Hot Rocks: How to Play Rage Against the Machine's Latest Single, "Sleep Now in the Fire."
"Sleep Now in the Fire" is a song which combines a powerful but simple riff with some unorthodox guitar techniques to make one of my favorite Rage songs. The main guitar riff (see Figure 1A) is a part that had been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. We finally put all the pieces together when we were working on our latest album, The Battle of Los Angeles. This riff is based on the A minor pentatonic scale (see Figure 1B), and incorporates the use of a steadily ringing A string, which functions as a drone (a note that rings continually while other notes are also played). As you can see and hear, the open A string rings while I play notes on the D, G, and B strings.
The working title for this song was "MC5" because it has the raw feel of the Stooges or the MC5 mixed with Rage's thunderous rhythm section. I couldn't help but envision a huge festival audience jumping up and down to this one - it has that kind of feel. The song really took shape when we married the main guitar riff to a very Seventies, rolling bass line with a dark, lava-lamp, incense-burning, groovy vibe (see Figure 1C). It reminds me a little of a group from the early Seventies called the Jimmy Castor Bunch. Big Afros. Big bass lines. Timmy and Brad really swing this groove.
For the verse section, I created this wash of sound that just sits there like a big, fat cloud. I like this kind of unexpected rhythm guitar part. Rather than rhythmically supporting the funk, it hovers like an unwelcome dinner guest. That little combination of note, tone, and Whammy Pedal effect was something I came upon in the studio the day we were recording the song. I fret the C note on the 15th fret of the A string and have the Whammy Pedal set to harmonize the note a major third below, which drops the note down to A flat. I just hold the C note, allowing it to sustain, and play another C an octave higher on the 17th fret of the G string every fourth bar.
For the guitar solo section, I got right up close to the amp to get some feedback and, working the tremolo bar with my left hand, I flicked the toggle switch from the "off" to the "on" position in the rhythm you hear (see Figure 1D). In order t achieve this toggle switch effect, you'll need a guitar with two pickups, each with its own volume control. On my guitar, I turn the volume control for the neck pickup all the way down to zero (or "off"), and I turn the volume control for the bridge pickup up full. This way, when I flick the toggle switch from the neck to the bridge pickup, I am essentially turning the guitar sound from the "off" to the "on" position, then manipulating the pitch with the tremolo bar to make it sound like a whistle, or an angry flute. With that particular guitar, I always get the same feedback note when I get right up next to the amp, so it's very reliable.
It sounds like there's a transistor radio mixed in at the end of the song, and that's exactly what it is. When I was doing overdubs, I was playing my solid-body Ovation Breadwinner guitar through a MusicMan amp, while using an old, vintage distortion pedal called a Tone Bender. The Tone Bender has a warm, broken-up distortion sound that goes perfectly with the track. I first got turned on to Tone Benders when we were working on Evil Empire with producer Brendan O'Brien, who also produced our new album. I found that when I turned on the pedal but didn't play anything, I picked up a crystal-clear signal from a Korean radio station. In earlier mixes of "Sleep Now in the Fire," that radio thing was featured more prominently. We had the radio signal running through the entire song. It was a little annoying, so we decided just to stick it at the very end. I always like to say that there are no samples on any of our records, and this is a good example. That radio signal is no sample - it was played!
I got to demonstrate these techniques the day we shot the video for "Sleep Now in the Fire" on Wall Street in New York City. Political satirist Michael Moore directed the video. At the end of the day, he was arrested, and we forced the New York Stock Exchange to close early (at full riot alert!) for the first time in history - proving once and for all that Wall Street is no match for unorthodox guitar playing.
I'll be back next month with a look at another tune from The Battle of Los Angeles. See you then.