Music & Entertainment

Learn How to Write a Song With Tom Morello

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 9 min read

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Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar

There’s no paint-by-numbers way to write a timeless song. If such a thing existed, songwriting textbooks would be flying off the shelves and almost anyone could write a Top 40 hit within their lifetimes. But while no one can teach you a foolproof method for writing a truly memorable song, there is much to be gained by gleaning insights from the musicians who have written songs that reached mass audiences.

Tom Morello is known to millions as a founding member of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, a touring lead guitarist with Bruce Springsteen, and the solo artist known as The Nightwatchman. Here are some of Morello’s insights on the art of songwriting.

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What Is Tom Morello’s Secret to Songwriting?

When Morello first started playing guitar, all he wanted to do was learn to play his favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs. But the instructors in his Illinois town insisted that he first learn how to properly tune the strings and practice basic scales—“busy work,” as he put it. The process made the guitar feel inaccessible, and when Morello later started teaching guitar to students, he never forgot that initial frustration.

What he eventually discovered is that there’s no great mystery to songwriting. If you can hold a guitar and play a couple of notes, you can write a song. In his view, it’s not even necessary to know the names of the strings or the specific notes you’re playing. What’s more important is authenticity: if the song comes from inside you, then it’s personally and artistically a success.

Tom Morello’s 2 Essential Elements of Songwriting

Morello identifies the two crucial components of songwriting as inspiration and craft.

  • Inspiration is as simple as choosing to make a sound or play specific notes a certain way.
  • Craft is the process of arranging those sounds and notes to create verses, choruses, and all the other building blocks of a song.

The arrangement gives a song its form and structure, but it’s the inspiration—the creative choices you and you alone make—that transform the arrangement into something original and new. Inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, and Morello believes it’s important for you to document and preserve the ideas when they occur.

Just as important: never self-censor. For instance, Morello wrote the main riff for Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” when he was 19 and playing in a cover band, but years passed before he found a home for it. Your ideas might not result in a full-fledged song right away, but you may find a use for them down the road.

How to Organize Your Musical Ideas

When it comes to capturing spontaneous ideas, the two most important tools in Morello’s arsenal are a handy guitar and a multitrack recorder.

You never know when inspiration for a song will strike. When you have that moment of inspiration, use whatever means are available to record your ideas before they’re lost or forgotten. Morello writes some of his heaviest riffs on a nylon-string acoustic guitar simply because it’s the most practical option when he’s at home and doesn’t want to disturb anyone. You don’t need a studio or rehearsal space before you can develop a song.

Even a basic multitrack recorder will allow you to overdub additional guitar parts. This can mean:

  • Double-tracking for a fuller sound (à la Jimmy Page)
  • Improvising a solo
  • Adding what Morello calls a “musical emergency”—a signature sound or flair that helps define his style

A click track can set the rhythm at a specific BPM (beats per minute) to keep your playing in time and ensure all your parts line up accurately. You can even experiment with different basslines to see how they change the song’s overall feel.

How to Build a Song Around Riffs

You can create a complete song with nothing more than two riffs—one riff can serve as the verse; the other as the chorus.

  • If you’re in a band or have friends you play with, you can bring those riffs to the group and give everyone a chance to contribute, possibly taking the song in a totally new direction. If you consider yourself more of a bandleader or solo artist, you can flesh out the song’s arrangement on your own.
  • Morello also encourages you to not overthink or get too precious about your ideas. A short, simple song with three chords and a few basic lyrics repeated over and over is no better or worse than an epic prog-rock jam with lots of complex parts and time-signature changes. If the song you’ve written feels right to you, move on to the next. What matters most is that you maintain a sense of excitement about what you’ve created.

How to Incorporate Melody and Lyrics

Lyric writing in its essence is a way of processing and sharing your own feelings and perspective. Morello describes it as “putting on your poet’s eyes.” And, like all other aspects of successful songwriting, it must be an authentic expression of who you are. This is why so many singers insist on writing their own lyrics—and why Morello says you should never take it personally if a singer doesn’t respond to your ideas or suggestions.

Combining lyrics and music is yet another example of how inspiration works hand-in-hand with craft. The inspiration is the words you choose, the melody you create, the chord progression you play; the craft is figuring out how to bring those three elements together. For instance, you could start with a full set of lyrics, a poem you want to tell, and then find a chord progression and melody that fits those words exactly as written. But you could also begin with the chord progression and melody, then adapt those same lyrics so they work with the music, even if that means cutting a few words or even entire stanzas.

