Deep Purple’s current guitarist on Blackmore’s blessing, dealing with the haters and why guitar is the best therapy.
They call him the hardest-working guitarist in rock, and he has the résumé to back up the title. Raised in Georgia, guitarist Steve Morse made his first blip on the music radar with genre-mangling fusioneers Dixie Dregs back in the 70s, and after that he bolstered the re-formed Kansas in the 80s. Then in 1994 he became the guitarist in Deep Purple, with whom he has so far played on six studio albums, from 1996’s Purpendicular to 2017’s Infinite, and seven live albums. While doing all that he has still managed to pop out to play with artists ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Flying Colors. “To me,” the 64-year-old says, “the guy in the mirror looks like he’s been around the block.”
Let’s go back to the late sixties. Who were the guitarists on your bedroom wall?
Well, a lot of them were British. The Beatles, John and George,
The Kinks, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds – there is no bad solo there. I remember when The Who came to town, and I sat right in front of Pete Townshend at this little teen club, and just loved the control he had over the guitar. It blossomed, of course, into Led Zeppelin, Page, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton with Cream. I got to see Led Zeppelin at a pop festival around the time of Woodstock, doing the thing with the violin bow and the Echoplex. I remember dehydration and the sun beating down, but the music was so awesome.
Were you the classic guitar-obsessed teenager?
I’d practise several hours a day. It was just as much fun as doing a wheelie on my bicycle. I wasn’t smart enough to realise that you needed to sleep. I’d wake up super-early to practise before school; I did my homework on the bus. I finally got kicked out of school because I was constantly trying different things with my hair. I have fairly thin hair, and it seemed like every British rock star had the thickest hair known to man. I came from a different stock, I guess. They were always kicking me out: “You better cut your hair before you come back to this school!” Finally, when I reached the age of sixteen, they did it one time too many: “Alright, I won’t come back.”
Playing guitar is supposed to make you popular with girls.
Was that your experience?
No, girls liked the sports guys more. But the motivator was never trying to be something for women. And then playing in a fusiontype instrumental band like Dixie Dregs, you get a lot of women that wear black T-shirts and look like guys. I’m joking – of course, women hated it. But it was like making a model rocket as a kid, y’know – this controlled explosion. It was demanding for a young guitar player. But for me the challenge was part of the deal. I see these advertisements on TV now for BattleBots, and Dixie Dregs was something like that. You could get into it as deep as you wanted to, intellectually. But also there was something primal about it.
Do you think your guitar solos reflect your personality? Yeah. Which sometimes led to the guys in the Dregs saying: “Wow, I really liked your playing last night, you seemed really pissed off.” Because I’d attack the guitar more if something was not going well. The fact that you can attack a guitar was a big appeal for me, y’know, getting intensely into the guitar as a teenager.
Has playing guitar prevented you from having to pay for a shrink, then?
Well, touring gets you ready for a shrink, your bandmates act as the shrink.
How did it feel to step into Ritchie Blackmore’s shoes when you joined Deep Purple?
By the time I got there the ice was sorta broken, because Ritchie had left the band and Joe Satriani had done such a great job covering that. Also, I had been part of the reunited Kansas, when people mistakenly thought I was trying to replace Kerry Livgren – which I wasn’t – so I was used to the mixed emotions of the audience. Y’know, they’re glad to see the band again… but they wish it was the original guys. Every once in a while, people will be throwing stuff at you – I mean literally throwing stuff at you. For some reason those people stand out more in your memory. I’ve never met Ritchie, but in the press, his posture was: ‘Good luck’. It is a signal to the trolls if somebody says: “They suck with this new guy.” He didn’t do that. I think he made it possible for the band’s success. It’s been a pretty easy ride, but of course there’s a certain percentage of people that just hate me because of who I am.
You’re just about to play with Deep Purple in Montreux, the town where there was the fire that inspired Smoke On The Water. How does it feel to play that riff on stage?
It’s like if somebody handed you a remote control that you didn’t design or build. But still, a remote control that says: ‘Push This’, and then when you did the entire place would cheer and billions of cell phones would come out. It’s kinda fun. But I’m acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t write it. So don’t worry, anybody, if any of those people are reading right now.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a guitar?
Maybe a thousand bucks. I can get guitars free now, but when I get one I can’t really sell it. I can’t ever get rid of it. So it’s sorta like taking in a pet – you gotta be responsible for it. It needs to be in an airconditioned space. And you really need to play it, otherwise you’re just hoarding.
Last time we spoke you said your right hand was breaking down. How is it now?
Well, it’s still talkin’ to me. It’s arthritis in the joint. So the less I move, the better it is. When I practise it’s no fun. Then at the gig I take everything that’s legal, and apply everything that’s legal to the joint. That and adrenalin gets you through. Then it hurts the rest of the night. At the gig it doesn’t play on my mind, but it’s always there.