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Steve Morse: Guitar Hero
“When you take the pressure off
MPc: How did the Angelfire project come about with you and Sarah?
SM: It was almost a textbook scenario. I knew Sarah’s father — we lived in the same town, and he said “You know, I’ve gotta ask you for some advice. My daughter’s been working with these people from overseas and her vocal coach is giving her advice, and everybody is giving her different advice [on getting into the music industry]. It would be great if I could pick your brain and see what you think she should do.” And I said, “Alright, let me hear some stuff.”
I’m no expert at people’s careers, but I’ve done and seen a lot. So I heard her sing, and she sounded extraordinary to me. And I said, “Well, she needs to keep writing and keep developing.” She was young at the time — just sixteen, so you don’t really want to hit the road at this age. To me, you don’t really want to make it big at this age, because the rest of your life could be, you know, stunted if it happens too early. So I’d say just focus the songwriting and do more gigs. But mainly work on the songwriting, because that’s what makes a singer a real entertainer, when they’re telling the story through their own life.
MPc: Yeah, but it’s a whole other thing to decide the kid is so good you want to record an album with her.
SM: Well, it was less pressure than that, though. I said, “Well, I’ve got some stuff, some ideas that I’ve been working on, kind of acoustic-y things, and I think it would go great with her voice, you know? Bring her over sometime and we’ll work and just mess around with some stuff.”
We did, and she came up with some stuff, some great lyrics, and it just sounded perfect. There wasn’t a stitch of pitch correction on anything we recorded. And every first take was fantastic. Just out of habit, I would nitpick, keep on going, give her a little bit of a challenge. But it was over the course of years that we got enough stuff to do an album. I got to the point that I just liked hearing her sing. I said, “Hey, it would be neat, let’s do sort of a choral thing with lyrics that would sound fantastic with your voice, you know?” And we just tried different things, just for fun. When you take the pressure off and the commercial need away from something, and you are a musician, it can be fun again. It doesn’t feel like work. And that’s the way we did it.
MPc: You brought in a few additional musicians on the record who have a long history playing with you in other settings as well [Dave LaRue: Bass and Van Romaine: Drums].
SM: People from my age and back normally like to play with everyone in the same room at the same time. But we assembled the songs with just Sarah and I, and I would do basic parts to back up the guitar, and use a simple drum pattern. We really needed live musicians to make it feel right, but we waited until the songs were pretty much done. And so that’s a little bit different than how the Steve Morse Band normally operates.
“I wouldn’t want anything on the album
MPc: Tell me about the guitar you used for the majority of the acoustic work on Angelfire.
SM: This guy John Buscarino, he makes high-end custom guitars and many years ago he used to live in Florida, and he made my guitars for me. Since then he’s moved, but it’s like having your own personal luthier, where he really wanted me to play one of his guitars. So he kept working on it, much like Music Man did with my electric guitar. So I have a beautiful acoustic cutaway with a Fishman pickup. I use the pickup and an external microphone to record it and it works out fine. It’s a little bit too lively for Steve Morse Band gigs, in which I use one of his solid body or near-solid body ones. In other words, their low-end feedback is a problem at high volumes. But for recording, it’s great, the acoustic hollow body.
MPc: Was that a nylon-string?
SM: Yes, the majority of the stuff started as nylon-string. And then for steel-string I just have an assortment of a few acoustic guitars. I even use the Line 6…
SM: Yeah, thank you (laughs), I never look at the name, I even used that for some variety. The idea for me would be just to have different layers of sound. And the 12-strings were just the electric solid body Steinberger.
MPc: I don’t even remember ever seeing a Steinberger 12-string!
SM: I didn’t either but when I did see one, I said, “I’ve got to have that” because in The Dregs, Andy (our bass player) had it, and the idea I loved about it is it’s a completely straight pull from the nut, where the string begins, to the bridge. And then there’s one knob that you can move from any string to any string when you release it, and then you put it in and engage a geared piece that tightens the string. And what I love about [the guitar] is that since it’s not wood it doesn’t warp with the different density of the truss rod versus the wood. And with the string arrangement there’s very little arrangement to capture tension on one side or the other of the nut or the bridge. It’s as close as you can get to an in-tune twelve-string guitar. That’s why I love it.
