Steve Morse

From the Dixie Dregs to Deep Purple

Steve Morse

The legendary skills of guitar virtuoso Steve Morse encompass rock, country, funk, jazz, classical, and a fusion of these diverse musical genres. In addition to being a founding member of the eclectic instrumental group the Dixie Dregs, he’s also enjoyed a thriving solo career and stints with many renowned bands, including 20 years and counting with Deep Purple. Among Steve’s numerous achievements, Guitar Player readers selected him as Best Overall Guitarist for five years in a row, placing him in the magazine’s Gallery of the Greats alongside a select group of the world’s finest players.

For the BOSS Tone Radio Podcast, we caught up with Steve at his home in Florida in between a trip to Spain and the start of an upcoming Deep Purple tour. The following is an excerpt from our talk. To listen to the complete conversation, visit the podcast page at BOSS Users Group.

You studied music at the University of Miami. Do you live near Miami now?

No, I’m up in the northern part of the state, more like Georgia. I’ve spent most of my life living in Georgia. My family moved there when I was a kid.

Hence the “dixie” part of the Dixie Dregs?

Yeah, that was actually a joke. We just thought it was funny. We were teenagers at the time; for a teenager, a funny name is much more worthy than one people might be able to remember. [Laughs.]

I understand that you met Rod Morgenstein, the longtime Dixie Dregs’ drummer, at college in Miami while he was studying piano there.

Yeah. I was actually in school to play classical guitar, but since I was a beginner they really didn’t want me. So I got stuck in the jazz department, who didn’t want me [either], but they were a little bit more tolerant; although they didn’t want me playing in the jazz ensembles, they did put me in all the classes. In my improv class, we’d have an assignment like playing over changes, and everybody in the class would have to play, and I thought Rod was really melodic and just different. There was something special about him, and I thought this would be a great guy to do some writing with.

Then it turned out we really needed a drummer, and Hiram Bullock told me Rod was a great drummer. I said, “Are you kidding me? He’s a keyboard player in my improv class.” He said, “Yeah. But you should hear him play drums. He plays drums like a musician.” That’s how it ended up.

Hiram Bullock was going to school with you back then too?

Yes. He was a second guitar player in the Dregs for a while, and then he was the bass player in the Dregs until Andy [West] moved down there. It was hard to keep Hiram though, because he was a hustler and he had lots of gigs, he was a moving target. [Laughs.] Whenever we could work with him we did.

When did you start the Dixie Dregs?

Well, we actually did it in school. I did one year in Miami, then another year back in Augusta. During that second year in Augusta, we did the Dixie Grit. Dixie Grit was just another funny name, because none of us were actually born Southerners—just another inside joke that became a band title forever to our detriment. Augusta was just not a great place to be for a band that did originals. The band broke up, so Andy and I were left saying, “Let’s do something instrumental. We’re the only ones left, so we’re the dregs. We’ll call it the Dixie Dregs.” We laughed, and that was the title. So it was just Andy and I, and then we had several different drummers from Augusta.

Steve Morse on Stage

My third year in college, I went back to Miami, and that’s when I started working with Rod and Hiram Bullock, Allen Sloan, [and] Frank Josephs. And I called up Andy and said, “This is really going well. I’ve got amazing musicians everywhere. You’ve got to come down.” And he did and we started playing around the area for free.

The reaction was so good and the musicians were so good that I felt like [Andy] really needed to be part of it, so he took some courses there. We spent a couple years in the University of Miami as “Rock Ensemble Number Two.” It really was the Dixie Dregs band, the same material; I was just bringing in charts every week. But we had a college course credit, since we were an ensemble and I was the “instructor.” I brought in the charts and I was responsible for getting the set together to play for the faculty and the student body for the recital.

Were you guys rejected by a lot of labels before you signed with Capricorn Records?

Oh yeah, every label including Capricorn. I love to tell people that. [Laughs.] Because every band I’ve ever heard of, except for the most outrageous—you know, you have a girl band with five models or a boy band the exact opposite, or have the guys dressed up like reptiles—things like that people get signed maybe.

