If the concession owners on the current Rush tour have noticed a drop in their t-shirt sales they have only the Steve Morse band to blame. Rarely has an unknown opening act had the potential to capture the crowds the way Morse and company do. Steve's status as the new guitar hero on the block must seem ludicrous to fans of this magazine, but to the less knowledgeable music lovers of America, his name and his music is still on undiscovered continent. The Morse brand of rock instrumentals has never received airplay, being dubbed by programmers as artistically great but commercial suicide. This year Steve set out to add vocals to his sound in much the same way as he perfected his unique instrumental mixture of rock, classical and country musics. The addition of Terry Brock on vocals and second guitar gave Steve, Jerry Peek (base) and Rod Morgenstein (drums) just the right hook to catch themselves an opening spot on the Rush tour. It’s no wonder they play like this is their big break, because it is. We sent music editor Andy Aledort up to New Haven to listen to what our man of the Open Ears had to say about his legendary playing and his thus far less then legendary career.
GUITAR: Steve, one thing that is unique about you is your incredible versatility. Can you give us some insight into your musical progression?
Steve: Probably my first use of the guitar was inspired by TV, maybe the Mouseketeers (laughs); It was the Beatles that really made an impact, as well as every other band that came along with a song that I wanted I to learn to play. That would include the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and then on up through all of rock's progressions–Cream, Grateful Dead, Johnny Winter, Allman Bros., Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck. In the late 60s they would have those pop festivals where there were lots of different bands, as opposed to, say, a Kool Jazz Festival, where it's more stylized. It was predominantly rock but they would have these real off-beat entries in it. You'd have Cactus playing with Goose Creek Symphony, bands that no one's heard of now, but Cactus had this incredible guitarist, Jim McCarty, and Goose Greek Symphony was kind of this country jug band. It seemed just as normal as waking up every day to play a little of that kind of stuff. When I heard Mahavishnu it was the same thing. Of course I like Led Zeppelin and Mahavishnu. To me it seemed like great guitar playing and very powerful music one way or the other. The only reason I would ever think that it's a different class of music is because everybody keeps telling me it is. Classical guitar was the same thing. On an early Jeff Beck album he would play Greensleeves and Steve Howe played some Spanish style guitar. It was a pretty normal thing to not have just one hairstyle and one image, and that was the end of it and you're in that shell forever.
GUITAR: So you naturally just pursued those different sounds.
Steve: Sure, it seemed like a real normal thing at the time and it's something I'm real grateful for, that my "Wonder Bread" years, my formative years, were during that time.
GUITAR: Can you name a couple of particular milestones, moments of truth?
Steve: Seeing the Beatles on TV was unbelievable. Going to the pop festivals and seeing Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, etc. all on the same bill was amazing. So was seeing the Mahavishnu Orchestra play in my school cafeteria at the Univ. of Miami when they first came out. Seeing Jeff Beck play was a big thing, too. He was always a big influence. After Mahavishnu, when Beck had Jan Hammer playing with him was my favorite time for listening to him. Well, no, I take it back, the Rod Stewart era was, so Jeff Beck after the Yardbirds was kind of a milestone. Then it was seeing the classical guitar instructor from the Univ. of Miami, Juan Mercadal. He played a concert for the Classical Guitar Society in Augusta, Georgia, where I lived. It blew me away. He was so powerful and versatile. Again, heavy reinforcement in that area goes to Steve Howe. The first Yes album was a big turning point for me. He was a role model for me and I was trying to do the same thing. I had no idea if it was a good idea. The Univ. of Miami was a turning point. Learning theory from the instructors there was great, as was having students like Pat Metheny right along side you. I could name about 10 guys who were just utterly amazing, but not everyone's heard of them.
GUITAR: When you were studying classical music at Miami, what pieces were you focusing on?
Steve: My major was studio music and jazz, although my principal instrument was classical guitar. I was a very weird case. I didn't study much classical music. In one of the four years, I went to a local college in Augusta, at which time I did study classical pieces. It was the usual theory and analysis of popular symphonies, and a lot on Bach. Every study of classical theory centers on Bach.
GUITAR: Did you work on Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin?
Steve: I did on my own before I went to college, thinking some of it would be applicable to guitar, and in a way it is. What you play on guitar is really dependent on what the song is. The neat thing about rock is that you can push it so many different ways. You can hit two notes, E and B (an E5 chord) and put anything you want over it. Of course, not if you want airplay . . . (laughs)
GUITAR: After you became successful, who continued to get you excited?
