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Last week the Southern-fried fusion/rock/classical guitar monster filled us in on his early days on the road and brushes with other giants. This week he waxes eloquent about modern touring with Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs, and the Steve Morse band plus the archeology of gear evolution in his home studio.
SM: Sure. I was a fan and didn't really know what any of them looked like. [general laughter]. Except Blackmore; the Dregs had played with Rainbow once. But I couldn't tell you what the rest of them looked like. I just wasn't a guy that would buy an album and sit there and stare at the cover. Being at somebody's house I would listen to it and it would make a big impression, even if I never listened to it again. I've bought very few albums in my whole life, actually. I prefer seeing people live. And Deep Purple never came to the States at a time that I could see them, ever. I got to see Hendrix a few times, and Cream, the Who . . . I saw the Who in a tiny little club.
Those things made big impressions with me. But Deep Purple I just heard on recordings. So I had no idea. I knew they were good and I'd liked the organ and guitar parts especially. But I guess the main thing is I didn't know how it was going to work out these days. Were they going to be has-beens that are living off a name, or are they going to be good? And I couldn't tell you because I'd never even heard them live.
MF: But they turned out to be good.
SM: Really good!
MF: Your style's a lot more, shall we say, technically informed than Blackmore's style. How did the band react to you when you guys first got together?
SM: I think they were expecting that because, having asked me to play, they'd heard the Dregs stuff. And I know Roger [Glover, DP bassist] had heard Steve Morse Band play live in Orlando. I was impressed that they were even considering something that weird. It was very intriguing to me. I could obviously name some people that would be the more obvious choice to continue from where they had been. So they basically left it up to me. And my philosophy is to approach it like a fan would--as if I were covering the song in a cover band--play the song the best way you can. If there's more than one part, pick the portion that works best with the sound you hear. And when it comes to the solo, if it's a famous, classic solo, definitely play part of it--some of those phrases that people remember--and then do your own thing as well.
MF: It seems like you totally energized the band when you joined, gave them a whole new life. And I think you've really accomplished what you set out to do. When I saw you with Deep Purple you had all the key parts to all the solos to make them recognizable.
SM: That's sort of a little dance I'm trying to do between changing it too much and . . . I get a lot of solos in the band. So there's a couple of riffs in "Smoke on the Water" that I have to play and a lot of riffs in the "Highway Star" solo that I have to play. But pretty much the other stuff is more wide open. It's really nice for me. It's an easy gig because I came in as a fan. I was like, "Hey, how come you guys don't do this?" and "Hey, what about 'Woman from Tokyo,' how come we aren't doing that middle part. How come we aren't doing that? C'mon guys I want to hear it!" [general laughter]
MF: You made them get more faithful to their own music?
SM: I actually did win a few battles. But it took a while.
MF: It's been over a decade now since the Dregs did a studio album. Do you have any plans for one of those again?
SM: I don't know. The way the recording business is now, there's certainly no economic reason, or even economic possibility to do an independent release when you have a band that has to be flown thousands of miles just to get together to rehearse or write. Unless you just happen to have something you've previously worked on available, it's hard to make it economically feasible.
I expected more from the Internet in terms of music being promoted, and I expected more from satellite radio as far as music being promoted. And I've been bitterly disappointed with video music channels. So I probably shouldn't answer that question, I've got nothing but negatives to say. [laughs] Having said all that, I think we'll still end up doing albums in the future . . . for the fans if nothing else.
MF: But if people want to get your recordings, how can they get them? They can get them on your website can't they?
SM: Yeah, some of them. It's like a double whammy. The old record companies have the licenses. And they're reluctant or make it prohibitive to reproduce them legally. So basically I can't bootleg my own stuff. I can't make copies of it and sell it. It's really weird.
MF: How long does that last?
SM: It's indefinite. They own the masters.
MF: So what about a Dregs tour. Any coming up?
SM: Yeah, in about a week. We're playing six gigs in California. We could have done more, but at the time we were setting it up I was supposed to be doing something with Deep Purple. And of course that got changed. Ian's off doing something in February. Deep Purple schedules are always subject to change, as a result I can hardly book anything with the Dregs. But we're doing Steve Morse Band and the Dregs, double shows.
