One of the pioneers of the instrumental rock guitar scene, Morse has risen from the Dregs to make his most gleefully aggressive album since 1984's The Introduction.
Things are looking up again for Steve Morse. Not only does his latest recording, Southern Steel, stand up among his best, but he's also assembled a crack new version of the Steve Morse Band to bring this blistering collection of songs on the road. And the timing couldn't be better. The popular recognition of such instrumental heroes as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson has now given rock guitar's resident cult genius his best shot at gaining entrance into that exclusive music biz clubhouse known as "radio."
While his 1989 solo album, High Tension Wires, basically showed his fans "the lighter side of Steve Morse," Southern Steel makes another surprise gearshift, this time heading back into his beloved metal fusion backcountry, a place where he can show off more of the chops that have made him among the most highly praised guitarists of the last decade. Sticking to the same ideology that fueled the groundbreaking Dixie Dregs, Morse is still seemingly content to be a gifted working musician who's dedicated to following his own artistic path, no matter where it leads.
After several years of personal sonic experimentation, Southern Steel has reestablished Morse as a giant of contemporary heavy rock guitar, yet considering the demure nature of his last project, it's of significant interest to know what caused the elusive axeman to make his most gleefully aggressive record since 1984's The Introduction. "Well, you've got to understand that I basically considered my last album, High Tension Wires, as a solo project separate from my work with the Steve Morse Band," he explains. "Also, I recorded that one at the same time that I was doing a project with Kansas and also working as an airline pilot, so there's lots of different influences going on in there, and I always just let the music dictate where the style goes. I took a different tactic on Southern Steel, one which wasn't unusual for me. I really just got the band together and rehearsed and worked out all the songs with them, as opposed to just saying to them, 'Here's the songs, learn 'em, and the test will be tomorrow.' On High Tension Wires, the songs were decided and put on tape before I brought in any of the guests, and then I mostly just replaced robots with people. All the songs on the new disc, though, were done with the band, and that accounts for the heaviness of it. I did use some sequencer on 'Wolf Song,' which is a ballad, but overall I see the album as a return to my harder rocking past.
"I open up with 'Cut to the Chase,' because it's a strong and energetic track, plus it was such a direct contrast to the opener from the last one, 'Ghostwind.' They're almost like night and day. The other guitarist you hear on there is Jeff Watson, and he's trading solos with me at the end. I met him on the last Kansas tour, which we did with Night Ranger, who were on their final road trip. Jeff and I got to be good friends and he sort of became my spiritual counselor. We both traded information and ideas, and he also helped my outlook on the music business a lot, because I was really disillusioned at the time and not really sure what a guy like me should be doing for the rest of his life. Jeff's a very intelligent guy, and one of the most gung-ho people I've ever met, which was definitely contagious. I'd say his personality is a lot like his solos. I had 'Cut to the Chase' mostly finished when I brought him in, and we cut the solos standing next to each other in the control room, just laughing and goofing off. But other than Jeff's cameo part, I was trying to get the identity of the band in shape, so I didn't bring in any other guests at all."
Though Morse fans have known about the newest members of the Steve Morse Band-bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine for over a year now, many have not yet heard what this blazing threesome can do as a unit. "I would say that this is the most fearless band I've ever played with," Morse contends. "We've done some ridiculous things, like play a gig on the first day of a tour that's thousands of miles away with borrowed equipment and getting in right before we go on, without even a set list-and still pulling off a good show! I now think I know the feeling quarterbacks have when they're sure the guys on the front line can kick ass and block for them. They're real pros. One of the best things about Dave and Van is that they're able to support themselves as musicians separate from me, because they're in such demand where they live up near New York. They give lessons and are working all the time, and aren't just waiting for me to decide to tour because they're broke. And when we tour, we almost never have to rehearse because they're playing every day in the interim. We can walk onstage after no seeing each other for three months and I say, "One, two, three, go," and they're ready, because they're always working and they're not afraid of the stage. Having this flexible a band allows me to do other things. Like I recently came back from Japan, where I was playing with Albert Lee in a band called Biff Baby's All-Stars, which was sort of the joke name for Sterling Ball of Ernie Ball Strings. He and his brother put together this band full of great studio musicians to back Albert, and we pretty much played Albert's music and a few old cover tunes. Then Eddie Van Halen heard us and he wanted to join, so Albert, Eddie and I played at NAMM together. So now I can do strange gigs like that, or things like the mostly classical guitar solo tour that I just finished, and not have to worry about the guys in my band quitting or being mad at me. One reason the Dregs broke up was because we had to work constantly to stay alive, and even though my new band plays a lot, I can still do other projects."
