At the end of every gig, Steve Morse mentally awards himself a grade for his guitar playing. The show captured on the latest live release by Flying Colors, he tells Guitarist, was a B+. You could have fooled us.
Recorded last October at Switzerland’s Z7 venue, it’s a tour de force, with the blurry-fingered guitarist driving the prog-rock supergroup through tunes from 2012’s self-titled debut album and its 2014 follow-up, Second Nature.
“We had one rehearsal,” Morse remembers, “and we got one shot. So it was a little nerve-racking.”
Morse doesn’t scare easily. At 61, the Ohio-born guitarist’s youthful looks belie a résumé longer than your arm, sprinkled with gigs that would make most players quake.
From the ferocious jazz-fusion of Dixie Dregs in the 70s, through his classical forays alongside Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía in the 80s, to his recruitment as replacement for Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore in 1994, it’s easy to see why he’s considered one of the great all-rounders of our times.
So, with that in mind, here are 12 lessons he's learned over five decades of guitar playing, and what we can all draw from them…
1. Find the right phrasing
“A lot of my heroes were English. When The Stones did Honky Tonk Women, I heard that and said, ‘That is just the coolest thing.’ Keith Richards just had that American feel.
“Pete Townshend’s rhythm playing is always amazing, and anybody who’s heard All Right Now has gotta love that guitar. You can keep on going. Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck. Yardbirds. Clapton. Steve Howe.
“I try not to exactly take the riffs of those people, but one thing you can learn from Ted Nugent, or Eric Clapton, or even Joe Walsh, is phrasing. That’s why some guitarists are more appealing to listeners, as opposed to just other guitarists.”
2. Get rhythm
The people in the band and the audience basically want you to be a great rhythm guitarist
“I like to see a player with dynamics and control. I guess the most impressive thing is when a guitarist has mastered the instrument, but assumes a role as a support member, up until the time that they’re featured.
“Steve Lukather – one of my most hilarious friends – once said, ‘I did 400 records in LA as a session musician, and never got one job because of my soloing.’
“It’s all about the rhythm. The people in the band and the audience basically want you to be a great rhythm guitarist, and if you can be a great soloist, that’s awesome, but it’s like being able to do a wheelie on a motorcycle. It’s more important to drive safely, because that’s what you’re going to be doing most of the time.”
3. Play to your quirks
“People say they can identify my playing. There’s the fact that I change pickups a lot while I’m soloing and improvising. If you play a low G on the 3rd fret, you’re at the lowest frequencies, so you want more harmonics, so I’ll use the bridge pickup. But then, if you play up high that can be a brittle sound, so I tend to want the [neck pickup].
I love the power of using the alternate picking and having that attack be heard and felt
“Another thing that I tend to do is pick every note. Y’know, I love the power of using the alternate picking and having that attack be heard and felt.”
4. Give your guitar a workout
“If you watch the Flying Colors show, from the start to the end, I have one guitar on and I don’t change it.
“With my Music Man, it’s balanced, it stays in tune and it goes with me everywhere, because it fits in a three-quarter-size bag. I can tuck it under my arm, hand it to people on the airline. And I can also go from the single-coil sound to the humbuckers and combinations thereof.
“It’s still the original, the number one. Actually, I just put a new neck on it, because I pretty much used it up. In fact, right now, I’m trying these stainless-steel frets to see if they last longer and if the sound works.”
5. Know yourself
I’m doing a respectful dance between playing it my way and remembering [Blackmore's] way on the classic tunes
“To a certain percentage of the fans, I don’t succeed as Deep Purple’s guitarist, because I’m not Ritchie Blackmore. But to the majority of people, it’s clear that I’m doing a respectful dance between playing it my way and remembering his way on the classic tunes.
“I don’t really want to copy the exact way that Ritchie played, but I want to remind people of what he did on a solo, then take it out into a different area.
“It’s a balancing act. Imagine somebody out on the wire, and they start to slip, but they use the balancing rod to get themselves back. That’s how I feel, a lot of the time.”
6. Get into DIY
“When I built my Frankenstein Telecaster back in the 60s, there was no Van Halen that I knew. I was helping a girlfriend paint her house and her mum wisely took advantage of the slave labour available. So I suddenly had access to all these materials, like varnish and paint stripper.
“Y’know, my Tele was black when I got it. I just took it apart, stripped off the paint, varnished it up, and then took a chisel to it and started putting more pickups in it.”
7. Give the crowd exactly what they want
If I’m in front of a big crowd, it’s because of the event or because of the name and history of a group that I’m working with. I’m a replaceable cog in the wheel
“I’m a very non-presumptuous person, and I’m realistic about things. So if I’m in front of a big crowd, it’s because of the event or because of the name and history of a group that I’m working with. I’m a replaceable cog in the wheel.
“Literally anybody else could be in the same position as I am. By the dozen, there are guitarists that would be a great asset to any band I’ve ever been in, who would be available in a matter of hours. So I don’t ever think of this as my spotlight. I think, ‘How can I nail this? How can I make this music cook?’ I want the audience to have a great time. That’s all I think about.”
8. Take a breath
“My advice for good soloing? You should start with two-bar phrases. Like, play one full bar and end it somewhere in the beginning of the second bar. Put it in bite-sized pieces like that. Force yourself to imitate a vocal melody and people will like it.
“Automatically, everyone will think, ‘Wow, you’re playing with so much more feeling, so much more melody.’ And really, all you’re doing is giving a little breath between phrases.”
9. Work through your limitations
“I’m a left-handed person but I learned to play right-handed. I’ve practised almost every day for the last 50 years, and my right hand is now becoming an issue, as things wear down and don’t work right any more. It’s more difficult to practise consistently, because it’s literally painful.
“When I get on stage, I can make everything work; the adrenalin overcomes everything. But y’know, everyone has their limitations and my right hand is mine. It’s like, all the stress that I have of playing guitar is centred around that now. It’s forcing me to look at other ways of doing things.”
10. Rise to the tough gigs
“I get tested in any situation. But the tour I did with John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía [back in 1983] was the most challenging. Originally, Al was not going to be there for part of the tour, so I was learning the material to play with them, and it was a big jump, to go from electric guitar to that really intense acoustic playing.
“Then, Al did make the tour, so I became the opening act and played with them at the end. So I was playing classical guitar on my own, in front of big audiences, then with these three guys, trading solos as fast as lightning. That was a very intense test for me.”
11. Enjoy the ride
“I remember some amazing moments. Like, the first time I opened a big show by myself, totally solo, was for Pat Metheny at Red Rocks [in 1983]. I was layering parts using my Prime Time delay and just trying this whole new approach of building up a solo.
“It could have all fallen apart pretty badly, but it worked, and the audience sort of exploded with appreciation at a very critical juncture. Lots of memories. I could write a book about all the amazing things.”
12. The music is the pay-off
Even though most people mistake me for a 20-year-old when they see me, I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years
“Even though most people mistake me for a 20-year-old when they see me, I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years. I’ve sorta based my life around wanting to do this. I had big dreams and big hopes.
“Y’know, the music that I’ve chosen to write has never hit the big time, so most of my income comes from shows, so you have to tour to pay all the taxes and divorces [laughs].
“One thing I could do without is sitting at airports with missed flights and lost luggage – all that. But the music part really is the payoff. It’s so wonderful to be around people that inspire me. I love the music so much.”
Flying Colors’ Second Flight: Live At The Z7 is available now via Music Theories/Mascot Label Group.