Rage Against The Machine came out of the gate in 1992 with an album that had an immediate and profound influence on the musical landscape.
Their potent mix of rock, funk and rap almost overnight made “rap-rock” a mainstream genre, and their front and center politics inspired a generation of activists.
For guitarists too, there was A LOT in that record. Not only did Tom Morello have killer riffs, he had an arsenal of sonic mischief up his sleeve, from his judicious use of a whammy pedal, to his percussive kill switch laden solos, to his towering funk-inspired riffs.
Morello’s guitar playing was a masterclass in outside the box thinking. Riding hot on the heels of Kurt Cobain’s anti-solos, Morello often took his time to shine as an opportunity to show that a guitar didn’t need to sound like a guitar – why not make it sound like a turntable?
However, his rig was deceptively simple, often just a guitar, a small handful of pedals, and a Marshall stack.
We’re going to walk you through all of the gear that Morello used, song by song – but first, let’s put some context to it.
Other articles in this series you may enjoy:
- Album Writing
- Album Recording
- Tom Morello Guitar Gear
- Gear Used – Song By Song
- Getting the tone
The album’s gestation was markedly short. RATM formed mid-1991, played their first show that October, released a 12 song demo in December, and four months later were signed to Epic and beginning a month’s residency in Sound City Studios with Garth Richardson.
However, many of the riffs go back years. In a 2019 interview with Premier Guitar, Tom Morello explained that he wrote the riff to Killing In The Name during a guitar lesson in the late 80s while demonstrating how drop D tuning encourages you to play the guitar differently. He also said that he’d had the intro to Bombtrack since he was a teenager.
RATM’s A&R rep Michael Goldstone asked Garth Richardson (styled as GGGarth due to his stutter) to produce the record, handing him the band’s demo tape. Richardson was impressed enough to go to see the band play at a rehearsal studio in Van Nuys and so blown away his stutter kicked in – hard.
I was so completely shocked that when I went to talk to them, I couldn’t talk – I was stuttering unbelievably, completely overwhelmed by what I’d just seen.
Richardson immediately dumped the session he was working with and went right into the studio with the band.
While many records are recorded with band members separated into their own rooms to allow them full separation to accurately play their parts, Rage of course went the opposite direction.
The band set up the drums in the live room of Sound City with a full PA on either side (with large panels between to allow some separation), and the other three members of the band facing the drums. Singer Zack De La Roca even sang with his SM58 in his hand.
Richardson told Nimbus School of Recording & Media in 2019 that after seeing their power in the rehearsal studio, he knew he had to take an unusual approach to get that pure fire on tape.
I could not bring them into a studio and put Tom in the corner with some headphones on, and Tim with some headphones on, and Zack with headphones on, and make it nice and clean. I wanted to capture that feel, that same thing
So I took a major risk here, I was this young kid and I went “I’m gonna put a PA system inside the room, put all the amps in the back rooms, and I’m gonna have it as a show.
All songs were tracked live, with a minimal amount of overdubs. Incredibly, video exists – and was shared by Richardson at Namm 2020 – of the original take of Killing In The Name that ended up on the record.
There was no click, there was no protools, there was no offsetting. There was only real, live.
Tom Morello Guitar Gear
Despite the wide range of sounds on the record, Morello actually used very little gear – just three guitars, four pedals, and one amp.
Let’s take a look.
“Arm The Homeless” Parts Guitar
Possibly Morello’s most well known and instantly recognizable guitar, “Arm The Homeless” started life as a total piece of crap.
In 2012, Morello explained the 1986 purchase that formed the genesis of what would become the Arm The Homeless guitar to Music Radar.
“I went to this place in Hollywood that builds guitars (Performance Custom Guitars). I’m no luthier, I didn’t know anything about woods and what have you – you go to this place, check off all these boxes, and they build it for you. They made me the shi**iest guitar in the world, but it’s what would ultimately become Arm The Homeless.
Morello spent the next two years swapping out everything on the guitar “except for the piece of wood”, hoping to get a decent sounding and playing instrument together.
After dozens of pickups and at least four neck changes, Morello picked up a graphite neck from Nadine’s Music in Hollywood (“It’s not a Kramer neck, but it’s got the Kramer end to it – it’s a knock-off”), a pair of EMGs (H in the neck and 85 in the bridge) and an Ibanez Edge bridge.
While he still didn’t like the sound of the guitar, Morello decided to just work with what he had.
