Steve Morse Still Loves Dropping Musical Surprises
into the Deep Purple Sound
Earlier this year, Deep Purple released its 19th studio album, Now What?!
[earMusic]—which was kind of a surprise to Steve Morse, who assumed releasing singles to promote upcoming tours
was the way of the modern music-business world. But the “senior members” of the band (as he likes to call singer
Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover, and drummer Ian Paice), along with current keyboardist Don Airey, were anxious
for the old-school approach—especially as it had been eight years since Purple’s previous release, Rapture of the Deep.
“They told me that recording and releasing albums was what the band does,” says Morse. “So let’s do another
Of course, chasing those elusive possibilities of greatness can be a much less unsettling task when a genius is
at the helm, and Now What?! was produced by Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd). Here, Morse discusses
the process behind the album, working with Ezrin, spending 20 years in Deep Purple, and some of his favorite
solos on the new release.
The album is pretty awesome.
Best production we’ve ever had—that’s a big difference.
What was the writing process like?
We like to work on things together, rather than
somebody bringing in a completed song. The preferred
option is to bring in an idea or a germ of a
song—and hopefully no more—so that everybody
puts in their two cents. Also, Bob Ezrin was not shy
about getting involved and ordering a rewrite on
something. He did plenty of that. He has the most
amazing mind, and he’s not shy about telling people
what he likes and what he doesn’t like.
I was going to ask about that. You generally
tend to produce a lot of your own material, so how
was it working with Bob? Did he push you in new
Definitely. For instance, one of the songs has
a slow slide solo that he pushed for. I sneak a few
in here and there, but I’m not really a slide player.
That one is beautiful. I think you’re talking
about the solo on “Blood from a Stone”?
Yes. Thank you. I had a couple of different takes
already done for that solo before I left to do a G3
tour. When I got back, Bob had lots of notes, and
he’d say, “Do this over, or do that over.” I would do
the retakes in my studio, and for some reason, he
wanted that particular solo a certain way, and I was
having a lot of difficulty managing what he wanted.
I think I did eight different takes before he finally
said, “There we go.”
I remember reading that for solos, you tend to
improvise three really different takes, and then
pick the one that feels the best. Is that correct?
Basically. I feel like in the first few takes you’re
going to get your best overall compositional ideas.
In other words, with repetition, instead of reacting
instinctively, you start to think more about constructing
the solo. Reflexive reaction seems to be more
appealing to me, anyway. So within those first few
takes, I’ll often find something I can work with, and
then I just go and fix the parts that need it.
The solo in “Hell to Pay” is really beautifully
built. It has a very off-the-cuff feel, yet it has some
great melodic components. I was curious if that
was something you crafted.
It was during the guitar sessions that I
found out Jon [Lord, former Deep Purple
keyboardist] had died. So, on that solo, in
particular, I was thinking at the end how I
really wanted to take the approach Jon had
on “Highway Star”—kind of like classical
arpeggios over rock. So that’s me channeling
Jon Lord’s vibe. It was so shocking that
he was dead. I thought he was responding
well to the treatments. So I was put out of
the loop there. I mean, we kept working, but
I was really distracted, and I couldn’t stop
thinking about him.
You and Jon had some really great creative
chemistry, I take it?
Definitely. He was great to write with,
and great to improvise with. He just had
this amazing ability to hear. Jon could hear
what I was trying to do, and then take it and
throw it back at me one step better.
I have always understood that you can
take a very simple framework, build on it, and
make it sound like more than you originally
thought it would. In Purple, I have seen that
happen over and over again. You can make
something simple interesting, but you do
need twists and turns and some unexpected
things. Those are the lessons that have been
reinforced the most to me, and that we have
learned from each other. I’ve really tried to
bring to the band the idea, “Okay, let’s not
forget what is already here—which is hard
rock—but we can add some color to it. It
doesn’t have to be black and white.”
“Uncommon Man” seems to have quite
a bit of that.
Yes. I love that one. That song started
off as a jam—all of us together in the studio
playing to a click track. Bob basically said,
“Morse—play something.” Okay. It was great
to just jam and find the song along the way.
There’s no way you can really fix anything,
either, because everything is blending—one
chord hanging over another, and everybody
looking at each other for visual cues. I like
it when producers have enough confidence
to let you do things like that.
How long have these tunes been in the
works? Are they new ideas, improvised
ideas, things that have been evolving over
time, or all of the above?
