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Flying Colors enjoying a moment of levity: (left to right) Dave LaRue, keyboardist Neal Morse, Steve Morse, vocalist Casey McPherson, and drummer Mike Portnoy. Photo by Joey Pippin
A few months ago, John told us he’s
started combining legato techniques
with alternate picking to get to what he
calls the “hyper-speed” level. Have you
ever considered something like that?
Morse: I’ve tried it just when I’m noodling around through an amp, and unless I put in a lot of gain—and I mean a lot of gain, like, with a booster or a distortion pedal—before the amplifier, I can’t even come close to making it sound the same. I’m picking hard and the results sound too obvious. It would be more successful for me if I used a thinner pick and really dedicated some time to it. The reason I like the alternate picking is to have the flexibility where I can pick up an acoustic and, after a brief period of adjusting, be able to play basically the same stuff that I could on an electric. Whereas, if I were incorporating a mixture of, say, hammering and alternate picking, it would be super obvious on acoustic.
Do you keep your picking hand at a
specific angle, and if so, what are the
advantages of doing it that way?
Morse: I do spend a lot of time working on my right hand. I’m left-handed, too, and that may be part of it. As my body gets more miles on it, I’m preparing to deal with tendonitis, arthritis, and stuff that inevitably happens when you’ve been playing for 46 years. I have three different right-hand techniques involving the pick. One of them is that I rest the heel of my right hand on the bridge and make an opening between my fingers and that heel, and I pick in that opening. I play that way for control, especially at high volumes, like when I’m trying to get sustain and feedback from the amp. That’s the super-controlled way—everything is muted except the string I’m playing.
For faster stuff, I hold my pick between two fingers and my thumb, and use the twisted motion in the wrist that I normally do—but it’s not as tied down. That’s the position I tend to end up with when I’m playing fast. I have to be very careful to keep [extraneous] notes from running away by muting with my left-hand thumb a lot. The third technique I’m working on is a traditional grip like John Petrucci, John McLaughlin, or Al Di Meola might use, with the thumb inside of the finger. That’s very relaxing, but I don’t have the control to jump strings with that technique. I basically do that when I’m jump to that technique in the middle of a phrase if I just have an eighth-note, or I can change to that technique to rest my wrist if it’s kind of cramping up from doing the other one too much.
How about you, Dave—pick or fingers?
LaRue: I’ll use a heavy pick, but only rarely. I’m much better with my fingers. I can play almost any kind of grooving, straight-ahead kind of thing with a pick, but anything that’s really, really intricate, forget it. I prefer to play with my fingers, although sometimes it’s just idiomatically better to play with a pick. For most of the fingerstyle stuff I do, I usually play a Music Man Bongo.
What other basses do you use?
LaRue: All I play is Music Man basses. I think on this record I played the Bongo 4, the Bongo 5, and the Sterling. I love the slap sound of the Sterling, and used it on “Forever in a Daze.” I also used a Bongo fretless on one of the ballads.
Steve, you’re also a big Music Man
advocate. Which of your signature
models—the original or the newer
SM-Y2D—are you using nowadays?
Morse: The Y2D is the one I use most for Deep Purple. For some reason, it sounds more like a rock ’n’ roll guitar—a little bit more Les Paul-like. My original fourpickup signature model is my most versatile guitar and has more of a live sound. It may be because it’s got a bigger [pickguard] cavity and the pickups are hanging from the pickguard. That’s the one I could play country stuff, a jazz thing, rock, or Dixie Dregs stuff on. That’s my main axe when I do solo things, Steve Morse Band things.
Steve, when you play lower on the neck
you use the bridge pickup, but when
you play higher up, you switch to the
neck pickup. Why?
Morse: It’s part of finding the sweet spot. Basically, I just use the pickup with the most harmonics for low notes, and as I cross over somewhere around the 10th fret or so, then I switch to the neck humbucker or sometimes both. As I get a little bit higher, then I go to the neck position only. I don’t like shrill sounds, so doing that fattens up the sound and relieves some of that ear piercing that can happen. When you distort the signal by turning up the input gain, it’s basically chopping the wave, and those chopped edges make a very sharp harmonic. Those are perceived as high end by our ears. It’s nicer sounding to me to take away that edge.
