The first thing Steve Lukather said when we spoke for the second time was, "What about this guy Michael Lee Firkins? He's real tasty. He's got all the chops but incredible taste and feel..."
For Steve Lukather to use the words 'taste' and 'feel' to describe another player (bearing in mind that 'Luke' himself is seen by many of the world's best as the paragon of those virtues) is one big compliment. Toto's guitarist - whatever your opinions of the band - has a playing style that could be used as the role model for modern rock playing. He's fast, he's smooth, he has recognisable touch and tone and is as capable of pinning down a track with a simple riff (Michael Jackson's Beat it) as he is of soaring away with unhindered dexterity (Lionel Richie's Running with the night).
Toto were in London for their regular 'one gig at the Hammersmith Odeon every three years' when I managed to catch Steve at his hotel before the band's 5 o'clock soundcheck. I was interested to hear his thoughts on rock guitar in the '9Os...
Steve: Well, what I like about Michael Lee Firkins and guys like Eric Johnson is that they can play with taste as well as flash. That's what separates these guys. I mean, without naming names there are a lot of guys who can play flawlessly, brilliant, unbelievable technical stuff, but if you had a blindfold test you wouldn't be able to say who it was. You'd think, 'That guy's great, but who is he?'
Guitarist: Is the guitar scene in L.A. still very active?
Steve: WeIl, there are not so many guys working now - maybe Michael Landau and a few others. I wasn't doing much but I've started doing some stuff because I'm divorced now and I have to make some money! There've been some interesting projects come up and when somebody calls me I usually say, 'Love to do it'. But there's just about four or five guys working - you know, Paul Jackson Jnr and one or two others. Those are the guys who play on all the records coming out of L.A.
Guitarist: You don't see the flash modern rock guitarists being asked to do sessions...
Steve: No, and they probably won't. They might get called in for the occasional solo, but you don't know if these guys have the abilitY to fit into a rhythm section and play a little part that makes the whole thing sound good, without any flash at all.
Guitarist: Is that because their music is just written around their soloing?
Steve: Absolutely. But it's another genre, and I don't think those guys desire to be session players anyway, they want to be stars in their own right. And some of them will be.
Guitarist: What's the state of Toto?
Steve: Well, there was no state of Toto for a while. We took two years off in which I did my own things - my solo album last year - and at the beginning of this year the record company said, 'Come on guys, we want to put out the Greatest Hits record.' It was in the contract, we'd already been paid for it so we had to do it. Then they said, 'Well, just do one new song so we have a single,' and, 'By the way we have this guy who can sing.' You know we got rid of Joseph because he was a mess...
Steve: Yeah. In the band now everybody's pretty straight. We're out of that particular thing, although I do still like a drink...
Guitarist: As you've mentioned it, can I ask you...
Steve: Which solos I was coked out on? Yes...
Steve: Want me to tell you? (Laughs)
Guitarist: If you like.
Steve: Well, there was one called White sister and I was completely twisted! I had shit dripping out my nose and a room full of people partying and screaming. That's the main one I can think of, but generally I take the gig real seriously and don't mess around like that. But it was one of those late nights when someone says, 'Come on, go for a solo, we're partying'. And also it was ten years ago...
Guitarist: I'm sure some people think anyone could do it if they crammed enough coke up their nose.
Steve: It's the opposite, usually you lose your facility. I mean, you think you're playing great, but when you listen back it's usually bullshit. I never could do the stuff live, ever. In the studio, once in a while, but just because you've been sitting around doing nothing and there'll be a pile of it on the table. But everybody's grown out of that now. If you really knew how horrible it was... But, late seventies, early eighties, everyone was saying, 'Oh, it's not addictive. Here, have some: and you think, 'Okay, if everybody else is doing it, I might as well.'
Guitarist: One of the things I asked you last time was, 'Had you not thought about taking over the singer's chair in Toto?' It seems now that you 're doing about fifty percent of it.
Steve: Live, I am. But I don't want to be the lead singer. Some of the parts are really hard to play and sing at the same time, co-ordination-wise. Plus there's the burden of having to keep your voice in condition all the time. And I'm not a schooled singer... I do my litte bits, my own songs, and I don't have a prob!em, but I just don't want to be the lead singer.
