Steve Lukather compares using tabs to playing Guitar Hero

Steve Lukather is no fan of guitar tab
(Image credit: Alex Solca Photography)

Steve Lukather is arguably one of the most recorded rock guitarists in history, having played on more than 1,000 sessions (not to mention his own work with Toto and as a solo artist). 

And while he just released a brand-new solo album, I Found the Sun Again, he acquired his prodigious electric guitar chops the old-fashioned way: by reading music, not tablature.

As he explained to Ultimate Guitar in a new interview, tablature “doesn't even make sense” to him.

"Why would you learn that if you can learn how to read music?” Luke said. “I look at tablature and reading music the same way you look at playing real guitar and playing Guitar Hero.

"If you're taking all that time to learn the game, why don't you go on to learn how to play the guitar at the end of it? It's the same thing to me, like, why would you do that?

"But hey, a lot of people live by it, even in Nashville, with the number charts. Sure, it's easier to change keys but it's a drag when you have altered chords."

As for the belief that learning music theory “takes the soul out of a song,” Luke respectfully disagrees:

"Bullshit!,” he said. “If anything, it has really helped my playing, especially back in the day when I had to come up with parts on the spot. They'd just give you a chord symbol and count off the tune and you're supposed to come up with something brilliant on the spot.

"Just knowing your common tones, your relative majors and minors, the simple dumb shit you learn right away, I don't care if you're a shredder or a classical player, it's important to know the language.

"If you're planning a trip to France, it might be a smart idea to learn French – to learn the language of where you're going. It's easier to just be able to read something than to spend hours having somebody show you how to play it.”

He continued, “I could give you a thousand reasons why knowing harmony and theory has helped the writing process, the options, the improvisation. The biggest lie out there is that knowing how to read music or knowing anything about music theory takes your soul away... Bullshit!"

By the same token, while having a handle on music theory has worked for him, Luke is quick to point out that every guitarist is different.

"On the other hand, would I give, God bless his soul, my brother, Edward Van Halen, guitar lessons? Would I give Jeff Beck guitar lessons? No,” he said.

“My own son plays guitar weird because he didn't want to take lessons. But he started to come upon something that I would have never thought of, so I just stopped myself. And I was like, 'Carry on. Keep doing what you're doing. Just don't become a shredder. There's already too many of them. Write good songs, be a great rhythm guitar player, play melodically, and you'll always have work.' ”

"So, he listened to me, fortunately, and now it's working. But saying that music theory takes the soul out of a song is just a lazy man's way of saying they don't have the time to put in."

In other Luke news, he recently reformed Toto with singer Joseph Williams, with the new lineup debuting with a one-night-only global livestream. Earlier this summer Lukather also collaborated with Ernie Ball Music Man on the newest version of his Luke III signature model electric guitar.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.