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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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