Steve Morse

May 1, 2010

STEVE MORSE KNOWS HOW TO KEEP HIS COOL. Backstage at the PalaEvangelisti arena in Perugia, Italy, he’s calmly conversing about switchable midrange controls, custom pickup wiring, and miking speaker cabinets, seemingly oblivious to the fact that soon he’ll be strutting his stuff onstage for thousands of rabid Deep Purple fans. Perhaps it’s his level head that’s allowed him to successfully fill Ritchie Blackmore’s shoes in the legendary English band. Or maybe it’s Morse’s incredible technique, rich tonal palette, and musical sophistication that endear him to his bandmates and so many guitarists.

When we recently interviewed Morse, Deep Purple had been on their Rapture of the Deep tour for nearly four years. The band launched the tour in January 2006 to support their album of the same name, and since then have rocked more than 50 countries across five continents.

Deep Purple is Morse’s day job. When not on the road cranking out “Highway Star,” the 56-year-old performs his unique brand of high-octane fusion with the Steve Morse Band, a trio that includes bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine. SMB’s new album, Out Standing in Their Field [Indie Europe/Zoom] is packed with precision ensemble playing and wicked wall-to-wall guitar, and is a potent reminder of why Morse was voted Best Overall Guitarist five years running by Guitar Player readers, a feat that ushered him into GP’s Gallery of Greats. By balancing scorching chops with musical finesse throughout his 35-year career, Morse has earned his spot at the forefront of progressive instrumental rock.

Despite touring incessantly with Deep Purple, you’ve managed to finish a new solo album. How long did you work on Out Standing in Their Field and where did you record it?

I worked on it for a year and a half. It was a slow process because I’m gone a lot with Purple, and when I’m home, there’s a required recovery period [laughs]. I have a studio attached to my house in Florida, where I recorded my parts and mixed the album.

How did you choose material for Out Standing?

I always like combining old stuff with new tunes. I’d already composed “Flight of the Osprey” for an aviation video, and I’d been carrying around “Baroque ’N Dreams” for years and finally got around to showing Dave a bass part. As far as new material, “Time Junction” developed out of something I heard my son play when he was practicing guitar. His amp has a looper, and he was playing two guitar parts. I said, “Kevin, that would sound great for your band.” He replied, “Well, it’s a little too weird for us.” I told him it wasn’t too weird for me and suggested we work on it for the album. He plays the real shreddy solos. At 18, he has that kind of energy.

What’s your arranging process?

Dave lives near me, so whenever I got off the road with Purple and had recovered from that leg of the tour, he’d come over and we’d work on germs of tunes. I’d send Van preview tapes of what we were working on, so he could get a sense of how the guitar and bass parts were developing. Once we felt ready to flesh out the music as a band, Van flew in from New Jersey and we rehearsed for a week to finalize the arrangements. We recorded a scratch version of each tune with a working title that included the tempo, something like “Busy Bass 108.” At the end of the week, we had live demos of every tune. We copied them to memory sticks, and each of us went back to our home studios to record our parts.

So it was a hybrid approach: You arranged the tunes as a band and then tracked your parts separately?

After I’d finish some guitar parts, I’d send them up to Van, usually with a scratch synth bass. Then Van would add drums and percussion in his studio and send his tracks to me. Dave would cut his parts at his place, and then dump them onto my tracks to hear how they sounded with drums and guitar.

“Unnamed Sources,” “Flight of the Osprey,” and “Here and Now and Then” feature elaborate harmonized guitar parts. How do you compose them?

One of my quasi-rules is, “don’t blindly follow the melody.” For example, I won’t do all parallel thirds. Harmony lines sound more interesting when they differ from the main guitar part and have their own melodic identity. I also try to give each harmony part a different tone—that helps keep it interesting, too. I can usually hear the harmony in my head and come awfully close on a dry run. If a part is technically correct, but it doesn’t sound right, I’ll try bending into certain notes. Getting the parts to mesh requires a little trial and error, but I love layering guitar— it’s something that comes easily to me.

Do you bring your stage gear and pedalboard into the studio, or do you have a smaller, dedicated recording rig?

I’ve done it both ways. On this record, I kept trying different mics, speakers, and amps just to challenge myself sonically. I used a bunch of heads—an old 30-watt Carvin, a Marshall, a Peavey, and a Carvin Steve Vai Legacy—and even some direct guitar, like on “John Deere Letter.” Near the end of the recording process—I had four or five lines and solos left to record—I finally got one of my Engl signature heads in the studio. From then on, I used it exclusively.

