Between the Lines: "Calm Like a Bomb"
By Michael Mueller
From Guitar One February 2000 issue
Transcribed by David de Sola

If you were to look up "Calm Like a Bomb" in a musical dictionary, you might find a photo of Rage Against the Machine’s militant riff man, Tom Morello. And not just because he co-wrote the song, but because it seems to describe his demeanor: mild mannered, well spoken, and in control. But when he grabs his signature "Arm the Homeless" axe, he explodes like a bomb into a frenzy of pounding rhythms and odd noises, sending sonic shrapnel in all directions.

One of the most anxiously awaited releases of 1999, The Battle of Los Angeles debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, selling 430,000 copies in its first week. On the strength of the six-string assaults found on "Testify," "Guerrilla Radio," "Calm Like a Bomb," and others, Battle is another platinum smash, helping Rage spread their message to millions around the globe.


Tom Morello uses the unusual Drop A tuning in "Calm Like a Bomb." It’s standard tuning with the 6th string tuned down a perfect 4th to A, matching the open 5th string, one octave lower. You might want to use a heavier than normal gauge string on your sixth string to avoid extreme string slack. Try something in the range of .062 -.075.

Tom’s tone on "Calm Like a Bomb" is somewhat of a mystery, but here are major points. He uses a 50-watt Marshall 2205 head and a Peavey 4x12 cabinet to achieve his highly saturated distortion. Be sure to engage plenty of mids for the fat sound that Morello employs. A Digitech Whammy pedal, wah-wah, and delay are also essential to the tune. As for his choice of guitar – and this is the kicker – he used an unnamed "little Canadian pawn shop guitar" to record the track. That said, just about any guitar will do.


Tom Morello is arguably the most innovative and influential guitarist of the ‘90s, and the opening riffs of "Calm Like a Bomb" demonstrate just how he’s earned that reputation. The two guitar parts here, and throughout the song, represent a mix of the best of the old and new. Gtr. 1’s wah-saturated riff is reminiscent of the great riff’s from the ‘70s, while Gtr. 2’s Whammy pedal line screams ultra-modern, emulating house and hip hop sounds of the ‘90s. If you don’t have a Whammy pedal, you can use a slide to emulate this line. The verse ends with a 16th note pedal of the B note on the 5th string at the 2nd fret, like a bomb’s timer ticking away.


Both the pre-chorus and chorus draw heavily on the classic Black Sabbath sound: daek and heavy riffs. Both riffs are based in B minor (B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A) and Morello efficiently uses only the root (B), flatted 3rd (D), and flatted 7th (A) – the most important notes of the scale – to get his point across. Also, notice how Morello’s tuning allows him to play octaves with a one-finger barre, facilitating the octave hammer-ons and pull-offs in the pre-chorus.


The first four measure of the interlude are straightforward in that there are no special effects, but Morello makes up for it via the tricky 32nd-note rhythm. Work this section out slowly, making sure to play the 12th-fret B note at the correct subdivision of each beat and then gradually work up to speed.

The rest of the interlude finds Morello at his sound-effect best, using his Whammy pedal in conjunction with a delay pedal set for a quarter-note regeneration rate with four repeats. Whereas the intro rill was based on a single-note trill, allowing the substitution of a slide to emulate the Whammy pedal, this section doesn’t afford that luxury. To make this section resemble Morello’s original, you’ll need the gear. Otherwise, you can play the part as written, without the Whammy pedal or delay, and it translates just fine.