Finding Your Voice
A word on creativity: The kind of amp or guitar you use really doesn't matter. Really. It's the player's creativity, expression, and style that make for compelling guitar music, not gear. I've heard brilliant, emotive players using junkpile amps and seen plenty of sorry hacks with the latest expensive, endorsement-driven product looking (and sounding) like complete jackasses.
Though the music of Rage Against the Machine is often extreme, the truth is that I consider myself a musician who is relatively conservative in his approach to the instrument. Instead of using racks of different signal processing effects and devices, I prefer to stick with a very modest collection of gar to pursue the sounds I hear in my head. This holds true all the way down to my picks. Without the exact Tortex picks that I'm used to, I'm totally lost.
I feel the same way about my amplifier, which is a 50-watt Marshall JCM 2205 head and a crummy Peavey cabinet, circa 1987. For a long time (and at great expense), I searched for the perfect guitar and the "right" amplifier. Never found it. I finally decided to take what I had - and could afford - and make the best of it. If I couldn't find the "perfect" sound (that is, the sound of my favorite records of the time), I'd take the sound I had and just make it my sound. So, back in 1998, I made little scratches on the faceplate of the amp to indicate the settings of each knob. And, all these years later, at every single Rage show, that amp - with those same settings - remains unchanged.
Once the gear question was settled, I got the Digitech Whammy pedal, thinking, "Okay, now I can make sounds like a DJ." Nowadays, the bizarre sonic possibilities the Whammy pedal affords me have become a natural ingredient in how I hear music. The use of the different techniques I've devised, like flicking the toggle switch back and forth, sometimes in conjunction with feedback, tremolo arm and Whammy pedal, are all things I've discovered in the wake of not worrying if my amp and guitar setup were "good enough." I'll reach for the toggle switch before I reach for the pick, that's how my mind works right now. And it's all been part of this natural progression.
A good example of this concept is the intro lick on "Voice of the Voiceless," from The Battle of Los Angeles, for which I emulated the sound of bagpipes. To achieve this effect, I used my stock early-Eighties Telecaster, and, while allowing the guitar to feed back freely, I continually twisted the pitch-shifting knob on the Whammy Pedal back and forth. This knob controls the way in which the sounded pitch is harmonized, so as I turn the knob, the feedback note is harmonized by a "random" array of different intervals.
With a real set of bagpipes, a constant "drone" note is played, which usually represents the song's key center, and a melody is played on top of the drone. In the case of "Voice of the Voiceless," the feedback note (a high G) is the drone, and the Whammy pedal supplies individual notes in harmony; as the knob is twisted, the sequence of harmony notes creates a melody. The resulting melody falls within the G Mixolydian scale, which is illustrated in Figure 1A.
Figure 1B gives a clearer idea of what's happening musically. It illustrates a way to simulate the sound of this lick without using the Whammy pedal. In this example, I use the open G string as the drone, and I play the notes of the G Mixolydian scale on the B string, sounding both strings simultaneously. When you've become familiar with the scale, try playing the example in Figure 1C, in which G Mixolydian melodies are played on the B string along with the open G string drone.
To play the main, heavy riff from this tune, you first have to have your guitar in dropped D tuning, which is achieved by tuning the low E string down one whole step to D. The entire lick falls between the third and fifth frets; all notes on the third fret are fretted with the index finger, and all noted on the fifth fret are fretted with the ring finger. (See Figure 2) An important element in this lick is that the open low D is played in conjunction with the C note on the A string on the downbeat of "one" in each bar.
When we recorded "Voice of the Voiceless," Brad [Wilk, drummer], Timmy [C., bassist], and I all played together in the same room at the same time, without isolating the guitar amp. We get a great vibe playing in the same room and it taps into the raw feel of our live sound. I'll be back next month with more music mayhem. Stay tuned.
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