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Steve Morse

Oct 4, 2019

Known for his intricate compositions, innovative techniques, and versatility across musical genres, Steve Morse is widely known as the "guitarists' guitarist." Morse has provided his technical prowess to groups including Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple, while also appearing on over 200 albums to date. In this episode, Morse discusses blazing his own music trail, some of his worst experiences on stage, and the development of his signature guitar with Ernie Ball Music Man.

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Transcript

Speaker 1:
Welcome to an Ernie Ball podcast. It starts now.

Evan Ball:
Hello, this is Evan Ball. Welcome to Striking The Chord, a podcast presented by Ernie Ball. In this episode, we're joined by Steve Morse. We caught up with Steve before a Deep Purple show at the Warfield in San Francisco. To record a podcast in this kind of environment, you kind of have to improvise a little bit and go with the flow. The venue was quite lively with busy people all around, but we eventually found a spot to do the podcast in the deep, dark depths of the Warfield basement.

Evan Ball:
There was a big fan or a piece of machinery nearby that you might hear, and after finding this relatively quiet cave, we realized there were no power outlets in sight. Somehow we found a couple of extension cords, one of which ended up being bad and a little buzzy in the beginning. All this to say the sound isn't quite studio quality, but what matters is that Steve was kind enough to fit us into a busy pre-show schedule, impart some wisdom, and share his story with us.

Evan Ball:
All right. This was a fun interview for me because Steve Morse has been such a big part of the Ernie ball family for so long. I grew up hearing Steve Morse play quite a bit. We referenced the band Biff Baby's All Stars in the podcast. For some clarity, Biff Baby refers to my uncle Sterling ball who assembled the band. Steve Morse was a mainstay on guitar for Biff Baby's All Stars. It was just kind of a fun band, but with top-notch musicianship. As an aspiring guitar player, I was in total awe watching Steve Morse and Albert Lee trade improvised solos.

Evan Ball:
All right. Steve Morse has quite a resume. He first came on the scene in the 70s with the Dixie Dregs, total trailblazers in instrumental music. In 1985, we get the Steve Morse Band. Around this time, he's also playing with Kansas. Since 1994, he's been the guitar player for Deep Purple. He's also the guitarist of Flying Colors. Very prolific and very influential for so many guitar players. In the 1980s, Steve was voted best overall guitar player five years in a row in Guitar Player magazine, rendering him ineligible in that category going forward.

Evan Ball:
In this episode, we'll talk about how Steve got his start playing guitar, how he never conformed to popular pressures in his music. I think he deserves a whole lot of credit for the existence of an instrumental rock guitar genre. We talk about the thought process behind his signature Music Man guitar. We talk about the album he's most proud of and the mindset that helped to create it, and also some of his worst experiences on stage. Don't miss it. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Steve Morse.

Evan Ball:
Steve Morse, welcome to the podcast.

Steve Morse:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Evan Ball:
How did you get started playing guitar?

Steve Morse:
Well, it was a lot of different things, actually. I played whatever instrument I could get my hands on as a kid, with about the same interests as I had in trying my friends unicycle or something like that. You know, I was just a kid that liked toys. However, in school we had to be in the band because my brother played clarinet and therefore our family owned a clarinet. That meant that I had to play the clarinet. Then they would tell the band teacher at school, and he'd say, "Steve Morse, how about, why don't you try clarinet?" I said, "That's weird. We have one." You know, what an odd coincidence.

Steve Morse:
Anyway, so I played. I sort of hated it because it wasn't a polyphonic instrument. It took a lot of work to get any kind of tone out of it. And the music we played just didn't appeal to me. You know, it was like an elementary school marching band kind of thing.

Steve Morse:
So anyway, my brother started taking a few lessons with acoustic guitar, and he left it laying around. And me being a normal little brother, I investigated and tried it out and thought it was pretty cool. Right about that time, the Beatles were on TV playing live on Ed Sullivan, and they sounded absolutely incredible. It just suddenly seemed like guitar was a lot more appealing than clarinet. So I made a big drive to get that happening. It involved mowing more lawns than I had been doing, in order to pay for the lessons. We rented a guitar for about a year, and I use that rented guitar to sort of learn to play rhythm stuff. From then, I just never stopped.

Evan Ball:
How quickly did you know that you excelled on the guitar?

