Steve Morse is the guitar virtuoso's virtuoso – and his technique masterclass will push your upper-fret bending and phrasing to the limit

Steve Morse
(Image credit: Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

In this lesson, we are looking at Steve Morse’s performance on Guitar Techniques editor Jason Sidwell’s track The Pledge. For this, Steve used a combination of composed phrases and improvised ideas to link up the melodic hooks. 

There are plenty of chord changes and pivots in tonality, and Steve skilfully negotiates these with simple melodies that are based around the chord tones. No single scale can be used effectively, so Steve’s combination of composed ideas and chord tone playing helps to ensure the melodies fit with the track. 

Studying Steve’s solo will hammer home the concept of playing arpeggio notes as the chords change. Many players do this by ear, but establishing a pathway or fretboard roadmap to navigate the target tones as they pass, is a good idea. 

Steve demonstrates his use of various techniques such as trilling, string skipping, alternate picking, artificial harmonics and legato. He also employs his pickup selector to achieve a tone that works with the section or phrase he is playing – typically it’s neck pickup up high, bridge pickup down low.

To keep the notation easy to use, and to allow you to see all the note choices clearly, we have used an open key signature (that said, there’s a home key reference to D major overall). Steve also uses chromatic notes that link the arpeggios into long, colourful lines.

He also shares the secret to adding chromatic notes in the video, and that is to make sure the diatonic notes fall on the strong parts of the beat. This helps to create a flowing line with a core structure that still fits in with the underlying harmony. 

Another striking feature of the lead work here is much of this solo is right up in the high register. Playing up the ‘dusty end’ of the fretboard takes a lot of control and practice. For the big string bends way up here, Steve sometimes uses his fourth finger to play the notes as this fits into those closer-together frets. To keep the notation tidy and easier to use we have used 8va lines where appropriate. 

The amount of different rhythmic subdivisions used in Steve’s solo is another factor of note. The lion’s share of the ideas uses 16th-note subdivisions, but Steve spices things up with triplets and sustained notes. 

The notation contains all of the fingerings, articulations and phrasing from Steve’s video performance. As always, it’s well worth taking a very close look at the way he fingers and picks the phrases in the video, as outside of conventional picking and fretting he also uses artificial harmonics to add further colour to his performance. For these he uses the brighter-toned bridge pickup.

To get these sounding right, begin by holding the pick with your thumb and second finger. This will free up the picking hand’s first finger to touch the string directly 12 frets above the fretted note (aim for the fretwire). Done correctly, you should get a lovely bell-like tone so the harmonics chime out as we want them to. 

As we always say, hopefully there will be a new technique, lick or phrase in here somewhere for you to perfect. If you find one that’s particularly tasty (and there are many throughout this piece) then please memorise it and use it in future where the natural minor sound would be appropriate. 

Once you have mastered some of the concepts in Steve’s performance, why not use the chord chart below to map out a solo of your own for The Pledge? Finally, thanks to Steve for his time and creativity!

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 8, Bass 7, Middle 7, Treble 6, Reverb 3

Steve used his blue Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitar. You will need at least a two pickup guitar so you can switch between bridge and neck pickups, be they humbuckers (like Steve’s guitar) or single-coils. Whatever pickups you use, make sure to dial up a rich sounding overdriven tone with plenty of sustain. Add spring or plate reverb to taste.

Chord chart

Playing notes

Intro, bars 1-3: Steve starts the track by playing a melody in octaves. The third finger is used to damp or mute the strings that aren’t required.

Chorus 1, bars 4-11: Steve opens the solo with some well-chosen runs and arpeggios. He is always mindful of the tone and so selects the thicker sounding fourth string as a starting point. The descending arpeggios (bar 10) are alternate picked so this may take some practice to get up to tempo.

Verse 1, bars 12-19: In this section Steve uses artificial harmonics to get the melody to sing out. To articulate the harmonics, Steve holds the pick between the thumb and second finger. 

The first finger of the picking hand is then used to lighlty touch the fretwire 12 frets above the fretted note. The tricky aspect here is to follow the fretting hand exactly with the picking hand – tackle just a few notes at first to get the harmonics sounding clearly then add in the others.

Verse 2, bars 20-27: Steve opens up here with a focus on making the melody ring out. The main techniques used are string bending and emotive finger vibrato - Steve is brilliant at both. He also uses a phrasing style where he slightly pre-bends the string before picking certain notes.        

Bridge, bars 28-41: Here, Steve leans more towards 16th note groupings to add excitement and propel the section forward. He also adds chromatic colour - we have tabbed out the bebop/bluegrass style lick in bars 32-33 again for Example 1 as Steve discusses it in the video.

Chorus and outro, bars 42-end: The final chorus features a repeat of the opening intro and chorus 1 sections. To up the excitement, Steve plays variations on his original ideas. 

To end the track there is an ascending idea that incorporates the 4th interval. Much of this solo is in the high register; note his use of the neck pickup here for a warm and round distorted tone. Take your time with this solo as the rewards, both musically and technically, are great.

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Jon Bishop

Jon Bishop is a UK-based guitarist and freelance musician, and a longtime contributor to Guitar Techniques and Total Guitar. He's a graduate of the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and is touring and recording guitarist for British rock 'n' roll royalty Shakin’ Stevens.

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