Steve: Unbelievably enough, the list gets longer now, 'cause I'm really starting to appreciate all the stuff that I don't know and don't do so well, and there's no end to the list now. I could include all the innovators who have a style that's not common, and go from there to all the guys who just play regular guitar and play it great. I haven't heard a good guitar player who hasn't influenced me in some way. It's not so much "Oh, I got that lick." It's more like hey, I like the fact that the guy can play real good rhythm, say Pete Townshend. I always forget him as an influence because he's just a great guitar player, but when I do clinics and things, my perception is that all the guitarists want to know about is the soloing aspects.
GUITAR: The focus is always on chops.
Steve: Yeah, but that's another thing. There are a lot of good guitarists, and I always forget to mention Eric Johnson, 'cause he's remained an influence. Here's a guy who can seemingly handle anything. He handles country as well as rock, and very few people can do that, whereas I'm the biggest fan of Albert Lee for his country playing, but Eric can go from that Texas swing country stuff to rock without even blinking an eye.
GUITAR: How about your experiences with John McLaughlin? I've read that the Dregs filled in for some of his canceled gigs.
Steve: We filled in for Shakti, but we learned Mahavishnu songs to do in the Dregs set from the very beginning. We did Celestial Terrestrial Commuters, Meeting of the Spirits and Birds of Fire. What a great band.
GUITAR: How about when you were working with McLaughlin, DiMeola and DeLucia on the Supertrio tour?
Steve: That falls in the category of "dream come true," 'cause all three of those guys were monsters. I couldn't believe I'd be sitting in the same car with them, doing soundchecks, traveling with them and rehearsing songs. When it comes down to talking about music you forget all that stuff. These guys are too heavy to even talk to and you just concentrate on music. I don't know why it is that way, when you meet somebody after you've listened to them and think they're great. It was that way with all three of those guys, especially McLaughlin.
GUITAR: Were there any concrete things musically, like McLaughlin's writing or the tunes that you were playing, that may have opened up some doors?
Steve: They all taught me a little lesson. McLaughlin's attitude was that being a musician was special, despite the chart wars and the commodity market aspect of it, and that you should do what you really feel. Don't be held down by anyone else's preconceptions, or any of yours. In other words, if you feel like doing something different from what you've been doing, do it. He was known as Mahavishnu, and everybody kept saying, "Shakti? What is this Shakti? Come back with Mahavishnu." People were always telling him what to do, and he always did what he wanted to do, and that was a great lesson. Paco had a lot of things that he showed me technically. But his main thing was, "Hey, it's just music; you don't have to be so serious. Sure you prepare and study to play the guitar but when you go on stage you've got to take a chance–you've got to take a chance." That was kind of his motto. If you don't make a few mistakes during the show you haven't even tried. Al DiMeola was pretty much the precision master. Everyone thinks of him as "Mr. Chops" and it seems unfair to say, because McLaughlin's and Paco's chops allowed them to do anything they wanted to. But with Al everyone acknowledged his incredible time and impeccable phrasing; he was just so perfect with his technique. He kind of blew me away. I had to sit next to him when all four of us played. We'd trade solos and it would be, "Bdddd" (fast guitar riff) "Bdddd" and DiMeola would go "BDDDD!" There'd be smoke coming up from his fingers. Then I'd go "ba da da DA DA DA DA DA" (Chuck Berry riff). It was definitely a learning thing for me; I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice.
GUITAR: How about your experiences with Twiggs Lyndon?
Steve: His brother, Warren "Scoots" Lyndon, is one of our two crew members now. Twiggs was incredible. He was with the Allman Bros. from the beginning till they broke up. He was a big influence because he was a mechanical genius, and his motto was, "If you wanna do it, just do it." Somebody would come up with something and say, "Oh, you can't do that," and that would be just like letting somebody loose from a cage and he would do it. He showed me that there really is always a way, and it's always a clever way around a problem that seems unsolvable. The big disappointment was that he died when we were on the road, before the fourth Dregs album, I think. He was not that much of a guitar player, but he always carried around one of Duane Allman's guitars. We used to carry it on the road, and he would say, "You can play this any time you want, go ahead." It was kind of intimidating to me, but I did play it on every album whenever I'd play slide. It's a sunburst '59 Les Paul, and it's not set up for slide at all, but it's a nice playing guitar, sounds real good.