When I made the decision to stop searching for a sound that just didn’t exist in that guitar, and I just started creating, I learned to take the sounds the guitar had and found ways to make music that I liked with them.
Morello has since explained that the key to the sound of the guitar is the neck “humbucker” (an EMG H) that is actually a single-coil in a humbucker housing.
The bounce that’s in my contribution to the riffs of Rage Against The Machine have a lot to do with that front pickup. I never really liked that sound; in fact I was quite disappointed with it, because it has a very single-coil sound. But that is the sound – that front pickup.
The guitar is strung with 9-46 strings with the balls coming off the headstock instead of in the bridge and is played almost exclusively in the neck position.
Drop D Telecaster
Morello is most associated with his Arm The Homeless guitar, but one guitar is on more of Morello’s tracks over the years than any other – his American Fender Telecaster that he has used to record every drop D song for his entire career.
In 2019 he told Premier Guitar:
This is my longtime Telecaster… when I learned how to do the sort-of grunge tuning [drop D], I needed a guitar to do it. So, I traded with my roommate at the time. He had this Telecaster and I had a 50-watt Marshall head.
“We made an even swap and from that day forward, I started, you know, doing the drop-D tuning. This guitar was played on every drop-D song I’ve made.
“This is my 19th record, all 19 of them, any songs in drop D tuning were played on this
He also spoke about the same guitar with Musician’s Friend in 2012:
This is on all of the Rage, Audioslave, Street Sweeper, Nightwatchman songs that are in drop D tuning like Killing In The Name, Freedom, Testify – all of those that are in drop D were played and written with the band on this.
As for the guitar itself, it is entirely stock – the only customization on the guitar is the stickers. The guitar also has some damage from when Morello capped off the band’s 2002 Video Music Awards appearance by using it to smash a TV set-piece.
While Arm The Homeless is played on the neck for rhythm and switched to the bridge for leads, the Telecaster sits in the neck position at all times.
“Taco Bell” Gibson Les Paul Standard
In a 2020 Instagram post, Morello revealed for the first time that he had used his red Les Paul standard for overdubs on several songs on the record.
However, if you look closely in the studio footage from the Mobius interview, you can see the distinctive Gibson headstock come into view while the band are tracking Killing In The Name, which suggests it wasn’t just for overdubs.
Surprisingly for an album that has so many out there sounds that the band felt the need to specify in the liner notes that no synths were used, relatively few pedals were actually used on the record.
Morello is of course legendarily inventive on the guitar, but judicious use of a few specific pedals allowed him to get an even wider range of sounds.
A note on pedal order
While most players go from guitar to pedals to amp, Morello actually goes guitar to amp, and then uses his pedals in the loop.
While some of the following pedals were not used on this record, his live setup for many years was to run the guitar through the Dunlop Crybaby, and into the amp, and then go Amp FX Send --> Digitech Whammy -> BOSS DD-2 Digital Delay -> DOD FX40B -> Ibanez DFL -> Amp FX Return.
This unquestionably gives Morello both additional versatility as well as adding to the uniqueness of his tone.
The WH-1 is synonymous with Morello’s guitar playing, and can be heard on the record any time he wants to make his guitar sound like a turntable – or just get a good screech.
On the record, Morello used the whammy in a variety of settings from two octaves up to two down, as well as harmonizing for different sections.
A staple of any classic pedal board, the crybaby can be heard taking the lead on many RATM tracks, notably on Bulls On Parade, but it features prominently on several songs on their debut, such as Wake Up, Freedom, and Bullet In The Head.
The DFL is an 80s rarity that can do it all – from underwater warbles to departing jets. On its release, it was the only pedal to use digital processing, allowing wideband, brighter flanging effects that until then necessitated a rackmount unit. Morello has had this on his board since the Lock Up days, and can be heard all over the record, most notably at the beginning of Killing In The Name Of.
Talkbox (brand unknown)
Unlike several of the pedals that have been discussed at length over the years, little is known about the talk box specifically. It’s used only for Wake Up, and Morello has only ever mentioned it in passing.
Only one amp and one cab were used on Rage Against The Machine’s debut record – in fact, Morello has used the same Marshall head (with Marshall logo covered up) and Peavey cabinet (with Peavey logo removed) throughout his career, starting with his pre-RATM band Lock Up.
Marshall JCM 800 2205 50W
The JCM 800 that Morello used for the record has been in constant use – with the exact same settings – since 1988 (more on that later). Later in his career, Morello started to add additional amps to his arsenal, particularly for live use, but the JCM 800 remains the key to his sound.
