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This article was originally published in issue #9
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Steve Morse is a phenomenon. There really are few guitarists out there who have such illustrious careers and who command the respect of the guitar playing community as he does.
Accompanying Jamie Humphries' Steve Morse live interview and style analysis, Levi Clay pays tribute to one of the most influential and respected guitarists in Rock history.
Steve Morse is a phenomenon. There really are few guitarists out there who have such illustrious careers and who command the respect of the guitar playing community as he does. From the Dixie Dregs to Deep Purple, via Kansas and the Steve Morse Band, Morse has been setting the guitar world alight since 1970 and been a source of inspiration to technical wizards like John Petrucci and Shawn Lane. So the question is: just what made the man the legend he is today?
Morse was born in Ohio, July 28th, 1954 and spent most of his childhood in Ypsilanti, Michigan before ending up in Augusta, Georgia, where things really started to happen for him. This time was tumultuous to say the least, and there are many stories Steve tells about how he spent most of his time trying to avoid cutting his hair (one such story even tells how he starting wearing a wig with his ponytail under and then his battle with the school when they decided to bring in a “no wig” dress code!). It was during his time here that the nucleus of the Dixie Dregs was formed, under the name of “Dixie Grit”. This group was going well, but (as Steve tells) the issue of his long hair got so great that he ended up leaving school for good.
This doesn't mean that Steve wasn't a bright kid: in fact he actually managed to get into the University of Miami without his high school diploma. Here he was enrolled as a Jazz guitar major, much to Steve's displeasure but as with every element of Steve's life, there is a long and very amusing story to go with it. The abridged version is that he ended up being 'that guy in Jazz guitar school with a solid body electric guitar who bent notes and played vibrato', so his time in Miami wasn't easy either. On the other hand, it is a testament to a good musical education as it was here that Steve was really drilled in theory, application and learning to read, in Steve's own words, “Well, the second year I spent back in Augusta, you know, like a vacation. I said 'Listen, man, it's incredible! Look at all this.' and I started turning everybody on. Everything was looking up because I could suddenly write more things and do more. It was a whole different world. I was suddenly learning everything.”
The Dregs really need to be heard to be believed, just a quick blast of Refried Funky Chicken, Free Fall or Take it off the Top (which some of our readers may remember from The Friday Rockshow!) and you hear everything from the Allman Brothers Southern Rock to Mahavishnu Orchestra Jazz rock guitar and violin solos. You're basically listening to the Petrucci of the '70s, with complex alternate picking, intervalic patterns and the “fill in the gaps” chromatic approach, it's terrifying stuff! I would really advise you go and pick up the albums Free Fall and Night of the Living Dregs as soon as possible.
During this point Steve was the only guitarist in the band, so he needed a guitar that could cover all of his tonal bases. He was using his very own DIY Telecaster/Strat hybrid that makes Van Halen's 'Frankenstein' look like it belonged in the Sistine Chapel. It contained a humbucker in the neck, a Fender humbucker in the bridge, the original Tele bridge pickup moved to the middle, and the original neck pickup was sandwiched in next to the bridge pickup. As if that wasn't enough, Steve had a Bob Easton install his “360 slavedriver” next to the bridge (which he had replaced with a tune-o-matic of course!) for all of his synth sounds. This is an extremely complicated wiring setup, but it became a trademark and has been adopted by Music Man Guitars on the Steve Morse Signature model which comes with four pickups, a three way switch and two toggle switches giving you.... well... I've already lost count of the possible options!
In '84 Steve formed the Steve Morse band, a trio devoted to playing Steve's Southern-tinged instrumental rock and classical influences. This project did really well and took Morse to the next level, even landing the main support slot for Rush. It was around this time that Steve began releasing instructional videos with REH which were a great blend of band performance, and instructional material. These have since been re-released on DVD under the name, The Definitive Steve Morse and are essential viewing if you want to dig into Steve's style a little more. It was here that I was first introduced to Steve's incredible pedal setup, which differs greatly from most players boards in that he doesn't have stomp boxes that are turned on and off, instead everything is always on and blended in and out with its own expression pedal. Steve is still using this idea, but in a more stripped down form, as there are now just three expression pedals, short delay, long delay and octave divider. These are all run into the Engl Steve Morse Signature E656 which is paired onstage with an Engl Powerball (reviewed in this issue).
The first record for the Steve Morse Band ('84s The Introduction) is an essential purchase for the newcomer as it has great little rock numbers like Cruise Missile, anthemic tunes like The Introduction and real foot tappers like On the Pipe. It's easy to think of Steve as 'just' a lead guitarist, but at this point in his career you should really be able to see just how great a rhythm machine he is, too. This record is just full of great examples of triadic rhythm parts. Since that time the group has released 10 albums and one compilation - High Tension Wires is my personal pick.
As a guitar player, there are so many facets to Steve's playing that we could easily fill a book on the subject, but without a doubt it's his alternate picking technique that draws the most attention. Just take a look at Well Dressed Guitar, which is a stream of 16th notes at 145bpm, outlining a series of string skipped triads (Dm, A/C#, Dm, C/E, F, C/E, F, D/F# and so on). Another great example of this rapid picking technique is on the tune Tumeni Notes. There really are no words to describe this as Steve rips though triplets at 185bpm and mixes up the accents to go between 3s and 4s (that 4 against 3 polyrhythm is pretty hard at this speed!). My hat comes off to anyone who can get this tune down. If you do decide to make a go of it, take Steve's own advice: “The best way to build up speed is to start slowly and exactly. Find a tempo where you can play the notes precisely and gradually increase the speed from there.”
In '86 Steve was hired as the guitarist for the classic American prog rock group Kansas and although the two albums released here in the UK never quite reach the heights of Leftoverture, Power does have some incredible playing. The opener Silhouettes In Disguise is a perfect example with some blisteringly fast picking in the riff and a solo packed with the perfect mix of singable melodies and fret-melting chromatic runs.
Obviously most players will know Morse for his work in Deep Purple, whom he joined in in 1994, and that relationship is still going strong. It's crazy when you see it written in front of you, but Morse has now had a longer tenure with the band than the iconic Richie Blackmore. In that time the band has released four studio albums and nine live albums. True, none of them had the same commercial success of the “classic” line up, but Purple continues to tour the world and play to packed venues and Steve puts on an incredible show. In fact the band will embark on a European tour in October, so check the band's official website and see if you can catch them.
Of course, there's plenty more going on in the world of Morse, and 2012 sees Steve in the supergroup Flying Colours, with Neal Morse, Dave LaRue, Casey McPherson and Mike Portnoy. I really hope this project carries on as it’s a great line-up and an awesome album.
And what would be the perfect close to show you just how important and high calibre a player Steve Morse really is? Well literally the day I was asked to write this, Steve was announced as the third guitarist on this year's European G3 tour, along with the legendary Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. There really is no greater honour for an instrumental Rock guitar player, and it's the perfect example of just why Steve is still at the top of his game over four decades on. If you're in Europe in July, do not miss this one!