Steve Lukather: “I used to learn George Harrison s**t and everyone thought I was a badass! Now little kids on YouTube play like Stevie Ray Vaughan“

Steve Lukather
(Image credit: Per Ole Hagen/Redferns)

When Steve Lukather talks guitar, you take a knee and listen. For over 40 years, the LA-born musician has been the one constant member of multi-platinum rockers Toto, and as a session player his unparalleled CV includes stints with an array of legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Michael Jackson. 

On Jackson’s masterpiece Thriller, the biggest selling album of all time, it was Eddie Van Halen who played the solo in Beat It, but Lukather who laid down the song’s signature riff. These days he is also a member of Ringo Starr’s All Star Band, and Ringo is just one of the friends appearing on his latest solo album, I Found The Sun Again

“I have to pinch myself,” he says. “Ringo’s a dear friend, we FaceTime every week. Yes, he’s one of the Beatles, but he’s also one of the most intelligent, funny, soulful and spiritual people you could meet. You just wanna be around him. We got half a million YouTube views for my Run To Me video with him, and 100,000 views for the title track. If people were still buying singles I’d have a gold record by now!” 

As he adds with a knowing smile: “I’m not doing too bad for an old guy!” And this old guy has much hard-earned wisdom to pass on...

Keep your ears and your mind open

“I can listen to Slipknot and The Carpenters on the same day and not be weirded out by it. But I’ve always loved sweet chords. I wrote the ballads for Toto on piano. And high school was where it started for me. When I met [future Toto bandmates] the Porcaro brothers they turned me onto all this new music – jazz, funk, what the studio musicians in LA were playing – and my musical palette grew. 

“I was the guy always changing stations seeking out new stuff, I was enamored by jazz and jazz fusion, players like John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Jay Graydon. 

“They were the big boys, and I wanted to be like them. Larry’s solo on [Steely Dan’s] Kid Charlemagne hit me hard. He was a jazz guy playing with a rock sound – it had a little hair on it, and I loved it.

I can listen to Slipknot and The Carpenters on the same day and not be weirded out by it

“I didn’t have aspirations to be a ‘rock star’ or to have a hit record, because that’s the needle in a haystack. I just wanted to be a professional musician, a studio player, because that was a more viable job. I wound up on a lot of TV shows like Midnight Special, this weird 18 year-old behind all these singers!“

Be a team player

“I was 19 when I got a gig with Boz Scaggs, and he was great. He made a big deal about me on stage, and that’s what sold Jeff Porcaro on the idea I might be the right guy for Toto. So I got a shot, and that’s the luck – getting the shot.

“The trick is getting that second call-back. You have to perform, and if you’re good enough to get the call-back you’ve made the cut. That means you can handle the pressure of the gig, of being creative and coming up with your parts on the spot, with no demos, no rehearsal, no warning of what was coming. 

“When you’re given a chart that says G, E minor, A minor, D – what are you gonna play? You get the vibe of the song, the drummer starts playing a little bit so you get the groove, everybody’s playing, and you gotta find a part that works, that helps the whole song glue together.“

Timing is everything

“What I have that some other, better, players didn’t is an arranger’s ear. If I’m working with another guitar player I’d better come up with something that works with his part. I’ve found myself playing with legends like Jay [Graydon], Ray Parker Jr., Dean Parks. Yeah, I got lucky, but you’ve still gotta bring it. 

“I’ve seen some incredible musicians fold up under the pressure once they see that red light go on. You gotta be a great rhythm guitar player, have great feel and great time, and you gotta be consistent. 

“I’ve had to overdub guys in big bands who could play the solos, but when they played [rhythm] to the click they had no swing, they were stiff and all over the time. I’d be the ringer that came in and played all the dumb parts but play ’em in time! I can’t tell you who – I had to sign NDAs! And when you do get a solo you don’t have to show how big your dick is in the first two bars, y’know?“

Sometimes it’s right to play a little out of tune

“When I played on Thriller, Quincy [Jones, producer] gave me free rein all the time. For Human Nature, he told me: ‘You gotta make this funky for me, man – I gotta get this on RnB radio’. I said to Bruce [Swedien, legendary record engineer] ‘Let’s try something – plug me direct, let’s get a weird sound. 

“I came up with the part and double-tracked it, but for the second track we slowed the tape down a bit to make it a little out of tune, like the Beatles used to do. The two parts rubbed against each other a bit, gave it a quirky chorusy feeling, and Quincy loved it. Beat It was Michael’s riff, and when I changed it a little he started dancing, doing the Michael Jackson thing two feet away from me. 

