Essay

I'm here to make a big, big sound

Arend Slagman: The musical development of Steve Lukather

A penetrating , sharp guitar rockin' and rollin' in mid tempo together with straight drums (Mike Baird) and a dark bass (John Pierce) into the first lines of Richard Marx: "Have you heard the news? I'm doing what I said I would." We're talking about Nothing you can do about it here, the overture of Marx' second album Repeat offender (1989). Further on we hear Marx singing: "But I'm here to make a big, big sound." And during the whole song that creepy guitar sound of... indeed, mister Steve Lukather. In the centre of this song one of my favourite solos of a guitarist on his musical crusade to a big, big sound. I think that Marx is verbalizing here the leading thread running through Lukather's musical career.

On his way to that desirable sound, Lukather took broadly outlined four musical roads: the road of Toto (from the beginning), the road of a first-call studio musician (introduced by Jay Graydon, David Paich and Jeff Porcaro among other musical friends), the road of jam-sessions ("kicking off asses" like playing with Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck in Japan or with some of his musical friends in Los Lobotomys, Karizma or Doves of Fire) and the road of his solo albums. And fortunately every road had his spin-off on the other ones. As a studio musician Lukather contributed to hundreds and hundreds of songs on hundreds of albums with well known artists like George Benson, Diana Ross, Boz Scaggs, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Chicago and Cher. For a good survey take a look at the amazing discography.

Lukather himself looked back very double-hearted on his career as a session guitarist. In an interview in Guitar in September 1993 (a duologue with Eddie Van Halen) he said: "Some were great sessions, some were great records, particularly in the late '70s and early '80s. That was the peak of when I was doing it. I would look forward to being there and then sometimes the artist would be terrible - you didn't understand how these people got record deals! We'd sit there and make the most of it. This is a time before drum machines and before people had sophisticated home studios. There would be a piano/vocal demo or acoustic guitar demo. Or they would play the song for you. We'd basically rearrange and rewrite the song for them, just because we wanted to get the hell out of there. Most of it was bad; maybe 15 percent of the sessions were great, the rest were forgettable. That's when it got to the point where I stopped. Some of the more fun records we did were Don Henley, Boz Scaggs and Elton John. Those records were really creative." Four years before this interview Lukather came to a comparable conclusion in the song Got my way (co-written with his friends Michael Landau and Randy Goodrum) on his first solo album Lukather (1989): "I can't take no more. I'm so tired of running in somebody else's shoes. What's it all been for. What's the use of playing for somebody else's dues. I've been on the road for somebody else's dreams. Now I'm trying to find my way back again. It's time to break some rules. And stop before the fire in me cools."

Among the 15 percent of great sessions were in my opinion (just listening what and how Lukather was playing and what mutual influence was going on between the guest and his hosts), next to Bozz Scaggs, Don Henley and Elton John, people like Fee Waybill, i-Ten, Aretha Franklin, Randy Goodrum, Michael Landau, David Garfield and Jon Anderson . And of course the partners in Toto and the people he played the jam-sessions with. After 1989 Lukather primarily played with people he musically felt connected with, like Richard Marx, Kurt Howell, John Wetton, Gregg Bissonette, Simon Phillips, Pat Torpey (Mr. Big), Niacin, Mike Terrana, Larry Carlton and Derek Sherinian.

Songwriting

When you take the songwriting article on this website in one glance, you can see that as far as Toto is concerned Lukather started very slowly as a (co-)writer. No written song on the first Toto album, one on Hydra, two on Turn back, three on Toto IV etc. From The seventh one Lukather's production increased clearly, six out of eleven songs, on Kingdom of desire nine out of twelve, on Tambu twelve out of twelve and on Mindfields thirteen out of fourteen. On Lukather, released one year after The seventh one, Lukather co-wrote eleven out of eleven songs, on Candyman, released between Kingdom of desire and Tambu, nine out of eleven and on Luke, released between Tambu and Mindfields, ten out of eleven. On the 15 Toto studio albums Lukather (co-)wrote altogether 87 songs out of 162. On his seven solo albums he (co-)wrote 61 out of 94 songs. The songs on his solo albums he didn't wrote, are covers: Jimi Hendrix (Freedom and Red House), Joe Walsh (The bomber), Stephen Stills (Blue bird), Jeff Beck (The pump), Charlie Chaplin (Smile) (some important favourites from his youth) and some Christmas tunes.