The sound is nothing to write home about, so I just use it for a little bit of coloring here and there. I don’t mean to say the sound’s bad, it’s just that the reason that I have it is the tuning and the ease of use, and I’ll never play a twelve-string acoustic anymore. It just drives me nuts.
MPc: For the songs on Angelfire, what was the writing process like?
SM: Well the majority was me taking advantage of my seniority and saying, “Hey, let’s try this,” and having an idea, but, for instance, a song that she had, “Feelings are Overrated,” she already had a demo that started with that piano riff, and I said “I like this, but there’s so many parts I’d have to change for me to work on it. If you want to do this, I’d have to change it,” and she said “Okay,” so we took her song and changed the construction of some of it, but kept the lyrics. After we put together a couple of minutes of it, and we were sort of rehearsing it, I said, “It really needs another section here.” So we wrote another section after changing her song musically and changing the chorus, and in the new section she came up with lyrics basically right there on the spot with me sort of nudging her.
And I’d say, “What about this?” and she’d say “No, I don’t like that,” or, “Oh, I love that,” So I’d just kind of be the guy throwing in things and she kind of decided what would really fly with the lyrics. So she was really in charge of the lyrics, and on that song in particular, she had the idea for the song already. And she came up with some melodies on her own that were really good. I would give suggested melodies, like on “Blood and Surprise,” melodies I felt were real intricate and worked out, and she couldn’t help but ad-lib a few changes that were even better, and other ones she just came up with just naturally. So she’s got the talent and everything. But like I said, I took advantage of the fact that I could [direct] it because if she made it big and was a big star I would never be able to do that again.
MPc: This record is definitely going to get her some attention. And you’re going to give guitar players a challenge with some of the fingerpicked acoustic passages. Of course you did unleash the electric guitar in a handful of spots on the record, like the solo at the end of “Take It or Leave It,” for example.
SM: Oh, yeah.
MPc: You sound like you almost forgot you threw that in there. (laughs)
SM: One of the mixes I did had that cut out, because, you know, I was saying, I really was going after an acoustic thing. And then later, I thought, it fits. To me it fits. It’s not really taking over the song. And so we ended up leaving it in. Because I’m thinking to myself, why does it have to be anything? This is not a commercial album anyway. This is a collection of works that I think are pleasant to listen to, that I love to listen to. And that was my only rule: that I wouldn’t want anything on the album that I don’t want to listen to.
MPc: On the other song where you played electric guitar, “Terrible Thing to Lose,” you were playing electric guitar with a cool delay line. It wasn’t a typical Steve Morse performance as I might have otherwise recognized.
SM: Yeah, that was kind of a weird little solo section. And that’s just something that sort of developed. I was using that Line 6 Variax. It played like an electric guitar, I was just sort of messing around with that. You know, I went on and on with this section and said, “That’s pretty neat.” I listened to it and said, “That’s really weird. I would probably never do that normally.” It just sort of happened accidentally. I kept it and overdubbed another part on top.
MPc: What kind of delay were you using on that? Studio gear or a dedicated guitar effect?
SM: Just a little bit of slap. I have a little bit of slap on everything. I record it like I normally do: clean guitar parts, clean electric parts with a hint of delay coming from the [Eventide] Harmonizer 3000 and through an [Universal Audio] 1176 compressor, pretty much straight through the board. I think the part that seems like delay is actually just a layering of guitars.
MPc: Now, let’s change gears a little bit. I have a couple of questions about your role in Deep Purple. How did you actually come to become a part of Deep Purple? At that point in time, you were coming on the heels of The Dregs and the Steve Morse Band. I wouldn’t expect you to join a band like Deep Purple.
SM: I wouldn’t think so either, because people have been pretty much instructed by MTV that you define your genre very, very tightly and predictably if you want success. But then again here’s a band that no one really looked like in America. They had never been on MTV, they had never been on VH1, and here they are asking about a guy they saw play with a fusion trio, jazz rock or instrumental rock trio, whatever you want to call it.
