Steve Morse & Gretchen Menn Talk Guitar!

Deep Purple's Steve Morse sits with Zepparella's Gretchen Menn to talk about soloing, chemistry, and putting a fresh spin on classic rock.

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 great one.”

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 directions?
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 Purple style.

Where do you find inspiration these days?
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.