“Eddie Van Halen changed the game. I remember him telling me once, ‘Man, I didn’t mean to start all this madness’”: Steve Lukather on why he’s always championed melody above all else, and how that philosophy informed his new “unabashedly ‘80s” solo album

Steve Lukather
(Image credit: Alex Solca)

A member of Toto, Steve Lukather’s melodic solos and slick songwriting defined a generation of AOR-loving fans throughout the '80s. If you can recall the sweet sounds of pop-leaning rock classics like Hold the Line, I’ll Supply the Love, Africa and I Won’t Hold You Back, then surely you’ve dug into Lukather’s inspired licks. 

Of course, a player as inspired as Lukather can’t be held down, as evidenced by his expansive career as a sideman with the likes of George Benson, Michael Bolton, Michael Jackson, Cher, Peter Criss, Ringo Starr, Elton John and about a million others (including one especially cool appearance with George Harrison in 1992).

So, yeah… it goes without saying that Lukather has impacted the masses unimaginably. Through big hits, endless songsmithery and immense restraint in an era perpetually defined by shred, the San Fernando Valley native has managed to unintentionally soundtrack the music zeitgeist.

“It’s funny… I can’t even remember half of the things I’ve recorded,” Lukather says. “I’ve been on so many sessions that I’m lucky if I can remember any of them. People ask me, ‘Steve, what’s your favorite solo of yours?’ or ‘Do you think any of them are underrated?’ I always have to tell them, ‘I can’t remember.’ 

“I mean, I’ve got ones that I love, but I can never pick. It’s not for me to decide what’s best or most underrated, you know? I’ve always been one to try and write a good song and record a solo that people will remember. That’s always been way more important to me than shredding or competing.”

These days, due to a myriad of nasty legal dealings, Toto is no more. But that doesn’t mean Lukather is leaving behind the songs he helped create; quite the contrary. In addition to some of his most memorable solo cuts, Lukather happily plays many of Toto’s classics while on tour. And so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that with his latest album, Bridges, Lukather is dialing back to the stylings that made him famous with his flagship band. 

“This album came together over the pandemic because of me sitting around saying, ‘Man… I’m so bored,’” he says. “But there was more to it. The pandemic was a weird time. The other side of Bridges becoming a reality was me being scared, thinking, ‘Are we ever gonna be able to come back? Are we ever gonna leave our homes again?’ 

“It was weird because it came out of nowhere, and it all hit me at once. Plus I had just broken up with my girlfriend, so I really wanted to do something significant. That led me to call my friends and make a record that is unabashedly '80s.”

During a break from the road, Lukather dialed in with GW to dig into the making of Bridges, his aversion to shredding and the challenges of making new music for a world that might not be listening.

Were you intentionally trying to make a stylistically different record from your last album, 2021’s I Found the Sun Again?

“I definitely did want to do something different because I think I Found the Sun Again was a bit more self-indulgent, so I was more focused on having fun again with Bridges. So I called up a bunch of my old Toto bandmates to be on the record because I really did want to harken back to that style of music. 

“Due to complicated legal issues, Toto will never make another record. But I still love that music, so I called up Simon Phillips, David Paich and even my son Trev [Lukather]. I love how it came out, but I think the sound results from just doing it for fun. We said, ‘Fuck it, let’s go in and make a cool, '80s-sounding record,’ and we did so shamelessly without denying ourselves what we wanted to do. I guess I needed to scratch that itch. It just came down to downshifting my approach.”

I really tried to make a statement where you could hum along and remember this stuff rather than just going, ‘Oh, wow….’

In what ways did you downshift?

“I just wasn’t trying to keep up with the insane abilities of the younger players. I’m a big fan and love it all, but my strength was always more melodic playing. So I said, 'Let me stay in that arena. I’ll leave the crazy stuff to the younger players.' As far as putting the parts together, all the solos were done in one or two takes, and I didn’t piece anything together. I really tried to make a statement where you could hum along and remember this stuff rather than just going, ‘Oh, wow….’”

Would you call this album a sort of ‘bridge’ – sorry, had to! – between Toto and your solo work?

“I think so. And that’s why I brought a guy like David Paich out of semi-retirement to write with me. We still love working together; we just didn’t want to call it Toto. And it’s not that I’m remotely ashamed of that music; I’m on the road performing that stuff now. But it’s complicated in terms of ownership and all the craziness of it all.”

How does your approach to guitar shift from project to project?

“First and foremost, I’ve gotta try to keep up. [Laughs] But don’t get me wrong; I’m not some old stiff thinking it’s over. But man, everybody seems to play so much fast bullshit, and I disagree with that entire concept. But there are so many incredible young players out there now, male and female. I’ve gotta say the women have stepped up. 