In addition to this killer band, Morse's own killer technique has often been the cornerstone of many players' admiration for him. Even though so much has been written about his incredible chops in the past decade, many often forget about or ignore the deep-rooted blues textures that are so much a part of his playing, particularly his solos, which are frequently laden with growling bass string bends or lickety-split chromatic runs that are set within a pentatonic box framework, tritones inclusive. In fact, Morse's blues sensibility is the one thing that has always set him apart from techno-peers like Eddie Van Halen, Al DiMeola and Vinnie Moore, none of whom have ever used more than a smattering of the blues in their own lead work. Yet, true to his chameleonic music, Morse attributes his personal take on the blues to some very untraditional sources.
"I know there are more direct ways of learning blues guitar, but I'd say that anybody who's ever played Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and B.B. King songs will end up having a pretty standard library of blues licks," Morse says, nonchalantly. "I myself would have to credit a lot of those second generation people who listened to the blues for my own influences, because I never really listened to the original blues artists in depth. Sure, I went to gigs and heard B.B. King and Muddy Waters play and thought it was great, but to me it was the Allman Brothers, Hendrix, and Jimmy Page who really influenced me the most. Around 1970, I was considered pretty musically illiterate and just a bluesy rock player, but by 1972, after I'd heard John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, I realized that there were no rules that say you have to do one thing.
As far as my solos, I never worry about them or even practice lead work, because I love improvising and my style naturally mixes elements of the blues with more complex phrases. There aren't that many people who use both concise, technical phrases and a blues touch; they're like either/or, if you know what I mean. In fact, early Ted Nugent was good for that-to me he was like a pioneer of two-bar phrasing. As a kid, it appealed to me as a flashier blues with a big, fat sound. There's a really funny line from the Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels where the British bass player is leaving the band because he thinks he's too big for them, so he goes around asking the other band members if anyone wants to go play some extended blues jams, meaning of course playing lots of fast solos over really simple bass lines, which was sort of the way rock was back then.
"On the other hand, a portion of my sound and style does come solely from my technique, though I'm not necessarily referring to the speed thing. For example, when I play clean, I go for a lot of presence in my tone. I pick every note and I pick it hard, so it sort of slaps you in the face. The same with distortion. I use an amp and speaker combination that will make the notes sound almost percussive in their intensity. And like almost anybody who records these days, I use a lot of effects, but I try to add them in ways that you almost don't notice them; they just add a little electronic air, if you will, especially when I do harmonics. The same is true when I use the guitar synthesizer. The high melody on 'Southern Steel' has guitar synth all through it, as do the melodic parts of 'Battle Lines' and the arpeggiated parts of 'Vista Grande.' You get the impression that something is there, but you don't know what it is exactly. I blended a lot of instruments together on Dregs records to get new sounds, but occasionally that offended the band members, because they couldn't directly detect their contribution. It's nice to do that on my records because I don't care about such things. But, as opposed to Allan Holdsworth or Pat Metheny, both of whom use the guitar synth right out in the open, my philosophy is to use it as a reinforcement, something to add to the guitar rather than to replace it. Holdsworth has total control over his sound, because he's using a Synthaxe controller, which really isn't a guitar, and Metheny's style is just suited to the guitar synth, while to me, the limitations of the equipment cry out for it to be a background voice. I use it live all the time, but just for little bits that come in and then are gone. Most people probably don't even realize I'm doing it; they just hear strings come in and then it's gone, though in the studio it's just as easy, if not easier, to just do the parts on keyboards. And I don't really think that the limited-technology excuse is the only reason guitar synth isn't as popular as standard guitar playing today, because, if you think about it, an electric or acoustic guitar has its own limits. I really think it would become bigger in the guitar community if it merely became more fashionable, because the expression is already there; all it needs is someone to make it big, like an Eddie Van Halen of the guitar synthesizer."
Aside from helping expand the sonic horizons of the guitar on Southern Steel and other milestones, Morse has recently recorded another new track for GUITAR's Practicing Musicians, Volume 2, the sequel to the 1989 all-star compendium of great axe performances from the GUITAR Recordings label (Volume 1 featured Morse igniting a guitar inferno on "Southern Steel," which became the title track to his new album). Though Volume 2 will feature fiery electric performances by Nuno Bettencourt, Jason Becker, Fates Warning, and Eric Johnson, Morse's contribution will be a fascinating departure for the series. "The new tune is called 'Picture This.' I was using that term to describe the song to people when I realized it was the perfect title. I guess I'd call it a 'pretty' song, because it's a classical guitar piece done direct, but it's an intense composition, as well. John Stix heard me play it at a gig and he suggested that I record it for the compilation album. I was surprised when he wanted that song, because I had targeted the compilations as being strictly heavy metal-oriented. So I was pleasantly surprised at being asked for this song, and I hope people like it.