Guitarist: But you are basically fronting the band, aren't you?
Steve: Yeah, basically.
Guitarist: Do you enjoy it?
Steve: Yeah, it's something I feel a little more comfortable doing now. I mean, we do have a new singer and he's really good, but people don't know him, and when they come to see the show they want to be spoken to by someone who's been there from day one - there are a lot of hard core fans out there, you know. He's a real softspoken guy, and he's not aggressive and abusive like I am. You've got to have a sense of humour for that, and contrary to the way people think, we're not a bunch of serious, studious guys, we're insane! Well, some of us are; I'll speak for myself here. But I don't take myself seriously, I don't think I'm some brilliant guy. I'm just like anyone else. I'm lucky, I'm along for the ride, man, and it's a great ride and it's been a long one. The band's changed, everybody's head is on straight - focused. We took time off and we got some shit out of our system, the way you have to, and we're best friends and it shows, man. And there are a lot of fans, people who stick with us, you know?
In the States we'll do half a million albums, maybe even more if we have a hit single. But it's tough over there for us. Our own country is real1y off us; it's not hip to like Toto. There's stil1 that 'studio musician' stigma that they always put on us, but they don't realise we've been going since high school. It's very frustrating sometimes, but at the same time I'm lucky to be making a living at all. I mean, people know who I am and I get called by some legendary artists.
Guitarist: But it's because they're looking for somebody who has the feel...
Steve: Oh, no man... I know people who are amongst the greatest guitar players in the world and they don't want to know about it. No thanks, I'm not, I don't want to, please leave me alone.'
Guitarist: You're talking about people like Holdsworth?
Steve: Holdsworth and Van Halen. You know, the most humble, nicest people. Allan Holdsworth's probably the worst. He hates everything he plays, he thinks he plays like shit. I say, 'Oh, you think you play shit... where would you like me to bring your hamburger, sir?' I'm not even a guitar player compared to that guy!
Guitarist: Paul Rivera told me that when you first started playing sessions you were the real hot shot; you bought yourself a BMW when you were 17 or somethjng...
Steve: I was actually nineteen, and I was on the road with Boz Scaggs. I'd been invited to go out with Boz and tour the world. I was living with my parents and I saved all my money and bought a bitching car, blew the whole lot! My parents thought I was out of my mind. They said, 'Okay, what are you going to do now?' I said, 'Well I feel good about things,' and there were rumblings of the Toto thing starting... But because of my association with Boz I started to get calls to do sessions. I was a cocky kid, you know. I didn't necessarily think I was a great guitar player, I just thought it was never going to stop. It was silly. I suppose I was stupid.
Guitarist: What were your first sessions?
Steve: The first big record I played on was with Boz. Actually the very first album I ever played on was for a guy named Terence Boylin. It did nothing, but I was on a record with Donald Fagen, Dean Parks, Jeff Porcaro and all these famous session players. And with my name next to theirs I was like... wow.But after that it was just word of mouth. I was fortunate in that I was able to walk into a situation and if it was funk I could play funk, if it was rock I could play rock, I could play wild solos or just simple melodic stuff. I'd learned, I'd listened to a lot of people and kind of figured out what was required for the job.
Guitarist: Did you do any movie soundtracks
Steve: I did a couple and it scared the piss out of me! The reading was so hard. I barely made it. I mean, I do read, but there's reading and there's reading! This was, like, eighty people in the room and the red light's on and you have two takes to do and it's in D flat and they're counting off the tempo; 'one, two, one-two-three,' and there's nothing but sixteenth notes in front of you! That's reading! My drawers were stuck to the chair many times. I got through it by the grace of God, but it was not a comfortable feeling and I really didn't like the music anyway. Plus I had another outlet, because the band became successful right away.
Guitarist: Being so young, I would imagine you couldn't have been in many bar bands.
Steve: Well, I've been playing guitar since I was seven years old. But I didn't play in bars; I used to play fraternity parties - which is worse than playing in bars because, not only would they not pay you, but they'd threaten to beat your ass up because they were drunk! So I had my share of it. Okay, I didn't play at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go for ten years, but I'd been playing parties and casuals and all that since I was thirteen years old.
Guitarist: So that was your schooling?