For the most part, if you’re doing something that the audience likes, the record company really has to be told to like it. Somebody in the industry has to tell them, “Hey, you know those guys are good.” And then they’ll listen. But if you just send them a demo, they’ll just return it. In fact, I had a “rejection wall.” I remember living in this old trailer that I bought; on the wall I had the rejection letters as the wallpaper. In most cases, they had sent back the albums still shrink-wrapped, unopened, and then they would describe how the music didn’t really fit [what they were looking for].

At one point, you met Twiggs Lyndon, the Allman Brothers’ tour manager. Did he help get you the deal with Capricorn?

The Allman Brothers had just broken up recently. Chuck Leavell, the keyboard player, who’s now [been] with the Rolling Stones for many decades, was doing a solo tour. His [first] initial is “C,” and he called the band Sea Level as a play on his name.

Sea Level was doing some gigs. They were in Nashville and happened to be at Exit/In, a well-known club, when we were playing. Twiggs and Chuck were there and they were laughing. They just thought the band was funny, and we did have a sense of humor. They liked it. It was instrumental music, and obviously had a limit to what could be done with it in the mainstream. But they told Phil Walden [from Capricorn], and suddenly somebody listened to the demo and we got a deal.

You guys did three successful albums with Capricorn. After that, you got a deal with Arista. Industry Standard from 1982 featured vocal performances for the first time. Was the vocal thing pressure from the record label, or did you decide that you wanted to add vocals?

It was our management at the time. It was a group of lawyers actually, and we had been feeling like they hadn’t been doing much for us, and it was quite a big payment we had made to them. And they said, “If you want out of the contract, then just do this: put a vocalist on your next record, at least two vocals, and if it doesn’t sell any better that the other ones, then we’ll let you out of the contract.”

So that’s what we did immediately, and they lived up to their word—they let us out of the contract. And of course, it didn’t make any difference, because you can’t suddenly change your stripes. We never had a huge following; we were just one of the cult bands. But we did have a following and we didn’t want to write anything that was too straight-ahead. But we did write some vocals and did get out of the contract. And we had fun doing it, and got to work with some great people in the process.

You played in the band Kansas for a few years. How did you end up joining them?

I was at a concert in Atlanta—that was our home base—and I talked to [Kansas drummer] Phil Ehart. We’d been friends with everybody and I was a big fan of Kansas. The band was broken up at the time I saw Phil, but he said, “I was talking to [Steve] Walsh, and he’s thinking about coming back and doing the album.” I said, “That’s great. Can’t wait. If you want to do any collaboration on writing or anything, let me know.” So a few days later, he did call me up and I got together with everybody. We actually had Steve Walsh sing background on our Industry Standard album.

For a brief period after Kansas, you quit music to become a commercial airline pilot.

Well, first of all, I didn’t quit guitar playing. I was hoping to quit the music business. Because, remember, this was the time that MTV was ruling everything and it felt to me like all the opportunities for innovation and originality were kind of being cut out, and there was this stereotype being put forth.

It hit me really hard. It sort of seemed like the end of days to me. For whatever reason in my world, it just seemed that way. So I said, I’m just going to keep on doing music whenever I want to, and do whatever I want to, and figure out a way to pay the bills. Maybe I can even have a family and kids some day, you know? [Laughs.] Because at the time, [with] the ups and downs of being a musician, I just never felt like it would be the responsible thing to have a family until I could be sure that I could make a living all the time.

My main job was to take people to and from Atlanta and all different cities in the southeast. You’d go in and out of Atlanta, and sometimes there’d be nine flights a day. In the process of doing that, I learned a lot about myself and learned a lot about the business of music—that in everything there is compromise, there are things you have to just deal with.

I wouldn’t recommend it for somebody who’s going for the world’s record of fastest climb up the music business ladder. But I sure recommend it for somebody who wants a good perspective on life, to shift your career at some point and see things from a different point of view.

In 1994, you joined Deep Purple, and you’re still with them. That band has gone through so many metamorphoses. Are you an equal member of the group?

Well, when it comes to deciding when we’re going to tour, I’d say I’m not as equal as most senior members. [Laughs.] Yeah, they made me an equal member from day one. I was really surprised by that.

