It’s a fool’s errand to list the best rock 'n' roll guitarists of all time. There are so many great players, and so many different styles. How do you judge? According to charisma, virtuosity, creative songwriting, ability to shred a solo?
Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Richard Thompson. Bonnie Raitt. Prince. Eric Clapton. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The list goes on and on.
Everyone has an opinion.
But there is an undisputed class of great guitarists defined mostly by their technical accomplishments and versatility. Here’s a short list, surely incomplete: Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Jeff Beck, Al Di Meola, Brian May — these are the guys who have custom-made guitars or signature axes provided by fawning companies like Music Man and Ibanez, and a command of their instruments rarely seen.
He first gained attention as part of the Dregs, which he started back in his college days. The band had a good eight-year run starting in 1974, making seven records, even as some of the personnel changed. They got back together in 1989 to tour, and remained active for a few years. Now another reunion has been arranged, this one featuring the musicians who appear on the band’s breakthrough record “Free Fall” — keyboard player Steve Davidowski, violinist Allen Sloan, bassist Andy West, drummer Rod Morgenstein and, of course, Morse.
The Dregs will appear at the Charleston Music Hall Monday, March 5. In anticipation of what’s guaranteed to be an epic set, The Post and Courier reached out to Morse to learn more about his musical background and experiences, approach to songwriting, how he has prepared for this tour and what sort of music he listens to in his downtime.
His guitar style includes, among many things, classical sequences and harmonies. That’s because he studied classical guitar as a kid, then enrolled in the music program at the University of Miami in Florida where he advanced his musical abilities and encountered several remarkable players: Morgenstein, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Danny Gottlieb, T Lavitz, Bruce Hornsby, Frank Josephs and Frank Brittingham.
“When I went to music school they didn’t know exactly what to do with me,” said Morse, now 63. He had made a tape that featured him playing both classical and electric guitar, which helped get him into the school, but he hadn’t mastered a sizable repertoire of classical music, so his teachers referred him to the jazz department. But he didn’t know much jazz either, so he ended up discovering his own path. “It’s always been my motto: Don’t go by the rules,” he said. “Go by what makes the audience smile.”
To figure that out, he and his mates would play for free on or near campus and study the reactions of their listeners. What interested them the most?
During these years, Morse developed a fierce work ethic. He grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich., without much money, so he appreciated the opportunity the university represented and practiced all the time. He had no car the first year, so he “just dove in.”
“For two years straight I was just working and working and working,” Morse recalled. “Then the third year I got a gig that made me some money at night. I became more of a normal person.”
Well, “normal” is open to interpretation: Morse’s technical abilities are astounding, and his musical instincts among the most refined in popular music. He had the good fortune of finding other virtuoso players, and the early iteration of the Dregs approached their music with rigor.
“They called me Attila the Hun early on,” Morse said.
From the beginning, he admired classical composition, especially the “theme and variations,” in which the composer states a theme (typically a melody with fairly simple or traditional harmonies), then twists it and turns it upside down, speeds it up, slows it down, changes the key, changes the style and manipulates it in myriad other ways before returning to the original theme.
“I shortened the approach and put in more variety,” Morse said. “And a rock beat makes everything go better.”
Early on he’d write out charts for his bandmates and rehearse a couple times a week. But the charts would slip out of instrument cases (“like crumbs falling out of a sandwich”), get mixed up or lost, so Morse soon abandoned that practice, preferring to make cassettes of individual parts from which his colleagues could learn.
When the Dregs moved to Georgia after school, they had enough rehearsal time to run the tunes section by section. Morgenstein got pretty bored. It wouldn’t take him long to figure out all the changing meters, Morse said.
The mystery of it
Local guitar master Eddie Bush grew up listening to Morse and the other virtuoso players, inspired by them to learn the instrument himself.
"He’s one of my favorite guitar players," Bush said of Morse. "He's the first major guitarist I opened for in the early 1990s. ... He's one of the greatest technicians that’s ever walked the face of the planet, but then he's so adventurous musically. There is a small group of guitarists, you just can’t deny their voice. He’s one of those guys. ... I really look up to him. He is the personification of excellence in music to me."
Bush recalled attending a Morse-led clinic in Beaufort years ago where someone asked about warming up. Morse answered by sharing a simple exercise that Bush was inclined to dismiss as too simplistic. But then Bush tried it at home, and it changed his whole perspective on the instrument, he said. It just made sense. And it has since influenced Bush's playing.
"I still teach it to every student who walks in my door," he said.
Morse and his musical mates are among an elite number of players who perform better live than on a record. The technical prowess is the starting point; add in interesting tunes and the energy of an audience and often you get fireworks.
“The idea is to keep the technique up to point where you don’t have to think about it,” Morse said. That frees him to experiment. “I like to try to change the sounds subtly, constantly.” So he’ll switch to a different pickup, or use his palm or the heel of his hand to depress the strings, or employ a second amplifier, or use a delay effect or high-gain setting or harmonics. “There’s a lot of improvisation.”
Morse has the unusual ability to bring to life physically the musical complexities he imagines in his head. But songwriting typically starts with a seed, he said.
“The first thing is to find something that haunts you, that you can’t forget, dig a little hole and put the seed in the ground,” Morse said. “I tend to keep a dozen ideas going at once. Every few days or so I’ll check them and water them just to see if anything is growing.”
He’ll play a little then stop to see if what he did matched what he hears in his mind’s ear. Then, suddenly, the next section occurs to him, and he’ll experiment on the guitar until it all fits together.
“But the main part involves being in touch with that childlike creative side enough to be able to turn it on and off and go into analysis,” he said.
These days, Morse is listening to “real intense spiritual stuff,” he said, especially Medieval and Renaissance vocal music. He likes how the harmonies constantly change and tonalities shift “like water going down a stream.”
And he enjoys the abstract nature of the music, which tends to be sung in Latin, a language he can’t understand, so he concentrates exclusively on the polyphonic voicing.
“I enjoy the mystery of it,” he said.
The Dregs' tour focuses on the “Free Fall” album on which this lineup of musicians played. It can be hard to get everyone together in the same room at the same time, Morse said, but the band did manage to convene last year to revive the old tunes, with no plans to tour in mind.
“It went surprisingly well,” Morse said. Everyone had internalized the songs, and muscle memory kicked in. So they all agreed to hit the road, thinking it would be a casual tour. Instead they were booked for six or seven shows back-to-back, Morse said. It will be an intense tour.
“There are plenty of challenges to deal with at our age,” he said.
But those challenges all will be forgotten when they switch on their amps and strike the first notes.