3 minutes 50 seconds into a live performance of When a Blind Man Cries, following a marvelous Steve Morse solo, Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan walks across to Morse, smiles to himself, and gently puts an arm on his shoulder – because no words are necessary to show his admiration and affection for what the guitarist has just produced.
Gillan then returns to the song: “If you're leaving, close the door, I'm not expecting people, anymore, Hear me grieving, lying on the floor… I'm a blind man, I'm a blind man… When a blind man cries, Lord, you know, He feels it from his soul…”
Ritchie Blackmore, who co-wrote the song, of course isn’t there, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with better technique and more soul having replaced him. Morse brings the song to life. As he himself said when he joined the band: “I was a fan of Deep Purple and I don’t want to change it too much but at the same time… you want to push beyond, to something new.”
In fact it could be said that Deep Purple were approaching the end of the road in 1993, shortly before Morse joined. “Audiences were falling off, we were playing 4,000-seaters with barely 1,200, 1,500 people in them… Then… the sun shone again and we all said: "OK, we'll give it one more shot," says Gillan, on the band’s resurgence.
Morse plays country, blues, rock and jazz but he also has a rich classical background, and he often moves smoothly between these diverse genres in the same song. He looks like he was born with a guitar in his hand, and has influenced generations of guitarists, but when he is playing a solo it is best to just close your eyes, sit back, and simply enjoy his exceptional melodic touch, tone and feel…
Steve Morse was born on 28 July 1954 in Hamilton, Ohio. As a child he spent time in Tennessee before his family settled in Michigan. Both he and his older brother Dave showed early talent as musicians and by the time Steve was in his teens he was already playing locally at small clubs and other music venues.
When the brothers began studying at the Academy of Richmond County they formed Dixie Grit, which predominantly covered Cream and Led Zepppelin songs. Morse, however, was expelled from the school for the best of rebellious rock n roll reasons - refusing to cut his hair - and this led to him entering a School of Music. This School was part of Miami University and it played host to musicians of the calibre of Pat Metheny, Jaco Pistorius and Bruce Hornsby. The bassist in Dixie Grit, Andy West, also enrolled at the School, and with other colleagues they started to play some of Morse’s early compositions, which eventually culminated in the release of an album, The Great Spectacular.
Following graduation in 1975, Morse and West teamed up with another alumni, drummer Rod Morgenstein, and founded the wryly named Dixie Dregs. By 1976 the new formation had come to the attention of record company Capricorn Records, and the band signed their first professional contract.
The band’s first release for Capricorn was Free Fall, on which Morse wrote all the jazz-oriented songs; it was critically well-received but sold poorly. However in 1978 Dixie Dregs released the cult favourite What If, which showcased the band experimenting with a mix of styles and Morse’s progress as a guitarist. Promotion of the album led them to play at Montreux Jazz Festival and the recording was released as a live album, Night of the Living Dregs.
Morse and the band’s fortunes took a further upturn in 1979 when they signed for Arista. Songwriting duties were completely assigned over to Morse and the resulting album, Dregs of the Earth, made the top 30 on Billboard’s Jazz Album chart.
At around this time the band tried to make themselves more commercially attractive by shortening their name to The Dregs, but their next instrumental release in 1981, Unsung Heroes, saw poor sales. However their follow up Industry Standard did contain lyrics and was better received. Ironically, the addition of lyrics led to Morse being voted ‘Best Overall Guitarist’ by Guitar Player readers, but the band had tired of being on the road and disbanded in 1983.
Morse then formed the Steve Morse Band, a trio with bassist Jerry Peek and ex-Glass Moon drummer Doug Morgan, who was shortly after replaced by Morgenstein. Now with Elektra, the band released The Introduction, and then Stand Up, featuring Peter Frampton on guitar. Then, in 1986, Morse joined Kansas and helped compose their last top 20 hit, All I Wanted.
Morse joined Deep Purple in 1994, in what became known as the ‘Mark VII’ version of the band, following Blackmore’s departure amid rows and a particularly bad gig. Since then, Morse has played on the studio albums Purpendicular, Abandon, Bananas, Rapture of the Deep, Now What?!, and Infinite, and a large number of live releases. Morse’s input and constant touring has been credited with revitalizing the band. Alongside his long tenure with Deep Purple, Morse has found time to co-found Living Loud in 2003, with Jimmy Barnes, Lee Kerslake, Bob Daisley and Don Airey; Angelfire in 2007 with Sarah Spencer; and the supergroup Flying Colors in 2011, with Mike Portnoy, Casey McPherson, Dave LaRue, and Neal Morse [no relation], whose debut eponymous album reached number 9 on Billboard's Hard Rock chart, and No. 11 on the BBC's Rock Album charts. Flying Colors released its second album, Second Nature, in 2014 to critical acclaim.
Guitarists of the calibre of John Petrucci and Shawn Lane have cited Steve Morse as one of their key influences and as one of the most talented guitarists of their generation. Many were expecting Ritchie Blackmore to critizise his replacement but instead he simply said: "Steve Morse is an incredible player. A lot of people try to get some wisecrack out of me, but when you're talking about guitar players of Morse's calibre, they're brilliant."
Morse’s most legendary guitar is often referred to as his "Frankentele”. According to Morse’s website, "The history of this unique instrument goes back to Steve's college days. During that time, Steve crafted a guitar for himself, combining the elements for his ideal instrument: a Fender Telecaster body, Stratocaster neck, Gibson Tune-o-matic bridge, a set of Gibson frets, a 12-string tailpiece (make unknown), and a group of pickups (also unknown). In 1986, Steve was approached by Music Man to collaborate on creating a production model." In fact, Morse worked with Music Man Guitars to create two signature models, which can often be seen on his videos: a modernized version of his Frankentele, and the Steve Morse SM Y-2D, an updated version with quilted maple top.
While Morse has used Peavey 5150 amps with Deep Purple, he says in one his videos that he also often uses ENGL amplifiers, specifically his signature ENGL E-656. His FX are very simple, consisting only of a Boss OC-3 Octaver and two delays: Electro-Harmonix Memory Man now replaced with the newest TC Electronic FlashBack TonePrint delay (Morse has created custom presets). He also uses a TC Electronic Polytune Mini guitar tuner.
Surprisingly, in the midst of all his other projects, Steve Morse worked briefly in the late 1980s as a commercial airline pilot. Additionally, he likes keeping fit by hitting the gym regularly and his rider at concerts does not include alcohol: “For me, personally, it’s some sparkling water and, if I’m lucky, some Diet Dr Pepper. Sliced cheese, peanut butter and jelly, bread, some yoghurt and that’s it. My Deep Purple rider, that’s a book.” He also always takes on tour a stash of vitamin supplements. “I’m up to over 12 pills and they’re all different things,” he says. “If you read the labels I should be 20ft tall and green and able to lift cars with one hand…”
These days Morse has to be careful to protect his wrist, and you can sometimes see him wearing a black arm support in his videos. “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,” he says. “The only disadvantage is it wears out your wrist. But I was doing 10,000 notes a day! 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 it, so I save that for gigs.”
"To become a good guitarist, you have to be open to things,” he concludes. And that is not just about opening up to new techniques but also being flexible when he ‘annoys his bandmates’ because of his constant practising. "The guys in Deep Purple used to put me in a separate van for that reason!” he says.“I’d just be playing the whole way in between gigs...”