A while before Rage Against The Machine's return to the live stage after eleven years we got the chance to spend some quality time with Tom Morello and two electric guitars that loom large in the band's history, and indeed every project the guitarist has been a part of.
"The two guitars are in the room here," gestures Morello as we met him before a solo show in Bristol supporting Muse, |[Arm The Homeless] is for all the ones in E and [the Tele] is for all the ones in drop D."
"There’s ten radio Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave songs recorded on this [Tele], playing on the neck pickup. This is a standard stock Telecaster," he says of the 1982 Fender guitar he dubbed Sendero Luminoso - Spanish for 'Shining Path', the name of the Communist Party Of Peru.
"To me it always sounded right to my ears," Morello says of his unusual approach to playing riffs on both guitars' neck single coil pickups, "and sometimes I think the heaviness of the riff hasn’t got anything to do with the amount of distortion on the guitar. There are plenty of bands and albums that are distorted out the ass and I just feel [they’re] not moving at all in a way that is compelling."
But Sendero Luminoso has special meaning to Morello that goes even beyond the iconic riffs like Killing In The Name Of he's used it for.
“This one was my roommate Scott Tracy's, god rest his soul, he was a Hollywood musician and we were roommates for about five years. Maynard [James Keenan] from Tool taught me how to do drop D tuning, I was over at his apartment, which all the Seattle bands were doing at the time. But I couldn’t do it on [Arm The Homeless] because that one had a locking nut on it.
"[Scott] had a Telecaster that could do it; I had an extra Marshall head and we had a prisoner exchange. [Scott] was a really great musician, had a band called Liquid Jesus who had a deal on MCA and he was one of the great woulda/coulda/shoulda artists and he passed away some years ago. He never got to tour so this tours for him everywhere.”
Arm The Homeless is a very different guitar. While the Tele is stock, this bitsa guitar took a lot of work to get match fit…
"The origin of the guitar dates back to 1986, pre-Lock Up," Tom told us back in 2012. "I was bumping around between some crummy Hollywood jobs, making $13,000 a year - no goldmine, but it did provide for some income, and it allowed me to save up and get a guitar.
"I went to this place in Hollywood that builds 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 shittiest guitar in the world, but it's what would ultimately become Arm The Homeless.
"Everything about it was bad: it looked bad, it sounded bad, it was grotesquely overpriced, and over the course of the next two years, I changed literally everything about it except for the piece of wood. I got the guitar and hoped I would sound like I was playing Mr. Crowley on it, but it was pretty bad. I didn't know what to do - I had spent all of my money.
"Over time, I swapped necks on it maybe four times; pickups came and went maybe a dozen times; the whammy bar - I tried every different version of Kahler and Floyd Rose; all of the internal electronics were gutted, just me trying to get it right. I'm not much of a builder, so every time I got an idea I brought it to some new guitar shop and had it worked on.
"Finally, I found a graphite neck in a bin at a place called Nadine's Music, and I put that on. It's not a Kramer neck, but it's got the Kramer end to it - it's a knock-off. Then I put some EMG pickups in it, and the whammy bar was changed to an Ibanez Edge.
"At this point, I gave up and said, 'OK, it's never going to sound like what I hear in my head, so I'm going to stop worrying and fucking around, and I'm just going to play music.' Just to make it clear: I wasn't happy with where the guitar was at, but I settled."
And the hippos? "They're literally the only thing I can draw," says Tom, "and I can only draw them facing the one way. I drew them on and then painted them. As for my other change to the look of the guitar, this was in the early days of Rage Against The Machine. We were set to play at the Whiskey, and just before going over to soundcheck I scrawled 'Arm The Homeless' on the guitar. I liked the juxtaposition of that kind of provocative and militant situationist slogan with those four smiling hippopotamuses all facing in one direction.
"Then I started stringing the guitar the opposite way, with the balls coming out of the top so they can wave around. Actually, I did that in my high school band. I remember one of the guys in school - and a far superior musician - kind of looked down his nose at my little band. One day he said to me, 'Dude, cut your strings. You do not dare have floppy strings like that unless you're in the baddest band in town.' Well, when I was in Rage Against The Machine, I was in the baddest band in town, so I let my strings fly!"
“Only the body is original," adds Tom when we meet up in Bristol. [Points to Arm The Homeless's neck pickup] "This one is a single-coil [in humbucker casing] and this one [bridge] is a humbucker [EMG]. I use the lead [bridge] pickup but for the most part all the riff stuff is on the single-coil.
"I’ve had the same guitar tech, Slim, since 1992. I’m a creature of habit. We have our little weird family – these are [guitars] the children and I’m his tour husband [laughs]. This one spends a lot of time in the air. When we end the big shows with the band I always chuck it to him as high and as hard as I can and only a couple of times... if he doesn’t catch it it’s usually my fault. I step on the cord or something.”