Steve Lukather talks jamming with Eddie Van Halen, and the time Prince gave him the silent treatment

[L-R] Steve Lukather, Eddie Van Halen and Prince
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A prolific session musician outside of his role in long-standing rock outfit Toto, Steve Lukather has played electric guitar with some of the biggest names in music over the course of his career. 

And in a new conversation over on the YouTube channel of Sunset Sound, a legendary recording facility in Hollywood, California, the guitarist waxed lyrical on his encounters with two of the most notable guitarists of all time, Eddie Van Halen and Prince.

“I think I am one of the few guitar players who ever played with Van Halen live,” Lukather tells producer Drew Dempsey, Sunset Sound owner and president Paul Camarata, and recording engineer Niko Bolas. “I played with them in Texas. I played with them at the Cabo Wabo opening.”

“I sang background on a couple of records,” he later expands. “I just happened to be up and they’re like, ‘Come on!’ If memory serves me right, it would have been the F.U.C.K. [For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge] album, and [OU812]. Sammy was in the band. Ted Templeman was the producer when I went out there. I think it was Top Of The World. I just did some ‘oohs’ and sang in the background with them. It was no big deal. But I sang on a couple of tracks.”

In the same conversation, the Toto man, who’s known for his good-natured gabbing, also recalls getting off on the wrong foot with Prince at an early session for Valerie Carter’s 1978 album, Wild Child, something that would haunt him for years to come.

“I didn’t know Prince," explains Lukather. “So I go in, and the first thing hear is someone’s called Prince. ‘That’s his name!? Did he give that to himself?’ I’m just being a smart-ass. I didn’t know nothing about this guy! ‘Prince, huh?’ So, anyway, he’s there, and he’s just this quiet, skinny little dude."

“The day goes on and on and all this time Prince says nothing. I said to James [Newton Howard, the album's producer], ‘What’s wrong with this cat!? He’s creeping me out!’ He never said a freakin’ word to me. That was the first Prince encounter. I’m playing all day long and the cat never said nothing to me. He would just occasionally stare at me in a really odd way.”

The session wasn’t Lukather’s only encounter with Prince. He also recalls bumping into Prince again at Sunset Sound. The latter was there to mix his 1984 mega-hit-in-the-making Purple Rain, and, as Lukather tells it, he brought along some props to get in the spirit. 

“It was like 10 in the morning,” he says. “I was here [at Sunset Sound] for a tracking session... and he was sitting on that purple bike, that was in the movie – in a silver lamé suit – sitting on it! 

“He had this huge bodyguard, with the white hair. The cat was on the bike. I see him and say, ‘Hey, man!’ He goes [nods]. I got a little ‘uhh’. I am a big fan. Let me just say, as a musician… But he wouldn’t talk to me, man, and it lasted a long time!”

Elsewhere in the conversation, Lukather hints that he's filled in anonymously on rhythm duties for some big name lead players over the years. While some artists have been happy about the association, others – for reasons of professional pride – have preferred to keep their relationship with Lukather under wraps.

“I signed a couple of NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] in my time,” says Lukather early on in the discussion. “I can’t really get into all that. It was always great lead guitar players that could solo their ass off but they had a real tough time playing the dumb shit and they’d hire me to go ‘dn-dn-dn-dn-dn’: ‘You play the dumb shit, for time.’”

In keeping with his legal obligations, Lukather gives no hint of the guitarists involved in those sessions, but it’s an interesting insight into the life of a session player, before DAWs made it easier to iron-out a shoddy rhythm hand.

Earlier this year, Lukather reprised his working relationship with Sammy Hagar, jamming on the song Crossroads as part of the vocalist’s Rock N Roll Road Trip series.

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Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk (opens in new tab), which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.

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