Steve Lukather Discusses Toto, Working With Michael Jackson and New Solo Album

Steve Lukather, Toto's veteran guitarist, isn't a newcomer to rock. Along with his Toto work, he has played on albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller, solidifying his reputation as a guitarist who's sound has touched the ears of millions. His new album,Transition, is a bold statement, and shows that even after all these years, Lukather isn't ready to slow down.

You must be really excited about Transition.

I’m lucky to still be doing this after 36 years. But, I’m digging deep, man. I’m clear, focused, healthy, and motivated. I tried to make a musical statement that I can be proud of and have some fun doing it. I think it turned out pretty good for an old guy (laughs).

Could you talk about the writing process, and the kind of gear you used for the album?

I used a Bogner Ecstasy, an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, and the new L-3 Music Man guitar with DiMarzio pickups. I kept it real simple. All the effects were done as plug-ins. I really tried to go way more organic, for lack of a better term. I just wanted to get great tone, less gain, not so much flash, more phrasing and interesting choice of notes. I think that’s what I probably do best. As far as the writing process, I did it totally different than I normally do. Usually, I just cut everything with live tracks and overdub to that, but this time, from the moment my fingers hit the guitar neck, my writing partner and co-producer, C.J, and I were working on writing in his studio, and we kept everything. Oddly enough, the way it’s sequenced on the record is the way we wrote it. First song we wrote was “Judgement Day.” The second was “Creep Motel,” and so on. You know, I’m just trying to be an “artist,” playing to the people who like what I do, and try and to be the best version of myself that I can be right now.

The lyrics seem more personal than on your previous work.

Steve: You know, I had a few dark, lost years that I’m not really too proud of, but after 36 years on the road, and all the personal, weird, dark, fucked-up experiences that one goes through in life, I’ve cleaned out my mind, body, and soul and gotten back into my love of playing the guitar. I appreciate my career more than ever. I’ve sort of publicly apologized for my sins, even though Youtube will never let me forget a bad night or a bad moment, with all those pleasant people who leave those comments (laughs). You know, I’ve been the human piñata more than one time and it’s painful, so I try not to read that shit. My shrink tells me it’s like people who cut themselves. You know, reading people’s personal hatred towards me is like taking a razor blade and cutting my arms or something like that. Everybody has haters and that’s part of life. That’s what the song “Creep Motel” is about. People who just sit in a little room by themselves and hate other people. It’s an unbelievable waste of time to me. And as a hypersensitive person, it really fucked with me for a while. But, I’ll have to take my beatings along with the good shit that comes, so what can I say? I’m sorry I lost my way for a minute, but I’m back and I feel great.

What is your favorite solo on Transition

Steve: Well, the opening track, “Judgement Day”, has a pretty cool solo. I try not to play in that pentatonic box. I try to define the chord changes a little differently a little bit more by ear and not as a typical rock or a typical blues scale kind of thing, even though it’s all rooted in the blues because everything fuckin’ cool is. I just try know, I love jazz music but I’m not really a jazz guitar player in the traditional sense. People that I look up to mix rock and jazz and I’m a little bit more rock. I just try and play differently than maybe the other people would approach those changes, stylistically speaking.

Dave: What are your thoughts on your new Transition pickups from DiMarzio?

Steve: I wanted to try something different. I’ve had an incredible relationship with Music Man guitars. Sterling Ball, Brian, Scotty, and all their guys are like my family and best friends and I’ve been with them since 1992. We’ve developed these guitars and had different versions of them. With the third version, which is the L-3, I realized I like the guitar, but I don’t like active pickups. I ran into Larry DiMarzio many times. He’s a really cool guy, and some of the artists on his roster...come on! They’re some of the best artists of all time. I wanted to try something different and when I ran into Larry, I told him that. He sent over a bunch of different things, we went through some stuff, and I found something that I really liked that was really versatile and really full-bodied. It has a little bit more of the lower-mids that fill out the sound and doesn’t have that scoop in the middle. I like EMGs and I still have them, but Larry just changed my whole thing. As I changed my whole lifestyle to be more organic, I made my sound more organic. I’m not using any digital shit, no MIDI shit. I use a few stomp boxes on the floor right into the amp with a cable, passive DiMarzio pickups, and a bigger guitar body. I’m really quite pleased with how it turned out. I’m honored to be a part of that roster, too. There are some really diverse and amazing musicians on it, and on the Music Man team as well.