Steve: Yeah, and I practised a lot and studied. I was listening to Beck, who was my hero, Clapton, Page and Hendrix. And Johnny Winter... It was that era - the mid sixties to mid seventies was my whole growing period, from Grammar School to High School.
Guitarist: When did you realise that you had a unique style?
Steve: I don 't know. I still think I'm copying things from everybody else, to be honest with you. I'm the worst thief in the world - I just hide it well.
Guitarist: What about all the competition now?
Steve: They're all my friends! You know, there are peop]e like Eric Johnson who just blow my mind. I'm a big fan of guitarists. Twelve years ago it would have been, 'Wow, that really bums me out, the guy's better than me'. But now I just laugh. These kids are inspiring; it makes me want to go and practise.
Guitarist: Do you sit down and go through the things they're doing?
Steve: Well, when Eric Johnson plays, or I play with Beck or Ed, I just get inspired. And if I hear something that partirularly blows me away, I go home and I've got a keen enough eye and ear to figure out what it is. It may take me a while, but I'm just completely intrigued by it. When I see somebody who has that kind of farility on the instrument I've been playing since I was a kid, and they're a lot younger than me... I'm just a fan of it I love it, it freaks me out.
I don't have an ego at all anymore. I never really had one to start with, but when you're young, it's like that joke: how many guitar players does it take to screw in a light blub? Six. One to do it and five to say they could do it better. When you're a kid you have that kind of attitude - the competition, who's better, who's going to get the better gig and all that. But I've been fortunate enough to have a pretty good career, and if I died tomorrow I've still done a lot. I hope I don't, of course...!
Guitarist: In the UK, Toto have always had the problem off following up Toto IV.
Steve: They never liked us before Toto IV. We had to put the singles out three times before they'd play them. In Europe, we sell tons of records in every country but this one. They won't even play our shit on the radio. We've had one gig in England, we always play the same one and it's always sold out. But I want to see the rest of England - I want to see Birmingham and I want to get out there. I'm sure there are people out there who actually like our music and would come and see us play.
Guitarist: Whoever's booking you here is obviously very cautious.
Steve: Well, promoters... Of course they lose a lot of money on a regular basis. And it costs us a lot of money to play because we have a big production and a lot of people on the road with us. Nobody wants to go out and lose money, or lose money for other people, s0 if they've taken a beating this summer... it can be iffy. Also, there's the availability of venues, how long we're going to be on the road. It's a very complex business. Plus, we're probably one of the most hated bands in the world - certainly as far as the critics are concerned. In America they've said things about us like our parents should have been sterilised, so that we could never have been born to play the music that we play. Oh yeah, it's a hate thing; it's not the music. They give New Kids On The Block better reviews than they give us. They give bubblegum, pansy-assed music that the guys don't even play better reviews than they give us. It's a quirk thing; we're running uphill all the time.
Guitarist: Certain types of people are traditionally envious of good musicians.
Steve: Yeah, plus the fact that they probably hate seeing our names on records that they do like. You know what I mean? Like, 'Oh no! Not these guys!' It's like eating something and saying, 'Man, this tastes great, what is it?' And then they tell you it's snails or something and you go, 'Ugghh'!
Guitarist: You said you were getting back into playing a few sessions. Is that with Jeff Porcaro and the guys?
Steve: Jeff's just been doing Springsteen and now he's doing Dire Straits. Jeff grooves like nobody else. He plays simple but hard, and very creative, very musical... But I just did an interesting session. I did Dweezil Zappa's record. It was like a heavy metal version of the Bee Gees' Staying alive, with Ozzy Osbourne singing! It was me, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil, Warren DiMartini and Timmy Pearce, and we all did solos in it. It's hysterical! It was fun playing with all those guys, and it's nice to know that they like my playing enough to ask me. The metal-heads like me - they may not like Toto as a band, but they like me. I've become friends with most of them because I like their music also. I'm a rock'n'roll guy, I listen to rock'n'roll or old stuff. I don't have the pop channel on in my house, I have the rock channel raging - which is ironic because I write pop songs. I'm the guy that brings in the ballads. On the other hand, on my solo record I wrote some pretty nasty rock and roll shit.
Guitarist: I never saw that. Was it even released here?