“Some of the best guitar players in the world today are women. And I think that’s great because when I started, there weren’t many. So while I hate even to differentiate between men and women because they’re all great players, the reality is that things have come a long way. So for me, it’s about trying to keep up with all these insane players while still being myself.”

What do you feel has empowered more women to pick up the guitar?

“People’s mindset has changed. It all starts there. Because it doesn’t matter what sex you are; a great player is a great player. Go ahead and blindfold-test anybody without telling them what sex the player is and see what happens. If the player is great, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, shit, that was awesome. Who is that?’ 

“They’re not going to know if it’s a man or woman, and they’re not gonna be able to say, 'Oh well, that was pretty good for a chick,' or whatever bullshit thing. I wouldn’t ever say that, and I know it’s not politically correct to say that, but some people still think that way. But not me; I’m an old, peace-loving hippie from the '60s. [Laughs]”

That always cracked me up, as Eddie Van Halen was the father of shred. But I never tried to do that, and I still don’t. I’m still the same melodic guy I’ve always been

You’re clearly tuned into what’s happening in music now, but do you ever feel beholden to what you’ve done in the past? If so, how do you balance the two?

“I think I was more beholden to my past as a player on this new record because I didn’t try to be too flashy. Like I said, I’ve always been known as a melodic player, and I’m cool with that. Back when I started, there was no such thing as 'shredding'. In the '70s, we were just trying to make good records. 

“But then Eddie Van Halen came along and changed the whole game. I remember him telling me once, ‘Man, I didn’t mean to start all this madness,’ but he really did change the entire game. That always cracked me up, as Eddie was the father of shred. But I never tried to do that, and I still don’t. I’m still the same melodic guy I’ve always been.”

Which solo from Bridges proved to be the most challenging?

“That’s hard to say. I think that each piece tells its own story, you know? So the most important thing for me was to craft memorable things. Again, I aimed to lean more melodic and avoid being too flashy. 

“But there are still a couple of flashy licks in there, which I guess means I can still play. [Laughs] But I think keeping it to one or two takes and not doing much editing meant I came away with some pretty clean, straightforward and memorable moments.”

You’re gonna laugh; I used one guitar for the entire record. [Laughs] And that was my Music Man Luke III.

Which electric guitars, amps and pedals did you bring to the party?

“You’re gonna laugh; I used one guitar for the entire record. [Laughs] And that was my Music Man Luke III. It’s the green one you’ve probably seen in my recent photos. As far as amps are concerned, I’ve been with Bogner for some time and love them. 

“They’re great amps. I’ve used a lot of different amps over the years, but I don’t really use anything else these days. And my pedals are the same ones I have on stage with me on tour. I used a little delay, reverb and a Jeff Kollman Bombastortion pedal. I didn’t do anything fancy, really. Like the songwriting and approach, I kept the gear minimalistic.”

Steve Lukather

(Image credit: Ernie Ball Music Man)

What do you like most about Music Man guitars?

“This is my 30th year using Music Man guitars, and I love them. And we actually have the Luke IV coming out, which will have my own Music Man pickups that they wound just for me. I didn’t know if I wanted to do that, but they talked me into it. And I’m glad they did because they’re mind-blowingly good. But they’re great, versatile guitars. 

“They are incredible tools that give me everything I need in the studio and on the road. I love vintage guitars, too. I’ve got a bunch that will go to Trev when I’m gone, but there’s something about my Music Man guitars that have kept me with them for a long time. They’re beautiful guitars, play great, sound fantastic and do exactly what I need them to do.”

What are some challenges in making new music in a low-attention-span world?

“It really is a drag, man. I guess it would be easy to question why I’m still doing it, but I don’t. But it is challenging. Because when I was a kid, I remember crying and begging my parents for new records. It used to be an event when new albums would come out, and we’d all go out and get and scramble to get the latest [Jimi] Hendrix, Stevie Wonder or [Led] Zeppelin album. 

I know it’s about singles and playlists now, but I still feel that as an artist, it’s essential to make a complete musical statement

“And then we’d go to a friend’s house and sit around and take it in. And once we did that, we’d hang out and talk about what we just heard. But it’s not like that anymore. Now you put out an album, and it has a one-week shelf life. 

“It used to be six months, but it feels more like six minutes now. I mean… you’re lucky if you can get anyone’s attention with even one track, let alone an entire album. So I know it’s about singles and playlists now, but I still feel that as an artist, it’s essential to make a complete musical statement.” 

  • Bridges is out now via Player's Club.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.