Tom Morello MasterClass Review, Summary & Key Lessons
While there are countless online guitar courses available today, there are two courses from the website MasterClass that recently caught my attention.
One MasterClass is by Santana and the other is by Tom Morello. I’ve talked about Tom Morello before in my guide on his gear and effects, so I was interested in hearing more about his approach to guitar.
One of my students is a big Tom Morello and Rage Against The Machine fan, so after I mentioned this course to him, he went home and bought it. He asked me to go through the MasterClass with him so I can help him incorporate the course’s lessons into his own lessons.
I took detailed notes along the way and created additional exercises for my student based on the ideas Tom presented in the course. Now I can use my notes to share my thoughts about the course with you.
In this review, I will share with you:
- A thorough summary of content in the Tom Morello MasterClass
- The key lessons and ideas we took away from the course
- Advice on who may or may not want to buy this course
In this review, I will share my thoughts as a guitarist and as a guitar teacher so you get an accurate idea of whether the MasterClass is right for you or not.
I’ve also written a review on the Carlos Santana MasterClass, so check it out after reading this review.
What is the Tom Morello MasterClass
MasterClass produces online courses on a wide range of topics. What makes these courses stand out is they use some big names to host the courses.
There’s a chess course by Garry Kasparov, an acting course by Helen Mirren, a writing course by Malcolm Gladwell, a cooking course by Gordon Ramsay, and so on.
I’m always skeptical about big celebrities and stars slapping their names on sub-par products, so I was hesitant when my student wanted to take a course by a non-guitar website.
But as you’ll see in this review, I was quite surprised by the overall quality of the course and there’s actually some valuable content within.
The basic idea of the Tom Morello MasterClass is that you are given 26 videos by Tom covering a variety of topics.
Extra materials such as TAB for all music played in the videos and assignments help to turn the passive experience of watching videos into an active learning experience.
Tom Morello MasterClass Summary
I’ll go into key lessons and notes taken during the MasterClass later, but here is an overview of what the MasterClass contains.
While it’s structured into 26 ‘lessons’ to match the 26 videos, you can break those lessons down into these broad categories:
- Tom Morello’s history, gear and experiences
- Tutorials and advice on how to write riffs and songs
- Case studies analyzing RATM songs in detail
- Advice and philosophy on topics such as practice, recording, performing, etc.
Each video ranges anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes on a specific topic that fits into one or more of the above categories.
The course starts with Tom talking about how you can develop your own unique voice and style while giving examples from his own development as a guitarist.
Then he continues by explaining his approach to riff writing, a look at his gear, and more importantly, how he uses his gear in creative ways.
The middle of the course spends time on practice philosophy, basic techniques, basic music theory, improvisation and a discussion of Tom’s influences. He spends time showing how to apply techniques and theory in practical examples.
The course finishes with some case studies of RATM songs, a demonstration of writing a full song, and advice on performing and collaborating with other musicians.
Compared to other courses
The key point I want to stress in this review is that the MasterClass is not like a typical video lesson found on YouTube or a typical video course on sites like Udemy.
While a typical video guitar lesson will spend 5-10 minutes teaching you how to play parts from a song from a technical point of view, Tom gives you insights into how you can come up with your own parts inspired by RATM songs.
Typical YouTube video lessons give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to play songs, but not many explain how those parts were written, why they’re written that way, and how you can write similar parts.
This is what separates this course from other courses or typical video lessons.
Instead of explaining step-by-step how to use a DAW to record your guitar parts, Tom demonstrates recording a basic riff and builds it into a full song.
I was quite surprised by this style of teaching and found it refreshing.
Tom focuses a lot on how to think about learning guitar, writing music, or performing instead of purely the technical details. While he does provide some exercises, most of the course focuses on how to get the right mindset with what you play.
As an advanced guitarist, I found this style of teaching incredibly valuable. I was able to take points and immediately start applying them to my playing.
My student, who is currently intermediate in abilities, needed some guidance in putting the philosophy and advice into action.
So if you’re looking for a course to teach you step-by-step how to play RATM songs, this isn’t the course for you. YouTube videos and TAB found online do a perfectly good job at teaching you how to play RATM songs.
But if you’re looking for a deep dive into how a guitarist like Tom Morello thinks about writing riffs or coming up with new ideas, I can’t think of a more valuable resource.
