Push your skills to the limit with 5 Steve Morse licks

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

Although Steve Morse deserves full shred credentials for his incredible speed and dexterity on the instrument, he has always resided outside of the genre. 

His history with Dixie Dregs and Kansas means he has carved his own niche with a mixture of classical, country and classic rock, combined with a ferocious alternate picking style that makes most shred guitarists weep.

As well as classic Dregs albums like Freefall and What If, Steve has a discography of solo records including must listens like High Tension Wires and Southern Steel. For 28 years, he was Deep Purple's guitarists, leaving in July to care for his wife, who has cancer. He also has side project Flying Colors.

Our first three examples are based around alternate picking arpeggios as this is such a huge part of Morse’s style. First we have a baroque inspired ascending progression that alternates between two shapes and moves across the fretboard chromatically. 

This is a fantastic warm-up as it will allow you to focus on your picking hand; especially important with the string skipping element.

Example 2 is a palm-muted arpeggio part. The approach here is to form the chord shapes with your fretting hand and use the pick to articulate the arpeggio. Lightly resting the side of your palm on the strings at the bridge should produce a nice percussive effect, as well as separating the notes so only one is played at a time. 

Our third example is a lick similar to Steve’s work with Flying Colors. These arpeggios are articulated with the fretting hand, in much the same way as sweep picked arpeggios, but in Steve’s world, alternate picking is king, so start with a downstroke and keep the pick moving down and up throughout, no matter what the string change happens to be.

The aim is to give the notes a more mechanical sound, rather than the smoother sweeping sound. Both have their uses, but alternate picking generally requires more maintenance in order to achieve accuracy at higher speeds.

The key to the technique is to not dig in too much with the pick and to use just the very tip to strike the strings. This should give you the sensation of hovering, or dancing between the strings, rather than forcing the pick through them. You can also adjust the pick angle, or ‘pitch’ of the pick tip both up and down in order to clear the strings without accidentally hitting the wrong one.

Example 4 is in Steve’s riffing style, in which he often uses open strings and a combination of Minor scales, with passing chromatic notes to spice things up  and not sound too diatonic. 

Again, palm-muted alternate picking is the key to pulling this off, along with synchronised fretting. Continuing with the scalar theme, Example 5 is an A Blues scale lick using the three chromatic notes on the fifth string as home-base and the higher notes as accented melodic ‘pops’ which are played with snappy pick strokes.

In some of the examples the phrasing of the lick is at odds with the subdivision. If you are playing triplets, try groupings of four and, conversely, play groupings of three or six notes within 16th-note rhythms. The challenge is to never speed up or slow down, but to stay within the subdivision exactly; which is made easier with alternate picking. 

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 7, Bass 6, Middle 7, Treble 7, Reverb 3

Although Steve does use a fair amount of drive, it’s not what you would call a ‘shred’ tone, since there’s more ‘note’ than distortion in the sound. 

You want a smooth, sustaining drive tone so try bridge pickup and go easy on the treble (easier if using humbuckers). Set you amp to ‘just breaking up’ then add some drive from a pedal, and reverb/delay to taste.

Example 1 

Play the D triad with first, third and fourth fingers, and as you pick each note, lift the fingers slightly so as to keep the notes separated. For the second arpeggio shape use first, fourth and second fingers in ascending order and use the same muting techniques. Repeat those two shapes as you ascend the fretboard.

Example 2

Start by fretting the chord shapes and strumming in order to check the notes. For parts like this Steve frets the sixth-string note with his thumb, but you can play it with first finger too. 

Hold the chord shapes and palm-mute the lower four strings and move your hand from the wrist as you alternate pick the arpeggios.

Example 3

Play these Major triads using your first, second and fourth fingers, using first finger barre rolls to move between the 12th frets and 10th frets on the first and second strings. 

Start with a down stroke to alternate pick the arpeggios, so each note has a separate and precise stroke (we don’t want it to sound like sweep picking). 

Strike the strings with the very tip of your pick to reduce the chance of becoming caught between the wires.

Example 4

This riff uses a combination of A Minor scale (A-B-C-D-E-F-G), A Blues scale (A-C-D-Eb-E-G) and some chromatic passing notes. Keep the pick moving in even 16th notes using strict alternate picking and use the momentum of the pick to keep the volume of the notes even throughout.

Example 5

This lick is based in A Blues scale and is played with first, second and third fingers on the fifth string and interval jumps and string skips to other strings, while staying within the scale. 

The phrasing switches between six and four-note groupings, but remember there are always six notes per beat throughout.

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.