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This article was originally published in issue #55
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Celebrating 30 years as a Music Man artist, Steve has helped to designed a modern classic that has developed into a successful line of signature guitars. In this feature we take a look at one of the longest standing signature guitar in the Music Man range, and how it came from humble beginning.
Being such a unique and stylistically open guitarist as Steve Morse, it seems only fitting that he would design a guitar that was a versatile and individual as he is. When faced with hard rock, country, blues and jazz, most guitar players would use a wide variety of guitars to cater for each musical pallet. For Steve he decided to modify a guitar that would suit his broad and diverse musical needs.
Many great guitarist have developed and personalised their own guitars from a young age to enable them to perform the music they heard in their head. Probably two of the most famous have to be Edward Van Halen with his Frankenstrat and Brian May with the Red Special. Like these two rock legends Steve Morse created his own unique and personalised guitar through necessity. But Steve didn’t just happen upon his stunning blues finish multi pickup Music Man; the guitar was the result of Steve’s sawing, soldering and a fair amount of trial and error during his formative years, resulting in his own Frankenstein telecaster. Even to this day Steve is very “hands on” with the Music Man R&D team, developing new versions of his now classic and distinct signature guitar.
The guitar started out as a brand new 1967 Fender strat that Steve purchased when he acquired a loan from his parents. The first modification was when Steve added an early fuzz preamp unit that would plug directly into the guitar. Due to the recessed input socket of a strat the fuzz unit would fit, so steve modified the guitar to accommodate the small battery powered preamp.
Things really started to take shape when Steve received an old black telecaster in payment for a session he had recorded. Steve wasn’t instantly drawn to the telecaster; this particular guitar had had a 335 humbucker fitted in the neck position. Steve saw this large body as an open canvas for him to experiment on. First he removed the capacitor on the 3 way switch; old telecasters didn’t allow both pickups to be on at once, including a capacitor that bypassed the tone, trying to appeal to jazz guitarists. Steve then replaced the neck with his 67 strat neck, which worked surprising well. From then he set about adding pickups, switching and wiring configurations that were so utterly unique that they would make no sense to anyone but Steve. With a new crudely fashioned scratch plate the Franken-tele now boasted a humbucker in both the bridge and neck positions, with a straight and angled single coil in the middle; kind of a Les Paul, Strat/tele hybrid. Switching was taken care of by a regular 3 way selector, a mini 3 way and a simple on off switch, the kind you find an a lamp. DiMarzio pickups had recently started, and Steve received some prototype pickups that eventually became the Steve Morse signature pickups.The look of the guitar was completed with its stripped down natural varnished finish, a tune-o-magic bridge and a 12 string guitar tail piece. Steve used the 12 string tail piece to his advantage, often have a spare 1st string in place in case he snapped a string during a performance. The visible wire from the tailpiece to the control plate was attached for earth reasons.
Steve used this guitar on all the classic early Dixie Dregs recordings, plus his early solo recordings up to and including “High Tension Wires”. Steve had a couple of back up versions of the guitar; one that looked very similar to the original Frankenstein Tele, but as Steve informed me, it played miserably due to a heavy brass bridge. This guitar can been seen being used my Dregs violinist Mark O’Connor on American Bandstand during a performance of “Blood Sucking Leaches”. Steve also had a more “polished” version of the guitar that was built for him by DiMarzio. Although based around the telecaster design, this guitar was a forerunner for what a production “Steve Morse” guitar would look like.
Steve had had involvement with other guitar companies but none had managed to produce an instrument successfully to his specification; that was until he joined forces with Sterling Ball and the Ernie Ball Music Man company in 1987. What the Music Man team were able to do was to refine Steve’s original design and produce a very high end instrument that was designed for comfort in performance, and a plethora of tones, built to the highest quality and specification. Although this guitar has been available now for 30 years, and is available in several different variations, we felt it was due an in-depth review/celebration to tie in with our exclusive Steve Morse interview and Tech Session.
Music Man produced a refined version of Steve’s original Frankenstein tele, and whilst Steve’s original electronics, pickup configuration and switching noises remained, many cosmetic and performance modifications were made, resulting in possibly one of if not the most versatile guitar I have ever played. One of the big differences is the body shape, with the guitar featuring a classic double cut body style as opposed to the original telecaster single cut shape. The body is constructed from poplar, which is both a light weight and very resonant tone wood, which produces a bright “snappy” quality. Although the body is a traditional double cut, it’s a slab body similar to Steve’s old tele, with no body cuts. That being said the edge of the body are rounded for a very comfortable feeling body.