GUITAR: Steve, will you show us some stylistic examples of your playing? Let's start with some rock usages, like some typical things you might do with pentatonics.
Steve: Okay, here's one in A pentatonic Major with doubled notes (See Example 1 - Pentatonic Major).
GUITAR: Another thing you do is use pentatonic alterations, like pentatonic minor with a major 3rd, spelling 1, ma3, 4, 5, b7.
Steve: Yeah, I do that a lot, but I guess I don't think of it as pentatonic, I just think of it as arpeggiating in Mixolydian, or dominant 7th (Ex. 2 Mixolydian & 2a).
GUITAR: Another technique you use is "chicken pickin." Can you give us an example?
Steve: Sure. (Ex. 3 Chicken pickin’ pedal steel). It's something you wouldn't do in a rock solo because, first of all, you use your fingers (to pick) and you strike a note with the note already bent and then let it go down. It's sort of like what would happen on a pedal steel guitar, 'cause a steel guitar has pedals that can move selected strings up or down.
GUITAR: How did you go about developing your bluegrass type lines?
Steve: It's really in the air. Everyone can pick something out of their head that sounds country, even if it's just the Beverly Hillbillies theme. If you ever watched Hee Haw you can pull out a few more, I suppose. I guess it's a combination of playing very exact with a clear tone, a fairly steady rhythm, choking some notes and letting others loose, using minor and major 3rds. It's diatonic stuff with the exception of the chromatic passing tones. Stylistically, the way you play it is more important than the note choices, because obviously I do note choices that you wouldn't hear the Nashville guys do, and when I'm playing fast I pretty much play the same as when I'm playing rock. You just don't fall into a minor blues like over an A major-F# minor progression (EX. 4 Bluegrass).
GUITAR: Another technique you use is the funky fingerpicking stuff, when you pull the strings, letting them slap against the fingerboard.
Steve: Ice Cakes is a good example. The point is, when you're playing the notes to not have 'em all be the same. For instance: (graphic) My fingers are picking exactly the same but my left hand's choking the note, creating syncopation with the left hand, similar to what bass players do when they're doing the slapping thing. They use their left hand to make some of the slaps, and mute and un-mute.
GUITAR: Another thing that makes you so individual is your ability as a classical guitar player.
Steve: Well, a lot of what I do is very middle-of-the-road, technique wise, with the exception of some left hand thumb stuff and some five finger right hand stuff. Here's an example from Up in the Air (EX. 5 Up In The Air).
GUITAR: You also have tunes which you refer to as "electronic chamber music."
Steve: On the new album there's one that started as classical guitar but I play it on electric guitar, called Unity Gain (EX. 6 Unity Gain).
GUITAR: Could you tell us about your use of chord voicings and voice leading? Is it something that's relative to particular compositions or are there things which you can map out as compositional devices?
Steve: In Unity Gain there's an example in bar 3. That's all an E chord, which leads to C#m. To me it's real important the way bars 4 & 5 are voiced; otherwise it could be (graphic) which could sound really corny. A lot of progressions I use are on the very razor's edge of being ultimately corny or just corny, period. It's the way you voice them which keeps them from sounding too "muzak." Let's face it, most pop music is written on the tonal side, diatonic, and so l tend to use a lot of diatonic stuff and any time you do that you have to pick your voicing very carefully. That's when it matters the most, when you're trying to get something across that uses a possibly well-used progression.
GUITAR: Is there a reason for you staying diatonic; is it something that happens naturally in your writing?
Steve: Yes, it's because I prefer listening to things that fit well going from one to another without being too "outside." A good example is a lot of Pat Metheny's music. He writes very tonal, major-oriented stuff. Maybe I'm thinking of certain album periods, but . .. it's just a good melody over the right changes.
GUITAR: The song Golden Quest reminds me of Metheny.
Steve: Exactly. The chords are hardly anything, but it's this (ex. 7 Golden Quest), rather than just going (ex. 7a). Of course I do that in one spot, as a change. There's just about no other way to get that simple of a melody across without having a moving inner voice. That's what chord voicing is a lot of times. It's where the melody stops, or the melody rests, and you have inner voices moving or bottom voices moving to add some interest to what would otherwise be just a real level situation (laughs).
GUITAR: You once said that you get a lot of inspiration out of Rod's drumming, when you're playing live.
