Steve Morse is undisputedly one of rock's premier guitarists. He founded the highly praised instrumental group, the Dregs, and earned the distinctive honor of being chosen Best Overall Guitarist–for four consecutive years–by Guitar Player magazine, the bible of rock guitar. Morse's accomplishments are many, but his biggest achievement may well be on the personal level. Despite his many years in music, Morse has managed to keep his head on straight and stay as humble and understated as one assumes he was the day he picked up his first guitar.
"No, I'm not modest. I'm a realist," Morse is saying from his Portland, Maine hotel room the day of his first opening stint for Rush. He is speaking in a charmingly accented Midwestern voice, which trembles slightly and is interrupted by nervous laughter throughout the interview.
"I guess I learned that from being a pilot," the guitarist continues. "I fly the band on a lot of our tours, and I've learned that one of the things you have to do is anticipate the worst and hope for the best. It's like 'What do I do if this engine quits?' You always have to think that way, I always say, just in case it isn't perfect.
"It's like the old cliche, 'The more you know, the more you know that you don't know,"' he explains. "There are so many good guitarists out there, and that's all you gotta remember. It's like, hey, I just got lucky in one particular instance and that's it.”
"Don't ever think you've got something over the rest of the world. Every guitarist I've ever seen play has got playing to show me. Luckily, I've been able to see that the more I live."
That yearning for learning from his fellow guitarists is evident from Morse's actions and his words. He can't heap enough praise on guitarists as diverse as Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Yngwie Malmsteen. And his admiration for axesters Peter Frampton, Eric Johnson and Albert Lee carried over to his latest piece of vinyl, Stand Up. In fact, if Morse had had his way, Stand Up would boast even more guitar geniuses.
"Trevor Rabin was also supposed to work on my album, but his rehearsals with Yes got in the way. Allan Holdsworth was supposed to be on it too," Morse enthuses, "but we had a scheduling problem. I guess about 50 percent of the collaborations I wanted happened. That's a good percentage for rock'n'roll. It wasn't because the people flaked out. It was because the situations were so logistically complex," he quickly adds, dismissing any question of ill feelings on his part.
But why all those guitarists? Sure, Morse has been a fan of the instrument and its players since Juan Mercadel inspired a young Steve years ago at a classical concert. And yes, everyone, no matter how great or small, could stand to do some learning. But Morse? He could blow them all away–combined. Why does the best overall guitarist in the world need anyone?
"Most of the people I wanted to work with were guitarists," Morse says slowly. "It didn't start out that way, but it sure ended up like that. Maybe next time I'll just use that as a premise from the beginning."
Steve's career as biggest guitar fan and best guitar player began in his teenage years. As a high school sophomore, he formed the Dixie Grits with bassist Andy West and, after that fateful Mercadel concert packed his bags, left Georgia and attended the University of Miami as a jazz guitar major. At UM, Morse and West found the musicians who rounded out the Dixie Dregs.
After four Grammy nominations, critical acclaim and a loyal following of fans the Dregs disbanded. Morse took a short breather but soon formed the Steve Morse Band, who saw their recording debut in the summer of 1984. The LP was The Introduction, and it proved that Morse had assembled an exciting unit that hit hard with their own brand of "instrumental progressive rock with diversions into classical and country or jazz." Morse smiles at the apparent pretentiousness of his description of the band's music. "Well, it's mostly just instrumental progressive rock."
With Stand Up and the subsequent opening slot for Rush, Morse proved his band is here to stay. In fact, Morse believes the double bill was an ideal one. "It is nearly perfect for us," he says. "Rush isn't known for their makeup or their European fashion or anything like that. They're just a bunch of guys who play good music and have a great show. What more could we ask for?"
The Rush tour was a real blessing for Morse's band since they probably played to more people during those shows than had ever heard one of their tunes on the radio. On airwaves so flooded with Prince, Madonna and "Born In The U.S.A.", there's not much room for instrumental prog-rock.
"From a radio standpoint, the response hasn't been much," the guitarist explains. "It's one of those cases of good critical reviews but no opportunity to hear it. If you get a little more success, the critics start taking a few more potshots at you. But as long as you're not a threat, they can go ahead and like you."
That brings up the question of Morse's so-far limited commerciality. His reviews are brilliant, but will he ever enjoy the monetary success lesser talents are garnering day after day? According to Morse, when compared to artistic freedom, commercial success doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
"There's a price for everything and, so far, I'm real pleased with the balance right now," he says. "I wish it had been like this 10 years ago, but I'm happy now. The years of just getting to the point of having steady employment were very frustrating, yes. But like I said, I'm happy with the way things are. I will have to work to get by and continue to work the rest of my life. But as long as it's varied and I'm doing good things with good people, I really like it."
Transcribed by John D. Smith