By: Dr. Matt Warnock
When I think of Steve Morse’s playing two things come to mind, killer technique and musical versatility. As anyone who has listened to his electric work or tried to learn any of his solos can testify, there are few players on the scene today that possess the level of technical ability and sheer creativity that Morse breathes into every note he plays.
As well, the Ohio born guitarist seems to be able to move from one genre to the next with chameleon like ability as he switches from Fusion (Dixie Dreggs), rock (The Steve Morse Group), Metal (Deep Purple) and more recently acoustic singer songwriting with the group Angelfire.
Teaming up with vocalist Sarah Spencer, and including Steve Morse regulars Dave Larue and Van Romaine, Angelfire features the softer side of Morse’s playing. Picking up a Buscarino acoustic, Morse brings his seasoned musical sensibilities to the band’s self-titled album with stellar results.
The mixture of Spencer’s polished vocal style, which is remarkable for someone as young as she is, and Morse’s guitar work is spectacular. The result is an album that not only showcases yet another side of Morse’s diverse musical landscape, but that should easily be included on any Top-10 list of the best acoustic albums of 2010.
Though Morse and Spencer are currently busy with other projects, after hearing what they can accomplish musically as writing partners, one can only hope that the record, and subsequent tour opening for the Steve Morse Band, is just the start of a long-term musical partnership, and not just a one-time project.
Guitar International recently caught up with Steve Morse to talk about Angelfire, his stage rig and his latest recording project.
Matt Warnock: We’re catching you in the recording studio tonight down in Nashville. What are you working on and who’s on the gig with you?
Steve Morse: Yeah I can tell you, all they can do is get mad at me. [Laughs] I’m recording with a really good lineup of people and we just finished arranging the songs. There’s myself, Dave Larue, Mike Portnoy on drums and Neal Morse from Spock’s Beard, well formerly of Spock’s Beard. He’s done a lot of things with Portnoy, the latest thing was Transatlantic. So they’ve done a lot of Prog type albums.
Then, our vocalist is Casey McPherson, who’s in a band called Alpha Rev and was in another band Endochine. He’s like the young guy in the band, with a great voice and a great songwriter. So we’re meeting in this place in the middle of all our different influences and writing stuff together.
Matt: One of your most recent projects was the album and tour with Angelfire. How did you meet Sarah Spencer, and how did the group form after you two first met?
Steve Morse: It basically started when one of my friends asked if I had any career advice for his daughter, who was getting a lot of attention because she had a great voice and they really didn’t know who to turn to at the time. Just any advice as far as her getting experience and what to do, so I asked to hear her sing, and once I did I told her I had a song that I thought she’d be great on.
So we recorded that song, and that led to another song, then she brought some of her stuff in and we worked on that together. Pretty soon it became a regular thing whenever we both were in town together, just casually working on these songs. I did it basically for something I’d like to listen to, really calm, soothing, relaxing but beautiful music. I just love her voice, that’s the whole thing, and she and her family are really nice people and cool to work with.
By the time we got the album done we had one record label that was going to do it, but there were problems and so we started over with another one. In the meantime I was gone all the time with Deep Purple, so things started slowly. But, we finally got the CD out and we did some gigs with the Steve Morse Band and she just nailed it. Every take was a keeper you know.
I’m getting spoiled with all of these great vocalists, working with Sarah and then Casey tonight. It’s just amazing working with these great musicians.
Matt: Each of the bands that you’re involved in, Angelfire, the Steve Morse Band, the Dixie Dreggs and Deep Purple, have a different musical flavor to them. When you get into the studio, on a tune like “Here Today” for example from the Angelfire record, do you try and adapt your style to fit that particular genre of music, or do you just let the music flow out of you and not worry about the genre that you’re playing in?
Steve Morse: The rule is, in all things, if you let the music be the boss it’ll tell you what fits and what doesn’t. But, what I do look out for is not to do too many rhythmic things that are repetitive, at least in the solo section. I try to make the solo as melodic as the melody of the song. In other words, have it be a different melody, one that meanders more than the main melody, but that gives you a good feeling and fits the character of the singing.
If you’re playing a metal tune and the singer ends on a real high note, [sings falsetto “ah”] and the drums are doing a double-kick beat, you’re going to start with a high energy level in the solo. If you just start by matching the intensity of the song, and try to make it at least as good and interesting as the melody, then that’ll be a good motivating force to steer your solo in the right direction.
Matt: Angelfire also has a more mellow, acoustic feel to it than some of your other bands. Who built the flat-top that you use on the record, and is that the same guitar you bring on stage with you when you perform with the band?
Steve Morse: They’re the same maker, John Buscarino. He made one for me that’s like an acoustic guitar that has electronics in it, not a microphone but a bridge pickup. When I play live I have to make sure to use a solid-body because I play pretty loud with my band and the Dreggs.
I have to really watch onstage so I don’t get the subs to start ringing, because every P.A. now is really bottom heavy in every concert hall I play in these days, which can make the guitar run away really easily if I don’t watch. Anyway, I used the acoustic one just for recording and it sounded great. I put a little mic in front of it, and I shaved a good bit of the ultra-high end off of it before I even recorded.
People always say don’t ever cut high end you can’t put it back, but I say get the sound you want before you record the track. I have no problems at all just cutting a bunch of those really, searing, percussive, high-end frequencies. I usually cut from about 7K up.
