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Interview: Tom Morello Uses His Guitar as Both a Promise and a Threat

Despite the abundance of talented guitarists throughout the history of popular music, only a special few boast the kind of sonic signature that’s unmistakable from the moment their fingers hit the fretboard. These elite players have created something of which most of us can only dream: a sound that’s entirely their own. Jimi Hendrix was one such player. Nile Rodgers is another. And so too has Tom Morello secured membership within this exclusive club. From his work with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, to solo efforts as both The Nightwatchman and under his own moniker, Morello has made a habit of ensuring his guitar playing sounds like no one else on the planet.

Now, as part of Fender’s celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the Stratocaster — arguably the most popular electric guitar in history and one that boasts a Tom Morello ‘Soul Power’ signature model within its ranks — Morello has appeared in Voodoo Child: Forever Ahead of Its Time, a new short film kicking off festivities for the Strat’s platinum jubilee. I recently had the good fortune to sit down with the man of a thousand riffs and pick his brain about what makes the Strat so special, how music can be used as a tool for confrontation, and why the electric guitar’s story is just getting started.

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Tom Morello | Image: Fender / Alysse Gafkjen

Channelling Soul

“The Fender Stratocaster is the Excalibur of guitars, and in the pantheon of rock and roll and funk and soul, it’s definitely on the Mount Rushmore of guitars,” Morello enthuses right out of the gate. His passion for the instrument is palpable and gives me little time to adjust to the fact that I’m chatting with a man whose music I’ve listened to for decades. 

“The way I describe how a Stratocaster is different from the other great electric guitars is, with some of the other great guitar archetypes, the guitar guides your sound,” he continues. “With the Fender Stratocaster, you guide the sound. It’s much more absorbent of the player’s soul than some of the other guitars, which sound great, but have a sonic niche that is more defined by the instrument. Whereas with the Stratocaster, it is the player that defines the sound. The Stratocaster provides the opportunity to channel the player’s soul in a pure way.”

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Tom Morello | Image: Fender / Alysse Gafkjen

A Conscious Choice

While Morello didn’t start his career playing one of Fender’s finest, he also didn’t pick up the Stratocaster by accident. As he tells it, the decision to embrace the Strat was a very deliberate one, fuelled at first by a desire to expand his sonic palette, but continued due to the way the guitar’s properties worked alongside the voice of his new Audioslave bandmate, the late Chris Cornell.

“I didn’t start playing a Stratocaster until Audioslave formed in 2001. I’d never played one, and it was really a conscious decision. Like, new band, new sound. I was looking for a way to express myself differently than I had in Rage Against the Machine and my other collaborations. So I thought, well, with the Strat, there’s certainly a lot of landscape to cover there. And then I found one that fit my needs. I customised it somewhat, and the day I brought it home I wrote Soul Power on it, which was both a promise and a threat.”

This last comment is reflective of the relationship Morello has had with his art and his audience for much of his career. Never afraid to challenge, he’s always used the guitar in unconventional ways, while simultaneously unleashing massive riffs onto unsuspecting music fans.

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Tom Morello | Image: Fender / Alysse Gafkjen

Inspiration in the Unconventional

When I ask about Strat players that have inspired him to walk this path, he’s quick to express admiration for players like Hendrix, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Wayne Kramer of MC5. However, it’s when he turns his attention to the more unconventional approach of Gang of Four’s Andy Gill that things really come into focus. It’s easy to see how Gill’s approach to the guitar would have had a profound influence on Morello and his playing.

“Andy Gill was really important to me. Maybe not one of the best-known Strat players, but it was the way he deconstructed the instrument and didn’t play to please,” Morello reveals. “He played to unnerve and the Strat was what he wielded to do that. It made me sort of look at music, not just guitar, but music in a different way. That you’re not always playing for the audience. Sometimes you might be playing around or against them, and the Strat could provide both entertainment and also confrontation.”

Morello has unquestionably taken this idea and run with it. But as he tells it, picking up the Stratocaster and exploring its broad spectrum of tones also had an enormous impact on his playing: “The tone is another hand on the steering wheel, right? There’s your creativity, but if it sounds more crunchy or it sounds more whatever, then the songs or the ideas that resonate or sound better are going to be different depending on the sound that’s coming out of the guitar. And certainly with the ‘Soul Power’ guitar, I couldn’t wait to bring it to a rehearsal with the Audioslave guys and just see where it led us.

“I think it was very important in helping my playing and the band’s playing to adapt to a melodic vocalist. I have a lot of different arrows in my creative quiver other than big riffs, but in order to help Chris shine with the harmonic interplay with chords and this, that, and the other, the ‘Soul Power’ guitar led the way.”

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Tom Morello | Image: Fender / Alysse Gafkjen

70 Years Young

As for what’s next for the Stratocaster, Morello is optimistic about the future. While rock music may no longer be the most dominant force in the music charts, Morello hopes the Fender flagship’s story is just getting started.

“One of the things that I’ve been a great proponent of is that I’m hopeful the electric guitar’s best days are ahead and not behind,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with traditional rock songs, metal songs, whatever. Nothing wrong with that. But the electric guitar is a relatively new instrument on the planet, and I think that there’s a lot of territory that is still underexplored or even unexplored. I’ve tried in my own playing to find ways to exist sonically as a guitar player that haven’t been seen or heard before. Also, in my songwriting and collaborations, being kind of fearless to lean into what are the sonic possibilities, the song possibilities for guitar in 2024 and well beyond.”

Discover more about the Fender Stratocaster’s 70th anniversary celebrations via the link below.