I’ve read plenty of interviews in guitar magazines by Tom over the years and I learned far more about his approach to riff-writing in this course than any other source.
Tom Morello as a guitar teacher
Tom is a surprisingly good teacher in this course. I’ve seen quite a few other video lessons by well-known guitarists who know their stuff but aren’t great teachers (being great at guitar doesn’t automatically make you a good guitar teacher).
Tom does a good job at explaining his approach to guitar and music in a way that can be easily applied in your own situation.
A great example was during the riff writing sections. Tom would start by demonstrating a RATM riff, then explain how he came up with that riff. He would then take it further by demonstrating different ways you can modify the riff and branch off into new directions.
By the end of the riff writing lesson, my student had quite a few different approaches he could work on to start coming up with his own RATM-style riffs.
In our first lesson after watching that part of the MasterClass, he came into the lesson with a dozen great RATM-sounding riffs he had come up with. When a student is able to apply the advice and get results, that’s a sign of good teaching.
As a side note, I’ve never been interested in Tom Morello’s political views and I was relieved that it was almost non-existent in the course. Apart from a small section where he talks about his own philosophy at the very end of the course, he didn’t mention politics at all.
Tom Morello MasterClass Key Lessons and Notes
Throughout the MasterClass, I took detailed notes so I could help my student apply the main lessons and ideas afterward.
Some of the insights and lessons in the videos were surprisingly profound and I found myself taking a lot of notes.
Here are the key lessons, ideas, and notes I took throughout the MasterClass. While I’ve tried to clearly explain the lessons, keep in mind that a few sentences don’t compete against a 20-minute video explaining the ideas in full.
Developing Your Creative Voice
Think beyond your influences: when we start learning guitar, we try to imitate what we hear from great guitarists. The reason we do this is that they’ve developed their own unique approach to guitar, so their style stands out to us.
When we develop our guitar abilities, we need to try and think beyond our influences to start developing our own unique style and approach otherwise we’ll hit a wall.
Consider yourself as an artist instead of a musician: the typical way of thinking about guitarists is by ability levels (eg: beginner, intermediate, advanced). This focuses on technical abilities. In a way, this places limits on what we can and cannot do.
When you think of yourself as an artist, technical ability or theory knowledge isn’t as important as creating something interesting. By thinking of yourself as an artist, it takes focus away from technical abilities or limitations and places the focus on creating music.
This means even a ‘beginner’ guitarist can start creating music by changing the way they think of themselves. Don’t see yourself as a musician with limited technical abilities, instead, see yourself as an artist and be free to start experimenting and coming up with ideas.
Cultivate your unique ideas: any time you play something that seems to resonate with you, practice it. Focus on anything that truly inspires you and see where it leads. Don’t worry about whether it fits with what other guitarists are doing, focus on what works for you.
Follow your instrument’s tone: different types of guitars will take your playing in different directions. The music you write is a result of what you play on.
So if you’re stuck for ideas, switch to a different type of guitar and you’ll notice it forces you to play in a different way. Tom demonstrated writing riffs on different guitars (eg: acoustic, bass, electric guitar) and how each type forced him to play the riff differently.
Change tuning to come up with new ideas: even something as simple as changing to Drop-D tuning can give you a completely new outlook to riff writing. That’s how he wrote the main riff to Killing In The Name.
This was my favorite part of the MasterClass because it really showed how much Tom has thought about his approach to writing riffs.
Many professional guitarists struggle to explain or demonstrate the way they write music. In interviews, you will hear guitarists say that inspiration can come from anywhere or other vague answers.
In this course, Tom was able to demonstrate writing riffs with ease using approaches you can do yourself.
I left this part of the MasterClass with plenty of riff-writing exercises to play around with.
Gear: Pedals and Effects
Tom provides a detailed overview of all of his gear. I was glad to see that the research I put in for my Guide to Tom Morello: Gear, Effects & Tone was on point here. Read that guide for an overview of the gear he uses.
Embrace limitations: Tom is able to come up with a wide range of unique sounds and ideas for his music because he limits the gear he has. With a limited number of pedals, it forces him to think creatively.
Embracing limitations means you’re able to get the most out of your gear instead of always looking for an upgrade or something ‘better’.
Tom explained that after all of his gear was stolen after a gig, he bought an amp and was really unhappy with it. He spent hours trying to dial in a decent tone before a band session and was frustrated by not being able to get a good tone.