I heard that you have a photo of you and George Harrison on your iPhone.

I do have a picture of me and George Harrison. As a matter of fact, he was playing my ‘59 ‘burst. It was at the tribute to Jeff Porcaro in 1992 after Jeff passed. We became friends and he would call me, come over, and hang out. I have a few Beatles friends. I’ve worked with Paul as well in the ‘80s when I worked on the Thriller album, and then we did some other stuff right after that. I started playing guitar because of the Beatles and George was my first guitar hero. To be able to say that we were friends and to get to play and hang a little bit was a huge moment for me.

What was the story behind that jam?

Well, I ran into him in a club of all places in L.A. in 1992 and I knew that I had to meet George since he’s the reason that I play. I wanted to be George. He was the guy who did the guitar solo on “I Saw Her Standing There” and that touched me deeply. There was nothing before that sounded like it. Now it’s like 50 years old and the young don’t get it, but for us it was like aliens had landed. Just like when Jimi first hit, there was nothing like that. When I met George, we hit it off! He stunned me. I gave him my number thinking he was never going to call me, but not only did he call me, but he showed up and played. He would come into town, call me, and we would go out to dinner. We had this amazing jam with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner one night. It’s just unreal. He came up here with his son who wanted to meet Slash, who was a buddy of mine, so I brought him up to the house to meet Slash. George drove up in a little, beat-up car because he didn’t want to be noticed. No bodyguards, no shit, just a regular guy. He shared a lot of wisdom with me. He’s very soulful. I really dug him. And now that I have my Ringo connection, I’ve gotten to work with three of the four! I have a great picture of Paul McCartney, Jeff Porcaro, Linda, and me in my kitchen. It’s a great memory of something we did in the ‘80s. And there are not a lot of people that wow me like that. I’ve worked with a lot of really cool people in my career, but this is the high point.

What was it like to work with a young Michael Jackson on Thriller?

Steve: Well, I was a young Steve Lukather! (laughs) Michael and I were the same age. I think I was 23 or 24 years old when we did that. I was doing all of Quincy Jones’ records, so I did the Dude right prior to that. It was in between Off the Wall, which I didn’t work on, and Quincy did the Dude and David Foster told Quincy to hire me and he did and he liked me a lot, so I ended up doing all of his records for four or five years. When the Thriller album came up, we all knew that was going to be the cool record. You know you’ve made the A-team when you’re on certain records and that was definitely one of them. I remember Michael calling me on the phone at 8:00 am, saying, “Hey, this is Michael Jackson,” and I said “fuck off!” and hung up, thinking that someone was playing a joke on me. Two hours later I got a call from Quincy’s office explaining that the caller actually was Michael, so I called him back, and he was like, “oh, it happens all the time.” He was really nice, very professional. When Jeff Porcaro and I put “Beat It” back together again after Eddie cut the two-inch tape, they weren’t around. I ended up going back and working with Quincy and Michael later, after Jeff put the drum part on and I put the riff, all the guitar parts, and the bass part on. I worked on about 3 or 4 other things on that record, too. I mean, he did “Human Nature”, a Toto song, with us playing. We wrote and arranged it and Michael sang on it, but people don’t really give us much credit for it. Whatever. It was a very positive experience.

How did you balance Toto and consistent session work?

You know what? I wasn’t just sitting around the house. There were always rumors about how we were supposed to be a bunch of coke freaks and shit, and I’m hardly saying that we were innocent in that era of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but I was up at 10:00 am, working until 2:00 am everyday. I was doing sessions. We were working on records, making tours. We were very focused. When I look back at that time, I had some of the most amazing times of my life with the most amazing artists, musicians, engineers, and producers. I learned so much. It was a joy, man! Everyday you wake up and go, “who am I playing with today? Who’s going to be there? What studio am I at? Am I getting paid for this shit? This is amazing!” It was truly a dream come true. You made the time to do it all. I don’t really think about it. I look back at it now and think, “How the fuck did I do all of this?” I’ve kept date books since 1977 and I’ve started my book about my life and times in the studio. I’m writing it with my old high school buddy. He’s the editor of Riff Magazine. I’m trying to keep it interesting. I read a lot of biographies and so much is just so boring or so, like, “why did you say that?” I just want to write about the music, not about the stupid shit we did. There’s a lot of information about how the records were made, who actually contributed to what part. There are so many interesting stories rather than who fucked who or how much blow did you do. Some of these biographies, I wouldn’t put that stuff out. But hey, that’s just me.

