“Man, I grabbed one of those garden gnomes from the castle, and I put it on the dash of our tour bus,” exclaimed Steve Lukather, entertaining some Swedish fans who happened to be seated at our table at Benihana in Anaheim, California, during a NAMM 2008 dinner.

“But those are considered national treasures,” said one of the young men, who, but a few moment’s before, had merely been describing one of his homeland’s famous estates.

“Oh, yeah,” answered Lukather. “When we got to the border, we were stopped by the army or something. I had to return the gnome and pay a fine. I also had to write a letter of apology to the queen.”

Just another road story from one of America’s last authentic rock stars.

Steve Lukather is not some phony Ed Hardy-styled action hero representing what Hollywood focus groups consider “rock” in a reality TV world. As a guitarist, he is one of our national treasures. He has performed gazillions of hit-making riffs and solos since 1976, and he still approaches the guitar with all the awe and excitement and passion he felt when his first exposure to the Beatles kicked his ass. He is also a huge personality—a perfect storm of joy-of-life fire, spontaneity, and hilarity. He can party just about any living organism under a park bench (while still being sweet and gracious and totally non-violent), does precisely what he wants to whenever he wants to (without harming other humans, animals, or plants), and, while certain critiques might piss him off a little bit, he knows he has paid enough dues and garnered enough acclaim to follow his muse wherever it leads without having to worry too much about how the public might react. And yet, Lukather is modest and self-effacing without a shred of false humility (“I am in awe of greatness, and I’m honored to have been around a lot of it—hoping it might rub off,” he says).

This, boys and girls, is how a genuine rock star walks.

Last year, Luke decided to cut his fourth solo album (with vocals)—Ever Changing Times [Frontiers]—and he retired to room 438 at an L.A.-area Howard Johnson Hotel with some acoustic guitars, a synth, and a crappy cassette deck to write songs with Randy Goodrum, as well as his son Trevor, Stan Lynch, Phil Soussan, and Jeff Babko.

“That’s how you write songs that will hold up,” says Lukather. “If it works with just a guitar and a voice, then it’ll only get better when you add all the cool sounds and other parts.”

When the Ever Changing Times project moved to Steakhouse Studios in North Hollywood for actual tracking, those rough demos were the only audio references the other musicians—a crew that included Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, Leland “Lee” Sklar on bass, and Steve Porcaro on keys—were given.

“I wanted the guys to hear a tune for the first time, and react to it in the moment—that’s when you get some cool sh*t going down,” explains Lukather. “Rehearsals are fine for tours, but they suck the life out of anything you plan to do in the studio. If you trust the musicians’ intuition, they will lead the song to the right place. There were some charts for the tunes, and we’d let people fool around with their own ideas a bit before we’d settle into recording, but most of the songs were tracked in one or two takes—and we tracked the basics totally live with everyone in the same room. I like to say the tracks turned out ‘perfectly imperfect,’ and that’s what gives them the vibe and energy. You know, for all the crap Toto took for being soulless, we played all together in one room until we got a take. Today, a lot of guys record one instrument at a time to make everything ‘perfect.’ What’s up with that?”

For the guitar parts, album co-producer and engineer Steve MacMillan pushed Luke to “forget about the past, just be yourself, and shut up and play.” MacMillan also forced a sonic reinvention of sorts by badger -ing the guitarist to explore more organic, vintage tones.

“I needed somebody to pressure me into doing something different,” admits Lukather. “So I called Hollywood Rentals, and said, ‘Send me all the weird stuff—the silly little Supros and Magnatones and whatever—and all the vintage AC30s and Marshalls.’ I let the amp determine how I played—because you do play differently when you plug into a different amp—and that, in turn, inspired all the interesting guitar sounds for the album. I used a Radial ToneBone for overdrive here and there, but the basic tone is my Ernie Ball/Music Man Steve Lukather Signature Model direct into an amp. Well, I did plug into an ISP Technologies Vector SL subwoofer to get a mammoth sound out of the tiny amps, but any effects you hear on my guitar were added at the mixdown by Steve.

“I loved being able to just plug in and play, because, you know, I’m so sick of being blamed for that ’80s over-processed rack sh*t. That was not my fault. It was all new back then, and the producers I worked for asked for those types of sounds. It used to kill me when I’d see some effects unit with a ‘Lukather’ patch, and it would be the cheesiest, most f**ked-up sound in the box.”

But although Lukather embraced the quest for new and diverse “Luke” guitar sounds, he wanted to ensure the songs held up to the musical standards he has followed most of his career, paid homage to influences such as Steely Dan and Jeff Beck, and rocked harder than Toto.

“I’m a 50-year-old guy, and I’m not going to compete with the rappers and pop idols,” he says. “I just wanted to make a record I’d be proud of. I tried to play what was right for each song, and do my own thing. I wasn’t interested in doing a million takes. If a solo didn’t work—either because I didn’t have the right sound, or because I wasn’t inspired at that moment—I’d just move on. A part either works or it doesn’t. You can’t batter it into submission, or force inspiration to save you. It’s always better to just surrender, and then come back later to give it a go with fresh ears. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s important to have chops—and I’ve been in the woodshed since I was seven years old—but if you watch YouTube, you’ll find a fetus with more chops than anyone. It’s all how you use what you have.”

guitarplayer.com, May 2008