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Rage Against the Machine

interview by Christopher John Farley

My guitar playing is solely a product of my determination to explore, rather than any sort of great mastery of technique...

--Tom Morello

When Tom Morello, the spectacularly adept guitarist for the politically-minded punk/metal/rap band, Rage Against the Machine, is asked to name his favorite guitar player, his answer is intriguingly atypical. He doesn’t name Led Zeppelin’s much copied Jimmy Page, though he does allow that Page’s "mysterious, unsavory" guitar solos used to make him think that he too could "channel mysterious, unsavory things into suburban Illinois through my guitar." And he doesn’t name Jimi Hendrix, though when Morello was a student at Harvard University in the mid-1980s he sported an impressively expansive Hendrix-style Afro.

In fact, there are no known recordings of Morello’s favorite guitarist: Joe Hill, the Swedish-born singer-songwriter and union organizer who was executed in 1914 on trumped-up murder charges in Utah. The night before his death, Hill sent this message to a fellow labor leader: "Don’t waste time in mourning. Organise." Hill’s attitude, not his guitar chops, is what inspires Morello today: "He was a poet laureate of the labor movement. He put revolutionary lyrics to very simple tunes and helped unite workers of different backgrounds and ethnicities. He helped them see their common interests through music."

Since its birth, rock has produced a long string of guitar heroes, a list that would begin with Chuck Berry, continue on through Hendrix, Page and Eric Clapton, and include players of more recent vintage, like Eddie Van Halen and Living Colour's Vernon Reid—musicians celebrated for their sheer instrumental talent, their jazzman-like flair for expansive, showy (and sometimes self-indulgent) solos.

But with the advent of alternative rock and grunge in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, guitar heroism became uncool. Guitarist Peter Buck of the influential R.E.M. shies away from the exhibitionism of flashy solos, and other alternative rockers, such as Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, have as well.

Tom Morello


Morello, with his mix of invention and restraint, makes for a guitar hero the post-Nirvana crowd can embrace. His playing is not indulgent— rarely will he take an all-out, all-eyes-on-me solo— but it is attention- grabbing nonetheless. Like Hendrix, he can coax strange sounds from his guitar: metallic rasps, hip-hop-like scratches, notes that snap back like rubber. And yet, like U2’s Edge and R.E.M.’s Buck, he works in tightly focused riffs and bursts."

My guitar playing is solely a product of my determination to explore, rather than any sort of great mastery of technique," Morello says. "A lot of noises I make on the guitar you can make very easily. You just have to think. Maybe this switch, worked in conjunction with that pedal, will make a noise that will not resemble a bluesman on the front porch but maybe a bullhorn."

Easy? Maybe not. Morello admits he practiced "obsessively" two to four hours a day during his four years at Harvard University.

Following in tradition of Joe Hill, the Clash and others, Morello and Rage Against the Machine marry their music to radical politics. The band’s music is terrifically assaultive: on its most recent album, Evil Empire, the songs have the crunch and grind of metal with a bit of the energetic bounce of hip-hop. The band’s lyrics also pack a punch: the new single, "People of the Sun," is an attack on American foreign policy toward the anti-government Zapatista rebels in Chapas, Mexico (Morello charges that the U.S. is supporting an oppressive Mexican government when it should be siding with the rebels).

Tom MorelloMorello is quick to point out that his band backs up its revolutionary rhetoric with action, such as staging benefit concerts for imprisoned American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier and death-row inmate/activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. During a TV appearance on Saturday Night Live in April, the band attempted to hang inverted American flags to protest against the influence of big money on American politics, and morello says the show cut the band’s second song form the program in retaliation. A spokesman for Saturday Night Live, however, says the group’s second song was cut because the show was running long and suggests the band is just looking to court controversy.

Some might argue that it’s unseemly, if not a bit screwy, for a major-label band with an Ivy League guitarist to decry networks, millionaires and capitalism. (Rage Against the Machine is on Epic Records, which is owned by Sony.)  But Morello says there is no contradiction. "You work within the system, using its 'tools,' to change it. After all, you can reach far more people with your message by being on a major record label than you can be being on a 'pure' but small label that hasn’t the power to get your records distributed, on the radio and on MTV.

And if Joe Hill were alive today—who knows?—he might well be on MTV, right alongside Rage Against the Machine.


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