I caught up with Lukather upon his return from tours as a solo artist (in support of his new album, Transition [Mascot]), and as lead guitarist for Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. (Another Starr tour, again featuring Lukather, is scheduled for later this year.) The week of our meeting, Lukather was in rehearsals with Toto, the multi-platinum, Grammy-award-winning rock band he co-founded at age 19. The group was prepping for their 35th-anniversary summer world tour.
During much of the interview, Lukather had a guitar (an Ernie Ball Music Man LIII Steve Lukather signature model, if you’re curious) in his hands—unplugged, but nonetheless very much in use. One reason for the guitar’s presence is that Luke loves to demonstrate musical ideas, songs, and playing approaches as they come up in conversation. Another reason is that, like most “lifer” guitarists, Lukather, of course, just plain can’t resist noodling if there’s a guitar nearby and accessible. The main reason the guitar was there, though, is that Lukather, it seems, is an incomplete person without it. Already a highly animated guy, when Lukather gets ahold of his instrument, he instantly becomes even more energized, and he lights up markedly—his smile widens, he talks even faster, he stands up from his chair at times to play things, and he seems all the more passionate and inspired about life. —JG
You say you practice every day, usually starting first thing in the morning. What did you practice today?
I’ve been working on some old stuff we are doing with Toto that we haven’t done in years that we’ll be doing on this coming 35th-anniversary tour. We’re going to dig out some of our more prog-y stuff, like the song “Better World.” Sometimes, I forget how to play a song because we record it and then don’t play it for ten years.
That’s another good reason why the skill of reading music is your friend. People can say all they want about reading music not being unnecessary for most guitarists, but it’s always valuable. I used to be a much better reader when I was doing sight-reading every day at sessions, but it comes back quickly when I get some charts in front of me.
Who made the “Better Days” chart?
It was done by [Toto drummer] Simon Phillips. Here, let me go grab it. [Returns a moment later and spreads several Toto charts out on the table.] Here’s “Better Days.” This is the kind of stuff you’ve got to be able to look at on paper and play.
Great looking chart—and hand written.
Yeah. Simon has good manuscript. It’s really good to be able to look at this page and go, “I don’t remember this, but I wrote and played it, what did I play?” Some of the stuff—especially on a song like “Better Days” is very specific—you’ve got to play it exactly as it was done originally.
That’s a pretty involved chart. And it’s about four or five pages.
Yes, and there’s still another part, also—part III, which is a reiteration of this part, but with a different second ending. Even when I was a full-time studio musician, I was never a reader on the level of Tommy Tedesco, but I could read enough to get through things. When I was doing sessions every day, just being able to lock into the road map right away and understand what was going on was really helpful. Skills like being able to interpret the voicings from looking at a piano chart, etc., are very helpful.
Here’s a chart for another song we’re doing, off Toto IV, called “It’s a Feeling” I’ve never played this song live, I don’t think. I don’t remember even tracking it. You’ve got to understand, we recorded this in 1981. Looking at the chart, I was like, what the f**k? There are weird fourths-y kind of harmonies in places. I just wanted to make sure I was playing the right voicings, because it’s very specific.
Who wrote this chart?
[Toto Keyboardist] Steve Porcaro. This is original. Well, we didn’t have charts back then when we were cutting the stuff, but he wrote it later. It’s really great to hear the song and go, “What is that?” and have somebody send this to you so you can print it out and within seconds you know the answers to everything. Convenient! I am so glad that I took the time to learn how to do this, even though there are guys that read much better than me. I must reiterate that I’m not Mr. Joe Sight-Reader all the time. But I can pull this stuff out, look it over, and go, “Okay, right, there it is. Got it.”
Here’s another thing I always like to look at—the Nicolas Slonimsky book on modes. [Pulls out a hardcover copy of the 1947 Slonimsky text, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.]
Everybody has this. Some of it’s really ugly. But sometimes this weird s**t spawns some really cool sounding ideas. My old teacher got me into this book almost 40 years ago. He said, “You need to get your head around some of this stuff.”
Actually, I practice more now and get off on this stuff more than I ever have. Ever since I quite boozing almost four years ago, I have all this extra energy and extra time. I get up and I use it constructively. I really have fallen in love with the guitar and music all over again, and I’m refining my sound, my whole thing, and my whole viewpoint of it. I went through that stage where I beat the s**t out of myself, but I’m over it now. I’m not trying to be the fastest gun in the West. I’m 55 years old. It’s a young man’s game. If you’re 20 years old, then you have to jump on the rat wheel and run as fast as you can, in hopes of making some noise and making a name for yourself.