So I was intrigued with the idea that they were that open-minded. And I didn’t know; frankly I’d never seen them live. They did play a lot in the U.S., but I thought they could be some guys living in the name and not really very good or it could be that these guys are real players pulled from other bands and other studio situations like Queen or something like that. But I knew that I liked the recordings.
We all know recordings can be manipulated quite a bit, so you never know what’s really there ‘till you play live. So I suggested, and my manager agreed, and everyone agreed, to do a short four-day tour, sort of like a trial. And they’d broken into the idea of a new guitarist by finishing the tour with Joe Satriani. So they were confident that they could play with other people and be fine with it, but their idea was, “When it comes time to do the next album, we need someone who’s going to be there and contribute a lot, and who isn’t trying to sound just like Ritchie [Blackmore].” That was their goal. I liked that goal, I liked that they were searching outside the box.
I thought that was a cool discipline to start the next chapter of the band with. So anyway, I went [to audition] not knowing what to expect. I had a tape of Joe playing the set and one of Ritchie playing the set, so I was sort of ready. A lot of it was improvised, like the changes. There weren’t a certain number of bars, and some of the lines were improvised, which to me were themes, so I was a little bit out of it. But the day of the first show we had a little run-through for the short-term and immediately I could tell “This feels great.” It was like sitting in a big easy chair. I said, “This, this is gonna work.” And sure enough it did. I think after the first day we were all jumping up and down and smiling.
“It’s really a challenge to be a guitar player
MPc: When you were growing up were you a fan of Ritchie Blackmore? And how do you feel about the whole style of neo-classical music that evolved as a result of him?”
SM: Yeah, I think I was a fan. Although I was one of those people that had more access to radio and other people’s tapes. Back then we had open reel-to-reel tape recorders and people would trade tapes to listen to, and albums. My brother had albums and I had tapes, I was more into the tapes. I liked recording things and playing along with them. The Deep Purple stuff that I had was on a tape and I didn’t know the titles of any of it and never read a back liner on the records. So I didn’t know anybody’s name really until years later when they got so big that I knew Ritchie Blackmore was the guitarist. And we did a gig with The Dregs, opened for Rainbow, and Ritchie sounded really good. He always had really great singers with his projects. So anyway, the allure of the band to me was the interplay of the guitar and the organ. The organ was so heavy, the guitar was so graceful and meaty, and I liked a linear approach to solos and melodies, and of course I loved everything he did with John [Lord, keyboard player].
MPc: How did John’s departure from the band affect things?
SM: Well, it was pretty traumatic for me, because John was the guy that I most related to as far as writing. Roger is the guy that the band couldn’t live without, I think. Because he is just a natural good-natured organizer who had really done so much production and study of music by listening, that he can tell right off the bat if something is gonna work or not. And I mean everyone in the band is at that level of course of being able to do their own projects, but Roger is sort of like the glue that holds everything together in the writing process.
But, John was the guy who would say, “Hey wait a second guys, we could try this,” and they said “Nah,” and John would say “Hey, that might work.” He was always able to envision the weirder things. And of course weird stuff is really part of my resume. It’s one of the things that’s kept me underground, which turns out to be a great place to be for a musician. So I thought that was the end of that, and it turned out Don [Airey] has incredible ears like John, fantastic technique, and is so quick at composition. He’s sort of like Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater or Neil Morse. I’ve worked with both of those guys and they’re so frighteningly fast, just like Don Airey. So I’ve got these experiences working for these ultra, ultra high-end keyboard players, that it’s really a challenge to be a guitar player working with keyboard players of that quality.
MPc: Do you have any particular album from the Deep Purple catalog that you’ve recorded with them that stands out as your favorite?
SM: Yeah. And no offense to any of the changes we’ve made since then, but Purpendicular still is my favorite because I felt like the band was the most naïve and open-minded at that point. It was our first. It was the easiest to get weird things put in. Because I wanted the band to expand like I’d heard with Led Zeppelin. When I’d heard Led Zeppelin play live as a kid, “Whole Lotta Love” and stuff that, but they also did “Black Mountainside.” Just, you know, different things like that. So let’s have acoustic in there. Let’s have different things — folk or country influence, whatever we can do to add some variety, as well as the rock.