Once he was able to get a decent setting, he marked out where all the dials were on the amp and swore to himself to never spend time thinking about amp settings again.
This was a great lesson so many guitarists need to hear. If you’re trying to dial in the perfect tone, you’ll never be happy with your gear. There will always be something else that might be able to get a better tone.
But if you embrace your gear’s limitations, you can turn your attention to what really matters.
A good example of embracing limitations is with Tom’s whammy pedal. Tom prefers the original DigiTech whammy over any of the newer models because the original tracks poorly (his words).
It’s because of the pedal’s limitations that he’s able to exploit those limitations and come up with some interesting effects.
Tone and Sounds
Keep your rig simple: even a small number of pedals can give you plenty of combinations for sounds and effects. If you feel you need to add a piece of gear to overcome a creative slump, the problem isn’t the lack of gear.
The first time you try out a new pedal, you will probably test the extremes and come up with some out-there sounds. While most guitarists then dial things down and use pedals in a subtle way, try to come up with some crazy sounds and push the gear to extremes that most people will never try.
Try to find inspiration from genres of music you don’t normally listen to: if you stick to a certain style, you will eventually hit a wall. Ignoring or disapproving of other genres of music can limit your playing.
By taking an open mind to other genres of music, you’re able to find new elements you can experiment with and incorporate in your own style.
Practice is about erasing barriers: this is a fantastic way of thinking about practice. Instead of thinking of practice as something you have to do to get better, think of it as a way of removing barriers.
If you practice techniques, you gradually erase the barriers from your physical capabilities. If you practice music theory, you gradually erase the barriers in your mind on what works and why.
Practice every day: practicing every day creates a slowly rising tide in your abilities. If you never miss a day, you’re always improving. Every day you practice strengthens the habit of practicing.
Your practice commitments should match your goals: want to become a famous guitarist? Your practice commitments need to match that goal. Want to be in a band playing original songs? Make sure your practice commitments match that specific goal.
Play slow and perfectly to develop speed: this is advice Tom received from Michael Angelo Batio.
Boring exercises allow your fingers to move faster and more accurately: while it might not be fun to play basic finger exercises, they help your fingers get where they need to go.
You practice theory to understand where your fingers go and why: while you can stumble on the lessons from theory without studying it, theory provides you with a direct path to understanding music.
By using music theory to fill in the blanks in your understanding, it can unlock limitations in your playing.
It’s important to improvise to open up your mind to new ideas: improvising gives you a way of trying new things, testing your understanding, and experimenting. If you never improvise, you’ll never push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
Forget about technique or theory when improvising: learn to experiment and just see where it takes you. Improvising helps you work on your creativity so don’t let technique or theory box you into anything.
Watch other musicians: pay attention to other musicians as every musician can give you a new perspective. You can learn to try new things by watching other musicians improvise.
Jam to the radio: try to jam along with anything by listening closely and matching it. By not choosing what to play along with, it forces you to try and play along with anything you hear.
Challenge the idea of a solo: Tom is well known for creating some out-there solos, but even Kurt Cobain challenged the idea of a solo in Smells Like Teen Spirit by simply playing the vocal melody on guitar.
Try different approaches and don’t worry about whether it fits the traditional idea of a solo or not.
Set the goalposts wide so you’re not limited: by broadening what you think of as a solo, you can experiment and come up with new ideas other guitarists would never consider.
You can become a songwriter from the very beginning: you don’t need to have mastered any techniques or memorized any chords to become a songwriter. Tom demonstrates how you can easily start building a song with two notes.
Don’t look at songwriting as a mysterious process: a lot of songwriters talk about inspiration and how it comes from anywhere. This can create the image that songwriting is a mysterious process. But it’s a skill like any other and you can start working on it right now.
Practice coming up with song names, concepts, ideas: while most of the ideas you come up with won’t be amazing, the more you practice this the better your ideas will get.
Give your ideas time to find a home: you might come up with an idea but can’t figure out how to use it. Years later that idea might find the perfect place in a song. So don’t feel like every idea needs to find a place right away.
Tom Morello MasterClass Pros
The best parts of this MasterClass was when Tom demonstrates writing riffs and provided exercises on how you could do the same. This was something I’ve never seen in typical YouTube guitar lessons or interviews before. That part of the course alone justified the price to me.