Steve Morse:
Well, as a kid of two psychologists, and my father was also a minister, I knew that everyone has their gifts, and it's great if you can find them before it's too late. I knew that my sort of mathematical mind would help me with music, and I knew that I enjoyed being alive. That helps you with music. So oddly enough, as a kid, about a 12 year old kid, I figured that my life was going to turn out pretty close to the way it did. In other words, I said, "I'm going to be able to learn this. I'm going to be able to do it. There's going to be people that hate it and people that like it, and the music I like is going to go out of fashion and other music is going to be popular, but I'm still going to be able to make a living, I think, as long as I work hard at it." And sure enough, that's exactly what happened.

Evan Ball:
Was it clear that you just could do it easier? Were you obsessive about it? Was it work ethic?

Steve Morse:
It's just like taking a college course. Here's the material: learn it, be able to recall it in different ways without looking at it, and then suddenly you know it. That doesn't address the artistic aspect of it, but it at least gets you to the point where you can play and figure out things. So yeah, I approached it very, I guess just naturally. You know, when you're a kid and you're in school anyway, you just see everything as, I don't know how to do this, but I know I will know how to do it if I'd keep at it.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. So listening to your music, it's kind of hard to pin down exactly who you were influenced by. So who was, say, teenage Steve Morse listening to?

Steve Morse:
Oh my poor parents, because we didn't have headphones then. The family stereo was the place, and the family stereo was mono when I first started playing. So that was in the basement. That's how they had hopes of keeping their sanity, by putting the record player in the basement.

Steve Morse:
But it was The Who, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds. And then as I got older, it was Hendrix, Clapton with Cream, Jeff Beck with anybody. And of course Jimmy Page when he broke out with Led Zepplin. I heard Jimmy Page with Yardbirds, and as a session guy, on records. I think that really spoke to me. Then later when I went into college, I was still a teenager, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin, really helped show me a path. I was at a music school, and I was too rock for the jazz department and too weird for the classical guitar department and not country enough to be in Nashville, but too country to be accepted by rock and rollers. So all the way around, I was sort of-

Evan Ball:
Hence the Dixie Dregs.

Steve Morse:
Yeah, exactly. That's what happened. It became the outlet.

Evan Ball:
Did the Dixie Dregs, at least the name, start in high school?

Steve Morse:
We had a band with my brother playing drums, that same one that I picked up his guitar that he was renting. Our band was called Dixie Grit. None of us were really Southern Southern guys. We just thought it was funny. Just imagine that, you know, like fart jokes or something. It was just something funny. Dixie Grit, hahaha. That's funny. It did made us laugh.

Steve Morse:
When that band broke up, because we had a hard time getting gigs and when we did get gigs, people wanted a dance band that played covers and we were trying to play original stuff. We had a singer, Frank Brittingham. He was a really good singer, a really good musician. He played guitar, too. But after the band broke up, Andy West and I were the only ones left that still wanted to do something. I said, why don't we do some instrumental stuff? Because I had been studying Bach and Beethoven and everything and wanted to write more instrumental stuff. I just knew it was going to be weird and no one would dance to it and everybody would hate it, but it would be really cool. Andy was the same way as me. It's always like, yeah, let's do that!

Steve Morse:
I said, "We could call it the Dixie Dregs." And we both fell over laughing because dregs are the leftovers of what's left at the bottom of, say, a wine barrel or something, and we would be the leftovers from Dixie Grit. So we just thought it was funny. Over the years people try to write in all kinds of intentions to our name and things that were never part of it. We just thought it was a funny name.

Evan Ball:
Right. It seems to me like a bold or a novel move to not bring a singer in at that point. Was there much instrumental guitar music at that point? Were you following in anyone's footsteps?

Steve Morse:
No, it was not something you did if you wanted to work. In fact, I remember meeting with a big time ... Atlanta was the big city in Georgia. We were in Augusta, Georgia, and this guy from Atlanta came all the way to hear us. He said, "Love you guys, love you guys. When you get a singer and you can do some covers, I've got work for you. As many gigs as you want." We were like, "Oh my God." They just kind of looked at me, and I said, "Sorry guys, we've got to do this. We've got to carry this through." You know?

Evan Ball:
Were you aware of an instrumental rock genre sort of forming slowly? You must have been at the forefront of this.

Steve Morse:
It wasn't forming then.

Evan Ball:
Later, this genre sort of forms, right?