It's also obvious that Lukather only wrote four Toto songs and two solo songs all by himself: Live for today on Turn back, I won't hold you back on Toto IV, How does it feel on Isolation (with a melodical flash forward on Stop loving you), Simple life on Falling in betweenAlways be there on Luke and Smell yourself on the 1989 Los Lobotomys album. In an interview in Frankfurt on 25 June 1997 (toto99.com) Lukather explained how he did the writing of the songs on Luke: "I had ideas for the stuff but to have guys help me finish it… cause lyrics are hard for me, lyrics are very hard to write, and the guys that know me… all the guys I wrote with are my friends, they know what I went through the last few years. I wanna write about life. Kind of reflecting on my whole life. It's about that." In the duologue with Eddie Van Halen (one year after the release of Kingdom of desire), Lukather answers on Eddie's question about the difference between a Toto record and a Steve Lukather record: "As far as song writing goes I get to play a little more. And the type of compositions I can do, I've got 10-minute songs. I don't write songs and say "I'll save this for me" or "This is a Toto song". When I write for Toto I write whatever comes. With Toto we write the songs all together. Here (on Candyman, A.S.) I'm writing most of the stuff with David Garfield." 

Talk to ya later

Lukather started his musical career at the age of seven. His father bought him a guitar and a copy of the album Meet the Beatles. "Just the sound of it overcame my whole soul, if you want to call it that. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I remember George Harrison played a solo in I saw her standing there and just the sound of the guitar bending and the reverb struck a nerve inside of me," Lukather explained to Eddie Van Halen. In the next years he taught himself how to play, learning from older kids and in high school from among others Jeff Porcaro and David Paich (a couple of years older and already doing sessions). At the age of 15 he started taking lessons with Jimmy Wyble (classical/jazz/country player). In his dialogue with Eddie Lukather recalls: "He taught me how to read and I took a lot of other classes, like orchestration. I wanted to learn. At that point I was really intrigued by the whole session thing. It wasn't something I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I didn't know anything about it until I was in high school. I always thought it was kind of cool to be able to play on all these great artists' records." In those years Jeff Porcaro and David Paich already appeared on albums like Diamond girl (1973) by James Seals & Dash Crofts, Pretzel logic (1974) and Katy lied (1975) by Steely Dan and Jeff on the underestimated album Teaser (1975) by guitarist/vocalist Tommy Bolin (he also died too soon!).

In the years following Lukather became the first-call studio musician as already mentioned. From the beginning of his career he turned out to be an all round guitarist playing rock, pop, jazz, funk, classical riffs, blues etc. During the first interesting contributions Lukather played (rhythm)guitar on the background, sometimes with sharp accents on a more heavy straight rock song like Stranded from the album Airplay by Airplay (1980, with Jay Graydon, David Foster and Tommy Funderburk), sometimes more subtle with staccato funk riffs in a song like Miss Sun by Bozz Scaggs (1980) or with a clear guitar sound in the beautiful Scaggs ballad Look what you've done to me (1980).

In 1977 Lukather (he was only twenty years old by then) joined Toto and one year later the band released their first album simply called Toto. It's easy to hear that Lukather, although he didn't participate in the song writing, got a lot of possibilities to expose his wide talent. From the beginning of his Toto career he carries out a huge technique, a lot of inventiveness, a lot of knowledge of his equipment and an own recognizable style. A style that is characterized by a natural merge of blues, rock, jazz and classical themes, always resulting in (sometimes complicated) melodious patterns and riffs. In this context it's very clarifying to watch Lukather's Master Session (1985, after the release of Isolation), the Star Licks Guitar Video-Tutor and see how he's in control of everything he's doing on guitar and with his equipment. Lukather's sound (in my opinion the result of his style, his technique, his equipment, his personality and his experience) at the moment Toto was released was however too smooth, too "in the clouds" to be already really "big, big". In the years following there are several musical meetings that seem to give Lukather impulses to develop his sound to a more down to earth one, right from the heart.