Matt: When you bring the acoustic guitar live do you use a P.A. or do you have a particular amp that you’ve found works well in a live situation for that guitar?
Steve Morse: I’ve tried several different things. One is to go through a keyboard rack, basically a keyboard amp and mixer that I’ve been using for a guitar synthesizer and classical guitar. But, on this last tour I’ve been using my Engl amp, it’s called the Engl Steve Morse Signature Model.
The way I’ve got it set up is that you can turn down the gain and get it so clean that you can plug anything into it. You can plug the classical into it and it doesn’t sound too weird, so that’s what I’m doing and it’s so much easier for me. I have a cable with a shorting end on it so I just unplug the electric, plug in the acoustic and adjust the gain knob a bit on the amp and there you go.
I use the same delays that I already have in my rig, which is one short and one long delay. The short delay is more of a chorus, about 20 milliseconds or less, a little bit of chorusing, then the long delay is somewhere around 350 milliseconds with some sine wave modulation and about one and a half repeats of feedback.
Matt: With everything that you have going on with the different bands that you’re playing in, do you have plans to do another album with Angelfire or was that a one-time project sort of thing?
Steve Morse: Actually that just depends on schedules and stuff like that. It’s so ironic that once you get to the point that you don’t have time to do anything, all of these opportunities that you want to do come up. [Laughs] When I was 22 this would’ve been perfect, I could have just done these full on, full time. So it’s a time thing. Sarah is going to be finishing college soon too so who knows where the winds will take her after that.
I’d love to keep working with her, because it’s so wonderful to work with a singer who can sing so in tune and so perfectly that anything you can think of and get her to sing, she makes it sound really amazing. It’s kind of like having a synthesizer with all these amazing sounds you just want to hear them you know.
Matt: Working with all these different bands seems like it would be too much for most players, but you thrive from having your irons in a number of different fires. Is having this level of musical variety in your artistic life something you really enjoy?
Steve Morse: Yes, the more you do create, the better I think you get at it and the easier it becomes. Mike Portnoy is a great example of this. He is so driven and so prolific and hard-working of a guy. Amazing memory, amazing chops and amazing musicality and very producer like sensibilities at the same time. He got to this point but just doing lots of things over the years. You could say I aspire to be the Mike Portnoy of the guitar world. [Laughs]
Matt: Each of these bands also have much different sounds, from acoustic to hard rock, because of this do you have a separate rig for each band, or just one setup and then you adjust your tone accordingly for that particular situation?
Steve Morse: Normally I’ve had separate setups, but what I’m doing for the first time is use the Engl amp for everything. One thing I was concerned about is would the amp work when I get on stage with the Dreggs or the Steve Morse band. So we added a third channel with lots of mids, so that I could dial in more midrange that might work better for a rock setting.
It’s a subtle change, not like going from clean to distorted, nothing like that. It just sort of changes the character of the sound a little. I don’t know why but it just seems to work better, especially on some of the things that Dave Larue and I do together. So, by having that flexibility I’ve been able for the first time to use the same amp for both.
I used to use different amps for Deep Purple and my solo stuff, but now I use the same one. Of course with Deep Purple I have a big stack of cabinets on stage because we play really loud. With the Steve Morse Band and the Dreggs sometimes, I also use a guitar synthesizer added on to my guitar. It’s a Shadow pickup.
Shadow is a German company that makes a midi converter that has a keypad on it and some dials that control the midi volume and the midi attack, like the dynamics. You can also program numbers on the keypad, and that just sends a midi chord out, it’s just a little pickup that you put by the bridge.
I have that run stereo through a volume pedal and I just fade that in when I need it. I never use it as a replacement for the guitar, just to augment the sound a bit. In a trio setting it can really make a difference in the sound of the band.
Matt: There’s a rumor that I’ve heard for years about you and I’m wondering if you can set the record straight for our readers. There’s a legend that you use to drive around with your knees so that you could practice while you were in the car. Is that just rock myth or is there any truth to that story?
Steve Morse: It’s true, but a little different than people think. First of all, I was working as an airline pilot at the time and I still wanted to record and perform music, but not depend on the music business financially. I wanted to be able to make any decision that I wanted with my music and not have to depend on it to pay the bills.
So, my job was as an airline pilot and I lived 75 miles from work and I had to report in every day. There was so much going on, and I was getting so little sleep that there wasn’t really enough time to practice. The only time I could practice the guitar was driving to and from work. What I did was put Velcro pads on the steering wheel so that my knee wouldn’t get tired, then I would use a mini guitar to practice. It was I-75, and that part of 75 isn’t busy.
I’ve been doing that for decades and so I could run a slalom course driving with my knees. I learned that in college when I was trying to eat and rush to class at the same time. [Laughs] If there was any traffic I would just set the guitar down, but otherwise it was totally no problem. I don’t have to look at my guitar to practice scales you know.
I don’t think there was a safety factor at all. In fact, anybody who criticizes me for that I would love to challenge them to a driving test with me driving with my knees and them talking on their cellphones and driving at the same time. It’s how and when you do it that makes it safe or not respectful to other people. If there was any traffic I’d always slow down and grab the wheel. It’s how you do things that makes them safe or not, I think.