It was a bit of everything, I guess, but
mostly new. We had basically three writing
sessions. When we first got together, we
came up with a bunch of ideas. Months
later—after Bob was selected to produce—
we starting working again because Bob
wanted to be involved in putting all the
stuff together. By that time, I was begging
everybody, “Can we just stop playing
stuff? There are too many songs. I can’t
keep track of them all!” We’d play a song a
few times, then record it, and go on to the
next. When I say play them a few times, I
mean we’d play the song all day. Over the
course of a few months we had 20-something
songs, and I asked, “Can we just refine
the ideas, and bring down the number?”
My point was that we needed somebody
strong willed and decisive to step in and
help us make decisions about what to cut
and what to finish, and, thankfully, Bob had
no problem doing that at all. That became
the third session.
Was there a particular goal or concept
for this album?
During our first writing session, everyone’s
thought was to bring it back to the
basics—the roots of Deep Purple. And without
meaning to, of course, we added a lot of
extraneous excursions from the main theme.
That’s something I specialize in—getting off
the track [laughs]—so the band can count
on me for that.
Is it a delicate balance to create a work
that feels like it’s a Deep Purple album, yet
still brings something new and fresh?
It’s easier than you might think to strike
a balance. The one formula revolves around
the guys who have been there since 1969:
Roger Glover, Ian Gillan, and Jon, when he
was with us. Basically, they pick the ideas
we develop. My job is really just to throw
out a bunch of ideas, and that I can do. So
when Roger, Ian, and Ian all say, “Hey, that
sounds like something we’d like,” then the
song and direction is basically being selected
by the Deep Purple senior members. And,
because of that, wherever we go, or whatever
we do, it can’t help but be in the Deep
Where do you find inspiration these
I think having a rich and varied life is the
best inspiration. I’ve never had a problem
being inspired, because almost everything
in life is interesting to me.
You now have been in Deep Purple for
close to 20 years. What are the challenges
of joining a band that’s so iconic?
I had gotten a taste of that by being part
of a Kansas reunion in the ’80s, when Kerry
Livgren had decided he wasn’t going to rejoin
the band. Accepting a replacement for somebody
like Kerry is a monumental jump for
Kansas fans to make, so I was already used
to the fact that a certain percentage of people
were just not going to be happy. You can’t
win over all the fans when you are not the
guy they like. All I can do in those instances
is approach the music as a fan myself, do it
the best way I know how, and to have respect
for the past and enough energy to contribute
to the future. You can’t ever get everybody
on board, but you can play honestly, love the
music, and respect and like the work of the
people you are replacing. In general, people
will respond to that.
Has playing in Deep Purple changed
how you approach your other projects?
A little bit. I guess working with Purple has
reinforced things more than changed them.
They’re all British—let me say that. They all
have that old-school work ethic. They work
really hard. You get in there, and whether
you’re playing live or recording or whatever
it is, you give it 100 percent, and you don’t
make excuses. I like that about them.
What does it take to keep your chops
up at this point in your career?
I practice every day, and that’s not going
to change until I stop playing. I don’t have
the most fluid natural movements, so I have
to work at playing the difficult stuff.
Do you have certain things that you
tend to focus on?
I’m left-handed, so the left hand is not
a problem. It’s always the right hand. The
upstrokes are always naturally weaker than
the downstrokes, so they need work. And
string skipping always needs work, as do
plain old endurance, speed, and accuracy.
Do you have any thoughts about what
you wish more musicians thought about?
Yeah—the basics of responsibility. I think
that goes for every human being, regardless
of whether they’re musicians or not. I see
people just blowing it over and over in groups
and as performers. Just think about it. People
are in front of you who paid money—money
that could have been used for lots of different
things—to hear you play. You owe it to
them to give them your heart and soul, and
think of nothing else but giving your heart
and soul. That’s what makes somebody into
a great player—a musician who takes it seriously
down to every little detail and expects
perfection. There’s no such thing as “getting
the basic thing down and moving on.”
No. That isn’t right. People expect “A level.”
They want to see something amazing. They
don’t want to see somebody just barely interested.
Morse’s Gear Essentials
“I used my Engl Steve Morse Signature
amps for most everything on Now What?!,”
relates Morse, “as well as a TC Electronic
Flashback delay with my own settings
flashed into a TonePrint. Those two things
were indispensable. And, of course, I can’t
forget my Ernie Ball Music Man Steve Morse
“I run two Engls so that I can have a totally
dry sound, as well as a wet sound, where my
short and long delays are controlled by Ernie
Ball volume pedals. However, what you hear
most of the time is the dry amp—which only
has a Keeley Compressor in line.”