Steve Morse is truly a musician’s musician. Honing his craft as a music major at the University of Miami with the likes of Jack Pastorius and Pat Metheny, he forged a style combining elements of jazz and classical music with rock, bluegrass and country. Upon graduation he formed the Dixie Dregs (later shortened to the Dregs), garnering praise for his musical and compositional skill. Following the breakup of the Dregs, he continued with the Steve Morse band and a two-album stint with Kansas. In 1994 he joined Deep Purple and has played on six studio and seven live albums, serving as the group’s longest tenured guitarist. He has also recorded with the group’s Living Loud, Angelfire and Flying Colors, as well as numerous guest appearances.
Steve was kind enough to spend some time with Let’s Rock to discuss the current Deep Purple/Judas Priest tour, his first jam with DP, a new technique he’s practicing and much much more. What a thrill it is to feature this man on Let’s Rock. I hope you enjoy listening to/reading it as I did doing it.
Let’s Rock: How are you doing?
Steve Morse: Oh good. We just did our first two shows of the tour. Lots more to come. (laughs).
LR: And how’s it going?
SM: Oh, it’s going fine. You know, the audience for Judas Priest is an unknown. We’ve never toured with them before. It seems to be working out just fine.
LR: Who goes first?
SM: Temperance Movement first and then Judas Priest and then us.
LR: OK. And it’s the same for every show?
LR: Awesome. Before we get into some Deep Purple stuff, I was wondering…how was the Dregs tour?
SM: Well, it was really, really great for so many reasons. And I think the most important part was just seeing how everybody just sorta…I don’t know. We all really paid attention to doing our best to reenact or revive the band as it was 40 years ago. It was amazing. It really brought back all the old memories and it touched a lot of people’s lives, judging from people we talked to.
You know music, they use it in advertising because at difficult times, it can give you longer lasting memories and sort of fix things in your mind that can be revived by hearing that music again.
LR: Yeah, it’s amazing. Music is just so powerful.
SM: Yeah. It’s one of the senses…our ears. It’s one of the top two senses, eyes and ears are the most important. But it really speaks to something, in my memory anyway. When I hear music that I haven’t heard in thirty, forty years, suddenly all these memories flood back. Anyway, it was neat to see that happen to people, that they came out for that tour.
LR: I can imagine. Was it hard to go back and relearn all those songs or did it come naturally to you?
SM: Most everything was there just from memory but pretty much every tune, there was something I needed to go back and get exactly right. And technically, yes it was hard for me because I’ve been changing my technique to a different type of picking in order to save my right hand wrist from flexing anymore. So, yeah. I had to work really hard on that. (laughs)
LR: What kind of difference are you making with the picking?
SM: I’m picking more from the elbow which is not ideal. It requires a lot more practice for me to get the accuracy that I want. Whereas before I was pretty much anchoring the right side of my palm and twisting my wrist in order to get great control and super customizing the amount of mute that I would get on each string. I look more like traditional picker now, but there’s no flexing of the wrist.
LR: That must be tough.
SM: Yeah, it is tough, but it’s either that or sit on the couch and collect social security. (laughs)
LR: You don’t want that. Do you use the same rigs for say a Dregs show and a Deep Purple show?
SM: Yeah. Very similar. It’s a much smaller rig with the Dregs because we’re because everything about our band was practical. We never really had any kind of show or anything like that. It was just us doing something that was just a little bit different which was having an instrumental rock band with lots of different influences.
LR: Do you have to prepare differently for a smaller venue as opposed to a big one, or do you prepare the exact same way?
SM: Well, we did soundchecks every day. And that’s different from Purple because when you have so many bands on a show, it’s almost impossible to soundchecks every day for all three bands. But, we spent a lot of time at the gig. A lot more than we would at a Purple show. You know, just making sure everything works and we had less crew guys. Less people to help with the setup and standing by backstage. We had just one guy. And you know, we’d want to get the monitors set and everything.
LR: Obviously a lot of people who are going to listen to this will never get the chance to play in front of that many people. So, as for performing, do you notice a big difference when there’s say 1000 people or 20,000 people.
SM: Well, when there’s a lot of people, I guess I’m innately aware of the fact that they’re not there for me. I’m a team player in whatever I’m doing. I realize that whatever I do matters but there’s no reason to be nervous about it or worried about it cuz the biggest crowds are there for some kind of festival or some kind of group event or for Deep Purple or whatever. And I play my little part in that, so it doesn’t really bother me at all either way. If I’m in a cover band playing a Deep Purple song, I’m gonna be trying as hard as I can when I’m playing to ten people as I am when I’m playing to 200,000 at some gargantuan festival. Just a sea of people and only a certain percentage of them are paying attention anyway.
LR: Yeah, I can imagine that would be tough, when you know that a lot of people aren’t paying attention. It’s something most people won’t get a chance to experience so it’s kind of interesting to hear how you approach it.