MF: That's got to be a workout every night.
SM: You'd better believe it! [general laughter] I'm expecting to go in the hospital right after this for tendon surgery or something. [laughs]
MF: I saw you guys in 1980 or so in Denver. It was a phenomenal show! By the end of the show the entire audience was standing on their chairs screaming. The house lights were full on and you guys were just cranking! I remember at one point in that show Andy West broke a bottle over his head.
SM: Oh yeah. [laughs]
MF: Did he have some Hollywood bottles that he used?
SM: Yeah, that was just something that we thought was too funny.
MF: That was really funny.
SM: We put a Heineken sticker on a green bottle, and he pretended to drink it. And he'd switch it with a real beer. And then when we started "Punk Sandwich" . . . Punk music is all about this rage. Well, we had all this rage about the industry not having any room for anything but punk. So we'd play "Punk Sandwich" and Andy smashed a bottle over his head while he was trying to introduce it. [general laughter]
MF: You met Andy in tenth grade. Tell us about your friendship with him. He must be quite a guy.
SM: Yeah, he is. He's an amazing guy. Really super intelligent and a fantastic friend. His personality helped the Dregs a lot because he was always wanting to try new and different things. For instance the first Dregs gig we ever did was Andy and I plus the drummer we had, named Gilbert, that we'd rehearsed with a little bit. But it was mostly guitar and bass. And we did this one piece of electronic music that we'd recorded. You know, where you splice tape and run songs backwards and create sounds with anything you can. It was before we had any Moog synthesizers in that town. It scared some people off.
When we were introducing one of the tunes I went in back, behind the amplifiers. We had one tape recorder on one side of the stage and one on the other side of the stage in the back with a piece of tape running from one tape recorder to the other. And then I fed the output of the second tape recorder back into the first tape recorder in a feedback loop. There was a really long rap at the start and as Andy was talking the tape would eventually go from one to the other and you would start hearing him saying what he was saying twenty seconds ago. And it kept adding on and adding on. It actually freaked people out. [general laughter] It was a spontaneous eruption of applause in this concert theater. And then we went into another tune. I played keyboard during the concert. It was really experimental. That was a first Dregs gig and then we got more. To me the five-piece Dregs was almost commercial compared to that.
MF: That was back in '71 or so?
SM: '70, '71, yeah.
MF: What about equipment? I know the first time I talked with you, you were buying some of the synchronizers for your Alesis recording.
SM: [chuckles] Oh yeah.
MF: Trying to keep all the ADATs running. You have a whole studio now, I'm sure.
SM: Yeah, it's weird to look at the layers of sedimentary deposits of equipment to see how many years I've been doing it. We have the old tape recorders, the newer tape recorders, the digital tape recorders, the early software, and the more intense, newer software.
MF: Are you using ProTools?
SM: No. Cubase. I'm trying as hard as I can to be the guy that uses a PC.
MF: And it's working for you?
MF: What about outboard equipment in your home studio?
SM: Just the same old stuff. Urei limiters and a Urei compressor, and a couple of Lexicon delays, an Eventide Harmonizer--which I use a lot more for chorus or delay than harmonizing. Just the typical old-school stuff.
MF: So what are you doing in your studio right now?
SM: I always record ideas and things. But there's a 16-year-old girl who's the daughter of one of my friends. She'd been over to England and was getting a lot of attention for her singing. My friend said, "Would you work with her, and give her some advice about her career?" When I heard her sing I said, "Well, yeah. My first advice would be to come over here and let's record something." I'm getting her to just sing stuff that's more in my style. Kind of more beautiful music, like some of the ballads I do with the Dregs. She's doing stuff like that as opposed to real commercial stuff. At some point somebody's going to grab her and take her away and she's going to be all commercial. And then it'll be too late.
MF: What's her name?
SM: Her name is Sarah Spencer. She sings like an angel.
MF: Are you doing instrumentation behind her?
SM: Yeah. I'm playing and we're sort of writing stuff together.