When I started out, there weren’t 850 million guitar players a week jumping on the wheel—and there was a lot more work. Now we’ve got more players and less work and that’s really a drag for those coming up, trying to get established. I don’t have a magic wand. My son Trevor is a musician, and he’s struggling. I can’t just wave a wand and go, “Oh yeah, you’re my son, so you get to be a pro guitarist.” If anything, it’s going to be harder for him.
Have you learned anything interesting about today’s music industry seeing it through your son’s eyes?
I get to see what it is like to be out there. There are still record deals to be had, but you wouldn’t believe some of the lame s**t Trevor has turned down. It’s like, when you see singers competing on TV on one of these big karaoke shows. I say, “If you do that you might as well go in the closet and put a f**king gun in your mouth and get it over with,” because if you don’t win the show, you’re toxic. And if you do win, you’re still toxic. You’ve got nothing. You’re a cartoon character, and you’ll be forgotten in a month, and then you have no credibility.
I said to Trevor, “If you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you have to stay in the trenches and take the punches like everybody else. You’ve got to mess up, put stuff out that sucks, beat yourself up over it, then put stuff out that’s good, and learn how to move and put out better stuff from there.”
Back in the day, when I started out, there were demo sessions, because no one had home studios, and artists had to hire people to play their demos to get their songs heard, and if you did demo sessions, you made only 20 bucks or so a tune, but you got to learn how to be a studio musician. Then, you were brought up to the minor leagues, and then finally the major leagues. There was a process, a pecking order—you had to pay your dues and play every wedding and Top 40 gig there was and learn and practice and do whatever you could do to keep working.
Now, there are fewer gigs, less money, and the future doesn’t look super bright. And there’s not much real studio work. There’re no sessions, per se. From what I understand, many of the guys who are doing sessions now have their own studios—often home studios—and they do everything from there.
Do you have a recording studio?
Not in my house, no. I have a little office and I have my guitar and a piano and a recorder. It’s hard for me to do lots of sessions, because I’m on the road like nine or ten months a year.
I’m lucky to have all the opportunities that have come my way to do all that I do, but on the other hand, it’s cost me a lot of my personal life. I mean, I’m alone, I have four kids—two out of the house and two babies—one’s five-and-a-half and the other’s two. I’m really great friends with the ex and all that, and I see the kids every day, but I’m on the road all the time.
That’s my life and I’m lucky to have that. But after a 35- or 36-year recording career, to have this sort of Toto resurgence is great. It’s a crack-up—we’re just going, “Really? Now all the sudden everybody likes us? The critics were rough on us when we first came out. They liked the Sex Pistols. Now, we’re again doing arenas and everything around the world. It’s really fun. This band is my high school band, in many ways.
And we’re doing this tour for the right reason—to help our brother, [longtime Toto bassist] Mike Porcaro, who’s got ALS, which is a brutal disease. Many guitarists know about that disease now, through our dear bro Jason Becker, who’s been living with it for a long time. ALS is tough, and we all know what the end of the road usually is with that. Toto was toast for years and then David Paich called me and said, we got to help Mikey out, so here we are. But, as it turns out, it helps everybody. We give Mikey a chunk, we all get to pay our rent. We help Mike and we help ourselves, people dig our music. Joseph Williams is back singing his ass off and Paich, Steve Porcaro, myself are here. And Nathan East and Simon Phillips are on bass and drums—a pretty strong band if we can’t have Mike and [founding Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro.
How have you, as you say, reinvented yourself as a guitar player?
My new lifestyle has really translated to my playing. I practice way more, I’ve got new gear all the way up and down, and everything is much simpler in every area of my life—from my personal life to my gear. I play through Bogner Ecstasy amps—just plug straight into the amp, with a few stompboxes in the chain. The Bogners are stock. The only difference is that when I am in Europe or Japan, I use a custom 220-volt version of the amp, and, interestingly, I’ve found that the 220 has a little bit more meat. There’s more power going through it, I guess. I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know why that might be, but I did notice the difference, because I was always the guy taking the 110-volt amps overseas and using the converters, just like everybody else.
This time, Reinhold Bogner was so cool—he provided me with 220 amps over there, which I’m going to be using for the Toto tour, too. I just got off my solo tour, and the Ecstasys sounded f**king great every night—really fat, and could fully handle the low end, and gave me everything I needed. I’ve backed off the gain a bit nowadays so that you can really hear the notes. I’m using DiMarzio Transition pickups, the new signature model pickup line I just developed with Larry DiMarzio and Steve Blucher. I’m really honored to be a part of that process, and I love the pickups.
