“I tried for years to find this magical tone and I finally just gave up”: Tom Morello’s guide to being a better guitarist

Tom Morello live in 2016
(Image credit: Barry Brecheisen/WireImage)

Tom Morello is one of the most thrilling guitar players in rock history. As a six-string slayer in Rage Against The Machine, Prophets Of Rage, Audioslave, the E Street Band and more, Morello has shone with his distinctive, spidery-riffed brilliance, especially when he does that thing where he takes his lead out and presses it up against the strings and makes his guitar sound like a ZX Spectrum having a breakdown. Naturally, anyone who likes rock music and plays guitar wants to sound like Tom Morello, and now you can. He’s about to tell you how. But first, you need to give up trying to sound like Tom Morello. Allow him to explain, as he did to me a few years ago.  

“I tried for years to find this magical tone that was in my head and I never did,” Morello explained of his formative years as a master of the guitar. “I finally just gave up and I just played with the crappy tone I had and said, “I’m never gonna worry about it another day in my life, I’m just gonna make music that sounds good with the tone I’ve got” and that ended up being Rage Against The Machine.”

Morello thinks that most guitarists never get through to the other side of chasing the dream of a perfect tone. More fool them. “I did an experiment with a friend of mine who’s a tone junkie guitar player,” he continued. “We went to some festival show in Los Angeles a while back and I said, “We’re gonna do an experiment. We’re gonna grade every act we see on how good their guitar tone is and how good the band is, we’re gonna see if there’s any correlation.” It turned out the band with the worst guitar tone of the day, and I won’t name them, were the best band of the day. They were fantastic. It just doesn’t matter.”

Are you ready to abandon all notion of the perfect tone? Then you are halfway to becoming the next Tom Morello. Now you just need to practice your instrument with every waking hour. “This was advice given to me by a more advanced guitar player in high school and I took it as biblical script,” Morello explained. “I started playing guitar late, when I was 17 years old, and I made that my mantra. I practiced every day at least an hour and I realised the tide of my ability was rising because of that, so I said, “What if I do it two hours a day?”. And then I was like, “Oh my gosh,” it was exponential. Eventually it was eight hours a day, every day, without fail. I was pursuing an honours degree at an Ivy League university. I was in the four hours a day period then. I would finish studying at 1am, practice until 5am every day. That doesn’t mean 4.58am, it was a dedication and a commitment to a goal that you can extrapolate. You can do that in any endeavour and achieve real results. Even if you’re a late starter.”

There you go, no excuses now, Tom Morello has given you everything you need to become the next rock guitar overlord.


Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.