The first meeting I'm aiming at is Lukather's contribution to the Tubes album The completion backward principle (1981), produced by David Foster. Lukather co-wrote the opening (hit)song Talk to ya later, together with lead singer Fee Waybill and played rhythm and solo guitar in a direct, dirty way he didn't do before. Especially the up tempo solo is ass kicking. Sixteen years later (1997) Lukather contributed again to Talk to ya later, on the fifth Richard Marx album Flesh and bone, in top gear (with Simon Phillips on drums), very aggressive, staccato, with unexpected changes of tempo and the only possible duet on this song: Richard Marx and Fee Waybill. When you compare the Tubes version with the Marx version it's obvious that the big difference is the sound of Lukather. In the 1981 version Lukather is passing the treshold, discovering new possibilities for his sound. In the 1997 version we can hear Lukather already found his big, big sound, showing us the results of years of hard labour, experimenting and living, just knowing that this big, big sound could be possible after all. Just because of the fabulous contribution of Lukather this Richard Marx version of Talk to ya later is one of my all time favourites.

On the next Tubes album Outside inside (1983) almost the whole Toto gang appeared. Lukather co-wrote again the opening (hit)song She's a beauty and played guitar as sharp and dirty as two years before. But the most surprising co-operation of Lukather in those years was the one with Fee Waybill in 1984 on Waybill's first solo album Read my lips. Lukather co-wrote six songs (more than Lukather did on any Toto album till that moment) and played his guitar so powerful and varied, together with his old schoolmate Michael Landau, that from that moment he was ready to play a more influential role in Toto. Probably it was the select combination of the musical all rounder Lukather and the intellectual Fee Waybill with his sharp, cynical and sometimes surrealistic texts, sharing their love for music and for life. No matter if he's rockin' the zip out of his pants (in up tempo rockers like You're still laughing or Thrill of the kill), going commercial in Saved my live, or going Tubesk in Star of the show ("… With no place to go / In your gilded cage / The star of the show / But nobody knows / You're the star of an empty stage"), Lukather is playing striking exuberant, with high edged chords and solos, and where necessary gratifying melodious. It all comes together in the dreamy, funky drifting Caribbean sunsets, also one of my all time favourites, sub-tropically backed by people like David Foster, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, Bobby Kimball and Richard Marx. And of course the star of the show, Fee Waybill, singing from the bottom of his belly: "I will return, I can't forget Caribbean sunsets, I will return." Waybill indeed returned: on Kingdom of desire, Candyman, Tambu, Luke, All’s well that ends well and Transition as a co-writer of songs like Never enough, Extinction blues, Time is the enemy, The real truth and Creep Motel (and as a shadow in Mr. Friendly on Isolation; it's like a mirror song of Mr. Hate on the Tubes album The completion backward principle).

After the appearance of almost the whole Toto gang on Outside inside by the Tubes, the evolution of the Toto sound in general and Lukather's sound in particular quickened. The majority of the Toto fans and followers confirm that Isolation is the most heavy Toto album. I'm sure that there's a lot of influence of the Tubes involved. Luke's sound on Isolation is pretty much the same as his sound on Outside inside and Isolation songs like Lion, Stranger in town (with guest appearance of Mike Cotton, the Steve Porcaro of the Tubes) and Endless do have a high Tubes vibe. Fahrenheit (1986) seems to be a stopping place in the development of Lukather's sound. It's a very well-balanced album with a integrated exposition of Lukather's wide talent and his musical experiences untill then, from the timeless ballad I'll be over you, via the high edged guitar sound (like on Read my lips) on Can't stand it any longer and the clear reggae chords on Somewhere tonight up to the modest jazz ballad with that mellow trumpet sound of Miles Davis. It all fits very well, but the album sounds more polished than Isolation.

