Talk with the Guitar Masters
Arguably, Steve embarked upon his career in the 10th grade, after being expelled from school for refusing to cut his hair. It makes sense then, that in an industry of ever-changing trends, Steve Morse stands on his own – having forged himself a 30-plus year music career while staying true to his music, and making a point of approaching his duties with the utmost dignity and professionalism. His musicianship transcends the boundaries of style – whether he’s playing fusion with the Dixie Dregs, progressive rock with Kansas, hard rock with Deep Purple, or a blend of all of the above mixed with country and classical with the Steve Morse Band.
Steve’s playing style is as instantly identifiable as it is versatile: it combines blues-inspired lines filled with chromaticism, exceptional alternate picking, rapid-fire arpeggios, classical fingerpicking and chordal ideas, and extensive tone manipulation, giving his guitar an array of voices that are each distinct, yet are all clearly Morse. For five years in a row Steve was voted “Best Overall Guitarist,” by the readers of Guitar Player Magazine, placing him among two other legends in the “Guitar Player Hall of Fame.” I spoke with Steve at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA during his tour in support of the latest release by the Steve Morse Band, Out Standing In Their Field.
Ivan Chopik: How’s the tour in support of Out Standing In Their Field going?
Steve Morse: It’s going good. We’re right in the middle of it – this is the end of the first week. In fact, this marks about the sixth day that we’ve spent playing together in the last few years [laughs]. It’s pretty intense. Actually, Dave [LaRue, bass] and I rehearsed at my place before we started the tour. We met Van [Romaine, drums] at the first gig and we just went [makes cracking noise] – instant, total immersion. These guys are pros, so it works with them – and we recorded the album together and everything, so it’s not like we’re strangers.
IC: What was the recording process for the new album? I know you have a studio at home – did you record there?
SM: Pretty much everybody does. Van did the drums at his place up in Manhattan – he has a studio with an actual engineer, and Dave and I just do our stuff in our own little studios. If I’m going to work for a half an hour at one in the morning… you just can’t get an engineer to come over in some small town. You pretty much have to figure it out yourself. The software has lots of possibilities if you’re manipulating sound – but if you’re just plain old recording what you do, it’s real easy to work with and it’s no problem to do that. That’s my approach – to play it and get it right, and take the right ones, and layer it and make it sound good. We don’t change much.
IC: What was the writing process like for this one compared to previous releases?
SM: It was very similar. A lot of times Dave and I will sit down together and work on stuff, just sitting in chairs – and I’ll have an idea that I’d like him to try and it gives me an idea of something to work on. Some of the tunes were already pretty much composed and brought in, like ‘Flight Of The Osprey’ and ‘Baroque ‘N Dreams,’ that just had to be written out and planned out, pretty much every note. In some areas there was like: ‘Let’s do a thing there.’ We had this long bass solo: ‘I’ll do a laid back thing like this [plays chill chords] and you do a bass solo.’ So obviously that has to be realized as an improv, but that’s just a section. We never do a whole tune of improv, because even though it would be fun to do for us, I think it would be less fun to listen to, for a lot of people [laughs].
IC: The new album sounds really organic – did you stick with your Marshalls, or was it the new Engl rig?
SM: It’s a combination of stuff. I had an Engl amp, but it wasn’t the Engl amp [Engl Steve Morse Special Signature 100] until near the end. [The Engl I had] sounded not quite as warm and low-midrangey as I’d like, so I didn’t use some of it. And I just do this thing while I’m recording – if I had a sound that worked with the last song, I’ll just start with something different for the next song [laughs]. I know, it’s like shooting yourself in the foot, but to me it’s fun to work with a different sound each time. So I make a small adjustment, whether it’s using a different mic or a different speaker cabinet, or changing amp heads – I do change something on every song. The commonality of course is the guitars, the playing style, and the nature of what I choose sonically – that will make them all sound similar. Some of them I did with an Engl amp on one side, and a Line 6 Pod on the other, and used about 20% of the Pod, and 80% of the Engl – things like that. I like combining mics, but it almost always makes a hollow, somewhat unsuitable sound – [it creates] phase problems.
So I’ve been trying to combine different amps using a splitter, and that’s kind of neat. I don’t write [my settings] down, so I remember in one of the tunes, I wanted to go back and change the arrangement, and I said: ‘I have no idea what I did for this sound!’ So there was no way to duplicate it exactly. That happens a lot. With the Dregs and with my stuff, I used to always print whatever sound it was with effects and everything, just print it – believe in it, commit, put it on tape and just walk away. Whereas with a lot of people: ‘it’s always got to be dry and clean! We don’t want to put all that in the mix.’ To me, the mix should just be: turn everything up and it sounds good.