Steve Morse:
Well, there was always instrumental jazz, and Chick Corea with Al Di Meola, when they did that stuff, and again Mahavishnu Orchestra. That was a more jazzy offshoot, but with a lot of rock elements, you know, that fiery sound.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Steve Morse:
We were the only instrumental rock band that I knew about at the time. We also did like Beethoven bits. Clockwork Orange had just come out, and we doing a bits of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, and just weird stuff, like a country tune, a bluegrass type of tune that I wrote. And it was just because it was funny. We tried not to take everything too seriously, even though the practice was serious, and I was really intense about everybody learning their part. When it came to performing, I thought it should be fun and that the audience should have a good time, too.

Steve Morse:
I noticed that when we did the bluegrass stuff, people just stood up and went crazy. So I was like, "Let's keep this in. I like it. They like it. Let's do it." And all it did was of course alienate us. You know, the Prague things that later came out, they would never include us because we were too weird, and obviously not rock enough for rock because we had different influences. Way too weird for jazz. Classical, forget it. They wouldn't even talk to us. And country was just kind of scratching their heads, you know? But later on, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special turned out to be our friends in Atlanta, when we lived there. They could relate to us, like, "Yeah man, it's not so hard. Just put a few things together and mix it up."

Evan Ball:
Yeah. All right, so you've been with Deep Purple for quite a while, longer than any guitar player has been with Deep Purple. People might not realize that.

Steve Morse:
25 plus years.

Evan Ball:
25 plus years. Wow. Recorded, I think, six studio albums with them. You're well integrated into the band at this point, but I've heard there was a point early on where there was like a handful of fans who were kind of unaccepting of a new guitar player. Do you have any fun stories of that era?

Steve Morse:
It was a big handful. It was a very big handful. In fact, some of the handful had handfuls of stuff to throw at me that first year, especially when we went to England. They were just mad as hell that I was there, not realizing that Richie had left and Joe Satriani had already finished that tour the year before, and before, when Richie had had left the band many years ago, I wasn't the first American guitarist. I was the third.

Evan Ball:
Okay. So you were actually dodging physical objects in the beginning?

Steve Morse:
Oh yeah. One time I just remember ... You know, when the lights are on, you don't see what's beyond the lights or what's outside of the field of the light. And then suddenly in your near vision you see something hurdling toward you. I ducked, and this bottle hit Jon Lord in the head. I felt so bad. I mean, it's involuntary.

Evan Ball:
Of course not. It's flying towards you. It's a knee-jerk reaction.

Steve Morse:
Yeah. It happened in less than a half a second. That was the point. Gillan got so mad. He was literally ready to just go out there and kill somebody, but we just didn't see who it was. After that, we kept sort of a lookout for troublemakers.

Evan Ball:
Not to dwell on this era, but wasn't there a guy who was spitting, too?

Steve Morse:
Oh, the spitting. South America, in Chile. He was spitting at me every time I would come up front to do a solo. My eyes were closed involuntarily because I play just naturally, because I'm into the music. I don't have any poses or any kind of idea of what I look like. When I see pictures, it's very weird what I look like. But I was just playing, and the last song, he spit into my mouth. I was just like ... My mouth was open, I'm cringing and acting like it's so painful to play. In reality, I'm trying as hard as I can to play the perfect thing, and really going for it and really reaching for it. Anyway, this lands in my mouth suddenly. Like if it was a movie soundtrack, you'd hear the needle being scratched across the record, and then the music suddenly stops and just these glaring eyes. I finally made eye contact with the guy, and he's pointing to himself all proudly. Yeah, it was me.

Steve Morse:
Anyway, when we finished, at the very end, from the audience it looked like the guitarist did a stage dive into the audience, and they were clapping and applauding. The guitarist appeared to have outstretched hands directed toward this guy's neck. Well, the crowd and the security guys sort of floated me back, preventing me from making contact, and the next thing I knew, I was thrown back on the stage. The whole place erupts in applause, like this guy's awesome, he loves us.

Evan Ball:
Because they thought it was a stage dive the whole time.

Steve Morse:
And they didn't realize-

Evan Ball:
That's funny. So it worked out.

Steve Morse:
I had a moment of, you know, contemplating murder.

Evan Ball:
It would have felt good to maybe pop the guy.

Steve Morse:
Oh, oh, there is no rhyme or reason when you're that mad. There's just nothing left.

Evan Ball:
That's understandable. That's pretty gross, some stinky guy in the audience spitting in your mouth.

Steve Morse:
I mean, that's different from somebody cutting you off on the freeway. I'm sorry.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that's gross. All right, let's take a quick break. Then I want to come back and ask you about your history with Ernie ball.

