To reach a position where you are the first guitarist called by people like Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Cher, Diana Ross, Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, Boz Scaggs and a plethora of others, when they need a hot solo or a cooking rhythm track, takes a little more than just being good at your job. Hip dude-about-town Steve Lukather is in the enviable position of not only being of LA's first call session rats, but also a member of the massively succesful band Toto, with worldwide hit LP's and singles to their credit.
At the age of 19 he found himself touring with Boz Scaggs whose Silk degrees LP had just sold more copies than there are weird people in Twin peaks and on his return to LA he flung himself headlong into a hectic studio schedule. For some this would be enough, but in 1977 Steve joined Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, David Paich, Bobby Kimball and David Hungate to form Toto.
The band (mega sessioneers to a man) had hits with their first LP and the single Hold the line, still regarded by many as a classic slice of AOR. In 1983 they swept away no less than 5 Grammy awards for their fourth LP, which also yielded Rosanna and Africa, two of the biggest selling singles of that year. And he's still in demand in the studios. Some people, eh?
Inspired by the Beatles and British bands of the Blues Boom in the '60s, Steve began on the guitar at age seven and soon found himself playing in various school bands. "I used to hang out with older guys who could play better than me, sponge off one and once I'd learned that I'd go on to the next and I played in bands since I was nine years old. I was always playing with guys who were 16 and for some reason it just started to become a little easier for me. I was always listening.
IM: Did you take lessons
Steve: I was self taught until 16 and then I realised I needed to learn more. I wanted to read music which is very hard to do if you've been playing for a long time, so that was difficult, but I learned a lot. I had a great teacher named Jimmy Wyble. He took me from the raw state that I had and focused me more. I went through the jazz phase and the influence is still there but I'm not a jazz player. I would never sit next to Joe Pass and say 'I'm a jazz player' because he'd fucking dust me, man. But I've listened to it, like Miles and all the great guitar players. It's a subliminal influence. Like you can figure out ways to get from point A to point B that a rock'n'roll player wouldn't tend to go, although there are some fine new rock players. It's scary. I hate them all.
IM: How did you get involved in the sessions scene?
Steve: That was an accident. I didn't even know what a session player was. When I got into high school I met all the Porcaro brothers and then I became intrigued with the concept of being able to fit into any situation and play with big, huge stars. I started to get into reading names on the backs of albums and figure out styles and say 'wow, this guy didn't play anything like that on this other album'. The fitting-in thing was something that I thought I could accomplish. I came to it with a more rock'n'roll attitude which is maybe why I became successful at it because I was rawer than Larry Carlton, or somebody like that, who I think is a brilliant player. Though, through my affiliation with the Porcaro brothers I was asked to play in Boz Scaggs' band back in 1977. I was 19 years old. My first tour.
IM: It must have been a great experience for a 19 year old?
Steve: Yeah, I was still living with mom and dad. It was everything I imagined it would be and then some.
IM: Were you best known for your hot soloing and then called up for that?
Steve: Yeah I do a lot of that but also do a lot of rhythm too. I think rhythm guitar is happening. A lot of kids now learn hammer-ons from day one. The first thing I learned was strums (G and D in 8th note style).
IM: How did Toto come about
Steve: That came after the Boz Scaggs thing. Jeff and David were talking about putting together a band. The record company knew that they were the guys behind Boz' success and they said, 'whatever you guys want'. I'd been on tour with Jeff and he said he liked my playing. It was always my dream to play with those guys. I was in a band with Steve Porcaro in high school, Carlos Vega, Michael Landau, me. That was the high school band.
IM: That's a pretty precocious high school band.
Steve: Yeah, well we learned the whole Katy lied album by Steely Dan before it came out because Jeff played on it. He did the whole album. So we'd be doing high school dances and people would be going, 'Man, what tune is that?'. Those were fun days. Everyone was studying real hard, really trying to learn and wanting to be somebody. You had to keep up. Plus it was inspiring to play with somebody of Jeff Porcaro's calibre. It's like, wow, the drummer of Steely Dan is coming down to play in our high school gig with us. It was a trip.
IM: How did you get involved in the writing for Toto?
