How many guitarists could go playing stadium rock with the band deemed loudest in the world by the Guinness Book of Records, to swinging through “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a small club? One of that select few is former Dixie Dregs leader Steve Morse
On a recent Monday night, Morse capped off a weekend with his rocking trio at New York’s Iridium by sitting in with the Les Paul Trio, augmented by SNL drummer Shawn Pelton. The lucky audience was treated to a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played with false harmonics, a two-step that launched some Dregs style twang, pedal-steel emulations on the Les Paul Mary Ford classic “Via Con Dios,” and a solo on a funky “Sweet Georgia Brown” that honored the melody while displaying the famous Morse chops.
We sat down with the veteran guitar hero to find out what it was like going from shredding to standards.
What is the difference between the way you play with Deep Purple and with your own band?
With my trio there is a lot more pressure because I am playing melodies and lots of difficult parts and changes. If it is a simple melody I try to enhance it by rolling in the right amount of synth or delay, or changing the pickup or tone setting. During difficult melodies, like “On the Pipe,” I have to adjust the balance between the wet amp and dry amp, then there is not even an eighth-note between the melody and playing this rising chord part, and I have to turn the synth on, go to a different pickup, etc. With my band the solos are really a chance to relax. With Purple we have a keyboard and melodies coming from the vocals. The only time I am in there crucially is during the solos.
Tonight you are playing with the Les Paul Trio. What was your relationship to Les Paul?
I have met him, but unfortunately never got to know him. I am very honored, because I love everything I know from listening to him play, and clips from his TV show. I love his inventiveness, his willingness to say, “This is the way it is always done, why don’t I try something different anyway.” That is the attitude that pushes any combination of science and art forward. And besides being a great player he was such a great performer.
How did you feel playing with his trio?
It was amazing. Every once in a while I get to do one-off gigs with incredible people. In this genre they are world-class players, doing this thing and dragging me along with them. I’m trying so hard to just remember what keys the song is in.
You sounded very comfortable playing through the chord changes. Do you have a background in jazz?
Yes. At the University of Miami I was technically a jazz major. But I wasn’t really because I studied classical guitar and did the music that became the Dregs—it was jazz-rock at best. The jazz guys tolerated me though they knew I wasn’t a jazz player. But being around all those players you can’t help but pick up the basics of playing over changes. A lot of the music that I personally love is played over changes. With rockabilly stuff it is possible to play like a jazz player and it fits perfectly in the style—the same with bluegrass. Because of that I am comfortable playing over changes—if I can remember them [laughs].
Swing and country seem very close.
Thank you for mentioning that because a lot of people think that there are these divisions between styles and as a player it almost comes down to what hat you are wearing and what kind of guitar you are playing—the note choices are all the same. I love to combine styles. I feel less comfortable defining a particular style. How can you leave out some things that are a part of you?