“There’s no amp that does it all.”
MPc: Moving onto Kansas, what was it like reuniting with the band for the No Place Like Home concert/DVD? Is there any chance of you guys doing any new recording together?
SM: We haven’t talked about that. That [project] was actually done by Jeff Glicksman, our former producer who was actually in charge of doing this video. He, and I think the band, agreed that it would be nice to try to get as many band members in as possible. I thought it was cool because when you get together for a reunion, you’re not back in the heat of battle — “We should do it my way, no we should do it my way,” nor in the heat of writing.
Steve and I used to lock horns about writing and stuff, because we’re both very passionate about music, and you know I (in particular) felt a lot of pressure to write a certain way, and don’t do well under that kind of pressure. But all those things were not a factor, when we got together to do this DVD and just wanted to be a part of it. And you know I’m a big fan of Kansas music.
MPc: Talking about gear, this is another area where you’ve stayed a little outside of mainstream. Rather than following in the typical Marshall or Mesa/Boogie paths for your hard rock tone, historically you spent a lot of the Deep Purple years playing the Peavey 5150 and now you’re playing an ENGL signature head. Were the 5150s you’ve been using for years stock, or did you have them modded for your tone?
SM: Well the heads were stock, although we did prefer certain individual tubes; not any particular brand. There were certain tubes that sounded better. And I preferred the speakers that didn’t come with the 5150 but were from (I think) one of their standard amp lines. I think they’re called Scorpions. And it was a little more of a small magnet speaker that would roundly distort as opposed to their very large magnet Black Widow, which is a more powerful speaker. So that was the only mod, a different combination with the speakers. And I tried to be very gentle with the presence and that bottom boost knob around the power amp section.
Anyway, I went from the 5150 to the Marshall 2000. With Purple we sometimes do gigs where we have to rent stuff, if we’re hopping from one continent to the other and back. This was before we had Rig A and Rig B in different parts of the world. So I rented the Marshall 2000, and I thought it had something special about it. And I remember [Ian] Gillian turning around between songs and saying, “Hey, that rhythm really sounds great for that part.” And I thought so too. There was something appealing about this slightly cleaner sound that we were getting. And, again, remember Deep Purple has distorted B3 going all the time so a lot of that mid-range spot is taken by the organ. So what works with the trio doesn’t necessarily work in Deep Purple.
So I had a Marshall Silver Jubilee that I was using with the trio at the time. [Deep Purple] didn’t like that because it was heavier in the mid range. The 5150s were somehow better, but it had to be turned up somewhat loud to come up above the organ, because there were a lot of frequencies masking the same area. The Marshall 2000 did better, so I bought a couple of those, and was using them for a while.
Then I happened upon the ENGL… actually, Michael, my roadie, said, “You should try this.” And I tried it and there were some things I really liked about it but some things I didn’t and so they said, “Here” — they brought another one another time, “Try this.” And I said, “Oh, I like this better.” About the third amp I tried we found one I liked even better than the Marshall 2000. Then they said, “Would you be willing to work with us and do a signature one, made however you want?” And I said, “Well, yes! That would solve my problem.”
“Everything I get used to and say ‘Alright, cool, this is gonna work,’
And my belief is, there’s no amp that does it all. Every sound is a compromise; every piece of equipment is a compromise in design. It has to be. Whether it’s a compromise in price point or weight or leaning towards clean more than distorted. In every thing there’s gonna be a certain sound that it does better than anything else. And for me, the high end was more clear and un-painful with the ENGL. And, I could easily turn down the guitar, like from ten to three, and get clean enough to do lots of things without changing the channel. And that really appealed to me, so we worked on a third channel with a lot more mid-range control. Because, again, the mid-range that I used for solos needed to be quite a bit different than what I used for rhythm, because the rhythm with the organ, it needed to fit around it. It needed to have some high-end clarity. The words are difficult to use to describe that sound.