Steve: I had always written but I was intimidated. I realised that I had to up my calibre. The criteria is that it's always the best songs that get on the record. There's never been a time when people would say, 'well, I want my songs on the record'. That's bullshit. It's not how we operate. Quality is the thing.
Toto's career has been a long one, what with Grammies, platinum records and sell out tours. "It's been a nice road. We took a couple of years off because of losing lead singers and I went and did a record of my own. Then we sort of missed each other and the record company was after us to do something and they found this guy from South Africa (new singer Jean Michel Byron). Not what we normally would have picked. It was in our contract to do a greatest hits album but we wanted to do a real album. They said, 'just put one new song on it and we'll put it out'. We said, 'no, you can't rip off people like that. At least do four, especially as we have a new guy. Then we'll do a tour and see if people remember us'. We sold like a million records on the continent in two months or something like that and played big venues tha were 10.000 people, all sold out. I mean England is our weakest market in Europe for whatever reason, radio or the press hate us. They'd rather talk to Sigue Sigue Sputnik or another bunch of no-playing fools.
IM: How do you feel about the current crop of guitar heroes? Do you have any required listening or favourites?
Steve: Joe Satriani, Steve Vai... Michael Lee Firkins blew my fucking mind. He's scary, like Holdsworth meets...I don't know what. Zakk Wylde is a killer guitar player. He plays all this country shit, chicken picking in a heavy metal style - very refreshing. Scott Henderson's a brilliant player. Metheny obviously, he's like the grandfather of the new breed - this guy doesn't play a bad note, he's pretty scary. I'll tell you who else is scary - Eric Johnson. I saw him at the Roxy and just wanted to put my guitar in the closet. I like to hear people who have a sound. A lot of these guys have a lot of chops but you go, 'that's great, but who is it?'. I like it when you say, 'man, that's gotta be whoever.' Jeff Beck is one of a kind. Guitar shop is awesome. He never ceases to amaze. It's an honour to say he's my friend. It blows my mind. It's all for real too. He just uses a fuzz tone, an amp and his bitching yellow Strat. That's it.
IM: How did you develop your technique? For instance, your right hand and left hand picking facility?
Steve: Oh man, I don't think I do have that much facility. It's a lot of double picking stuff. The whole key is to relax. You can over-do it and the muscles just go, 'hey, fuck you!', so that just puts you out of commission for six months because you try to do impossible things. At home I practice about an hour a day. When I first wake up in the morning I'll head into my little room and maybe I'll look in a book or maybe I'll try to figure out some new weird shit. Maybe just goof around. I like to play music. It's great to be a technician and I'm proficient enough to play what I hear. But I do what I do, and all I've ever strived to be is an individual. I like to play and fit in with other people. Be a team player. I could be playing a lot more flashy shit on our records; be a show-off, but inherently it's what's right for the tune. Like, I can get away with a lot more shit live. I like to mix it up and be somewhere in the middle. I play in this club band in LA called Los Lobotomys. It's different guys every time. On drums it's either Jeff, Vinnie Colaiuta, Greg Visanent or Carlos Vega. Then Nathan East, Jimmy Johnson or John Pena on bass and we have some original stuff and some jam tunes - it's freak out music. Some of the guys can bop - so you play with those guys for a few years and different ideas and phrasings come out. There's a latin thing to it too. It's like heavy metal-latin-jazz-fusion music. It's weird. Great music. We did an album all live.
IM: Did it get released over here?
Steve: No. Nobody wanted to know about it. It's rather unfortunate that record companies are only looking for the long dollar. They don't look for music. Maybe only 10.000 people will buy the album, but it doesn't cost anything to make it; so what's the big deal to put it out?
IM: That's a pretty serious jamming band with that line-up.
Steve: Yeah and we never rehears so it stays fresh. Even if we play the same tunes each week, it's different. One new player in there and you get a whole new set of ideas to follow. It's another part of me. I like to do real hard Rock'n'Roll, I like to play Pop music, I like to play Toto music. I'd get bored doing one thing. Elton John phones me to hire me and I'm there.
IM: You're just a guy who can't say no.