When is that coming out?

Oh, it’s going to take me a few years get through that because I’m so lucky to be so busy doing all of these crazy things.

How did you fall into a lot of the session work?

We all went to school together. I went to high school in the Valley with the Karl Brothers, one of my old friends, Mike Landau. A couple of the guys went on to do really cool things and, I mean Jeff Porcaro was playing drums for Steely Dan when we were still in school. And so we got into the scene and I started meeting all the players, you know, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, right out of school. And then, before the machines took over, you could do demo sessions and get paid for it. It was kind of like the minor leagues. You’d start out in the minor leagues and then you’d work your way up to the major leagues, so you learned about how to do all this stuff, how to come up with parts, get your sound together, the etiquette of session playing, and the whole thing. It was all that you really needed to learn. I was very lucky to be geographically located in Los Angeles and to have the opportunity of knowing some older friends like Page and David Foster and people that I met along the way like Lee Ritenour who helped me and recommended me for sessions. And then, right out of school, Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees album was one of the biggest records of that year and a bunch of us jumped on that tour when we were like eighteen, nineteen years old, and that became Toto, which just sort of all snowballed at once. I was very lucky. It just all blew up at one time and I happened to be all ready to handle it. Unfortunately, this era is gone. It’ll never happen again. There’s no session scene anymore. There’s no...I don’t know...who’s the twenty-year-old guy coming up? There isn’t one. I mean, who’s the next real guitar hero? Who’s the game changer? Who do you think it is? Where’s the eighteen-year-old wonder kid? I’m not talking about the guy who can play the fastest, because there’s a lot of that. We all know that there’s some incredible technique going on out there, and I bow to it with respect. But, where’s the guy who’s gonna come along and fuck it all up and make people go “what the fuck is that? How the fuck is he doing that? What is that sound?” Have we really done it all? Everything seems to be really derivative of something that has come before it, even to the point of full-on plagiarism of looks, sound, and technique. I mean, gosh, I guess it’s hard to dress up the clown in a new way. I’m certainly welcoming this and the concept of bands that would just come along and kick everyone off of their lazy asses and make them go, “wow, this is the new shit!” Not to say that there’s anything wrong with today. God bless classic rock. It’s been very good to me; I’ll tell you that. But I should say to you, as an older guy, that I look down and recognize that I had my turn. I’m still trying to revise my shit and am thankful to have the gigs, but who’s the twenty year old that’s going to come around and blow everybody’s mind? Where is the Eddie Van Halen? Where’s the Jimi? Where’s the Jeff Beck? Where’s the game changer?

Were you ever offered a project that you declined and later regretted?

Yeah, I was asked to be in Elton John’s band, Joni Mitchell’s band and Miles Davis’ band. I couldn’t do it. A lot of the guys in Toto had similar things. Jeff was asked to be in Springsteen’s band, Dire Straits. We’ve all been offered lots of really cool gigs, but we didn’t want to leave our high school situation behind. So, I have regrets of what might have been had I done these things. How much better a player would I have been had Miles taken me on the road for six months, assuming he didn’t fire me after the first night? What would I have learned from that? It was a great honor to be in the same room with somebody of that stature in music. And he liked me! He called me on the phone himself, (imitating Miles in a raspy voice) “hey man, you want to come to New York City tomorrow?” and I had to say, “I can’t since I’m leaving on tour tomorrow for three months. I’d love to. I’m honored. Are you sure? You really want me?” And Miles said, (again, imitating Miles) “I like that rock and roll shit you do.” Oh my god! And I had to say no! Because I’m working on these records and being around these people, I get these opportunities that I had to say no to.

Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He is also a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoted acts like the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.

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