In 1987 Steve Lukather played as a guest guitarist at the Lotus Gem concert with the Santana Band and the Jeff Beck Band (with Simon Phillips on drums). Another boost for Lukather, to play together with one of his 'masters' (next to for example Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Eric Clapton and David Gilmour). You can hear clearly that Santana was easily played away by Lukather. The competition between Lukather and Jeff Beck was more complicated. In a speed boogie like Freeway jam or Super boogie there's the pointed, sharp sound of Jeff Beck and the more sliding sound of Lukather. It's obvious that Beck doesn't matter to give in his stability in search for creative and unexpected peaks. Lukather on the other hand plays like the talented, skilled professional, the craftsman with his own style and a big sound. The choice is yours.

From this moment Lukather starts to write more songs and is apparently searching for a more down to earth sound, on guitar and on vocals. The seventh one (1988) is in this respect a key album. Lukather co-wrote six out of eleven songs, like the romantic ballad Anna (again with Randy Goodrum), the super hit Stop loving you (with David Paich), the guitar based rock song Only the children and Home of the brave, one of the favourites of many hardcore Toto fans. The power of attraction of this album is the tension between the more powerfull rhythm section (Jeff and Mike Porcaro) in combination with a less polished guitar sound of Steve Lukather on one side and the spacy keyboard contributions of David Paich and Steve Porcaro on the other side. One of the special guests on this album is Jon Anderson, front man of Yes, backing lead vocalist Joseph Williams on the single version of Stop loving you. In the same year Joseph Williams was backing Jon Anderson on Top of the world, together with David Paich, Jeff and Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather (trying to lighten this bombastic song with sharp chords and high solo's) on Anderson's solo album In the city of angels

Got my way

In 1989 Lukather was ready for some musical exploring expeditions. He invited a lot of serious (musical) friends to make his first solo album Lukather, for example Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Vega, Prairie Prince (Tubes drummer), Will Lee, Steve Stevens (Billy Idol guitarist), Jan Hammer, John Pierce, Richard Marx, Randy Goodrum, Mike Landau, John Keane, David Paich, Randy Jakson, Danny Kortchmar and Jeff Porcaro. Lukather turned out to be a heterogeneous album, not in terms of quality but in terms of the great variety of songs, techniques and musical styles. Another important expedition was the 'hobby club' Los Lobotomys, again with Jeff Porcaro, Carlos Vega, Lenny Castro and Will Lee, completed with David Garfield, Brandon Fields, Joe Sample and Vinnie Colaiuta. Striking during this exploration is the fact that Lukather is at this stage very affected with the music and the sound of Jimi Hendrix. At the Los Lobotomys album (predominantly jazz rock and fusion), recorded live at the Complex in West Los Angeles, there's a (funny) fragment of Purple haze and an instrumental cover of Little Wing. On Lukather there's a lot of Hendrix influence, most explicit on Fall into velvet, where Lukather is alternating solos with Jan Hammer and Steve Stevens.

During the Toto Planet earth tour in 1990 Lukather presented his own version of Little wing on guitar and vocals as a demonstration of surpassing himself and one of his most important masters (and he proved it again on Candyman in 1994 with his excellent cover of Freedom). From that moment he really got his own way, ready to convince that he could manage every song at his will. No mather if he had to play dark and dirty with Terry Bozzio on Playing with fire and with Tommy Lee and Randy Jackson on Streets of pain (on the Richard Marx album Rush street in 1991, a must for every hardcore Toto fan), balladesk with a signature slow solo on Does love not open your eyes (on Kurt Howell's solo album in 1992) or baroque and dragging on Right where I wanted to be (on John Wetton's Battle lines in 1992), they all are songs with clear Lukather stamps.

With this rucksack it's only logical that Lukather became Toto's new front man before starting a new musical phase with Kingdom of desire (1992). Simultaneous with his guitar sound his voice became more deep, warm, emotional and scouring and at the same time more stable. For a lot of first hour Toto fans Kingdom of desire was too drifted off, too heavy and too restricted. But according to the development of especially Steve Lukather Kingdom of desire was the only possible album to go on with for Toto. More than any other Toto album KOD is a guitar driven album in the first place. Indeed there are no horns on this album, not that many guest appearances and more direct rock arrangements, but that's also the strength of this album. Because every individual musician seemed to be more triggered to give the best at that moment, resulting in masterpieces of rock (Gypsy train and Never enough), rock ballads (2 Hearts and The other side) and jazz rock (Jake to the bone).