Steve: Well, not to certain people. I remember calling up Warner Brothers when I heard that Clapton had hired Jeff. I said 'who's dick do I gotta suck to be in on the session?' I said, 'I don't want any money, I wanna hang. I'll just sit in the corner and play back beats, I just wanna be there.' It turned out that Eric liked my playing a little bit and said, 'yeah, have him come down.' I can't believe I know those guys and they're the nicest people. The guys who are shit heads are the ones in the pseudo-heavy metal bands that really think a lot of themselves and they go to the Rainbow in LA to be seen and get some head from some ugly broad.
Ringing the changes
IM: Getting back to your guitar playing, how do you approach playing over chord changes?
Steve: Well, I sort of stole the Larry Carlton method because when I was coming up Larry let me hang out with him.
IM: You did a hell of a lot of hanging out.
Steve: Oh yeah. Hey bud, it's a very important thing to hang, to see and go and meet people. Don't be a jerk, but if someone sees you at all the gigs and you get introduced to these guys, then you can get to talk to people and if they like you they might help you out. But this whole thing is that he looks at chord shapes and inversions that help you to get from point A to point B. Thrown in with a little chromaticism here and there. It's a basic jazz concept rather than looking at it linear scale-wise. It's a lot more melodic that way, rather than, 'OK, I'm going to use the pentatonic to a phrygian to an aeolian'.
IM: So you don't really think about those terms when you're playing?
Steve: No, I just play. I come from a blues base. The blues is it. If I did a blues record I'd be the happiest guy in the world but it would be a demented blues record. I heard Steve Vai say that he didn't like the blues. I said, 'wow, I can't fathom guitar players saying that'. It just feels good. The notes are right. They do something inside. You could be playing major 7 against a minor chord and stuff like that and that's Be-Bop or some kind of Indian scale, but still when you're playing to a crowd of people you play the blues and they'll be on their chairs.
IM: Can you suggest any ideas for developing your improvisational abilities and phrasing?
Steve: Well, my advice is to learn the blues first. That's the bottom line. Get that under your fingers, unless you want to become Mr. Be-Bop, in which case you get your Joe Pass records and learn them. Or sax players, they're all great. Sax players are generally the best improvisors, although there are some great keyboard players too.
IM: Although rhythm playing is pretty much an instinctive thing, how can people improve that side of their playing?
Steve: Listen to R'n'B records and the rhythm playing on that. Any of them. People like Paul Jackson Junior, Ray Parker, or old Motown records. Listen to the parts because one stupid part can really make a record. On their own they may sound corny but over certain grooves and chord progressions it can be very cool.
IM: When you listen to other players, do you still try to learn their solos or their rhythm parts, or do you just listen and get the general vibe of what they're getting at?
Steve: I don't sit down and learn solos anymore. I'm too old and too lazy, but if I see somebody like Jeff Beck live, there's a whole lesson there. You don't have to be holding your guitar; just watch, listen, keep your ears open.
IM: Moving on to your actual playing, how did you approach the first solo in Rosanna which I believe was straight off the cuff?
Steve: Yeah, that was straight off. I just went for it and everyone said 'but the thing at the end is just blowing'. That's not doubled. It was a one-off which luckily you happen to get once in a while. As a matter of fact, the song was supposed to end but Jeff carried on and Dave started playing the honky-tonk piano and we all just followed on. We've done that a few times, we've been playing together so long that it's like that.
IM: When you're laying down stuff in the studio do you get wound up about tiny mistakes and have to re-do things again and again?
Steve: I make a lot of mistakes and I've kept solos that have had mistakes in them. It bothered me like crazy at the time, but if I don't listen to it for a year and then listen back I say, 'ah, fuck it!'. My favourite guitar player is Eddie Van Halen and on his albums there's stuff that's loose, a little out of tune here and there, but he's going for it. The spirit of going for it comes across the disk as opposed to some of the guys who just make guitar records. Like every note is doubled and tripled, and their solos are worked out. They've learned everything. It's like an exercise rather than a real statement improvisationally, which is fine for people who like that sort of thing, but... People say that our music is slick, but how much more slicked out can you get.
International Musician, February 1991