I think playing with Deep Purple must be really fun.

It is. It’s a perfect gig for a guitarist like me that did a lot of time as a cover-band guitarist. I’ve got to play Ritchie’s parts, too, as well as the new stuff. And I love getting the right rhythm part to make the band percolate. Like Steve Lukather famously said in one of our guitar seminars we were doing—he has a funny way of talking, he’s always funny—he’s saying, “Dude, I played on 400 records, and not once has anybody hired me to solo. I do some solos, but they want the rhythm playing. They want it to feel good.” And that’s what you’ve got to think about if you want to get a gig as a guitar player.

When Deep Purple performs, are you improvising and doing new things every night?

It depends. [Sometimes] there’s not much room for anything other than soloing, which is improv. But we have sections where we do, like as the guys would say, “You take it and kick it around. When you‘ve had enough, give the ‘horse’s eyes’.” What they mean is, you improvise, then you lift your head up and get everyone’s attention and that makes your eyes widen like a horse that’s frightened. That’s what they mean by the horse’s eyes. [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about gear. You’ve been a Music Man endorser for a long time, and you have two signature model guitars with them.

Yes. The original one was a four pickup, based on my sort of Frankenstein that started as a Fender Stratocaster, then ended up with only the Stratocaster neck attached to a Telecaster body, then humbucking pickups put on that. Then changing the tailpiece to a Tune-o-matic bridge, then a custom pickguard, different pots, [and] capacitors.

Do you like to switch pickup sounds a lot as you’re playing?

All the time. I still change pickups a lot. I think the range has a lot to do with it. And the combination of single coil and humbucking together on the not very distorted stuff makes a great sound for rhythm and for funky stuff. So yeah, I’m always changing pickups. Guys that play the organ, they do the same thing—they change sounds [with the drawbars].

Do you still use the BOSS TU-12 Tuner?

I used those for a lot of years. They’re good tuners. That’s all I used up until just a few years ago.

I noticed in a Deep Purple video that you use an octave pedal a lot on solos. Is it the BOSS OC-3 Super Octave?

That’s one of them. I have four different rigs, actually five different rigs, but that’s definitely one of them.

Do you have any other BOSS pedals?

Yeah, I have a tap delay…not a tap delay…it has a huge memory.

Is it a looper pedal?

Yeah, yeah.

Maybe it’s the red RC-30?

Yeah, It’s pretty big. I still have that [CE-1] Chorus Ensemble, which is the best of BOSS—a big, heavy cast-iron thing. I bought that in Hollywood at our first recording session. It was awesome. I thought of one other thing that I use a lot: I carry with me the [CE-3], the little chorus, because it allows you to split the modulated signal and the straight signal. If you put a dummy plug in the stereo output on one side, you can get the totally modulated signal on the other. When I use it I have to put a cheater plug in.

And then it becomes all effect?

Yes. That’s what makes the two amps sound big and massive. They’re never doing the exact same thing.

[Editor’s Note: The current CE-5 Chorus Ensemble supports stereo operation just like the legacy CE-1 and CE-3, with the processed signal sent to one output and the dry signal sent to another. To use these pedals in stereo, plugs must be connected to both output jacks at once. Steve’s use of the “dummy” or “cheater” plug in Output B on his CE-3 is to force the pedal into effect-only operation for his sophisticated multi-amp rig, which is comprised of a dry signal path and an effect-only signal path.]

Have you ever used guitar synthesizers?

Very much. I had one of the Roland guitar synths put into my prototype Music Man guitar and used that for the whole tour that we did with Rush. It was the Power Windows tour and [my trio was] opening for them.

Do you recall which guitar synthesizer you used?

It was like a pretty big size. It had a big old huge connector. I just remembered: it was a Roland [GR-700].

What did you use the synth for?

Again, some funny stuff like “Gimme Some Lovin’.” [Laughs.] I played the organ part on it, and doubled some solos with it.

Do you have any last thoughts about Roland and BOSS gear?

Everything that I’ve ever had has worked and continues to work unless it was completely abused on the road. [Laughs.] And that’s what it’s all about. That’s the description I would say is best: Roland stuff just works.