After loosing one of his most important friends and 'masters' Jeff Porcaro Lukather was very close to his final sound. Looking back now you can label his second solo album Candyman (1994) and the Toto album Tambu (1995) as very important and necessary final rehearsals to achieve the big, big sound he displayed on Luke (1997) and Mindfields (1999) and of course on his contributions to songs like Talk to ya later (Flesh and bone, 1997), Big bone (Tribute to Jeff, 1997), Hangover (on Pat Torpey’s Odd man out, 1998) and albums like No substitutions (Larry Carlton & Steve Lukather, 2001) and Inertia (Derek Sherinian, 2001).

With Luke Lukather made an album, again with a bunch of friends like Gregg Bissonette, Phill Soussan, John Pierce, Jim Cox and David Paich, that's as coherent as can be, because Lukather is completely in charge and everyone knows exactly what he wants and how his sound has to be done. In the Luke review on melodicrock.com the writer was hitting the nail on the head by writing: "It's the first time I have ever heard any Toto or related artist sound 90's, with a much more in your face guitar sound. In fact the sound is so raw and hard edged, Kingdom of desire would be the closest reference point. It is truly a guitar driven album. There are less big choruses and an overall mellow sound, but the tracks remain heavy and raw, even in this slow mellow vein. The drum rhythms are as complex as I ever heard, and the soloing is just magnificent. There are new solos discovered with every new listen.(…) This is Luke's best album since Lukather and Kingdom of desire. Personally I love it, for it is big, it is loud, it is in your face and it is still Lukather all over."

Mindfields shows Lukather's big, big sound in a different way, integrated in the teamwork on a classic Toto album. Classic because of the possibilities of the return of Bobby Kimball and the way all the Toto boys merged their own musical history and the most important musical influences through the years. Mindfields became the most versatile, complex, approachable and positive album Toto has ever made. It brings musical delight and at the same time astonishment to hear how clever they translated their influences in such a natural way, while Lukather's sound (his guitar as well as his voice) is bigger than ever, raw, hard edged and (most important) more emotional. Just check out After you've gone (voice) and High price of hate or Better world (guitar).

So in brief Lukather became more and more bluesy, open, sensitive and pure. His voice developed strong and warm and his guitar sound became more and more direct and sharp, no matter if he's raging or playing tender ballads. All these developments seem to come together on Lukather's contributions to Sherinian’s album Inertia, with Simon Phillips, Zakk Wylde, Jerry Goodman and Tom Kennedy. "Derek's cd is probably my best recorded work in my whole career. Simon got the best outta me. It's just me playin’ thru a 1/12 Marchall with my guitar, no efx, just a little delay from the board. Great cd! I'm very proud of it!" (Lukather, 2001).

Emulatio

For a final explanation of the development of Lukather's music and his guitar sound, I'll quote Ewan Smith from an analysis of some technical aspects of Lukather's sound he made for Total Guitar (February 2000) and a personal comparison of Luke's development with the stages of development of the Renaissance artists.

Smith is going in for a bluesy basis in Lukather's playing: "For all his versatility I tend to think of Steve as a turbo-charged blues player: all the standard blues ideas are present - bends, vibrato and pentatonic scales but they are played with a modern tone and some serious bursts of tricky alternate picking. In short, loads of fun! One of the main facets of Lukather's lead style is the blending of pentatonics and modal scales which gives his lines a more sophisticated sound without trespassing into jazz-territory (though he can do this as well... grrr!). Soundwise, it's fair to say that Steve is not afraid of technology - he was one of the first to popularise the Ridiculously Huge Effects Rack (TM) and for a long time was associated with Valley Arts guitars. These days he has a signature model MusicMan guitar, the 'Luke' plugged into Rivera Knucklehead amps."

In the Renaissance period that started in the 15th century in Italy a lot of artists (writers, painters, sculptors) reverted to the old Greek and Roman arts and artists. They pursued the method of translatio, imitatio and emulatio. So first of all they translated or transcripted pieces of arts. In the next phase they imitated the ancient examples and in the last phase they tried to surpass their classical masters. A lot of Renaissance artists we consider nowadays to be great masters succeeded in their surpassing phase: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Raphaello, Dante and Petrarca for example. Some of them developed into a "uomo universalis" too (Michelangelo, Leonardo).

