Steve Morse's top 5 tips for guitarists
In the parking lot of guitar greats, not only does Steve Morse get a lifetime reserved spot, but he also has his own entrance. Try to name a more celebrated guitarist on earth – he's won all the guitar polls numerous times and even consecutively; pick a current six-string whiz kid and he'll cite Morse as a major influence – and you'll very well come up empty.
But the Deep Purple/Dixie Dregs/Flying Colors and solo guitarist, whose command of genres is so vast that he's almost impossible to bracket, insists that he's really just a student of the instrument. “I’m always learning, on a daily basis, in fact," Morse says. "Working with other musicians, I pick up all kinds of tips, or I'll gain some new insights. I'm curious about the way things work – all kinds of things – and I try to be like a sponge. How people play and why they do what they do is always fascinating to me.
“It happens kind of naturally as a result of playing with other people," he continues. "Whenever a thought is raised that I didn’t think of first, I want to know how somebody arrived at that idea. ‘Was that the result of influences, or did that come about because of a new way of thinking? Why did that work so well?’"
On the following pages, eternal student Morse offers some of his own insights, his top five tips for guitarists. “Some of these might be considered life lessons," he observes, "but to me, life lessons are what music is all about.”
Morse is currently on tour on Europe with Flying Colors. Click here for dates.
Do what you say you're going to do
“Nothing irritates me more than a lack of professionalism. For example, when somebody says, ‘I’ll be there at 2 pm.’ Does that mean 2:30? Does that person think they can just roll in whenever and expect everybody to be in a good mood, knowing that they've sat there for 30 minutes? I don’t think so.
“A lot of the times you can tell how somebody is going to act as a musician by how they budget their time. If they can’t show up when they’re supposed to, can they be expected to be prepared musically? From my experience, the answer tends to be no.
“If you’re in a band, you’ve got to pull your weight – everybody equally. Let’s say you’re going to play a cover tune, and all the other guys have learned the song. They've listened to it, played it, and they’ve got it down. But one guy shows up for rehearsal, and he’s not prepared; he thought he could just follow along and fake his way through it. So what’s he doing? He’s wasting everybody’s time, because invariably somebody is going to say, ‘Hey, that part is wrong; it’s supposed to go like this…’ And then you spend part of the rehearsal showing the guy what he should have known walking in the door.
“Whatever it is, whether it’s learning material or just being where you’re supposed to be, do what you say you’re going to do. “
Take pride in your work
“I can pick a great musician by the manner in which he sweeps the floor. If you only sweep the floor well when you think somebody is watching, that’s a good indication of what kind of musician you’re going to be.
“Some people think that certain tasks are beneath them, like sweeping floors or cleaning the garage. That could easily extend to practicing music. If you think you can breeze past certain parts of studying music or practicing whatever is in front of you – ‘Oh, I don’t have to learn that stuff’ – then you’re not going to be complete musician.
“So take pride in what you do, whether it’s a simple everyday task or something creative. If you’re practicing the guitar, give it your all, even if you’re just sitting in your room and nobody’s watching you. If you let yourself get away with something or if you think you can do a mediocre job because you’re not being observed, you’re only cheating yourself.”
Learn the basics
“It’s human nature to want immediate results. Work is hard, no matter what it is you’re doing. But there’s rewards in learning the basics of anything, and this is especially true with music.
“Whatever it is you want to communicate, whether it's with words or through music, you have to build up your vocabulary, and that means starting with the basics. As a guitarist, there's string bending, vibrato, the different ways of picking, learning to play legato and so on – everything that makes up sound and melody The more tools you have at your disposal, the greater your ability to create music that has no limitations will be.”
Embrace non-traditional thinking
“That’s another way of saying ‘think outside of the box.’ To be a creative person, you have to embrace non-traditional thinking; otherwise, you’re really not being creative at all.
“To learn basics, you sometimes have to practice things repetitiously, learning different patterns or scales. But there comes a point when you’ll want to switch things up, and that can take you to some interesting places.
“I remember one time I was getting ready to play with Jaco Pastorious. He noticed that I was warming up with two separate scale patterns; I was just doing these mindless repetitions up and down the neck to get the muscles going. Jaco, who had a mind that could never sit still, said, ‘No, no, no, man. You’re doing the same thing over and over.’ I explained, ‘Yeah, I’m just getting warmed up.’ But he said, ‘Don’t ever miss a chance to change it. Play it differently.’
“And then he played what I was doing, going up and down the neck, but he changed the patterns, throwing in different rhythms. If I played an eighth note, he played a dotted eighth note or a sixteenth. He did the whole thing his own way. He was still doing the same basic scales, but he made them his own.
“His whole thing was that you can make a standard practice session into something of a mind challenge. I was really impressed with that.”
Give yourself a reward while practicing
“This kind of ties into my Jaco story. It’s about taking the drudgery out of practicing something that’s repetitious; it's a cool way of staying motivated.
"After I’ve done some of the mechanical work of practicing, I like to reward myself with something I’ve never played before. Let’s say I’m working on a part that’s giving me some difficulty, I like to make a little exercise out of it – it kills the boredom, and it can lead me somewhere cool and creative.
“I could be playing a difficult part that involves crossing strings with the right hand, doing one of those impossible string skips. What I do is, I make an exercise out of that hard passage, one that involves every note, and I try to make a melody out of it. I basically try to forget about the technique and I just lose myself in the melody. I'll make up a riff and spend five or 10 minutes jamming on it.
“What happens is, I’ll go back to the technical part, the hard passage, and I’ll notice, ‘Hey, that sounds better’ – because I’ve made it more of a creative exercise. So give yourself little rewards like that. Find a riff or a melody within your practice routine. It’ll increase your motivation, and then practice won’t feel like work.”