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Steve Morse: Full Circle

Issue #55

By the time Steve entered the University of Miami he already had his own voice and approach to the guitar.
Jamie Humphries

Steve Morse: Full Circle

Steve Morse has to be one of the busiest guitarists in the business. The consummate professional, and one of the most humble and genuine musicians you could meet; Steve took some time out (pre-Deep Purple sound check) to discuss recording, touring gear and the future with our very own, Jamie Humphries.

Steve Morse is without a doubt the ultimate guitarist’s guitarist. When he’s not recording albums and embarking on sell-out world tours with one of the biggest bands in rock history, he’s collaborating with other world-class musicians on a wide variety of recorded and live projects. He also continues to compose, record and tour his own music, pushing the boundaries of instrumental rock and guitar playing. He has performed alongside the likes of Albert Lee. Edward Van Halen, Al DiMeola, John Mclaughlin, Paco De Lucia, John Petrucci, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Lukather, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson to name but a few! As well as Grammy nominations under his belt he was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” five consecutive times in Guitar Player Magazine.

For me personally, Steve has had a huge impact on my guitar playing, career path and choices of gear. The first instructional product I purchased in the 80’s was a copy of Steve’s “Power Lines” VHS, which helped me to learn usable and practical scale shapes. It was seeing Steve playing a Music Man that ultimately led to me becoming a Music Man artist of 20 years. I also loved his down to earth attitude to making a career in music. A lot of the players I read about in magazines had more of a “rock star” attitude, yet Steve’s teachings and views were more “real world” and inspiring. His “Open Ears” book was and remains a huge influence on me; He made being a guitar artist, a session guy and a sideman seem attainable and not out of reach.

Steve came from a background where popular music wasn’t played much in the house and was only exposed to it through the Ed Sullivan show, namely a Beatles performance. Steve saved up enough money from mowing lawns to attend group guitar lessons at a local music store. After being told his guitar wasn’t playable, Steve rented an acoustic guitar and began lessons. After more lawn mowing Steve had saved enough money to buy his first guitar, a Fender Music Master.

By the time Steve entered the University of Miami he already had his own voice and approach to the guitar. Steve attended both classical and jazz classes at the University, and stood out from the other students with his with unique blend of styles, with other students performing more traditional jazz style. Other future greats that attended the University with Steve included Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. Steve caught the attention of drummer Rod Morgenstein during an improvisation class. Steve invited to Rod to jam with his band; he had formed Dixie Grit before university, disbanding when Morse enrolled at university. Morse continued to perform as a duo with bassist Andy West under the name The Dixie Dregs. Steve began playing with West and violinist Allen Sloan as Rock Ensemble II, with drummer Bart Yarnal, who was replaced by Morgenstein for the Dregs first recording “The Great Spectacular”, which was recorded at the university.

The band signed its first deal with Capricorn records which saw them release three albums, “Free Fall”, “What If” and “Night of the Living Dregs”, the later earning them their first Grammy nomination. After Capricorn announced bankruptcy, The Dixie Dregs signed to Arista. Through out their career, from the early days of multiple rejections from labels, they were told that they wouldn’t succeed with out a singer. The pressure for commercial success continued, and following a shortened name and the inclusion of vocal tracks on the album “Industrial Standard” the Dregs disbanded with the members moving onto their own individual projects. The Dregs later reformed resigning to Capricorn, and continue work together when schedules allow; They’ll hit the road again shortly. 

Following the break up of the Dregs, Steve formed The Steve Morse band, blending such styles as hard rock, country/bluegrass, fusion and classical. Steve has recorded some groundbreaking albums in his trio format including “The Introduction”, “high Tension Wires”, Southern Steel”, “Coast to Coast” “Structural Damage”, “StressFest” and “Split Decision” to name a few.

As well as band leader with Steve Morse Band and the Dregs, Steve has filled guitar slots in some major recording acts. In the mid 80’s he joined the US rock band Kansas releasing two albums “Power” and “In the Spirit of Things”.

Steve’s major break came in 1994 when he joined British hard rock legends Deep Purple, replacing Ritchie Blackmore who left during “The Battle Rages On” tour. Steve Morse has been the longest serving guitarist in Purple, and recently released their sixth album with Morse “Infinite”. As with Blackmore, Morse has carved his place in rock history by playing his part in composing some of Purple’s best-loved material to date. Such tracks as “Ted The Mechanic”, “The Aviator” and “Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming” showcased a new sound for the band as a result of Morse joining.

Steve Morse also finds time to be involved with a variety of other projects including Living Loud with ex Ozzy Osbourne band members Lee Kerslake, Bob Daisley and Don Airey. Steve also collaborates with singer Sarah Spencer under the name Angelfire. This project differs from Morse’s other projects, fusing vocals with classical, folk and new age music; Morse predominantly playing acoustic guitar for this project.

Morse’s biggest side project has to be Flying Colors, a supergroup including Mike Portnoy, Dave LaRue, Neal Morse and Casey McPherson. Releasing two albums with this project “Flying Colors” and “Second Nature”, the band fused progressive arraignments with pop laced hooks and melodies. These elements were also combined with the virtuosic lines and solos.

Stylistically it's hard to pigeonhole Steve’s playing. His electric playing blends hard rock, blues, country and fusion, along with Celtic inspired melodies. He is also a master of the acoustic guitar with new age and classically inspired pieces often employing counterpoint melodies around the acoustic guitar and electric bass. Steve has a unique approach to alternate picking, using a pick slant technique and a picking hand arc that enables him to perform blistering six-string arpeggios with alternate picking. Steve also has a unique approach to chord voicings, enabling classical voice leading. He also uses artificial harmonics to embellish melodies. He performs these by extending his first finger of his picking hand, and whilst fretting a melody he simultaneously touches node point on the string to sound a harmonic.

Steve’s approach to his equipment is as unique as his playing style. His original Frankenstein Fender Telecaster boasted a strat neck and a 12 string guitar tail piece. Steve experimented with a variety of other modifications, including built-in fuzz. He settled on his unique four pickup combination two humbuckers and two single coils.. The guitar also featured three switches, one of which came from an old lamp! After a long relationship with Sterling Ball of the Ernie Ball Company, they embarked on a long working relationship releasing his signature Steve Morse guitar, with pickup combinations based on his original Telecaster. This guitar was streamlined down to Steve’s most “go to” settings on the Y2D version of the guitar. Steve is now celebrating a 30-year anniversary of the production of this very unique instrument.

Steve has always separated his effects from his dry signal, favouring a dry wet dry rig. His main head, now a signature Engl, drives the outer cabs, with the effect send supplying signal to the individual stomp boxes for chorus and two different delay times. Each effect has its own Ernie Ball volume pedal to control the blend of the effects. The output of the effects is sent to the return of a second head that drives the inner speaker cabs. This gives Steve total control over how much effect is apparent in his signal. I should also point out that Steve makes ’s use of pickup switching, as well as both the tone control and volume control to sculpt his tones live and in the studio.

Steve is a unique musician with a strict attention to detail, as well as having his own distinct voice on the guitar. He is also one of the coolest laid back people you will ever meet, and with a career spanning over 40 years, he shows little sign of slowing things down, which is a good thing in my book!


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