Speaker 4:
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Speaker 4:
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Evan Ball:
Thinking back as a kid, I feel like you and Albert Lee have just always been part of the Ernie ball family, but obviously it started at at some point. So how did that relationship start?

Steve Morse:
Well, your dad, that was a big part of it. I was working at a NAMM show, and back then musicians who did demos for NAMM shows, at least none that I knew of, got paid. You basically played and hoped to get a piece of equipment or something out of it. I was working for Lexicon demoing some of their delays and reverbs. I used the stuff, but I needed a volume pedal because something happened to mine. I was using the volume pedal to control the delay through a second amp. That was the whole demo, watch what happens when I press on this pedal. The sound opens up, and it gets bigger. It's a multiple delay. Anyway, the idea was that I was demoing this delay. My volume pedal wasn't working.

Steve Morse:
So nearby was the Ernie Ball. David was just so friendly, David Ball, and I talked to him. He said, "Yeah, actually, we make a volume pedal." He introduced me to everybody, and here's all these brothers hanging out with their dad, talking to their dad like he's one of the guys, and it was really awesome. Sterling comes over and says, "Hey, Ern, can we give this guy a pedal?" Or something like that.

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Steve Morse:
I heard something like, "Well, we can lend him a pedal." You know, it's part of your stock. So I went away with a set of Ernie Ball strings and a volume pedal that I could use for the rest of the demo. I was just really impressed with the atmosphere and the fact that they made this high quality brand with such a I guess blend between casual and hard work. I really liked that. I liked all the Ball brothers right away. That would be your dad and uncles. We ended up playing with, well, with all three.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Are you referring to Biff Baby's All Stars?

Steve Morse:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Some of my favorite musical memories are watching you and Albert Lee go back and forth on solos. As an aspiring guitar player, I was just so content, happy, and fixated on that.

Steve Morse:
Yeah, Albert's a freak. He's one of these guys that's, "I don't know what I do. I just do it." You know, one of those kind of guys who just has natural talent and can always play a great improvised solo without even trying.

Evan Ball:
Such a fun pairing, you two guys.

Evan Ball:
So the signature model, you have a Music Man signature model, obviously you have for awhile. Before that, you were playing some sort of like Tele body with four pickups and some kind of neck.

Steve Morse:
Oh yeah.

Evan Ball:
What did you bring over from that to the signature model, and then what did you also add to it?

Steve Morse:
I brought everything I could because I liked the combination of the humbucking and the single coil pickups. I liked having a lightweight guitar that balanced well. You know, because I practice a lot, maybe too much. But anyway, I needed a guitar that sounded great, and I needed the same scale length because going back and forth between a Gibson and a Fender, I discovered that the longer the string is, the more harmonics and the easier it is to control those harmonics, and the brightness and the texture. So we kept the spacing.

Steve Morse:
The Music Man, at the time, had this easy to access truss, or Dudley put the star wheel that adjusts the truss ride. And I love that. I said that's got to stay. But how many frets can we put on it and still keep the neck pickup in the right place? It turned out to be 22. So my guitar, my Fender was 21, and we went to 22.

Steve Morse:
I liked the rosewood fingerboard because playing lots of sweaty gigs, there's no better wood because you can still grab on the strings better with the rosewood neck. The headstock that was proposed, I just looked at it and said, "Well, this is even better." The strings have straight pulls-

Evan Ball:
The four and two?

Steve Morse:
Now we don't have to a string tree on the high strings because they're so far away, like I did on the Fender. That was a cause of some tuning problems, and I said, "This is great." Dudley are like, "Well, what kind of frets do you want?" Well, hey, I'd like these jumbo frets like I've gotten used to, and let's ... It went on and on and on. The bolt-on neck was really fine with me, and I liked the fact that you could shim it if you had to. We made one change in the mechanics, where the neck bolts on. It was six wood screws with a plate for the heel, instead of four for the Fender. So I thought that was a good improvement. And there was just more rigidity and torsion.

Steve Morse:
Later on when I broke my wrist, I discovered with a cast on my left wrist, I couldn't play the Deep Purple gig that I was about to go to when I got my cast on. So I ground down the edge of the heel on my grinder between gigs, on my way from Miami to Atlanta. I mean, I literally took the plane that I was flying the band in and landed at home and went to the grinder and just ground it down.

Evan Ball:
That's on this guitar right here, right?

Steve Morse:
Yeah. And also drilled holes in my cast and cut into my arm because I was doing it in a hurry, but the holes were to ventilate.