Describe your miking scheme.

My cabinets—a 4x10 and several 4x12s loaded with JBL and Celestion Vintage 30 speakers—are out in the studio with about seven microphones lined up in front of them. Nigel Walker, an English engineer, showed me this trick when I was recording with Kansas: Set up a bunch of mics and don’t label them on the board. Initially, you have to pay attention to whether or not a mic needs phantom power, but once you have everything set up, who cares what mic you’re hearing? Just bring up the faders and listen for the sound that goes best with a particular track.
I like combining mics. If you use more than one microphone, you can get phase cancellation, which results in a hollow sound. But I’ve found if you use 80% of one mic and a tiny bit of another one or two, you can get a different tone than you could otherwise. My guitar mics were a mix of dynamics, small condensers, and large-diaphragm condensers, including a Shure Beta 57 and 58, an old Audio Technica Pro 63, and an AKG 414. I also have four or five mics that would normally be used for vocals—including a Neumann U 47—spread around the studio. They’re always plugged in, so if I want a room sound, I just bring one of them up.

Tell us about your Engl head, the Steve Morse Signature 100 E 656, and why you like it.

The Engl gives me something no other amp has, which is a nice transparent clarity in the upper register. There’s a tiny something in the attack that makes it push through a band. I’ve had other really good amps, like a Peavey 5150 or various Marshall heads, that would sound big and fat when I’d play by myself. But with a band, I’d have to turn them up louder to retain that sound. It’s hard to describe, but the Engl finds more than one point to let my guitar be heard.
The first channel has an amazing clean tone—I even play classical guitar through it onstage. The second channel is what I call the best of the Engl sound. If you put everything on 6 and plug in any guitar, I guarantee you’re going to like it, and chances are you’ll love it. The third channel—my channel— has four midrange controls with switchable frequency and level settings. The amp has two switchable master-output volumes, and you can switch between two effects loops. The front panel has those big pointer knobs, so with a glance I can see if my sound is set up correctly before I start a show.

Do you use a full stack with Deep Purple?

One head and four cabinets with Purple. They’re angle-front cabs, and I turn them on their side at slightly different angles so the sound is more spread out. I generally run the master volume at about 5-1/2. It’s loud, but because it’s spread out, I don’t have a spot where you wilt and die if you walk in front of my rig. There are two more cabs in the middle that are just for the delay return, which I control with an Ernie Ball volume pedal.

What’s the lowdown on your latest Music Man signature guitar?

It’s the SM-Y2D. My original signature model had four pickups; the Y2D has three custom DiMarzio pickups—two humbuckers and a single-coil—mounted directly into the body. It also has a flame maple top and a clear pickguard.

Why did you go from four to three pickups?

On my original hot-rodded, four-pickup Frankenstein Telecaster, I added an on/off switch to the stock 3-way to give me a new pickup combination, and then I added another 3-way for more combinations. My four-pickup Music Man model used this configuration, which made sense to me, but not anyone else. Of the 11 switchable sounds, there were five I used all the time, but it was difficult to describe how to get them. When we found a multiple-pole 5-way switch—not the stock Strat switch—we realized if I simply removed the pickup I didn’t use much, we could configure my favorite sounds in a way that was logical to other guitarists.
When the switch points toward the neck—let’s call that position 5—it’s the neck humbucker by itself. Position 4 is the neck and bridge humbuckers together and position 3 is the single-coil by itself. Position 2 is the single-coil plus the bridge humbucker, and position 1 is the bridge humbucker. The combination of the maple top and Music Man’s new tone block and chambering makes the Y2D a louder, more high-output guitar than my first model.

Your strings and picks?

I use Ernie Ball picks that feel a bit stiffer than Fender mediums, and a custom Ernie Ball RPS Slinky set, gauged .010, .013, .016, .026, .032, and .042.

Who do you listen to for inspiration?

Everybody! Last night, we heard Joe Bonamassa perform—he’s great. When Warren Haynes sat in with us recently, he was inspiring, too. Jon Finn opened up for us a few weeks ago in Boston, and he’s fantastic. John Petrucci, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai—there are so many players just kicking it big time. I enjoy every one of them, but mostly hearing them live. That has more impact to me than listening to a recording.






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