Steve: Yeah, but the record company don't like me, and they did nothing to promote me here. So it doesn't surprise me. It did well everywhere else, but it didn't come out in the States, either. I had a big scene with the record company about the record, and in the end I bought it back trom them. Half of it's just pop songs, and I never wanted that. But there's a track on there with Eddie Van Halen, a track with some crazy stuff where Jan Hammer, myself and Steve Stevens are all trading solos, live! And the guy at the record company's going, 'Well, what radio station's going to play this?' So I told them I wanted it back. I bought it back and then CBS said they'd got orders for it, so I sold it back to them. I'm going to do another album at the end of next year and it's going to be half instrumental - I'm going to do what I want to do this time. I did get a lot out of the last one... you should get a copy of it because it's very interesting, it's a different side completely...
Guitarist: With the playing abilities of Toto, it's surprising you don't do more instrumental music.
Steve: There's going to be more in the next one. The thing is we were beaten down by our record company. They want us to be a dull, contemporary pop band, not an ass-kicking rock'n'roll band, and they invariably release the ballads as singles so that all our rock'n'roll fans think we've let them down again. But we play all aspects of our career, live...
Guitarist: You have a reputation as an equipment man.
Steve: I like my gadgets, yes - just as David Gilmour likes his gadgets. In fact I've stolen a lot of stuff trom Dave. He's a big hero of mine.
Guitarist: He's one guitarist who can play six notes and they're worth hearing.
Steve: That's right. I think that says a lot right there. It's his touch and the way he presents bis sound. I mean, you go and see Floyd live and you don't need to be on drugs; that's a drug in itself! It's a total experience, man. But you see people throwing up from taking mushrooms and acid and things like this. It's hysterical. But he's so much the unpretentious rock star. He could walk down the street and no-one wou]d knoW who he was. I love his notes, it's just like you said. But he puts in some impressive shit, he's got chops. But his taste! He's just one of the tastiest players...
Guitarist: Getting back to gear. Take Eric Clapton for instance...
Steve: He's got aal the gear now from my guy Bob Bradshaw.
Guitarist: But does he sound any better than he did in '66 with a Marshall 45 watt amp?
Steve: Well that's the point. That's the very point! All it does is just make it a little thicker. I could plug straight into a Twin Reverb and play, but I just don't like the way it sounds. I like to have a little something om it. I play a lot of times in the show with nothing except the amp, and there's other times when I use tons of shit just to make the effect. Basically, I get bored listening to the same guitar sound all night - especially if you're playing lots of different kinds of music. I have clean sounds, I have semi-dirty sounds, I have Marshall, I have Soldano, some reverb, lots of echo, lots of delay, harmoniser, no harmoniser, chorus, super-harmoniser... It's candy for the ear, and the kind of music we play is diverse, so I want to be able to make the guitar sounds diverse. There are a lot of purists who think it's covering up bullshit, well that's fine, go plug into a Twin Reverb and have fun. God bless you, but it's not me!
Guitarist: What does your rack consist of!
Steve: It's actually not that big. I've got the Soldano preamp, the original prototype that Bob Bradshaw modified, I've got a 100 watt Marshall head that Bob modified, I've got the Bradshaw MIDI system with the H-3000, an SPX900, a SRV2000 digital reverb and a TC Chorus. And a wah-wah...
Guitarist: Do you use it as a wah-wah or as a tone control.
Steve: I use it as a wah-wah. I just kind of freak out with it.
Guitarist: It's interesting, because Hendrix only had the wah-wah, the Fuzz-face and the Univibe...
Steve: And a wall of Marshalls! But listen to the records and hear all the stuff he was doing. All those delays! Like the intro to House burning down, on Electric Ladyland, it's all pan delays with tape flanging! You can do it now but he created it by holding the tape, seeing how long a loop they needed and manually vari-speeding the machine! He was probably really high and he was going, 'Hey, man' and playing this brilliant shit.
Guitarist: I heard Voodoo chile on the radio.
Steve: It's in my cassette player right now. Right now, man! And the guy made this stuff twenty years ago! Staggering! And it's also staggering to think that John Lennon would have been fifty years old today...
Guitarist: Although there have been thousands of musicians and groups since The Beatles, there have been surprisingly few musical milestones.