The bottom-line is that the third channel has four mid-range knobs, and they’re all there for a reason. And I use that to bring out lines or solos and then [switch back] to channel 2, which I think is that classic ENGL sound. And the clean sound is just so pure and transparent. I couldn’t get that with the Peavey and I couldn’t get that with the Marshall. It was the only amp I could really count on, so much so that I took the Signature amp and I started using it with the trio, because it has some advantages that I can’t get anywhere else.
MPc: What are some of the effects you like to make use of, and do you find more or less use of effects in your trio setting vs. with Deep Purple?
SM: One more with the trio, and that is the guitar synthesizer. It’s a little bit of a pain but I use the Shadow pickup and MIDI converter into an Ensoniq ESQ Module, which is basically the fat analogue type.
MPc: By today’s standards that’s sort-of a “classic” synthesizer (laughs).
SM: Good point (laughs). And it’s that way for a reason. The sample sounds have a harsher start to them and I’d have to ramp off the sound anyway. So just the simple waves with a little bit of modulation in them and a good bit of release and a little bit of ramping on a tag delay is necessary in order to keep the glitches to a minimum and disguise the glitches that do happen as much as possible. And I use that for re-enforcements, if I’m playing a line twice I bring in the synth the second time or fade it in when I’m doing a clean part with a string sound or something. Just a little bit of timbre change.
So that goes through an Ernie Ball stereo volume pedal and then through a hi-fi monitor and into the PA. Then, there’s two amps with both Deep Purple and Steve Morse Band that are basically the same. Just with Deep Purple we have bunch of cabinets and for Steve Morse Band I just have one of each. There’s a dry amp that basically the guitar goes into. It’s only interrupted by a tuner. And with Steve Morse band, since we do some country things, I now have a Keeley compressor. It’s a silver or chrome looking [pedal]. That works really well for a country tune. Otherwise, I don’t use that. It does have true bypass on the switch, which means makes a clunk. But I don’t mind that, just to get around the bypass. I don’t want to go through a chain of op amps before I get to the amplifier. But it’s basically straight into the amp.
But for the effects and preamp, I go to two delays: one short, one long. The delays are set to wet only and I have a variety of them. And I’m just not satisfied with any of them yet (laughs). There’s just always something. Right now the TC Electronic is the best.
MPc: Are you using one of the rack ones like the D2 or —
SM: No, it’s a stomp box looking one.
MPc: Oh, like the Nova Delay.
MPc: They call that progress (laughs).
SM:I’m so upset with that. It’s like everything I get used to and say “Alright, cool, this is gonna work,” then they stop making it.
MPc: Do you make use of any chorus effects?
SM: Basically the short delay is the chorus sound that I use. And both delays require modulation, a sine wave modulation preferably. And I like that control of the speed and intensity. And, like I said, be able to turn it to full delay out. And that’s my frustration now with everything. It’s so hard to find delays now that will give you that effect only. They’re all designed to be in line, and I hate that.
MPc: So you’ve got the effect loop you’re sending from your dry amp out to the delay and then you’re sending 100% wet to your second amp.
SM: Yeah. But I’ve got a bunch of other delays like MXR and stuff like that that I can throw in the bag if I’m doing a gig sitting in with somebody, and I could recreate my set-up with a couple of combo amps or something. But all those inexpensive [delays] won’t let you have delay only on the output. Even if you put a cheater plug in the stereo output or something, the most you can get is the delay a little louder than the clean, so when I want the delay to come to the second amp, which is the wet amp, it mixes in part of the line signal of the dry amp with the delay. And I can’t just hear a delay only.
I prefer to hear delay-only so when I push down the volume pedal, which is the output of the delay going into the second amp, and both of those delays are synced to the second amp, through the volume pedal and a passive mixer or active mixer depending on which rig I’m using. The idea is that you can just use a little of it and it will make a difference. And by having it on a volume control you can just bring up one note because, if you’re holding one note and you just want to add more to it, you just press down the long delay and there you go. It’ll trail off longer and it’ll last longer because you’re bringing in more sound. And when you play a fast line, you’re playing a small melody with delay and come to a fast part, you just back off the delay for the fast part and brig it back in and nobody notices. They notice that they can hear it cleanly and they’re not acutely aware that you drastically changed the mix of the delay, momentarily.
