In Rage Against The Machine's first album (Rage Against The Machine) I frequently hear Tom Morello play with several "weird" scales. A few examples: Take The Power Back, Settle For Nothing, ... I wonder in what scale he plays over what key. It sounds kinda minor over a major key, but that is a guess.

  • 2
    While it doesn't directly answer this question, you may be interested in a half-hour video Morello made for Guitar World talking about his style and techniques. You can find it on YouTube. Apr 24, 2014 at 19:14
  • 2
    Since there's a Meta post I've cleaned up the comments here. Please head to Meta sooner next time ;)
    – user28
    Apr 24, 2014 at 21:08
  • I have seen the video in the past, he talks more about his effects and his influences. I have no clue on how to go to meta or why I should do that, I'm fairly new to Stackexchange. Apr 24, 2014 at 21:16
  • @ValentinGrégoire Every stackexchange site has its own "meta" site for handling issues about the site. Ours is at: meta.music.stackexchange.com . There are questions there about everything from problems with formatting tabs to challenging site policies. It's a very democratic community. Apr 25, 2014 at 17:58

2 Answers 2


Okay, I only got a chance to listen to the first of your suggestions so far, Take the Power Back. It's interesting what you say about the relationship between major and minor, with respect to this song; there are other semitonal/chromatic relationships too. I only listened through once, but here are a few thoughts about the pitch use and harmony of this song.

Before I say any more, the song seems to have a root somewhere between D and Eb; to keep things simple I'll refer to D as the root…

Most of the riff material seems simply to be based upon a D Minor Pentatonic. But already in the intro you have some interesting pitch relationships. The bass has D Minor Pentatonic notes, but the guitar has a descending chromatic line of chords (4ths, I think, which creates some interesting relationships):

enter image description here

(These notes show the pitch use, not necessarily the right octaves and definitely not the right rhythms!) So, already this is pretty weird. If we analyse the guitar chords in terms of the root note, D, we have a maj7 chord above a minor bass line, which drops by a semitone to a m7 (and then 6/9 to b6/b9, if you like…) Descending chromatic and major/minor relationship - more of these later…

Okay, for much of the next minute and a half we are basically in D Minor Pentatonic territory.

Then at the Chorus, at about 1m30s, we get D7#9 chords in the guitar part. And, of course, these are effectively seventh chords with major/minor thirds:

enter image description here

(Yes, I know a #9 would theoretically be an E# here, but we "hear" a minor third…!)

When we get to the guitar solo, the riff parts stay on D Minor Pentatonic. Here the solo guitar starts by using predominately D Aeolian and then moves very clearly to D Dorian. (There my be a few notes outside these, but I couldn't hear any or many…) Right, so both of these are minor modes, over a minor bassline - so no big deal huh? Well, you clearly hear the upward chromatic movement from the use of the minor 6th in the Aeolian to the major 6th in the Dorian. And, of course, they both fit with the supporting D Minor Pentatonic, as this has no 6th degree.

After the solo we get a new riff, and this one has a very clear descending chromatic motif:

enter image description here

But my favourite moment, in terms of its audacity, is the whole section based on a C pedal note (after the second Chorus). Although only four pitches are used here (C, E, F, G - loosely outlining C to F/C chords), we feel fairly strongly that the music has moved to C Major, certainly not in D minor, anyway. But in terms of the overall pitch usage, these four pitches are also found in D Aeolian, D Dorian and D Minor Pentatonic - we haven't actually gone anywhere, pitch-wise…

Obviously, this isn't a definitive answer for you, as I only listened to the one track, but hopefully it starts the ball rolling...

  • This more than an answer to my question!!! I only wanted to know about the guitar solo parts, but it's highly interesting to see the whole song written down. Thanks a lot, obviously answer accepted and thumbs up! Apr 24, 2014 at 21:15

The Guitar World Lesson with Tom Morello doesn’t directly answer this question, but it offers insight into why Morello makes the composition choices that he does. Specifically, he describes how his composition style is rooted deeply in experimentation, with several concrete examples. Essentially, Morello spends a lot of time simply playing around with guitars, filters, amps, and other equipment, and whenever he discovers an interesting sound, he makes a point of making it reproducible so that he can use it in performance. The Guitar World lesson focuses more on weird effects like “helicopter noises” than on his key and chord choices, but it’s clear how the same process of experimentation would lead to both.

  • 1
    I recommend Bob Broadley’s excellent answer for the specifics of Morello’s key and chord choices. My own answer goes more to Morello’s underlying principles of composition and how they lead to the actual concrete result. As such, I consider it only a partial answer, but I hope the linked video will be helpful to readers! Valentin, you mentioned that you’d seen it before, but it might be helpful to review. Apr 24, 2014 at 22:10
  • Bradd, yours is certainly less of a "partial answer" than mine, which only deals with one song…! Good to see the start of some interesting comments on Meta about this - personally I think the subject matter of this question is fantastic, the specificity less so. I notice you've been on music.se a bit longer than me; do you know anything about the wiki system, and whether that would be a good way to handle this kind of information? Apr 24, 2014 at 22:17
  • @BobBroadley Thanks for the feedback! I hesitated posting this because the OP stated that he’d already watched the video, and it didn’t answer his questions. But I think it’s too relevant and helpful to just leave it in a comment. (Oh and I answered your wiki question in the meta thread.) Apr 25, 2014 at 2:26
  • I've seen it before. Although this hasn't anything to do with my question (apart from being Tom Morello), it's a video that everyone should watch. Thanks for pointing that out! Apr 25, 2014 at 4:49
  • @val The video does show the riffs and solos from Killing in the Name if I recall correctly. He plays that song with a Drop D tuning like the others, so it may have a similar chord structure. Apr 25, 2014 at 6:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.