Steve: The Beatles, of course, changed everything - and Elvis before that. Then came the Hendrix, Cream, Beck thing, and the Page/Zeppelin thing - I have to include that, just on a musical level. After that, I'm going to have to say Van Halen. As you say, there have been a lot of people in the interim, popping in, but very few musical milestones. But when Eddie Van Halen came along, back in 1978, I thought: 'Hey, what's happening'. Nobody else did that to me ever since.
Guitarist: What's Eddie doing at the moment, do you know?
Steve: He's making a new record. He's my best friend. Yesterday I called him from Holland. I was hanging with some Dutch girls and he was talking with them in fluent Dutch. I didn't understand a word.
Guitarist: Did they saw him as a trend star? Like: Great, but tomorrow we'll have a new hero?
Steve: Well the "guitar-heroes-cult" has to stop now. Eddie still is as great as he was in his early days. Those who deny that are talking shit. First of all: if there was no Eddie, none of those motherfuckers could have played like they do now. Then it would be the same mainstream shit. He was the first of his kind and nobody can deny that.
Guitarist: And therefore the Big Step after Hendrix/Clapton/Beck/Page etc.?
Steve: Sure. He kept on playing. From a kinda bashful boy from Pasadena - at least, moved from Holland to Pasadena - towards the one he's now. He's not in the star manners at all. Eddie is the nicest, sweetest, most common guy you'll ever meet. He's not off-handed and he's not wearing silly suits. He's pretty much known, but he's talking with everyone. And by all means: he's living for his music. The only thing he wants is writing his music and playing like he wants to and that's quite something!
Guitarist: How difficult is it to stay at the top?
Steve: I practise and practise, sorting out all kinds of stuff. At the same time I realize that I can't reach the level of some of my colleagues. I'm glad that I can put my stamp on the music biz, no matter how little. If they only could remember me as an original player - though I stole my style from Beck, Hendrix, Eddie, Gilmour, Clapton, Carlton!. I've thrown it all up and what's left against the walls, that's mine!
Guitarist: It's funny you mentioned Larry Carlton. During the first notes of the solo in Lionel Richie's Running with the night I thought of him, until I realized it had to be you. Is that what you mean? You borrow somebody's style and makes it your own?
Steve: Yes, that's what I try to achieve. But I still have to learn a lot. I'm still a humble student.
Guitarist: And you're playing the same guitar as Larry, a Valley Arts strat.
Steve: Larry left his Gibson ES335 behind and got his Valley Arts, almost at the same time as I did. One of the lightest guitars I know of. In the meantime Mike Mcquire at Valley Arts and I came up with an own model. Our model has got two EMG single-coils and an EMG 89 humbucker.
Guitarist: Isn't the business to fast nowdays? Most of the guitarists are already forgotten before they even got known.
Steve: Listen, today's style is cool, flashy and fast. Everybody plays like that and I do, but there has to be more. And the majority hasn't a clue.
Guitarist: And if you're launched...
Steve: Of course, where will it end? When I was a boy I learned to play Gloria (Them) and Dirty water (The Standelles). I thought I was cool. But to learn the solo of Eruption during the first 6 months of your guitar playing, that will rub you out. And what's next? You would go on and where will it end? But there are a lot of talented guys out there, like Michael Lee Firkins, Eric Johnson... Joe Satriani has got class too.
Guitarist: And people like Vai, with a cool dose of humour?
Steve: Vai is playing very funny indeed, almost atonal. But I like it cause it's different. You always know when Vai's playing. For me that's an important test. The blindfold test, you know. I'm harbouring my bendings in the middle of a bar, and not on the downbeats like most people do. And it's becoming a trend: I would hear a song and think: 'Hey, did I play that one? I don't think so.' Then I know they imitated my trick perfectly.
It's necesarry to have a decent musical background. That can help you out through a difficult situation. It's quite simple to freak out during a bunch of chord changes. But it's quite difficult to change it into a real melody with the right notes at the right place. If you seriously analyse certain 'fraeky' parts, you realize that it's all bullshit. Or in other terms: the bullshit meter often hits the 'ten', whilst for me it's the art of it to get it down to 'zero'.
Guitarist, December 1990/Gitarist April 1991