Before he joined Deep Purple in 1994, guitar virtuoso Steve Morse already had an impressive career as a solo artist, and as a member of Kansas.
Before that, however, is when the story really starts.
Back in the early ’70s, Morse, fresh out of the University of Miami, put together the progressive rock-fusion group, the Dixie Dregs. During the band’s initial run, from 1973 to 1982, they released seven wildly acclaimed albums that mixed rock, jazz, classical, country, and bluegrass into a sound that thrilled discerning music fans while it confounded radio programmers. Even the band’s label at the time, Capricorn, didn’t know what to make of them.
“I think Capricorn took us on as a sort of interesting art project,” Morse says with a laugh. “We followed a pretty weird career path in those days. If something made us laugh, we were prone to do it. ‘Okay, let’s put this music with that—nobody has done that before.’ We definitely took the fork in the road less traveled—which doesn’t always help when the business people are trying to sell records.”
During those years, Morse’s wildly idiosyncratic guitar playing—incorporating everything from his love of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page to a fascination with players as disparate as John McLaughlin, Chet Atkins, and Albert Lee—started to become the stuff of legend.
“It wasn’t a premeditated plan to put all of these styles together,” Morse says. “I was just doing what came naturally to me. But I was, shall we say, eager. I was young, and I couldn’t wait to show everybody what I could do. I guess you could say my playing was more ‘caffeinated’ on the early records. The whole band was a little impatient in how they played, which might be what people liked about us.”
Since disbanding, the Dregs (as they became known in ’81) have reunited on several occasions, and with Deep Purple about to take a breather, Morse and three of the group’s original members (drummer Rod Morgenstein, bassist Andy West, violinist Allen Sloan), along with keyboardist Steve Davidowski (who played with the outfit from 1975-’77), announced they’re going to hit the road again for a series of dates starting in March 2018. For Morse, part of the challenge of playing with his old cohorts will be as much mental as it is physical.
“It’s kind of impossible to be the same guy as I was back then,” he admits. “Although certain things come back to you when you play with the group of people you came up with, so you do get into a familiar frame of mind. All I can do is play the songs as well as I can, and that means I have to practice a whole lot.”
He already has a head start. The night before our interview, Morse was giving his fingers a workout on a nylon-string guitar as he reacquainted himself with the classical-based track “Go for Baroque” (from the 1981 Dregs album, Unsung Heroes).
“I’m isolating trouble spots that I need to work on,” he says. “There’s a section in the song where I’m playing diatonic tenths in the first position. This can be extremely hard to master, so I’m making up little exercises to regain that ability. It’s like you have to get your fingers thinking the old way, so it’s a process.”
Take us back to the scene at University of Miami, where the Dregs formed. What was the guitar community like at the school? Did you fit in, or were you an outlier of sorts?
I wasn’t an outlier “of sorts.” I didn’t fit in at all! It was like, “Why is this guy here?” [Laughs.] People were pretty much into their own little camps, but I was all over the place—which is probably why I wound up with a band like the Dregs. I originally went there to learn classical guitar. I wanted to incorporate that into my style of playing and writing, but the classical guys didn’t want me because I was too much of a beginner. The jazz guys didn’t want me because I was too oddball, I guess. The only place they could stick me in was something called “rock ensemble,” but it was really kind of jazz. It took me a while to find my place—if I ever did.
Do you think you had your guitar sound down when the Dregs first formed, or was it always sort of an evolving issue for you?
I’m sure it evolved. I know that I always had a hard time finding a sound that had a good rock feel, but was still clean enough for a lot of the chordal things I was doing. We had songs like “Wages of Weirdness,” and we did country-based tunes, so I needed clarity. I experimented with an Acoustic 150-watt head, and then I went to Ampeg V4s. My sound back then was always a bit of a compromise. Channel-switching amps just weren’t available at the time.
The process by which you built your “FrankenTele” has been well documented. But tell me, did you have any clue as to what you were doing? This was before Eddie Van Halen and self-mods were in vogue.
Well, I can tell you that everything I did was born out of necessity. I started with a ’67 Strat—I broke the whammy off of that—and the Tele part came later. I got the black Tele as payment for doing a session for a friend. Instead of money, I got a guitar. There were things I liked about the Tele, but a lot of things I didn’t like—such as feedback and tuning problems. Plus, I couldn’t get the kind of gain and midrange I wanted. Somebody else would have just gotten another guitar, but I didn’t. I liked the neck of my Strat, so I thought, “Why not combine the two?” And, viola! It worked. I had no idea. I stripped the black paint off of the Tele body, and that seemed to work okay, so I started on the pickups next—which became a real trial-and-error process. The problem was, once I started fixing one thing or making it better, another glaring problem would always become more apparent, and that’s when all the various pickups came into the picture. And then, there was the Tune-o-Matic bridge and having a custom pickguard made around the pickups. Maybe a real guitar builder could just see these things at once, and go, “I know exactly what to do.” That’s what they do.
After you broke the whammy bar off the Strat, you didn’t go back to using one for years. Did that force you to create vibrato effects with your hands?
It did. I broke the whammy off the Strat when I was trying to play “Are You Experienced?” It snapped off, and I just gave up on it. But you’re right, it did sort of make me dig in more and use my hands for vibrato. Everybody used a whammy for a more legato style, and I was convinced that alternate picking gave me more of a cross platform, so I stuck with that. I found that when you’re doing alternate picking, and you have to stop and grab the whammy bar, it’s kind of unnatural.
When you wrote “Go for Baroque,” was that kind of an “‘F’ you” to your school’s classical department that didn’t want you?
Not at all. In fact, it was more of a love for classical, and a teacher I studied with named Juan Mercadal. He was a touring headliner in the classical world. I saw him, and I thought, “I need to study with this guy.” But he wouldn’t take me on at first. I needed to be at a certain level. The grad students ended up teaching me. It wasn’t until my third year that I was ready to study with him, because I had done a lot of homework.
I imagine that you traveled pretty light and tight in the early days of the Dregs. Did that force you to streamline your gear?
Oh, yeah. I owned the station wagon and the trailer that we toured with, and space was at a premium. People had to find ways to lie down and sleep—except me, because I was always the hyper guy who drove all night. Eventually, we got a record company advance, so everybody got some more gear, and we went to a 12-foot trailer. But I still kept things simple. I had two Ampeg V4s and two cabinets with JBL speakers in them. The second amp was basically a slave for my tape echo. I had a separate volume pedal that I used for that.
I understand you maintained your practice regimen on those long tours—seven while driving.
I insisted on it. I did it at the expense of sleeping. I would practice between sets and after the gigs, and, yeah, I’d practice while driving. It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds—especially if you’re on long stretches of highway. It wasn’t like I was on a slalom course. You use your knees to work the steering wheel, and you’ve got your feet to work the speed, so I could play the guitar with two hands. It was child’s play to run scales while driving. Now, I want to point out that I’m not suggesting other people try to do it—especially nowadays when people have the temptation to look at texts and things. I don’t like the idea of endangering other people. And I stress that I always had my eyes on the road, so I could react to anything that was coming my way.
Do you ever hear from bands that cite the Dregs as an influence?
No, not really. [Laughs.] People have said nice things. The most notable guy has been John Petrucci, and Mike Portnoy, too. They’re both unbelievable at what they do, so that’s flattering.