“I’m 24 years old thinking I’d made the big time! I played the bass and all the guitars on that one, except Ed [Van Halen]’s solo. I’d used all these Marshalls, then Quincy called me back saying, ‘It sounds too big! I want to make this a crossover hit – use one of your little amps!’ So I plugged in my Fender Deluxe, backed off the distortion and gave him what you hear on the final record.“

For extra motivation, get a shitty job!

“If I were a kid starting out now, I would find a gig with someone with a record deal, a singer who needs a band. That’s a viable possibility for when the gigs come back, and they will. If you do wanna be in a band, it is competitive, but if you and your music are good enough you will rise. 

“As a kid I had a couple of shitty jobs – no way I was going to clean out dry cleaning solvent for the rest of my life! I suggest every kid have a shit job to motivate them to do what they wanna do.“

If you want to make money, write songs

“I still talk to [Toto keyboardist] David Paich every day at 6am. He’s not medically able to tour, but runs the band with me. We got a new line-up for our livestream show [last November] and it worked. I’m the thread through all 15 incarnations of the band. 

“Dave was a master composer, he wrote Hold The Line, Rosanna, co-wrote Africa with Jeff. He always said that if you write good songs and get great musicians to play them it’s going to sound like dope. 

“He would encourage me to write, then we’d write together, and by Toto IV we were all writing. It’s more lucrative than not writing, and the more you work on it the better you can get. We do solo stuff in the Toto set now, as a lot of the same people buy the records. But the world has changed. We’ve had three billion streams with Toto – three billion! And where’s the fucking money? I could use some right now!“

It’s a hard knock life!

“It’s a simple way of life. When somebody smacks you in the face and knocks you on your ass you get up and go: ‘Fuck you - give me another one!’ If you can’t take it get out, because that’s what this business is emotionally, it’s a punch in the face. You’ll hear ‘no’ a lot more than ‘yes’, and there’s real pressure. 

“That red light’s on – are you gonna deliver, or fold up like a chair? People say ‘It’s easy being a rock star! Anyone can do it’, like people say, ‘I’m an actor, I can remember lines, it’s easy!’ Yeah? Show me! Show me how easy it is next to a Jack Nicholson! 

“For us guitarists, it’s much harder and more tedious to learn how to play simple than it is to play 90 million miles an hour. There are levels of shred, and I’m on a low level. I used to learn George Harrison shit and everyone thought I was a badass! Now there’s these little kids on YouTube who play like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was trained for a different era.“

Go easy on the effects

“The '80s were famous for too much of everything – chorus, delays. I’d play on a couple of records with these effects, then producers would ask you for that sound. I’d say, ‘Well I don’t hear that on this song,’ but they’d want it. 

“When they hire you they’d say ‘You’re gonna bring the Bradshaw, right?’ because that’s the sound they going for. On the first Toto records I’d have the time and money to experiment on layering guitars, but working on other people’s music, you had to give them what they want. 

“I get these guys making digital fx patches called things like ‘Luke’ and it’s all this flanging and reverb and it sounds like a wash of shit. ‘So that’s what you think I sound like?!’ But I have been guilty of overusing that stuff, shamefully so. 

“The day after I got the Bradshaw rig I did my Star Licks [instructional] video. It was an era. The clothes, the hair, the drugs, MTV... Those were heady times, bro! You had to be there.“

Find your own sound... 

“I know good when I hear it. Snarky Puppy are one of my favorite bands, and Tosin Abasi [Animals As Leaders] is an alien! Call me a musical snob, but I still like cats who can really play, and not just pretend, like these guys who make a wall of crunchy, quadrupled guitars then play the harmonic minor scale at lightning speed. 

“Maybe it’s a thing, a style purposely done, but I’m just saying – when I was a kid you could hear the difference between Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. 

“My son Trev’s got his own band, Levara, they sound like Toto if we were heavier. He writes his solos out, and he once told me, ‘Dad, I’m not gonna just go play the blues for you!’ And I’m like ‘Great, you found your niche!’ And that’s important. Find your niche, find your sound, find your place. Not everybody can play everything."

  • I Found the Sun Again is out now via The Players Club.

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Grant Moon

Grant Moon is the News Editor for Prog magazine and has been a contributor to the magazine since its launch in 2009. A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, Big Big Train - Between The Lines, is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.