It was pretty clear that Tom put a lot of thought into the topics he would cover in the course and what topics not to cover. He could have easily spent half the course teaching how to play RATM songs step-by-step, but avoiding those topics and spending time talking about songwriting really made this course worthwhile.
Tom was a surprisingly great guitar teacher and explained abstract topics extremely well. I’ve always been frustrated hearing well-known guitarists struggle to explain the creative process or how they approach songwriting, so it was fantastic to hear Tom explain these topics clearly in practical terms.
Tom Morello MasterClass Cons
The weakest part of the MasterClass was the section where he taught basic techniques and scales. While learning scales was crucial to his lessons on improvising and soloing, it felt out of place in this course. You can easily learn basic scales on YouTube and it doesn’t really have a place in a masterclass.
Seeing Tom explain basic scales is great if you’re a beginner wanting to learn those topics, but if you’ve already learned them, that part of the course doesn’t have any value to you. That’s the problem with creating a course that tries to cater to all guitarists as this one does.
If you’re a beginner guitarist, some of the big picture topics will go straight over your head. You won’t appreciate the importance of the lessons from these topics for years. At the same time, if you’re an advanced guitarist, some of the topics will be well behind you such as learning basic scales.
Who is the Tom Morello MasterClass for?
RATM/Audioslave fans: while I’ve read countless interviews and articles from Tom Morello over the years, I’ve learned far more about his approach to writing in RATM in this MasterClass than all the other interviews and videos combined.
If you want to get some deep insight into how Tom wrote RATM guitar parts, then this is a fantastic resource. There are a couple of case studies where he walks through entire songs and he used plenty of RATM riffs as examples throughout the course.
Songwriters: if you want to work on your songwriting skills and focus on rock-based music, Tom provides plenty of practical exercises you can use. I found the riff writing parts of the course fantastic as he would demonstrate a variety of techniques and methods you can use to write riffs and parts for songs.
Guitarists looking at developing a unique voice: Tom spends a lot of time explaining how you can take your influences and work your way to developing your own unique style. Seeing Tom deconstruct his own riffs and songs and explaining how he draws from other styles of music can help you do the same in your own way.
If you are interested in the course, check it out on the MasterClass website.
Who isn’t the Tom Morello MasterClass for?
Beginners wanting to learn guitar: if you’re considering this MasterClass to help you learn guitar, I don’t recommend it. While it does provide some great advice, there are plenty of other resources better suited to helping beginners get started with learning guitar.
While Tom does spend some time on basic techniques that would suit beginners, most of the content will go straight over a beginner’s head. This course is great for expanding your mind as a guitarist, but not great for learning the basics.
Guitarists not interested in this style of guitar: if you listen to a RATM or Audioslave song and don’t see any elements of it that inspire you, then this course probably isn’t for you.
While you can take the advice and apply it to your own style of music, the examples probably won’t interest you. If you don’t like the idea of using pedals or coming up with experimental sounds as Tom does, then parts of the course won’t appeal to you.
To learn more about Tom Morello, check out my Ultimate Guide on Tom Morello here including details of his full RATM rig.
I was highly skeptical before I started the MasterClass. I’ve been disappointed in the past by video courses, so I was surprised when it contained valuable content.
Tom Morello is a surprisingly good guitar teacher and provided a lot of useful insights throughout the course.
If you’re interested in Tom Morello’s style of playing in any way, this course is worthwhile. The riff-writing sections alone provided excellent insight into songwriting that I’ve never heard from other guitarists before.
If you’re looking for a basic guitar course, this isn’t it. While it does cover some basic topics, the idea behind a master class is that it gives you some big-picture thinking to expand your mind as a guitarist. If you’re looking at learning the fundamentals on guitar, there are plenty of YouTube lessons that cover those topics.
When comparing this MasterClass with the Carlos Santana MasterClass, there is a huge difference in quality. As I mentioned earlier, it all comes down to the quality of the teacher. Tom Morello is a great guitar teacher. Sadly, Carlos Santana is not a good teacher and his course isn’t anywhere as practical or insightful as this one.
Check out the Carlos Santana MasterClass review here to find out how that course compares against this one.
Because the two MasterClasses I’ve taken varied wildly in terms of quality, I will be reviewing every guitar-based MasterClass that comes out from now on to give you an unbiased and realistic view.
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