The guitar sports a selected maple “C” shape neck which is hand rubbed with oil and wax to give a smooth played in feel. The neck boasts a rosewood finger board, with a 25-1/2” scale length, and a 12” radius. The neck includes 22 high profile wide frets, great for aggressive vibrato and string bending. We have the standard Music Man 4+2 headstock which aids straight string pull and low friction for accurate pitch and tuning, and great for fitting in over head compartments on airplanes; one of the things I love about traveling with my Music Man guitars. We have six Schaller M6-IND locking machine heads, and truss rod adjustment is made by a wheel at the body end of the neck; no neck or string removal to adjust the truss rod. The neck joint features a 5 bolt perfect alignment sculptured neck joint, aiding both stability and upper fret access. The guitar is perfectly balance making this instrument a joy to play.
The body is finished in an attractive Morse Blue Burst, and features a tuneomatic bridge with thumbwheel height adjustment and a Music Man chrome plated solid brass tail block for optimum tone and sustain. The guitar also features a black scratch plate with a white trim that houses the pickups, volume and tone and pickup selector controls.
Pickup wise the guitar features two humbuckers and two single coils, one straight single coil next to the bridge pickup, whilst the second single coil is set at and angle between the straight single coil and the neck pickup. Pickups are courtesy of DiMarzio and include his signature bridge and neck humbuckers, as well as the DiMarzio DP108 vintage single coil, and a proprietary custom wound single coil. Switching of the pickups is handled by a 3-way lever pickup selector, a 3-way toggle pickup selector and a 2-way toggle switch. There is also a single volume and tone control, both of which are very musical and dynamic controls. Steve often employs volume and tone swells to his playing, so attention to detail was vital with these controls. Both the tone and volume make use of a 250k pot. The pickup configuration and switching of this guitar is based on Steve’s original Frankenstein tele wiring, and is totally unique and personalised. Some may find this at first very confusing, but once you get use to the switching it’s a very intuitive system. For an in-depth look at the various configurations, as well as hearing each of the pickup combinations be sure to check out the accompanying video.
When plugged in this guitar has very distinct mid range, and with its perfectly voiced bridge humbucker the tone literally jumps out the mix. You can really hear the years of that trial and error that Steve put into the original Frankenstein, and how Music Man took those ideas and perfected them. Steve uses harmonics a lot in his playing, and both pinched and artificial harmonics jump out of this guitar with ease. With overdriven crunch tones the bridge pickup has plenty of aggressive punch, but also cleans up with ease. Introducing the single coil picks enables you to clean up driven pages, and is an ideal combination for driven country flavoured tones. The neck pickup has been positioned specifically to Steve’s requirements, when speaking with Steve he was very particular regarding the correct positioning of this pickup. The neck pickup is very rich and creamy, and is great for melodic passages further up the neck. Steve often employs both neck and bridge pickup together, producing a rich smooth sound with bite. The single coil pickups introduce a completely different pallet of tones. Totally authentic Strat and tele tones are available on this guitar, as well as interesting and very musical combinations; this really is a players instrument. On top of this the volume has a smooth gradual curve, great for volume swells and cleaning up the tone, whilst the tone pot is almost like having a wah built into the guitar! Add all of this with a fantastic feeling neck, (Music Man have a reputation of having the best necks in the business!) great tuning stability, plus the ergonomics of the instrument, the bridge is so comfortable for the picking hand, and the control placement, this really is a perfectly designed guitar.
This isn’t the only Steve Morse model available in his signature line. We have the three pickup Y2D, which steve uses for much of the Deep Purple gig, plus the addition of a stunning new two pickup version; it just goes to show that this guitar is a modern classic that keeps evolving. Steve has been using his number #1 signature model, (the first 50 were hand signed) for 30 years. This guitar has appeared on countless recordings, and Steve is never with out this guitar by his side on a tour. Yes this is a very personal instrument, but if you’re looking for a guitar that will cover a rock, jazz, country, fusion gig, then this is for you! There’s not a style that can’t be played authentically on this guitar; a true players instrument!