Steve: I don't realize it until I play with a drum machine or a metronome (laughs). He's constantly doin' different stuff, so I always try to have his drums in the monitor so I can hear it, and it makes me feel a lot better to hear him doin' stuff because, even though he's not playing notes, he's really playing the music.
GUITAR: After practicing, how do you stay on top of all your different techniques and styles, with the vast difference between the classical style and rocking out?
Steve: It takes time to do anything, but generally, if you're spending the day working on music, a lot of your problems will take care of themselves. But if you're spending the day traveling or talking on the phone about something to do with your equipment or music or all the other things that doesn't involve playing your instrument, then you've got to have some kind of organized program to at least keep your technique up. You don't really appreciate how important it is to practice till you're on stage and you can't do something you tried to do. Then you would give anything to have practiced (laughs). So that's what I try to remember. Obviously, there's millions of times when I'd rather do something else than practice. But musicians have to prove themselves every time they go on stage, not like college professors. They can say: I've got my degree, I've paid my dues, now I'm a professor, whereas a musician says, I've paid my dues, I am paying my dues, I will pay my dues. No matter what, I still have to come up with the goods every time I go on stage. That's what people want to hear. I don't think people want to see somebody walk on stage and press a button on a sequencer or a tape recorder, then walk off the stage, 'cause there's no risk in that. People pay to see somebody take a risk, whether it's jumping 13 buses on a motorcycle or playing weird music.
GUITAR: How about giving us a strange warm-up exercise.
Steve: This is a warm-up exercise that I do three notes to a string. (EX. 8 Exercises) The reason why I think it's good to do this is your pick is always changing direction; that is, it's not like you go down, up, down, up, etc., four notes to a string. It's not quite as regular as that. You go down, up, down, and the next string is up, down, up, since you're alternating picking. And I change fingers on the left hand, and do it over scales. It's a great warm-up and it's good for your technique, because it combines changing pick direction over each string and jumping around and using all your fingers. Arpeggios, too. When I do arpeggios, I don't just do one exercise, I try to improvise, sort of. The idea is "make a melody." Here's an example with major and minor 9th chords (ex.9 ).
GUITAR: There are some things that are individual to your guitar playing. One is the way you hold your pick.
Steve: That's the result of never having a teacher say, "Here's the way you do it." I used to use the wrong end until that tour I did with DiMeola and we were playing acoustically. When we were trading off, DiMeola's guitar was always so much brighter, and my guitar was a little thinner than his. It was still an Ovation and I was using the same strings, and I'd say, "How can this be? " I finally sorted it out, besides his immaculate technique he was using the pointy end of the pick. I was using a very soft nylon edge of a pick, and that was the difference. I switched to a hard pick point, and suddenly my sound was brighter and carried better. It's just whatever you get used to. You can use a penny or a piece of cardboard.
GUITAR: And you use two fingers to hold the pick?
Steve: Two fingers and a thumb. The reason for that is it cocks my hand sideways. Instead of my hand being parallel to the plane of the strings, it's pointed up at a 45 degree angle. That's bad for the movement of the muscles, but it's good for laying your finger and hand down on the strings for a palm mute. That way I can sort of make a little bridge and the string I'm playing is inside that bridge.
GUITAR: Another individual technique is the muting of other strings while you're playing.
Steve: That's pretty much a must. I don't do it without fail, sometimes I miss the strings and you can hear the note ring on, but I do try to have that be a big part of the technique, to kill the notes you're not playing. So when I practice scales my hand moves up and down on the bridge muting the strings, even though I'm not using an amp.
GUITAR: A logical extension of that is keeping your pinky out and using it as an anchor when you get over to the higher strings.
Steve: And for doing the switches and volume controls, but when I play the low E string, my pinky is always stretched out over the high strings so I can dig in more. Also, this particular guitar has nylon bridge pieces. It makes a difference. It doesn't sustain quite as much, or have that endlessly searing high end that can get so painful through a PA.
GUITAR: Another thing that you do that's unusual is your super-wide vibrato, where each bend of the vibrato is about 1-1/2 steps.
Steve: I guess I do have an excessive vibrato. Once you get goin' and dig in...sometimes it's the only way to get a note to sustain on this thing! (laughs)
GUITAR: What's the tune on Industry Standard where you start your solo that way?