MF: That sounds like a lot of fun. Are you doing drums and everything?
SM: Just fake drums. I'll have to get the band to do something on it, Van [Romaine, drummer] and Dave [LaRue, bass]. That's the way I did the Major Impacts album and High Tension Wires was to do the album first and then give it to the guys. That works for a solo album, but when I do a trio album, I like to have everybody's input all along the way.
MF: Let's talk about developing your guitar with Ernie Ball.
SM: We're having a new one come out. It's a twentieth anniversary. [laughs] It's still in prototype development. It's a purple sunburst and it's tentatively called the Y2D. Meaning two decades. It's a little thinner neck than some of the ones in the last 18 years or so. Because my neck has progressively gotten thinner from all the refret jobs. [laughs]
My own part about the guitar is that I do want to be able to just pick one off the shelf and play a gig with it. And it has one less pickup. However, it also has a beautiful flamed maple top and a clear pickguard so you can see the finish all the way up to the pickups. You know how a lot of guitars have these really cool-looking tops and no pickguard because they're archtop or something? This one has a nice big, thick, clear acrylic pickguard so it gives me the same platform and string height and everything as I'm used to.
It sounds really good. It sounds a little bit fatter than the regular, four-pickup guitar.
MF: Why did you lose the pickup?
SM: It was one that I wasn't using so much. And I would often find the switch for it in the middle position, which meant that it was being added to the sound. It basically was easy to get a weird sound out of it. They did it exactly the way I have my switches set up, which is not necessarily the easiest or most logical way. So I found a lot of people were trying it out with that switch in a position that makes a not-great sound. It's something I use for pretty obscure rhythm parts, anyway. So I could go a whole gig with the Dregs or Deep Purple without using that pickup. I basically used it for recording. So I thought, let's leave that one out and that way everything you choose will be an obvious good sound.
It's well balanced. It still sits perfectly on your knee. You can let go of it and it stays right where you leave it. It stays perfectly in tune. The MusicMan headstock has a lot to do with that, with the short string pull and it's very straight from the nut without string trees or anything to cause extra friction. It's also short overall because of the short headstock. So it's easy to carry and easy to put in overhead compartments on planes. And if you're going to carry a guitar everywhere, like I do, that's important.
MF: What scale is your guitar?
SM: 25-1/2 inches. It only goes up to the 22nd fret because the neck position pickup needs to be in the exact spot that it is. If it were any closer to the bridge it wouldn't sound the same. And I really like that drastic contrast between the biting bridge pickup sound versus the real warm vocal sound of the neck pickup.
MF: You play pretty much exclusively onstage with your signature guitar, is that right?
SM: Sure. They are DiMarzio pickups that I worked with DiMarzio on before this guitar was made by Ernie Ball. So they're literally called Steve Morse pickups. That was one of the reasons I went with Ernie Ball in the first place: they were the first guitar company I talked to that was willing to use whatever parts I specified. I said, "Well, of course. That sounds a lot more logical."
MF: If that guitar will stay in tune even through your aggressive playing, that's a statement.
SM: It is. It is important. The stop piece is also situated so it's not a drastically huge bend over the bridge pieces. One reason for that is it reduces the amount of friction so you don't have uneven tension from one side of the bridge to the other, which will result in the string eventually pulling out that tension to equalize it, resulting in a different tuning. Very subtle, but it does add up.
MF: What strings do you use?
SM: Ernie Ball RPS. They're double wrapped, with a little thin wire that goes around the whole thing in addition to the regular wire at the ball end. That also reduces any slippage on that end. 10-13-16-26-32 and 42. And with that combination I don't tune down. If I tune down I have to use bigger low strings.
MF: What amps are you playing through?
SM: A bunch of possibilities right now. I've got an experimental amp called an O'Brien that's handmade. That's cool because it smoothly goes between clean and distorted using a pedal. I'm experimenting with that. And I use a 2555 Marshall head, Peavey cabinets, and a Peavey 5150 head with a Peavey cabinet with the Dregs. With Deep Purple I've been using a Marshall 2000 Series, three-channel with 1960 vintage cabinets. I also use the 5150 with Deep Purple. With them, our sound man likes the Marshall better but the 5150s are working more often. Stuff just gets slammed around in these semi trucks and I guess the Marshalls get vibrated to death. For whatever reason the 5150s, like 'em or not, they work.
