Purple Heart: Daredevil Guitar Virtuoso Steve Morse Discusses Deep Purple's New Album, 'Now What?!'

When Guitar World catches up with Steve Morse, it’s at a rare moment when the Deep Purple guitarist is actually at home. “I’m in the U.S. right now, oddly enough,” he says, calling from his house in Ocala, Florida. He laughs: “But management will try to change that soon.”

Indeed, for the past several years, Deep Purple have embarked upon something akin to what Bob Dylan fans have taken to calling that artist’s Never Ending Tour. It seems as if the veteran British metal act is always playing somewhere, to someone. In much of the world, Deep Purple are as popular as ever, performing before large crowds in Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

In addition to the substantial road work, Deep Purple have just released a new studio album, Now What?! Recorded by legendary producer Bob Ezrin, it’s their first album in eight years and their 19th since forming in England 45 years ago. Featuring veteran members Ian Gillan (vocals), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums), Purple are currently rounded out by Morse, who has been with the band since 1996, and keyboardist Don Airey, who joined in 2002 to replace founding organist Jon Lord, who passed away in June 2012.

Though it had been a while since the band had entered the studio together, Morse says the material for Now What?! came quickly. “We did three writing sessions over the course of a year and ended up with over 20 songs,” he explains. “I remember saying to the guys, ‘Can we please stop putting new ones on the pile? I can’t remember them all!’ ”

Morse took time out to speak with Guitar World about the new songs, his gear on Now What?! and touring—but not too much time, as he had to get ready to head back out on the road. “It’s crazy,” Morse says. “Two days ago, we were on top of a mountain in Austria, playing outside, with people skiing all around us. Now I’m in Florida, and soon I’ll be in Europe. I get to see more countries and different cultures than most people who work for the Department of State.”

GUITAR WORLD: Now What?! is Deep Purple’s first studio effort in eight years. Why did you decide to make the album now?

Actually, I was one of the guys asking the same thing! My vision was every tour we’d do another song and just release it on the web site. I’d say, “Don’t even try to sell it, because things are different these days as far as how people listen to music.” But the rest of the guys were like, “Well, this is what we do, this is what we’ve always done. So let’s do the best studio album we can.” And Bob [Ezrin] agreed. So I got into it wholeheartedly.

You cover a lot of stylistic ground on the album. There are plenty of straightforward rockers, like “Hell to Pay” and “Weirdistan” but also mellow, jazzy cuts, like “All the Time in the World,” and more epic tunes, like “Above and Beyond.”

I think we just naturally do that, because Ian Paice is one of those drummers that can play swing-type stuff as smoothly as rock. So it leaves room for a lot of different feels. “All the Time in the World”: the verse in that is kind of slinky and relaxed but still has a little bit of swing to it. And “Above and Beyond” was me sort of pushing the band musically in a certain direction. I was imagining an orchestral background mix with sort of a Zeppelin-y heaviness.

And chord-wise I guess it’s a little more proggy, more like the kind of thing I might have brought into a Kansas writing session [Morse was a member of Kansas in the late Eighties]. Lot of different triads over the tonic, which sort of stays the same. So there were a lot of different ideas.

One of the great guitar spots on the album is the intro to “Uncommon Man,” which begins with an extended, unaccompanied solo from you. How did that come about?

That was Bob, pure and simple. I don’t think I would have thought to do anything like that. But he came to one of our shows, and afterward at the studio he said, “I want you to do something like you did at the concert.” And I said, “That was improv.” So he said, “Well, then do an improv. You’re rolling.”

We were all in a circle looking at each other, and I just started playing like I would live. And Don [Airey] has super-incredible ears, so he heard what I was doing and just followed along. Then when Don started leading with the chords, I had to listen and try to follow him. And if you listen to the song, there’s one chord where I didn’t quite get it. There are a couple notes in one of the runs that don’t completely match. I meant to do that! [laughs] But it was just one of those moments where it was the entire band doing the take and there was no way to fix it. It was literally a moment in time. And I love when we keep takes, especially when it’s the first take. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s really cool to have those spontaneous moments.

What gear did you use on the album?

My main guitar was my Music Man four-pickup signature model. I also used my three-pickup Music Man Y2D. And I basically went straight into my Engl signature head [the Engl E656]. I use two of them. For pedals, I had a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb, a Flashback Delay and a PolyTune. The weird thing about my pedal setup is that the delays are never between the guitar and the amp; they’re between the guitar, amp and the second amp. So the dry amp is never affected. The only effect I ever put between the guitar and the dry amp is a Keeley Compressor for some of the rhythm stuff. It does a great job of compacting that single-coil pickup. You can hear it on “All the Time in the World.”

I leave the delay pedals on all the time and control the output through my Ernie Ball volume pedals. Those are summed into the second amp, which is basically just a slave amp. It’s only heard when I press down on the volume pedals, and then you only hear the delay, short or long. So the engineer has to have both of those cabs at equal volume. So the dry amp is always on and always dry, and most of the time you hear nothing from the wet amp.

When you’re in the studio or onstage with Deep Purple, are you always aware of the band’s considerable history?

Sure. There’s no question about it. I came into the band playing this stuff as a fan would. Live, I try to make it sound like the record, but for the solos I try to do something a little bit reminiscent of the record and then go off and do my own thing, just to keep things from becoming too repetitious for me as a player. I understand that some people want to hear the exact solo they’ve memorized from listening to the record so many times, so on a couple songs I do parts of the solos. But on the other hand I understand that people also go to more than one show and they might want to hear something different each night.

Is there a song you most enjoy playing?

“Hard Lovin’ Man” [from 1970’s Deep Purple in Rock]. It’s got the galloping rhythm and a great solo. That’s one of the few tunes where I cop the lead Ritchie [Blackmore] played—not exactly, but for the segments that have that minor-third harmony, I use a Whammy Pedal to match it.

As far as playing live, it seems like the band is on tour all the time.

Well, the other guys love it. Me, having raised my son and stepdaughter during the time I’ve been in the band, I don’t love that philosophy quite as much. But it’s been great to have a very good job. I can’t complain.

Is there a region where you feel Deep Purple’s fanbase is the most devout?

That’s a good question. We just did a tour with Journey in Australia, and that seemed to go really nice as far as fan reaction. But I guess when we get to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries, they’re really hardcore. Even [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev—apparently when he was younger he used to DJ at underground parties and play Deep Purple songs. This was when it was illegal to do that.

Medvedev told you this?

He did! We were at his house for a get-together for dinner, and he told us this story through a translator. His son plays guitar too. He’s a music man! But it just goes to show you: everywhere you go, people are pretty much the same.

Photo: Getty Images

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.