Steve Lukather has the sort of résumé most musicians can only dream of. Best-known for his work in Toto, the 53-year-old guitar master was the six-string force behind such hits as “Rosanna,” “Africa” and “I Won’t Hold You Back.” His vast catalog of session work is just as impressive. During a 30-year-plus career, the multi-faceted Lukather has played with everyone from Rod Stewart to Chicago to Quincy Jones to Paul McCartney. His indispensable role in the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album remains a noteworthy high point.
Amazingly, in the late ’80s, Lukather managed to launch a solo career as well. His latest album, All’s Well That Ends Well, showcases both his versatility as a musician and his impeccable craftsmanship as a songwriter. In the following interview, the veteran guitarist talks about the new disc, his life in music, and the ’59 Les Paul he calls his “Holy Grail.”
The songs on the new album are sophisticated and melodic at the same time. Is that what you were going for?
Yes. A lot of it has to do with how you re-voice chords. I’m interested in more than just “three-chord” rock. I appreciate and enjoy that music, but I also love artists like Steely Dan, who are very sophisticated, harmonically. That music makes me smile. I have to enjoy what I do before I can expect anyone else to like it.
“On My Way Home,” from the new album, is a direct musical tribute to Steely Dan. Have you ever played with them?
I have, but not on record. When I was 19, before Toto was formed, Jeff Porcaro and I were asked to be part of Steely Dan’s Aja tour. We began rehearsals, but then that tour never happened. I was very excited, of course. Steely Dan was a major part of my childhood. I’ve also worked with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker separately, but I’ve never had the chance to play on a Steely Dan album. I thought, “Okay, I’ll just write my own Steely Dan song.” I did it out of respect for them.
How do you approach solos?
I generally don’t work things out beforehand, but there are exceptions. For example, on “Don’t Say it’s Over,” from the new album, there’s a middle section that sounds like a cross between Jeff Beck and Weather Report, and that section leads into a solo. It keeps on modulating, until the listener starts to think, “Where is this going?” And then I explode into the solo. That was written out, and melodically that’s obvious. I spent time working on that. But other solos, like the ones for “Flash in the Pan” and “Brody’s,” were done just jamming around.
On “Watching The World,” you nailed the trademark Badfinger slide sound, and yet you didn’t use a slide. How did you do that?
I did that just using the whammy bar. It’s something I learned from watching Jeff Beck. He’s one of the greats, one of the best we’ve ever had. As far as single line, linear playing and melodies go, there’s no one better.
How did you learn to play?
I started hanging out with some older kids down the street, who had a band. I was mesmerized by the electric guitars and the amplifiers, and by the guys playing them. I was just this tiny kid, but one of the guys took a shine to me, and he let me play his electric guitar, and showed me a couple of things off the radio. I was completely enamored. From there, I became a sponge. I would go to anyone who could play, and absorb whatever they knew. And then I would move on to the next guy. Eventually some of the older guys wanted me to be in bands with them, while I was still quite young. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was already making some money, playing on weekends at parties and so forth. My parents told me I had a billion to one chance of making it, but I had tunnel vision about this thing I wanted to do.
You began doing session work when you were just a teenager. What was that like?
People don’t really understand what a session player is. They imagine a guy sitting on a stool, reading dots. The work I did required some music-reading – that’s true – but there’s a lot more to it than that. We were hired – the guys I came up with, and myself – to essentially take sketches on a canvas, and help finish the painting. It was like, “Here are my ideas, and here are the chord changes I’ve come up with. Now, what are you doing to do with that?” That’s what we did, under pressure, with the red light on. We came up with a lot of hook-y parts for other people’s tunes. You have to have your sound, your own ideas, and an ability to understand and interpret ideas coming from someone who, in some cases, may not be very musical. And you have to be willing to change something you’ve already done. You have to leave your ego at the door.
Toto drew some heat for having a sound that some people said was overly polished. Did that rankle?
It was ridiculous. What were we supposed to do, play out of tune? Actually, once, as a joke, on our second album, we did a song called [names a prominent music critic], where we exchanged instruments with one another. We played out of tune, on purpose, while Jeff Porcaro did the song as a spoken-word, reading our reviews. We double-sped our voices and had a great time. Of course, the song never came out. We just did it to amuse ourselves.
Did you ever consider roughing up the edges a bit – dumbing down, so to speak?
That was us “rough”! I understand “rough,” but there are ways of being loose and being brilliant at the same time. The Rolling Stones are the perfect example. In my opinion they’re the great original punk band. Some of the alt-rock guitarists seem to take pride in being [expletive] musicians. They’ll say they like things rough, but the reason they say things like that is because they can’t play something correctly. Playing less than you’re capable of would be like going in for surgery and asking the doctor to use a rusty scalpel.
Tell us about your involvement with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album?
It’s strange that Toto is never mentioned in association with that album. “Human Nature” is a Toto song. It was written by us, arranged by us, and played by us, with Michael Jackson singing it. But no one ever points that out. “Beat It” was Jeff Porcaro and me, with Eddie Van Halen playing the solo. I played bass, all the rhythm guitar parts, and all the riff parts. There are many albums we had lots to do with – really big, important albums – where no one mentions our name.
Do you still play your famous ’59 Sunburst Les Paul?
Yes. I have a tremendous history with that guitar. I have a photograph of George Harrison and me, playing together, and he’s playing that Les Paul. Also, that’s the guitar on “Beat It,” and it’s the guitar on “Rosanna” and lots of the Toto hits. From ’79 until around ’84, that was one of my two main guitars.
Do you continue to learn new things about guitar-playing?
Absolutely. I still learn new things from great players I know, players who are my friends. Every night, when I was on the road with Larry Carlton, I felt I was getting a lesson from him. Of course, he’s been a friend of mine since I was a child. And it’s the same with Lee Ritenour, as well as all the rock and roll guys I know. I listen to all different types of music, and am happy to have played with everyone from Rodney Crowell to Herbie Hancock to Wayne Shorter. I like the fact that I’ve sort of danced in every arena.