Peavey VTM 4×12 Cabinet
Morello’s Peavey cabinet is loaded with four Celestion G12K-85 speakers and has been his main or only cabinet since all the way back in 1988 (with the exception of backline cabs provided at festivals and the like). In fact, he only bought a backup cabinet for the Peavey in the last few years.
In a 2012 interview with Music Radar, Morello explained:
I remember this one session in Lock Up, probably around 1988, I had the Arm The Homeless guitar. I had the Marshall. I had the Peavey, and I was getting pretty frustrated at how everything was sounding.
I spent a good four or five hours just sitting there, fiddling with the guitar, fiddling with the knobs on the amp, and then I arrived at these certain settings on the Marshall – I marked them. and they’re still there to this day. Those are the same markings I used when I played with Bruce Springsteen the other day on Jimmy Fallon.
Incredibly, Morello’s purchase of the amp and cabinet that was used for both his live and recorded output for so many years was basically a fluke.
All of my gear got stolen out of my van on a Valentine’s Day, and the next weekend I had to record a demo with Lock Up. I was so bummed. So I went to Nadine’s Music – the same place where I got the neck for Arm The Homeless – and they only had one cabinet, the Peavey 4x12, and they had two heads, the Marshall 50 watt head and something else. So I bought the Marshall and the Peavey because that’s what they had.
Gear Used – Song By Song
Due to the record largely being recorded live, and the small amount of effects used, it has long been easy to pin down specifically what was used on each song. In fact, the only change to this breakdown from “The Official RATM Equipment Page” in the last 20 years is the recent revelation about the Les Paul.
This makes it all the easier to recreate the tone for each song using the exact gear.
Arm the Homeless / Flanger
Killing in the Name
Les Paul / Flanger / Whammy (set 2 octaves up)
Take the Power Back
Telecaster / Les Paul (overdubs) / Whammy (set 2 octaves up)
Settle for Nothing
Arm The Homeless / Telecaster for the solo / Whammy (set 2 octaves up)
Bullet in the Head
Arm The Homeless / Whammy (set 2 octaves up) / Wah-Wah
Know Your Enemy
Arm The Homeless / Whammy (harmonizing up a fifth)
Telecaster / Les Paul (overdubs) / Arm The Homeless (solo) Flanger / Whammy (set 1 octave up) / Talkbox / Wah-Wah / Whammy (harmonizing up a seventh)
Fistful of Steel
Arm The Homeless / Whammy (set 2 octaves up) / Slide
Telecaster / Les Paul (overdubs) / Whammy (harmonizing down a fourth) / Flanger
Telecaster / Les Paul (overdubs) / Flanger / Whammy / Wah-Wah
Getting the tone
Typically in this section we would be trying to find an affordable way to recreate an expensive rig – but there’s really nothing expensive going on here.
Really all you need is a Telecaster on the neck position (or something single coil with a Floyd for certain songs) going through a Marshall, and then you just need to nail the eq.
Lucky for you the good folks at Premier Guitar took a closeup shot of his amp in 2019.
Here are Tom Morello’s Marshall JCM 800 amp settings
- Master Section
- Presence: 1
- Master Volume: 7
- Reverb: 0
- Boost Section
- Bass: 10
- Middle: 10
- Treble: 7
- Volume: 6
- Gain: 10
- Normal Section
- Bass: 0
- Treble: 0
- Gain: 0
As far as specific gear, those on a budget can of course use a Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster or an affordable RG series Ibanez into a Marshall Code or a Boss Katana (see our Boss Katana review here). Both amps come with a wide range of built-in effects that will imitate most of the effects on the record (though you’ll likely still need a wah pedal, and there’s really no cheap alternative to a whammy pedal).
The advantage of both of these modelling amps is that you can download a wide range of profiles to match the tones on the record.
Stepping up the budget, a Fender Player Series Telecaster or one of the mid-range Ibanez RG Series guitars paired with a mid-range Marshall combo such as the DSL20CR will get you most of the tones, just needing to add the pedals.
Big money players? Go get your American Tele, JCM 800, Peavey Cabinet, all the pedals, and go nuts!
While you can of course collect all of the gear that Morello used to craft the amazing guitar work on the record, the style is still all his own. Where Kurt Coban launched a slew of imitators, few have tried to recreate Morello’s incredible guitar acrobatics. It’s easy to see why – when someone is that original, it’s near impossible to take inspiration without coming across as recreating.
Almost 30 years later, the record still sounds timeless, and for good reason.