SM: Well, and I may be the exception because the whole show business thing did not lure me in…the music did. And if you look at the history of my career, you can see that I didn’t make any choices (laughs) that would result in my being successful as a music businessman. I just enjoyed music and that was the whole thing. The most rock star thing about me is, I will complain if the air conditioner doesn’t work, or the internet doesn’t work or something like that. Or people are banging on the door at the hotel. Stuff like that, you know? All I care about is the same thing that you would want if you went to a fifty dollar a night motel. Just give me the basics. And I’m here to my job. I’m going to do it the best I can and I realize, I completely realize that everybody has their little niche where their important. But when I’m playing with Deep Purple, I realize that I’m just a tiny bog (?) in the whole machine. I do my best every show.
LR: I guess it doesn’t matter if there’s ten or a million, it’s the same music.
SM: Yeah and it’s really about your own standards. If you respect yourself enough to give your best in all things and that includes whether you’re talking to someone outside the backstage door, to try to answer their question the best you can with whatever minutes or seconds you have before they pull you this way or that, you know, the minders, the handlers, the babysitters. Whether it’s that or being on stage and playing. If you hold up your own standards, I believe, over the course of time, you will find an audience that appreciates that.
LR: Absolutely. The audience can tell if you’re genuine or not.
SM: Yeah, and they can also tell that you’re not a super showman and I’ve never been a super showman. That put me in a smaller subsets to begin with, in the music business or show business. And I was aware of that too. And I totally accepted that as one of the prerequisites of doing this, is that I’m never going to be one of those guys.
LR: So when you joined Deep Purple, was there ever that worry that you couldn’t be that guy because they do put on a big show?
SM: No, actually. I didn’t know what their show was like and that was the firs thing I asked. My manager called me and I said, ‘find out if they’re expecting some kind of dress code or image or anything like that cuz I just can’t do it. I’m not the right guy.’ And he said ‘No, they’ve actually seen you play, or at least a couple of them have and they thought it would be an interesting combination for writing and everything.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ We talked about: Let’s get together for a short trial period and just see. And if it doesn’t feel right, we’re gonna do four shows. At the end of four shows, we shake hands and never see each other again.
Well, i turned out, in just a few minutes of jamming on the very first day I met them, it was a done deal. I was really surprised at how good they were. And I said, ‘Don’t be insulted, but I thought you guys could have been really mediocre, living off your name.’ So, I was glad (laughs).
LR: Wow, that’s amazing. Just in a couple minutes you knew? you had that feeling right away?
SM: Yeah. A lot happened in that jam that lasted almost an hour. I played something, kind of warming up and Lord played it backwith perfect pitch. I was like, ‘Woah’. Played something else, he plays it back and changes it a little bit. I play it back and change it a little bit more. He comes back with yet another answer for that. And then the band just sort of jumped in.
When I sat in with Lynyrd Skynyrd, it was just that big comfortable easy chair feel. And it is unfair sometimes when you get set up so well like that. You’ve got a guitar that fits you like a glove, and you’ve got a rhythm section that just lays it down. All you have to do is just do your thing and it’s going to work.
LR: It sounds magical.
SM: It was. And everyone was smiling and backslapping and we didn’t even play the first show yet. And Roger said, ‘Well, I reckon you’re in.” He talked to the other guys. So I said, ‘Well, let’s play a show.’ And the next day, we did play our first show.
LR: A day after your first jam?
SM: Yeah. I had met Roger before but I hadn’t met anyone else. And so the promo shot was in the very early days of Photoshop. The promo shots for the first four shows was assembled from two different photos. Roger and I took a picture in the United States, and the other guys took a picture standing together in the UK. (laughs)
LR: (laughs) Really? Who haven’t you played with. I was checking out your discography, your Wikipedia page. You’ve played with everybody.
SM: Well, I’ve met lots of people and done some playing with a good amount of people. But since I don’t live in a big metropolis, and never have, I don’t have the numbers like, you know, my friend Steve Lukather. He really has played with everybody. He was an LA guy and a super, super, amazing top session artist as well. But I’ve led a very full life and there’s no regrets. I mean I’ve been getting a lot of great opportunities to play with people that inspire me and have upped my game just by being near them.
LR: You know, I’ve interviewed one of your drummers, Mike Portnoy.
SM: Oh Right. (laughs)
LR: He’s a great guy. Any chance of another Flying Colors?
SM: Yeah, we’re gonna finish our third album after this, before Christmas. That doesn’t mean we’re going to finish the recording. We’re gonna finish the writing session and then make the templates for the songs and see how that works out.
LR: And then another tour with them?
SM: I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t know how that would work out cuz there’s so many factors. Everybody’s doing different things.
LR: You guys are in so many different projects, I don’t know how you keep up with it all.
