Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative and exciting moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple and solo album virtuoso Steve Morse
60 Seconds, Session Shenanigans, One-Minute Lick, That Was The Year, Jam Tracks and more.
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
SM: The main thing is that the guitar can control the mood and energy. It is totally composed, mixed with some improvised soloing. Vocals are very expressive, and the guitar can be too with a wide range of attack, tone, vibrato, bends, etc.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal song can’t?
SM: For one thing, less repetition. In song form, the music often stays the same for three rounds of verses. With an instrumental it is better when there is always something changing. Or, to add additional parts.
GT: Is there anything you aim to embrace or avoid?
SM: As above, try to not repeat, or absolute repetitions... make sure to change something. I like to take it ‘out’ a little bit, then bring it back before the entire audience has started to exit!
GT: Do you try to retain a typical song structure?
SM: For me, usually not. I tend to revisit the melody with some changes at the end. But, with some changes on each verse, the typical song form can work fine.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach for guitar melodies?
SM: Studying horn melodies and vocal melodies is good. Vocalists tend to unconsciously use many different techniques. Guitarists can always learn from trying to sing a melody.
GT: How do you start writing one; is there a typical approach?
SM: A combination of experimentation, inspiration and transcribing what’s in my head.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage for the duration?
SM: A variety of tone, or attack, or changing from a mono to a more polyphonic approach, or changing density of the notes in different sections. Changing effects for different parts too.
GT: Do you ever adopt the‘start low and slow and finishes high and fast’ approach?
SM: I wouldn’t say that’s a feature that I always use. However, I have often used an approach of adding more and more melodies as overdubs, to the ending section. Not necessarily faster, but definitely more dense.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
SM: Trick question, right? I use my Music Man, which has four pickups (or the Y2D which has three) for everything. I change pickups during every melody.
GT: Do you have any favourite keys or tempos?
SM: Keys? Any that might allow some open strings to be used in voicings of chords. Tempos? No favourites, but sometimes I limit the tempo if it is very technical, of course.
GT: Do you find minor or major keys easier to write in?
SM: I so often change within the song to the relative major or minor it doesn’t make much difference. Some of my more metal friends hate the fact that I often use major melodies and chords, which are thought of as ‘too happy’ to them. If anything I ever play makes somebody happy, I’m fine with that! Seriously, I do use major too much to ever be embraced as a legit hard rock guitarist, I think.
GT: Favourite modes?
SM: Mixolydian and Dorian seem to come up a lot in my stuff.
GT: What about modulations into new keys?
SM: I always try that because it does seem to freshen everything up sonically, in most cases. It can be very corny, though, if it’s done as a huge deal, and uses a Broadway cliché turnaround.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently than you would on a vocal song?
SM: Yes, for example, the bass often doubles lines, or takes over my original riff while I add a melody, or harmony.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
SM: Don’t just stay with diatonic harmony that follows the exact contour of the melody. Let it take some jumps to 6ths, 5ths, 4ths, as well as the usual 3rds.
GT: Name three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
SM: More recent iconic ones, would be Eric Johnson’s Cliffs Of Dover and Joe Satriani’s Satch Boogie. Earlier influences were Jessica (Allman Brothers), Ain’t Superstitious (Jeff Beck), and Walk Don’t Run (The Ventures).
Seriously, I use major too much to ever be embraced as a legit hard rock guitarist
Steve Morse: pilot of the six silver strings!