For a long time I've been wondering how Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) manages to do all those absolutely insane things with his guitar. So I did a little research.
Take a look at Tom's setup. It's pretty simple. He only uses a half-stack (since most venues provide extra amplification, a full stack really isn't necessary). A few common pedals. Mainly the Crybaby Wah, a Whammy pedal, Reverb Delay, and EQ.
The trick, then, to a lot of his sonic experimentation is a little thing called a kill switch.
Instead of one volume knob, his guitar has two, one for each pickup. He turns the volume all the way down on the top and all the way up on the second knob. There's a toggle that controls which pickup is active. When he flicks the toggle it's as if you were cutting the sound on and off in rapid succession, the same way a DJ might use crossfaders.
Here's a YouTube video for anyone wondering what this sounds like (sorry I can't embed the video - for some reason YouTube won't let me link my blog).
He uses this effect in more ways than you might imagine. You can feed the sound back into the amp or rub your hands across the strings or just slide barre chords up and down the neck.
Now, you might be thinking that a kill switch would be a pretty cool thing to have on a guitar, and you'd be right. They must be pretty common, huh?
Wrong. Turns out the only one I can find is the Gibson Les Paul BFG. This is a nice low-priced Les Paul - only $1,000.
The other option is to wire up your own. I'm considering it, but wary because an improperly grounded circuit can fry your electronics - or you.*
After that, all you need to do in order to play like Tom Morello is practice eight hours a day.
*My first electric guitar, a Fender Squier, has always been a little iffy internally. That's what I was playing when my band played a classmate's high school graduation party. It had rained earlier that morning and we were outside. The extension cords were tangled and possibly a little torn. During one of our songs ('Eggman' by the Beastie Boys, I think) my hand began to tingle. Every time I plucked a string with my finger or palm-muted a riff I'd feel a burning.
Finished the song. Felt the strings. Got shocked. Felt the strings. Got shocked. So I learn at about the same pace as a lab rat. We replaced the extension cords and I swapped out guitars, completed the set. Hardcore.
And dumb. But you can't just stop a Beastie Boys song in the middle.