Listening to the music and the contributions of Steve Lukather I often had to think of these Renaissance principles. There are a lot of similarities. Luke had and maybe still has his "classical" examples: The Beatles, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joe Walsh, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, to mention some of the most important ones. In the first phase of his musical development Luke transcripted riffs, sounds, technical tricks, pieces of arrangement and melodies. In the phase of imitatio he covered songs like Eleonor Rigby (The Beatles), Stairway to heaven (Led Zeppelin), The bomber (Joe Walsh), Bluebird (Stephen Stills), Red house (Jimi Hendrix), Behind the veil (Jeff Beck) and several other Beck and Hendrix songs (with the live version of Hendrix's Little wing as a highlight where imitatio and emulatio melted together). In the final phase Luke emulated his masters where he definitely succeeded in creating his own mastership. A beautiful example of this development is Tears of my own shame. As I mentioned before Luke's Little wing cover was half imitatio, half emulatio. Tears of my own shame (written by Luke and Phil Soussan) is completely Luke with refined Hendrix influences admitted in a way only a emulated master can manage.

Another great example is the way Lukather was dealing through the years with Jeff Beck. In several interviews Luke stated how important Beck was to his musical development. In 1987 Lukather played together with Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana as a guest guitarist in Japan. In 1995 Shrapnel released a tribute album to Jeff Beck, Jeffology. Lukather made a cover of Behind the veil, from the famous Beck album Guitar shop from 1989 (with Terry Bozzio on drums and Tony Hymas on keyboards).

The original Beck version is a pretty quiet, slow motion reggae instrumental with a catchy melody and a lot of Beck effects played in the "minimal art" way that makes Jeff Beck the unique guitarist he is. The Lukather version is also a slow motion reggae instrumental, but from the beginning more heavy, sharper, more pointed and more emotional. In the first part Lukather follows the original melody. In the middle of the song he is offering us a flamboyant showcase of the old Beck licks from Ain't superstitious, via Blow by blow and Wired to Guitar shop. In the final part it's Lukather as "himself" bringing his Music Man guitar into ecstasy. This is translatio, imitatio and emulatio concentrated in one song. In songs like Big bone (on the Tribute to Jeff album), Hangover (Pat Torpey), High price of hate (on Mindfields), The pump (Carlton/Lukather) and Inertia (Sherinian) we can hear that Lukather also mastered this master and finally entered the small scene of musicians that can call themselves "universalis". Or in Sherinian words after working with Lukather on Inertia: "What makes Lukather so great, is that he can take someone else's piece of music, and make it sound like he has lived it a million times, and plays a perfect track for you instantly. (Young musicians, please re-read the last paragraph in case you missed that)."

Oeuvre

The only item left now is this question: when do people in mass mention the name of Steve Lukather next to for example Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck? Through the years there allways was a love-hate relationship between Lukather/Toto and a lot of their critics. I think it's because of the quintessence of the musicianship of Lukather and the other Toto guys. Neither Lukather nor Toto were trendsetters (like Hendrix or Page). Lukather and his musical mates are first of all music lovers and all round musicians, they managed a high class band for more than 35 years and they did hundreds of sessions and they were (and still are) the best. That's the difficulty by judging them and trying to give them the place in modern music history they deserve. I think we have to judge Lukather as an oeuvre musician and Toto as an oeuvre band. I think we have to take a lot of pain to lose ourselves in Lukather's music, before we can judge him and build the monument that fits in with his works. It will not only bring in a reward for Lukather, but also for ourselves!

Steve Lukather Side Image

Tour dates

  1. 24Jun2017
    Waterloo, NY USA
    Del Lago Resort and Casino-The Vine
  2. 25Jun2017
    Derry, NH USA
    Tupelo Music Hall
  3. 28Jun2017
    St. Charles, IL USA
    The Arcada Theatre
  4. 01Jul2017
    Salina, KS USA
    Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts
  5. 28Jul2017
    Hamina Finland
    Rockin’ Basioni

More tour dates »