Steve Morse:
So we like the neck now. Everything's perfect with the neck. Then going into the pickups, they agreed to use the pickups that I had already had made from DiMarzio, which I thought was awesome. And they made some improvements in the wiring, better pods. The stop tail piece was much better than on my homemade one. The finish was awesome. The only reason mine looks as worn as it does is because it's been through ... You know, like we've played outside in typhoons, and I'm not exaggerating, where it was like playing in the shower. We played until our equipment wouldn't work, and we brought out more equipment to play with that, until it wouldn't work. We played in snow storms, outside in a snow storm. Yes. This guitar has been through it all. It's been to every gig. I carry it everywhere with me.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that one's got some wear and tear. So clearly that's your favorite.

Steve Morse:
Oh yeah. Yeah, it's just what you get used to. They paid attention to the wood weight, everything. They did suspend the pickups from the Pickard, basically like I wanted. Everything turned out just about perfect. Then when I put it on and let go, it balances perfect on my leg. I said, "Wow. Okay. This is meant to be."

Evan Ball:
Yeah. So apart from guitar, what are some things you enjoy doing? Hobbies or interests? Even favorite TV shows, maybe.

Steve Morse:
We have a handicapped daughter who pretty much just has to dwell in the house because she's wheelchair-bound or crawling on the floor. She has total control over the TV in the main room. We have a simple house with the living room and bedrooms around it. So it's whatever she wants. You know, late at night I might put on those car things. During motocross season, I watch all the motocross races. Those are my favorite things to watch.

Steve Morse:
But my hobbies are flying. I try to do that every day, and I am the only person that does the farm. You know, we have a hay farm, so I have to cut, bale, tend the hay, rake it, store it, deliver it, and maintain the equipment. A lot of it's old equipment, so it teaches me a lot about things. I love mechanics in general, so I like most of the problems that I get to solve, but some of them are just really, really hard.

Evan Ball:
It's amazing you have enough time to pull up all your bands with running a hay farm, too.

Steve Morse:
Well, yeah. I stay busy. I've never been bored. So when I have time off, as far as looking at a schedule, it's never time off. I do 16 hour days every day.

Evan Ball:
Do you have an album that you're most proud of?

Steve Morse:
I think High Tension Wires, in a way, was the best thing because I had basically given up being a musician for a living. It was the first time I'd done it.

Evan Ball:
I didn't know that. Wow.

Steve Morse:
And I thought, "Well, I'm just going to record this music, and I don't care anymore. I don't care at all what the record company likes, what the people want to buy or what the market calls for. I'm going to do stuff that I want to do, and hopefully there's some number of people that will buy the record and I can do another one." That's all I was thinking about. Can I do one more? So that was great because you listen to it, and there's no hits on it. There's no anything, but it's musically and writing wise and sound wise, it's exactly what I was going for.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, amazing album. It's funny, I was just talking to Gretchen Menn, and she was praising that album.

Steve Morse:
Oh really?

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Yeah, just how important that album is to her. All right. Are you on social media, or where's a good place for people to find out what you're doing?

Steve Morse:
I have sort of a presence on social media. My wife, she's like, "Steve, you need to do this." And I'm like, "I can't! Look, I'm busy and doing this and this." So she'll post stuff. She loves music and loves the fans, especially. She's very, very good with people.

Evan Ball:
And stevemorse.com?

Steve Morse:
Yeah, I think so. There's some kind of Facebook.

Evan Ball:
You think so? We'll link it in the show notes.

Steve Morse:
There's a Facebook one.

Evan Ball:
Okay. All right. Great. Well, Steve, I'm looking forward to the Deep Purple show tonight. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Steve Morse:
Well, thank you, and thank you everybody for listening. For those of you who got some good sleep during this, the subliminal suggestion is about to be planted. Buy the album. Okay, thank you.

Speaker 4:
Thanks. Thanks for listening to Striking a Chord. To contact this show, you can email us at strikingachord@ernieball.com. And if you haven't already, hit subscribe, add, follow, whatever your podcast app requires to stay in the loop with future episodes. We've got some great guests coming up. Thanks again.

Speaker 5:
If any of you are listening and become big shots, and there'll be a big percentage of you who will, and everyone here in the audience will become an expert at something. When you have somebody come up to you, just be polite and respectful. If you ever think you're above anybody, it's the end of your career. Slowly. It's one step toward the end of your career. All the people that are my heroes are the people who were able to have some sense of humility. By being humble, you strengthen yourself, you strengthen your approach to life, and you certainly help those you come in contact with.

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