IC: Can you tell us one thing that you’ve never mentioned before in an interview – a story, an experience or something about yourself that you haven’t shared before?
SM: Wow, you’ve got me on this… I’ve done lots of interviews… how about what’s happening tonight? We’re playing, the Steve Morse Band – which originally was with Rod Morgenstein [on drums] and Jerry Peek [on bass], and then became Van Romaine and Dave LaRue, playing drums and bass. Rod Morgenstein and I go back to the early 70’s, when we met at the University of Miami, playing in basically the Dixie Dregs – it was called the University of Miami Rock Ensemble #2, and we met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at seven p.m. or whatever. That became our band.
Tonight, Rod’s going to be sitting in, playing drums with Van – playing this incredible solo that they worked out together. I think it’s really neat when people can be open like that. Instead of Van having the attitude of: ‘Oh, I’ve gotta protect my turf. No one else is gonna sit in.’ Rod and I are like brothers, so it’s great for him to come along and do this.
Something I never get to mention in interviews, is to encourage people to support other musicians – give them a leg up. Rod doesn’t need a leg up – Rod is a professor here at Berklee. But I’m saying that when you see a chance to help somebody that you think is good, do it. Don’t say somebody’s great that isn’t, of course – but if you know somebody’s playing good and playing from the heart and there’s anyway you can help them, do.
Keep that fraternity alive of people that really love music, because there’s a lot of people getting into the music business because they see Star Search or America’s Got Talent, those kind of shows, where it’s instant fame and money. Just support people that really play from the heart, and remember that. If you see somebody you know and you’ve got the chance, and wherever you’re playing is cool with it, have them come up and sit in – pass it on.
IC: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians looking to break into the industry and share their music?
SM: A lot. This could go on forever. The first thing is responsibility – you have to be a responsible person and an independent person to be a musician that’s going to make it. The chances are very good that the things that will make you famous in your own way, the classic things that happen musically in your life, will come from unexpected places. Like this guy says: ‘Hey, man, You wanna come over and jam? I’ve got a little recording deal on my laptop.’ ‘Alright, let’s do that.’ Those are the sessions that could end up being the best things you ever write. Chances are it will not be a phone call from somebody saying: ‘Our band is huge and famous, we have millions of dollars. We just want to give to somebody, if we could only find a guitar player.’ No, that’s not going to happen. But what will happen is your peers saying: ‘I wish I had somebody to work on this with.’ or ‘This gig is free and it’s 50 miles away – could you do it?’
So in order to take advantage of those opportunities, you have to keep your overhead low and make yourself available. So I suggest not starting a family until you’re well into your career. In other words, don’t take on any responsibilities other than your music. That means no debt – learn how to change the oil in the car, and learn how to get a lot out of a little bit of equipment. Buy small quality stuff that you can carry yourself. The bigger your enterprise is, the more difficult it will be to take advantage of opportunities. So keep your overhead low, limit your other responsibilities, and strive for excellence in everything.
If you have a day job and you’re flipping burgers four hours a day, flip those burgers right onto the middle of the bun. Make everything count. If you’re sweeping the floor, don’t say it’s okay that you left that piece of dirt behind. Say: ‘If I sweep up every bit of this dirt to the best of my ability, that’s going to affect the way I play music. It’s going to make everything I do strive for perfection.’ That’s how you can tell if somebody’s going to make it or not – it’s not by whether or not they know somebody’s phone number on Star Search. Those are the kind of people that, when the opportunities come – and every couple of years or so, everyone will get these, what other people would say are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but they keep coming… the people that are ready, and luck allows them to, and fate allows them to, will find that they will get connected.
There are no players that are incredible that go unnoticed forever – unless they’re on a deserted island with no communication whatsoever. Make yourself available to the public, and [if you] keep your options open and are playing great, somebody’s going to notice you sooner or later. If you want to do the whole road thing – being in a band, forming a band, keep all of your options open and limit your responsibilities. Low overhead – and by low, I mean low. Don’t buy a new car – just down to the bone. Pay off your guitar, pay off your amp, get a few effects – it’s common sense. The less you need to make, the more opportunities you can take, and the more jams you can go to. I promise you, that’s where it will all come from. It won’t be from some phone call saying: ‘Here’s a million dollars. I just need somebody to take it. I can’t find anybody that plays guitar.’