MPc: One of our editors was curious to know if there is anything clever about the technique that you use while playing the intro to “Ted the Mechanic?”
SM: Nothing unique, as far as, “it’s all been done before,” but for me it’s a little bit different. It’s like a banjo role, where the thumb and two fingers get underneath the strings and you’re plucking them upwards so that they slap back down. And then with the left hand you press down on the note to get a clear note and then lift up just enough to get a muffled percussive sound. So the banjo keeps going “deedly deedly,” the triplets, and the shape of the part is made by pushing down the left hand, or not. And that’s the difference between the note or an accent, or not having an accent.
“They said, ‘We’ll make it however you want.
MPc: We haven’t even touched on your Music Man guitars and the history of those yet.
SM: Back twenty-five years ago or so, Ernie Ball had already bought the Music Man company from Leo Fender. And they were making basses and they wanted to sort of revamp their guitars and were talking about starting from scratch, and they asked me. I had been through a little bit of bad experience trying to sort of clone a copy of my guitar into several. It just didn’t seem like it was an easy thing to do. And they said, “We’ll make it however you want. We won’t stop till you say it’s done.” And I said “Well, that’s fair enough.” So we did a lot of prototypes and tried a lot of things. They made suggestions and ideas and of course I started with, “Here’s the way I want it, here’s the configuration.” And we finally came to the point where the guitar that I had was starting to play better and more reliably, the tuning and everything, than my original Frankenstein guitar, so I started playing it.
There was no contract, there’s no pressure, there’s no money. I felt like it wasjust a better guitar. And the bonus was I could get more of them for backups, for spares, for practice, whatever. And I was like, “Great, let’s do it!” Then twenty years after doing that, they asked me if I would like to do a 20th Anniversary model with a few changes. And I said, “Yeah, I would actually like to give it a little more of a rock sound to go with Deep Purple.” And so they redid the prototype that had the maple top with the binding and one pickup taken out. We took out the middle Strat pickup that I didn’t use. I basically had five sounds that I used and an array of switches to use them that made sense to me but it didn’t make sense to anybody else. They informed me that they could get a five-way switch that had multi-pole/multi-channel so that I could put five sounds in any order. They didn’t have to be like a Strat switch, where it’s this one, that one, and the other one.
So I said, “Great. Here’s the sounds I do,” and they just wired it up. It worked great. I still have them, the first one. It’s my favorite rock guitar in the world. But despite me wanting them all to sound the same, they don’t. Each one has its own personality.
[Read our in-depth review of the gorgeous Music Man Steve Morse Y2D guitar here]
MPc: It’s unusual that you have a middle pickup butted right up against the bridge pickup.
SM: On the Steve Morse guitars normally there is no middle pickup, there’s only four. So it’s the one that’s supposed to be butted up against the pickup. It’s married to that pickup for a certain sound, and the one we took out was closer to the middle pickup. It’s just I never used that pickup for anything but recording. And this way there’s less magnetism and less problems with sustain.
The single coil really needed to be pushed far away from the strings to get the right sound, the way that I use it. It’s a place to go to clean up your sound when you take your guitar from ten to three or ten to two and you have a high gain amp. You shift to that single coil pickup and have it back away from the strings, and now you can play clean and have some high end to make up for the fact that you turned way down.
MPc: Finally, what’s next? What are you up to now?
SM: Well, this year we also released a Steve Morse album, and that’s called Outstanding in the Field, and that’s all instrumental rock that we would normally do, except with all new material. And we’ve done a couple short tours in the US with that, so we’re looking for another chance to do that and play some more.
On the last album, the Outstanding in the Field album, my son, who’s a young guitar player, wrote this song that I heard them playing, and I said, “That’s great! Your band’s gonna love that!” and he said, “Well, they’re not really that into it,” and I said, “I am! Let’s do something with that.” So I wrote something on top of his song and he recorded with me. And the few gigs that he could go to he played it, just marched right out and played it. It’s identical parts in there, and he has no problem. So that’s a happy thing for me as a musician to do, to collaborate with your own son.
Deep Purple’s going for another long [tour] after that, and... I’m always working on more stuff.
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