MF: You heard Joe Satriani's new amp. That sounds real good to me.
SM: Oh, yeah. Plus, he can make anything sound good.
MF: So can you.
SM: Oh, there's a couple of other things about amps. There's a Steve Vai Legacy amp that I have that I used on the Living Loud record. Living Loud is a group with an Australian singer named Jimmy Barnes and two of the guys that were in Ozzy Osbourne's early band--Lee Kerslake and Bob Daisley, who wrote a lot of those hits we're familiar with, like "Crazy Train," and "I Don't Know," the Randy Rhoads-era stuff. So we did the Randy Rhoads-type tunes that they wrote. And we did half new and half old stuff. That's another new album that's just come out. It's on some independent label out of Australia [Now available from EMI]. That one's a really good album, though. It's good from beginning to end. It was one of those lucky things.
I also have a Carvin vintage. It's like a 30-watt. A little tweed-looking amp. It comes with a 4x10 open-back cabinet. And for some reason that sounds really good through that cabinet. Like a vintage amp, it doesn't have much in the way of controls and the controls don't do a whole lot in the midrange. But it's voiced very well for any of my guitars. It just kind of screams and is really friendly to play. It's not incredibly loud. That would be a neat club amp for somebody.
MF: You were at one time very well known for practicing every spare minute. How much time do you spend practicing these days?
SM: It usually gets put off till the last thing, but I do it. No matter how tired I am I do spend probably an hour-and-a-half to two hours practicing. And before a gig I have to spend more time to grind things into shape. Dave LaRue lives in my town here. So he comes over and we work together. Usually the two weeks before a gig we'll spend a couple of hours playing almost every day and then do individual practice on top of that. So maybe it adds four or five hours on an intense day.
MF: Do you just play the material that you're going to be playing on the gig? Or do you have exercises too?
SM: Yeah, the individual practice is more or less technical, just building up endurance and running different patterns and scales. Usually if I see a problem, if there's something I can't play--I'm hanging up for some reason--then I'll analyze the movement that's causing me grief and make up a musical exercise that has that movement in it repetitively. Usually it's just one thing that hangs you up. Everybody can sit there and hold a pick and go brdrdrdrdrdrdrdrd on one string. And maybe they can do it moving fingers one and three back and forth. And maybe they can do things with one, two, and three. But at some point you find something--usually it's skipping from one string to another--you find the point where it starts to get sloppy. And where it starts to get sloppy, that's what you work on.
MF: Then your weaknesses eventually become your strengths.
SM: Or at least equal to your other strengths.
MF: A lot of young players try to learn all the solos by their heroes. Were there any for you like that?
SM: A lot, yeah. Starting with George Harrison, then Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Steve Howe, I could go on and on, Ted Nugent. Those are all guys I would transcribe and learn their solos because I just loved them. And then at some point when you're working and doing your own stuff I guess you sort of don't think about that anymore. You just think about the next thing you're going to write.
MF: But all that stuff you learned helped build your vocabulary.
SM: Of course, definitely. In fact my son's starting to play guitar now. He listens to Motley Crue. And Motley Crue does a cover of "Smokin' in the Boy's Room," by Brownsville Station, which was the original thing I heard when I was his age. That's great!
MF: How old is your son?
SM: He's 13. His birthday's coming up in a few weeks so I'm about to order a Roland Microcube amp from you guys. Speaking of that, I need one of those Memory Man Deluxe, Electro-Harmonix analog delays. It's like a foot-pedal and it's got modulation on it. I need it to replace my DigiDelays that no one can fix. Because I like DigiDelays that have modulation. And Lexicon, who got me this stuff when I was working long hours with them at trade shows, said, "We'll give you these delays and we'll give you lifetime service." Well they don't even make parts for them anymore. [laughs]
MF: Thanks so much for taking time to talk with us.
SM: You're welcome.
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