Steve Lukather: “I played Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen’s guitars – and I sounded like myself. But some of Jeff’s guitars were set up so strangely only he could play them”

Steve Lukather and Jeff Beck
(Image credit: Future / Clayton Call/Redferns)

Jeff Beck’s death on January 10 brought the guitar world to a standstill. We had lost the guitar player’s guitar hero, the one who everyone – beginner and legend alike – looked up to.

The tributes came thick and fast, and they gave us as sense of the enormity of Beck’s legacy. But Beck was such a central figure to the art of playing guitar that many similar tributes were paid to him when he was alive. When he was still blowing our minds in real time.

They say game recognises game, and that couldn’t be truer in this interview with Steve Lukather. Previously unpublished, this conversation took place in the early 2000s and reveals not only what Lukather, a bona fide guitar legend, thought of Beck, but is indicative of how all conversations of guitar excellence and its trailblazers invariably turned towards Beck. 

In this interview, Lukather explains what made Jeff Beck great, and reveals that there is a trove of unreleased material out there, featuring Lukather, Beck, and John McLaughlin, between Beck and Nile Rodgers. Who knows what exists on that archive. But more than that it is Lukather talking about his “favourite guitar player in the whole world”.

We heard a story that John McLaughlin, you and Jeff Beck were all recording on David Gilmour’s boat in London. You were producing Jeff at this point [for an unreleased album]. What happened to the tapes?

“What happened back then was John had written a piece for the three of us to play, but it ultimately didn’t work out. Jeff’s just trying to find his way and I was trying to help him as we’re friends – he’s my favourite guitar player in the whole world.

“I volunteered to help him and we checked out a whole bunch of stuff. Some of the stuff we did on Gilmour’s boat was pretty amazing; I was surprised he never wanted the stuff to come out. But he got into this techno thing so I respect him for that. I’m sorry it didn’t work out as I thought we did some pretty cool stuff.”

Didn’t he record a version of Chariots Of Fire with Nile Rodgers? 

“Jeff has more material in the can than he does have out, that’s for sure.”

That would make a good boxset sometime in the future!

He’s not one of these guys that does licks, but he’s alien – like, whatever the weirdest approach you can take to play the guitar, he does it

“I wouldn’t count on it. He’s really funny about that – once he’s changed his mind to not release something he doesn’t want anyone to hear it. I’ve fond memories of what we did, even though it’s not come out.”

Do you find that you pick more with fingers these days after working with Jeff?

“Yes, most definitely. He’s been a tremendous influence on me as a player, and being able to hang with him, sitting around in a room and jamming with him like I did, I clocked a lot of stuff that he does. Then again, he never does the same thing twice. He’s not one of these guys that does licks, but he’s alien – like, whatever the weirdest approach you can take to play the guitar, he does it.

“There was a Tony Hymas tune and the whole thing was false harmonics, except they don’t always lie well, right? So he was bending up the wang bar perfectly in tune, hitting the harmonic and letting it down. He was doing it seamlessly, you couldn’t even tell if you weren’t looking. He just doesn’t play the guitar like anybody else [laughs].”

There’s the world of Allan Holdsworth and then there’s the world of Jeff Beck.

“Yeah, he’s an alien. It’s wonderful, he should just keep following his thing whatever he wants. I’m a fan.”

The really great guys do sound unique, though – you give a guitar to, say, Jeff, Eddie Van Halen or you and everyone will sound different.

“Well, that’s the funniest thing in the world. I’ve played Jeff’s guitar and with his band, Eddie’s guitar and so on just to see. And I sound like myself, although playing through their gear you find yourself playing their licks! Some of Jeff’s guitars are set up so strangely, though, that only he can play them.”

Some of Jeff’s guitars are set up so strangely that only he can play them

You mean, such as really high action? And thick-gauge strings?

“Just interesting ways that he does things. He can pick up anything and it will sound perfectly in tune; he’s just got that pitch inside him. He may not even know he’s got perfect pitch, but he does. We were writing something in his house once, just messing around, and I had my back to him. I had said, ‘Here’s a melody, kinda like this,’ and I played it and turned back to the desk to do something. 

“He played the melody, but it sounded a little strange. Not bad, just different, like, ‘How does he make it sound like that?’ So I turned around and he’s playing the whole lick down a half-step but bending up every string – but you don’t hear the bend up. I grabbed his hand and said, ‘Jeff, it might be easier if you moved it up a half step,’ and he just laughed at me. 

“It just goes to show he’s not like other guitar players. He hears it and will find it but not like a normal guitar player would. That’s what makes him Jeff Beck – if it sounds good ‘normal’, he’s not interested. If it sounds like anything he’s done before, he’s not interested.

“He’s one of those guys concerned with ‘personal best’. If it’s not kicking his ass, whereas it would be kicking mine or anyone else’s, it’s gone – he has his own standard. Which makes him the great, impossible-to-emulate Jeff Beck.”  

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Jason Sidwell

Jason Sidwell (BA Hons, MA, ALCM) is editor of Guitar Techniques and senior tuition editor for Guitarist who has written and edited over 20,000 articles since 1998. As an educator he is an advisor/guest tutor for UK music academies/examining institutions, a director for the International Guitar Foundation (IGF), author of How to Play Guitar Step by Step (Dorling Kindersley) and extensive tutorials for The Guardian and Observer newspapers. Outside of journalism, he is a busy classical guitarist, performs regularly for theatre productions and has a broad cliental for studio work.