Steve: Vitamin Q, or Vitamin Quaalude (laughs). That's kind of a joke, that vibrato. I know a guy who does that. It's a neat sound; it's such an effect it sounds like I'm making a joke. I try not to do it all the time, even though I want to! I always wanna go, (super-wide vibrato).
GUITAR: You seem to have eschewed hammer-ons and pull-offs, while picking is a major part of your style. Are hammer-ons and pull-offs something you don't hear as part of your sound?
Steve: Not necessarily that, it's just that I always liked the idea of being able to play acoustic guitar, especially steel string, as a parallel thing with electric guitar. That is, I always thought that hopefully I could play most of the stuff that I play on electric on steel-string acoustic, and I thought that I could use the same technique on guitar licks as I could on keyboards or whatever licks, on whatever kind of music, to be able to play it on guitar. The best way I've found to do that is to pick every note. That way, anything you touch with your left hand, your right hand will play. It makes it an easier transition to acoustic guitar, for me, whereas if you did have to do hammer-ons, to get an even tone you wouldn't have anything to compress the notes that weren't quite as loud, and you'd have to lower the action so much on the acoustic that you wouldn't be able to strum very loud. It's more versatile for me, for my style, although there are some real pretty things you can do with hammer-ons.
GUITAR: Somebody like Holdsworth would be the absolute other end of the spectrum, 'cause he picks once a month.
Steve: Exactly. I suspect with his sound, when he does solos, if he picked it real hard it would sound trashy. He loads it with a lot of gain on the front end, real heavy overdrive, but his touch is just so precise with the left hand that it ends up sounding like an oboe or whatever he wants it to sound like. He's really good.
GUITAR: When you did the tour with Holdsworth, did it make you think about things a little differently?
Steve: Sure. I envied his freedom so much with that left hand style. On the other hand, I guess there's a point at which you decide which way you're gonna go. And again, like on the tour with DiMeola, I tried to pick the way he picks, with the one finger and thumb, the normal approach, floating your hand, and I found at the time I could get a real fast pick action going. I'm convinced that is the fastest way to pick. Then I tried some of the other things I would be doing on electric guitar, and thought, "Is this gonna pay off here?" I went back to the way I had been using, 'cause it offered a little more control at the expense of speed.
GUITAR: How do you feel about the new album, Stand Up?
Steve: I feel fine about it. Again, it's another experiment, to see how many different styles of music I can have on a record (laughs). Obviously, it's not the way you sell a product. But it's fine with me because ever since I've been out of school I've missed the adventure of learning new things and the challenge of doing different things. Anytime you write a new tune or do a new song it's different. But it's a lot more different if you do it with somebody new. That was kind of the premise of the album, to work with different people, and it grew to where there were quite a few. There were supposed to be more than actually made it onto the album. For instance, we had plans for Geddy Lee to sing the song, Golden Quest, which is what may have led to our being on the tour together. The guys in REM were going to work on a song, too. It was just scheduling. Holdsworth was going to record on the album. We made him a separate tape and I couldn't be there but he recorded it and sent it, and it got here too late. We'd already mixed the song. We have seven guests. Peter Frampton wrote and played. Other guests include Eric Johnson, Albert Lee and Mark O'Connor.
GUITAR: Was it a big decision that this would be a record with a lot of rock stuff on it and a lot of vocals?
Steve: There was a decision at one point that there would be a lot of vocals on it, figuring that it was the only way to "enter the sweepstakes," the prize being getting airplay on the radio. To me, it seemed like, okay, I haven't done many vocals and this is something I need to learn anyway. It's just like studying other kinds of music like I did in school. It seemed like a natural thing to do, to try something different. I didn't mind at all, just as long as it was weighed towards the guitar. I would be against having a vocal song where the solo is two notes. There's a tendency to have sequenced sounds today, a symphony note, a train wreck, or a crash of glass, just little breaks instead of solos. So I thought, rather than be trendy, I'd just have solos!
GUITAR: What do you see in the future?
Steve: I would like to emulate a lot of different people. I'd like to have the versatility of Phil Collins, the integrity of Metheny, Holdsworth or McLaughlin, the chops of DiMeola, Malmsteen and Van Halen, and the musical finesse of Segovia. That's all. I just want to grow and not lose credibility as a musician, because the bottom line is you can't take it with you. What you've done is all that stays behind. So I hope that what I've done matters to somebody, that they get some enjoyment out of it. And I hope I can pay back those people who have supported me. But not by having a drink with each and every one of them.
Transcribed by John D. Smith