How to Find Songwriting Inspiration From Daily Life

The ideas that inspire your music also don’t have to be traditionally “musical.” No sound is off limits.

  • Use environmental sounds. Many years ago, Morello started listening closely to the sounds of daily life in Los Angeles and when one caught his ear, like police helicopters flying over the city, he’d try to recreate it on guitar. In the case of the helicopter, that eventually became the intro to Audioslave’s “Cochise.” But even if the recreation doesn’t end up sounding exactly like your original inspiration, the attempt alone can reveal dimensions of your instrument and directions you can take with your songwriting you might never otherwise discover.
  • Use noise. You can use your expanding sonic palette to write a rhythm part that’s unconventional, as Morello did on the Rage Against the Machine song “Bullet in the Head,” adding a layer of syncopated white noise rather than a traditional riff to what was more of a hip-hop groove.
  • Use effects pedals and other technology. If you create a solo riddled with effects or other studio magic, as Morello did on the Prophets of Rage song “Unfuck the World,” you may have to reinterpret the solo so you can actually perform it. In Morello’s case, that meant coming up with a specific order of operations for the solo, including knowing the exact moment he needed to step on a delay pedal to set up a sound he wasn’t even ready to make yet. Rather than letting choices you made in the studio hold you back onstage, embrace the challenge of bringing that song to life in a whole new way.

How to Write Songs With Improvisation

When you’re recording in a studio, every minute costs money.

  • When you’re playing live, an audience expects you to show them a good time. But when you’re improvising, whether it’s alone at home or jamming with others in a rehearsal space, you’re totally liberated as a musician. Think of it as recess during a school day: you can play just for the sake of playing.
  • Get lost in the music, experiment, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Don’t worry that you’re going to play something wrong—in improvisation, Morello argues, mistakes don’t exist.
  • Everything you learn as a guitarist contributes to what Morello calls your “sonic palette.” It’s the accumulation of every skill and trick of the trade you’ve picked up along the way. That sonic palette is available to you in all its complexity every time you improvise. It isn’t necessary to differentiate between musical styles and idioms, only using some small portion of your palette because it’s what seems right at the time. Draw from everything that’s inside of you. A swirling, chaotic blast of pure white noise might not work over a minor key ballad, but you’ll never know unless you try. Remember: there are no mistakes in improvisation.
  • You can learn a lot as a guitar player by improvising with musicians who are better than you. If another guitarist plays a lick that you really like, never hesitate to stop and ask them about it. Similarly, if you play something in the moment that excites you, take the time to stop and record it. Improvisation is a great way of generating song ideas. You can even go ahead and record the entire jam session, then listen back later to see what stands out.
  • The song “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is” on Morello’s album The Atlas Underground was forged from a multi-hour freeform improvised blues jam with Gary Clark, Jr., the raw tape of which bears little resemblance to what you hear on the record. But when Morello listened back to it, the seeds of the song were in there. Much of the songwriting for Prophets of Rage is also borne out of improvisation, with the band just jamming together in a rehearsal space or studio.

Myth: Songwriters Are Only As Good As Their Gear

Some beginning songwriters fear that they can’t really dive into their craft unless they own top-of-the-line gear. This simply isn’t true. Orchestral composers from Mozart to John Williams didn’t sequence their tracks in Ableton. They wrote scores on paper. Guitarists like Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix weren’t playing on $10,000 custom shop guitars, and yet their songs turned out just fine. While it may help to perform your songs live using high-end equipment, there’s no need for it in the songwriting phase. This is why Morello does most of his own songwriting on an old nylon string guitar.

  • Although many guitarists would assert that nicer guitars sound better, Morello believes that the quality of your tone—that is, what your guitar sounds like, as dictated by the guitar, the amps, strings, and effects you choose— doesn’t directly correlate to the quality of your music. Rather than obsessing over the subtleties of how a specific amplifier tube or brand of strings affects the sound of your guitar, he encourages you to focus on creativity and expressing an idea artistically in a way that sounds and feels true.
  • It may be tempting to believe that getting the right gear will unlock your potential as a guitarist, but that isn’t the case. Creativity comes from within; it has nothing do with the size or quality of your rig. Even with a modest amount of equipment you have a vast sonic palette at your disposal. Keep your rig simple at first and explore the full potential of every component—especially effects pedals. Push them to their extremes. Experiment with their craziest, wildest settings. Guitarists tend to get more conservative with pedals as they get used to them, but Morello thinks it’s important to never lose that initial sense of wonder and magic that comes from hearing a pedal for the very first time.

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