creating sound and texture. And more and more I became inspired by sounds, and ideas, outside of rock ’n roll: police helicopters, animal noises, sci-fi films. I began to find my own voice on the instrument and began forging a sonic vocabulary that was uniquely my own. The guitar was squealing, beeping, mooing! My playing was one part R2-D2, one part Old McDonald’s Farm. You can hear it when you listen to “On the Shore of Eternity” from my new album.
“On the Shore of Eternity” by Tom Morello feat. Sama’ Abdulhadi
I found inspiration even farther afield. The standup of Richard Pryor, the bravado of Muhammad Ali, the moxie of Evel Knievel and Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes victory were on my mood board as I tried to create a new way to look at the instrument.
I know, that Secretariat thing sounds crazy, but Secretariat was not just a great racehorse; there are plenty of those. That 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes defied physics and biology. It was a supernatural performance that upended the sport and left everyone shaking their heads and marveling, “What the hell just happened?”
That’s what I was aiming for in my guitar playing. The blinders were off. I was for the first time hearing riffs and sounds come out of my guitar that I never heard coming out of anybody’s guitar. The sonic horizon was wide open, and on tracks like “Suburban Guerilla” from my “Commandante” album I could soar.
“Suburban Guerilla” by Tom Morello
I wish I had a dime for every time some jackass complained about me, a musician, mouthing off about a political opinion. As if strapping on a guitar somehow triggers a First Amendment exemption. But I realized that even with my mouth shut, I might still be able to stir up a good deal of trouble.
Music can be revolutionary even without lyrics. In the atonal glissando of John Coltrane, the cacophonic funk of Public Enemy, Hendrix feedback frenzy, the rhythm is the rebel.
If an instrument can be utterly transformed by creativity and will, might society be utterly transformed by creativity and will as well? It’s worth finding out.