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Steve Morse: "Deep Purple used to put me in a separate van because I’d be playing the whole way between gigs!"

Steve Morse: "In a band, the guitar lives in the midrange, so that’s what I care about more than anything"
(Image credit: Future / Olly Curtis)

As one of the original and most prolific American guitar virtuosos, founding member of the Dixie Dregs, lead guitarist of both Deep Purple and Flying Colors and even a brief member of Kansas in the mid '80s, the shockwaves of Steve Morse's influence on generations of guitar players have been indisputably far-reaching.

Here, prompted by song titles, the man himself tells the story of his first guitar, preparing for shows after 50 years and how to become a good guitarist...

Got my first real six-string…

“My first guitar was given to me by my grandmother. She’d actually found it thrown out in a case at the end of the driveway, but it was cracked and broken, the neck was bowed. I ended up renting a Gibson LG-0 acoustic for a year. 

"Then I wanted an electric guitar, so I got a Fender Musicmaster. It played great but sounded terrible. Its only single-coil pickup was halfway between the bridge and the neck. I played it through a portable radio with a preamp input. It sounded stupid!”

I’m a speed king, see me fly… 

“As guitar players, I think we have it pretty good. But I would say finding a place to practice comfortably is quite a hard thing. Even without an amp, I annoy people when I play because I pick my strings pretty hard and make a lot of acoustic noise. It can get pretty weird if others are in the room! 

"Throughout my life, I’ve always annoyed people. The guys in Deep Purple used to put me in a separate van for that reason ha ha! I’d just be playing the whole way in between gigs and going to airports.”

I’d love to get to know Jeff Beck and see if he really is pulling it all out of nowhere, which is how it seems

The show must go on…

“For about 50 years, I played with my thumb and two fingers on the pick. It really helped me play with exceptional clarity and muting. There are a lot of advantages with it. The only disadvantage is it wears out your wrist after 50 years. But I was doing 10,000 notes a day… most people should be fine! Now I’ve had to switch to one finger and the thumb because I have arthritis in my right wrist. It’s very painful to flex my wrist, so I save that for gigs.

"I prepare with topical painkillers and other things too. I’ve switched to playing from the elbow. Certain string-skipping patterns and direction changes need the wrist to ensure you don’t hit adjacent strings… So now I have to practice longer and think it through. I’ve even changed how I play certain things, choosing a more laborious left-hand fingering to avoid skips with the right. It’s far from ideal, but I have to keep my chops up and finish strong!”

Smoke on the water, fire in the sky…

“When choosing guitars, I’ll listen to all the pickup combinations on a clean setting and try to see if any notes jump out. Is there too much boom from the bass? Is the bridge pickup too brittle and harsh? Then I’ll add in the distortion, which chops the signal at the top and makes new sharp edges in the sound wave, producing sideband harmonics that our ears perceive as high-end, which can get irritating. 

"In a band, the guitar lives in the midrange, so that’s what I care about more than anything. I might just do minor scales or random chords, not even looking at the guitar. I’m not looking to make a musical statement, it’s about the reaction.”

I get by with a little help from my friends…

“I like people that ask questions and let me do the same. I’ve been able to do that with guys like Bumblefoot, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. They’ll always explain exactly what they’re doing over long jams. We all love exchanging ideas and commenting on each other, you might realize you’ve been dragging across a string that isn’t doing you any favors. 

"To become a good guitarist, you have to be open to things. When I first played with Al Di Meola, I asked how he sounded so percussive. We switched picks and there was a difference, so I changed from nylon to celluloid for the rest of the tour! I’d love to get to know Jeff Beck and see if he really is pulling it all out of nowhere, which is how it seems. It feels like he’s really improvising and making art through his guitar.”

Flying Colors’ new album Third Degree (opens in new tab) is out now on Mascot.

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Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).