SM: (laughs) It’s true. Mike has more energy than any human being.
LR: I saw him with Sons Of Apollo a few months ago. Good Lord. Then he was off doing this and off doing that. I don’t know how he remembers what he’s doing every day.
SM: Yeah. Great band. I’m glad that he’s landed with so many great musicians. I’m friends with Ron Thal from Sons of Apollo.
LR: Oh, he’s great too.
SM: Yeah. Really. Really amazing.
LR: Before, you were talking about the whole image thing. I find it kind of funny that a band who doesn’t really care too much about image is playing on a tour with a band who’s probably one of the most influential image makers of all time in hard rock…you know, Judas Priest. Have you had a chance to check them out on this tour?
SM: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. There is a different approach. They do pretty much define that metal sound and image, like you said. And they’re doing great with the audience.
LR: What do you think of this Richie Faulkner kid? He’s good, eh?
SM: Yeah. Everybody in the band’s good. Everybody’s good.
LR: So after this tour, you’re going to do some writing with Flying Colors.
SM: mm hmm and I’ve got another project with Sarah Spencer called Angelfire.
LR: Oh, I was gonna ask you about that. Are you going to do another one of those?
SM: Well yeah, we’ll write some more stuff and probably add to that collection a little bit. Maybe remix, remaster that and maybe re-release that with the new stuff.
LR: Do you ever take a break?
SM: According to my wife, no. But yes, (laughs) yes I do. But I practice every day and work on music in some way every day. And I think that’s healthy. I also think it’s healthy to have lots of other things in your life that are important, besides music. And some musicians, especially young ones, just hitting their stride of putting in six or eight hours a day, see that as sort of a betrayal, but it’s not. Over a lifetime, you want to really be able to say and feel something inspirational every time you play and by having a full life, I think it’s much easier ot do that and to hold your own interest in the music.
LR: Absolutely. Are you practicing or writing?
SM: Uh, both. Most of the writing I’ve been doing lately was for TV shows and stuff. I work with a friend who has a library, and I contribute to the library hoping it might get used. Sure enough, there’s a bunch of reality shows that have used little bits of my music. It’s not something you could ever retire on, but it’s really satisfying to be able to make a piece that’s only a minute and half long, but you don’t have to spend your whole life doing it. But, you put a lot of feeling into it and as long as it describes a mood and paints a picture that could fit somewhere, somebody’ll probably use it.
LR: That’s awesome. But are you still practicing scales and things like that?
SM: Yes, every day.
SM: Everyday. I’m like the football player that’s too old to play football but refuses to quit. (laughs)
LR: Yeah, but don’t you know them all?
SM: I know all the notes, yes.
LR: I’m just trying to figure out what your learning after all these years.
SM: Don’t forget, I am changing my technique. For me changing ten degrees, the angle of my wrist makes a big difference in comfort level.for me. And trying to reinforce that change and make it automatic and make it stay that way and refine the accuracy. things like that is what I’m after. I know the notes, I know the theory, I know the fretboard, but you have to train those muscles and those reactions have to be automatic.
People don’t want to pay money and see someone stumbling. I don’t ever want to be that guy.
LR: Well, that’s amazing. That’s some serious dedication.
SM: I actually am dedicated. But a big part of it also thinking about the people having to buy tickets online and pay some absurd fees and taxes and service charges and then maybe get a babysitter and maybe take time off work or they have to wake up for work the next morning. Everybody makes a lot of sacrifices to go see live music. And I’m one of the big proponents of live music. If I don’t do my best, I really feel like a hypocrite. And for those people paying that money and going through all of the time that it takes to go to a concert and to do it right…like I said, I’m just extremely aware of that all the time.
LR: Ok, well I’m going to hold you to that standard, cuz we’re driving for about two and a half hours for the show in Montreal and we’re driving back that night and we have to work the next morning.
SM: Exactly, and that’s almost an average case. We only play media centers. In between those media centers, that’s where people live. Maybe half the people at a show are from that city but a lot of them are attracted from the satellite areas. So, you represent a tyoical case and it’s a big sacrifice.
LR: Well, I’m going to tell you right now, it’s not a big sacrifice (To me at least). It’s a joy.
SM: Well, that’s cool. And some people see it as an exciting thing, but still, it takes time and money and dedication to be there and everyone should do their part. So even if you see me screwing up, I’m trying as hard as I can. (laughs)
LR: I’m very excited about the show on Wednesday in Montreal. I love Priest. I love Purple. This is going to be an amazing night. I seriously don’t know how to thank you for this. Just amazing having a chat with you. This is great.
SM: Well, thank you. And I appreciate you doing this. We’ll look forward to
LR: Right on. And good luck with the next few shows, And enjoy Canada.
SM: We always do. And thanks for calling. Appreciate it.