Do you change between pickups in the
middle of a solo instinctively?
Morse: Yeah. A lot of times the producer will say, “It sounds like you did an overdub there.” Well, I just changed the pickups.
What amps are you guys using?
LaRue: I use Ampeg SVT4-PRO heads and SVT cabinets. In the studio, I use [the IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 Custom Shop plug-in] Ampeg SVX. When I sort of virtually hook up my rig, it sounds just like my real rig. Any amp track on the record is the Ampeg SVX software, although we did mix in some amp on some things.
Morse: I’m using my signature ENGL E656 amp, which has three channels. Channel 1 is beautiful and clean—yet so smooth sounding. I even plug my electric classical guitar into it. There’s also a boost that will get it distorted on the clean sound if you want to get that ’60s sound. The clean and distorted channels are set up so that if you put all the dials at about 1 o’clock and plug any guitar in, I guarantee it will sound great. Channel 3 is the thing I like best. It’s just a do-it-all, great distortion sound that’ll clean up as you turn down the guitar. It will still have clarity. And when you play with distortion, it has a certain transparency in the high end that, to me, is less irritating. It cuts through and the clarity is there without having to be loud.
Channel 3 has four mid controls, too.
What’s that all about?
Morse: The third channel is all about bringing lines out without making them louder. In Deep Purple, for example, it’s a real struggle to get the guitar to come out. Especially when we’re playing European shows, because they don’t want us to turn the guitar up loud—they think it’s offensive to the European audience. I don’t quite follow that, but my solution is to try to change the sound of the guitar when I solo so that it will come through. It may not be the ideal sound for rhythm, but by changing the midrange you definitely make it sound more audible. You can set up channel 3 with this midrange, and then hit a button and have a different range.
Dave, your rig is pretty simple these days.
LaRue: I took all the crap out of my rack and got it down to the TC Electronic G-System. I love that thing. Now I just have that, with two cables running back to the SVT4-PRO. I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal in front of it, and in the inserts I patch in the Odelya. It’s a really nice sounding unit that I use live and in the studio.
I have the overdrive set up to get that lead sound that you heard on the record, which is more of an out-front, soloing distortion. The one thing that I would like to do is be able to switch to a less-distorted but still kind of a grungy sound for playing a dirty bass track behind everything— not an out front kind of thing. Just to get a little grunge in sometimes. Right now, it’s either all or nothing.
Before we end, let’s settle one thing
once and for all: Although the playing
is more restrained on the Flying Colors
album, people generally regard you as
chops guys. Where do you stand on the
eternal feel-versus-speed debate?
Morse: I sort of have to distinguish myself from the guys that have soooo many chops, and John Petrucci is the perfect example. In terms of being a virtuoso, John has taken it as far as anybody I’ve ever seen on electric guitar. I guess I just think of myself more as a writer than a guitar guy. Guitar is my instrument, so when I solo I’m basically writing a little bit on the spot. For me, the content is everything. If I’m ever in a situation where I time it wrong, where I run overtime in a solo and end up putting in a few bars of just stuff that doesn’t mean anything, it deeply disappoints me. Sometimes things like that do happen if you guess wrong.
LaRue: It’s all about music. The reason I love Steve’s music is because there’s such a depth of melody—he always plays melodies. Although the facility thing kind of separates us [from the pack] a little bit, it sets us apart because we can do so many different things. Steve has this intervallic kind of depth that a lot of guys who just play scales can’t get into their lines. They play too fast and too much of it, and it just sounds like they’re practicing. Steve’s lines have always had more depth.
There are guys with chops who have feel and there are guys with chops who have no feel. I’m not going to name names, but we all know these guys who can play riffage for days that really has no musical value. There are also guys who just use that as an excuse—they have no chops and they have no feel. It’s kind of an insecurity thing.