"I'm using a new classical guitar called a Nova, that's a thin cutaway with a built-in pickup in the bridge. My Ovation fed back when I used it live, because I play so loud, but this one works fine. For my own synth set-up, I use a Steve Morse model Music Man electric that has an IVL Pitchrider II pickup right on it. It's a really easy system to use; you can even stick the pickup under your strings with a piece of tape and it'll work. That line then goes out to some Ensoniq modules, and I use a few basic sounds that are easy to blend. I have some Lexicon delays and some really heavy, all-metal Ernie Ball volume pedals that I use to control the volume of the delays. I basically use two amps, both of which are Peaveys. I've accumulated a pretty good assortment of them over the years; for the Albert Lee gig I mentioned earlier I used some of my little Peavey combo amps, like the Special 112, and then there's a new stereo chorus that I really like, which I used on a studio date for a movie called Delirious. Lately, I've been using the ETM and Black Widow closed-back cabinets with the band. I also use a t.c. boost pedal for about a minute during the set, during one of my solo guitar sections, for a little added kick. Also, I played the new album's scratch guitar tracks through a Rockman after we had the songs all written, sounds roughly mapped out, and the drums down pat, but then later I went back and replaced a lot of the guitar tracks to get a wider variety of tones."
While the success of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson could possibly bring Steve Morse a wider audience for his music, another reason 1991 could be a big year for him is that his perspective on the current instrumental revival is sharper than just about any other major rock player out there, primarily because he was already sowing the seeds for this wave well over ten years ago with the Dixie Dregs. His experience with moody rock guitar trends was heightened during the mid-1980s, a difficult period for the guitarist, because it was then that he was dealing with a personality crisis that arose from his revolving gigs with Kansas and the Steve Morse Band, as well as his own eclectic solo projects (during that bleak stretch, some might remember a very alone looking Morse playing solo nylon-string and guitar synthesizer opening for jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul, his only accompaniment being a batch of prerecorded Dregs tunes and rhythm tracks). Fortunately, given the recent success of a few key players, rock guitar in 1991 is much different-and much better-than in the grueling post-punk days of '81.
"Oh yeah, today's guitar scene has changed enormously from what it was back then," Steve says. "Ten years ago was bad. It was techno, de-evolutionary rock, where everybody was trying to shock the public by spitting on them or using minimalist tones; about the coolest thing you could be was some shaved-head gang member from a poor section of London. When we approached industry people, they would tell us to call back later. . . much later! We just weren't fashionable. But we knew that the Dregs were among the only instrumental rock bands out there, so I suppose we did influence the success of the Satrianis and all, but there are a lot of different things that make something work, so the popularity of the new instrumental wave is sort of a team effort. I think David Lee Roth is behind a lot of it. I mean, he gave Steve Vai a considerable platform to play for the public, and then Vai gave Satriani a very generous endorsement, and, fortunately, both players had the goods to back up the hype. What's more, Eric Johnson is having a very big album right now! That means that the industry, especially radio, has accepted the idea of instrumental music, which is amazing. As for Eric, the great thing is that it was an instrumental song, 'Cliffs of Dover,' that got the whole thing going for him, and I predict he'll have a gold album real soon. I don't know if you'll ever hear me on the radio, because there are certain things I won't do, which narrows the possibility a lot. But who knows? It takes a certain avalanche to get things going, and the most outside thing can become a hit. And it's just amazing to me that people at my record company are now hooking up interviews for me, because for a long time, my bands and I have been totally on our own, with no label support at all.
"Still, I know that I'll probably never be a rich rock star, due to my personality and music, and also the fact that when it really comes down to it, I enjoy working and I like the close contact I have with the people. I have a very loyal following and I think they realize how committed I am to them. I've never had a Steve Vai type offer to join a sure-hit band like David Lee's, but on the other hand, I think that my best stuff is going to come from writing without restrictions and just doing my own thing. That's why I became an airline pilot-for freedom. But I realized eventually that I could make my living as a musician and not have to feel any pressure. That's also one reason why I live in the country and not in some big city like L.A. or New York. I think about the long term-the big picture- and when I think about an album being around for 10 or 20 years or longer, I think that solitude is the best way to bring it out of me, rather than bright city lights or trendy things. I don't criticize anyone who wants that, because that's a big part of succeeding in this business. But I'm committed to going my own road and, for the first time in a long while, my life during these last few years has been very calm, confident, and optimistic; I just don't worry about 'making it' anymore. I've been through the worst period of my life and come out of it with the people supporting me, and you've got to feel good about that."
Transcribed by John D. Smith