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Steve Morse: ”I don’t plan out my solos. It’s not really a solo if you do!”

Steve Morse
(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

”I’m very proud to be still playing with my British brothers,” says Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse. 

Though he’s regarded by some as the band’s new guitar player – taking over from original virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore and brief touring replacement Joe Satriani in 1994 – the American has actually been their longest-serving gunslinger by over  a decade.  

The hard rock pioneers’ 21st album, titled Whoosh!, is their seventh with Morse. And while their legacy is one built on sonic evolution, fusing all kinds of progressive, blues and metallic thunder into its own mutative wall of noise, certain shades of Deep Purple have always been a staple... 

“Diversity has been a big part of the sound,” says Steve, referring back to the game-changing interplay between Blackmore and keyboard player Jon Lord, who passed away in 2012. “When you hear Highway Star – it wasn’t just blues. It had that structured element, there was a classical sequence that Jon would arpeggiate through in a descending sequence, against that chromatic riff. 

”They were putting something beyond into a rock piece and turning it into something classical. There’s always been that blend, it’s been a part of Deep Purple for a long time.” 

When you hear Highway Star – it wasn’t just blues. It had that structured element, there was a classical sequence that Jon would arpeggiate through in a descending sequence, against that chromatic riff

Following two studio albums with Jon Lord before the founding keyboard player left the group in 2002, the pairing of Morse with Don Airey now stretches almost two decades into their career. The speedy unison lines heard on new tracks like The Long Way Round and Remission Possible are in many ways very typical of Deep Purple, and yet at times more complex than any era within their five decades.

And as Steve admits, some keyboard parts are a lot easier to replicate on guitar than others. “I’ve gotten used to spotting things that sound good but might actually be non-intuitive for me to play on guitar,” he says. “Which is why I try to race  and come up with something before Don! That way I can remember it and play it easily.”

As for the intervallic colours employed to further intensify his phrases, the Deep Purple guitarist looks back to his jazz roots – having originally cut his teeth in fusion rockers Dixie Dregs – as an enduring source of inspiration. “For chromatics, a lot of it comes from jazz saxophone solos,” he explains, in reference to his note choices on opening track Throw My Bones.

“Anyone wanting to explore that style should listen to and learn some of Charlie Parker’s lines. He was a wizard, man! Almost everything he did was mind-blowing. Donna Lee was one of his best, a beautiful melody over these standard changes. That’s what those musicians would do, solo over the changes of a tune everyone knew and record a whole album that way. They would then be the writers of that…”

It was this ability of dancing around the more inside or expected notes – stumbling impossibly far out only to slip back into a more routine orbit – that captured the guitarist’s attention early on and continues to do so to this day.

“Every one of Charlie Parker’s solos was a gem,” continues Morse. “He would play around the obvious notes, and include the obvious notes, for the added tension. I love how he played over dominants – it’s a style many people now use but I feel he was the pioneer of that – outlining the chord without just arpeggiating it. 

“Over an E7, he would play a D, F, G#, Bb, C, B and then E. Some basic notes would be in there but he’s coming in from below and above! I’m a very tonal player, so that kind of dissonance has always appealed to me.”

On the subject of dissonance, there are tracks on Whoosh! – notably Step By Step – in which the harmonic minor scale runs add a classical swing to the funereal organs and darker minor riffs. Steve agrees and explains it’s the fifth mode of the scale, Phrygian Dominant, which he finds himself drawn to most of all.

“You play the b2 as well as the major 3rd, which is really interesting. Say if you were in B7, you could play a C and then an A which you could bend up to B before a big jump up to the D#. I like that mode a lot, it’s one of my go-tos for that baroque feel.”

I think the big difference this time was that I really worked on my clean sound

As one of the first Ernie Ball Music Man signature artists, the 20th anniversary of the partnership marked by their Y2D series, and with his own Engl amp launched back in 2008, Morse admits he doesn’t have much cause to update his rig. That’s not to say he’s averse to finding new approaches with the tools in front of him.

“I think the big difference this time was that I really worked on my clean sound,” he says. “When we did the new version of And The Address – which was the first thing Deep Purple wrote and recorded – I was trying to get close to that tone without completely copying Ritchie. I used a  bit of level overdrive on the clean channel, because it can be very clean on those Engls, but they also accept varying amounts of input and still break up smoothly…

“In addition to that, I used the TC Electronic Flashback Delay and Hall Of Fame Reverb. There was also the two-knob Keeley Compressor pedal. The ambiences go through a separate amp, so the guitar straight into the amp is what you’re mainly hearing. In fact, in some of the mixes I could have used a little more wet amp, but producers don’t listen to guitar players!”

Technically speaking, Morse was covering more than the traditional guitar register this time round – picking up producer Bob Ezrin’s Danelectro Bass VI for the artificial harmonics on ballad track Man Alive and even leads on Dancing In My Sleep.

Infinitely more difficult to play than his trusty Music Man, the guitarist recalls “bending notes on that thing felt like pushing steel pipes, like playing a 12 foot-long guitar with telephone guy-wire for strings” but the pain was worth it because “the super low notes sounded so cool with distortion, almost like a Johnny Cash kind of thing”. It all came down to the veteran producer pushing the musicians to tread new ground…

I don’t mind taking bits of improvisation and fitting them together

“If I do anything that sounds like me, Bob puts his head in his hands and says, ‘Morse! C’mon, save it for your solo album, gimme something melodic!’ Often by limiting ourselves we can automatically institute a change in our playing. The effect was interesting – it’s hard to say that’s a baritone or six-string bass you hear there. Being put on the spot by Bob forced me to play slower and more melodic. That’s his job, to make the album different to what it would be like if he wasn’t there.”

Occasionally those differences would catch the guitarist by surprise, but a seasoned veteran like him understands the importance of compromise in any kind of collaborative situation. Even more so when it’s a band with this kind of legacy.

“I don’t really plan out my solos,” he admits. “It’s not really a solo if you do! I don’t mind taking bits of improvisation and fitting them together. In fact, Bob does that sometimes without my knowledge!

“He might take the parts he likes best, which are often not the parts I like best, and put them together into a new solo I never would have played. And I don’t mind that at  all, it becomes a whole new section  to explore.”

As Morse rightfully points out, this is a band who have always dared to go into the beyond. With open minds, there’s no sign of that ever changing.

  • Deep Purple's new album, Whoosh!, is out now via EARMUSIC.