Humbuckers and single-coils?
Yeah. And we’re doing humbuckers that can be split out to singles when you do the reverse phase position, which is really interesting. I really like it. I just wanted something different.
They’re on my new Ernie Ball Music Man LIII signature model. I really wanted to get back into a humbucking thing. I dug a lot of the stuff and sounds I got in the past with active pickups, and all the gear I’ve used over the years has always served its purpose and has been great. But for me, just like with anything else, sometimes you change your mind or move in new directions in life.
What delay pedal are you using?
The DigiTech Hardwire delay, which Bob Bradshaw modified for me to be 100 percent wet, so there wouldn’t be any original dry signal left in it. That way, I can put it through the loop and mix in only what I need to just have a nice wash behind me.
What wah pedal do you use?
I have one that Joe Bonamassa gave to me—it’s his signature Dunlop Cry Baby. Joe’s my go-to gear geek friend. Brilliant musician, absolutely one of my favorite guitar players right now, and also a sweetheart of a cat. He knows what kind of screws are in which year of which guitar, etc.—he’s that guy. He goes out and looks for that stuff. He’s helping me refurbish my ’59 Burst [Gibson Les Paul] to pristine, original condition. He got me all the right parts, and now he and Rick Gould—another genius guitar guy—are going to help me put it back together.
These guys know all that stuff. I’d love to tell you that I’m the guy who takes apart guitars and rebuilds them, but I’ve never been one of those players. I have to confess that I was the kid who would build a model and always have extra pieces left over and be like, “Why doesn’t this work?” [Laughs.]
What tuner do you use?
A DigiTech Hardwire HT-6 Polyphonic tuner—the tuner where you can hit all the strings and it will tell you which of the six strings is out. When you’re on a gig, that’s a great tuner to have. Sometimes you’re like, “I can’t hear anything, I can’t see anything, I’ve only got a second to tune. Which string is out of tune?” That feature saves a lot of time.
I use .009 or .010 Ernie Ball sets—mostly .009s. I’m not trying to be a tough guy. I mean, Billy Gibbons uses .007s—I know, I’ve played his guitar—and he certainly gets a badass sound.
I think Frank Marino uses light strings, too, and he gets a huge tone.
There are a lot of people that say you’ve got to have a wound G string, etc., to get a fat tone. It just becomes ridiculous, though. Those are always the guys you hear about whose fingers are raw, or they have tendonitis, because it’s like lifting weights. I’m not trying to be that guy. I’m just trying to get a good sound and play. And I never have any problems with my hands or my fingers or my arms, yet many other players do. So at the end of the day, I use .009s in standard tuning, .010s if I’m tuning down.
And you mostly practice music, it seems, not scales and technical exercises, so much, which might be less stressful on your hands and tendons.
The key—and this is something my teacher taught me a long time ago—is that it’s really bad to force yourself to practice. It’s great to practice, but his rule was never practice more than half an hour without taking a break, and if anything hurts, stop immediately and stretch out and take a walk outside, grab a glass of water or something, and shake it off. You may have a tendency, especially when you want to learn something that’s difficult, to be repetitive. Start slow, and play it slow. You may think it doesn’t sound right slow, but if you articulate it correctly slow, when you get it up to speed it’s going to be cleaner and better.
Most people just want to start shedding on something at full-speed, and then it’s difficult, so they practice too hard, and soom maybe their picking forearm takes a s**t on them. Or, you try to do super legato stuff with the fretting hand, and that forearm gives out. You wouldn’t walk out and lift 300 lbs as a weight lifter without building up to it, would you? You start out with light weights, and you work up from there. It’s the same thing with sports. You can’t and shouldn’t try to run as fast as you can the second you get out of bed.
Who built your pedalboard?
Dave Friedman It’s pretty straight ahead. I just wanted something completely different—a different take on what I’d had before—and much simpler. I reiterated to Dave that I wanted a dumb pedalboard, something really simple that anyone can operate and fix. I tour so much that I have a tendency to change guitar techs a lot during the course of the year, because techs have their own schedules to meet, too, and some of the guys who I love can’t always work with me the whole year. Also, different artists who I work for may have their own teams, so having a simple rig is great when someone new is popping in to run it.
Again, I wanted to simplify everything in my life, that’s all—every aspect of it. I’m in a great headspace. Like I said, I’m lucky. Everything’s falling into place. I got a second chance, as it were, to really appreciate everything. I appreciate my career more now than I ever have, because, as an older guy looking back, I’m thinking about how we were just teenagers when we got going. I was 19 when we did the first Toto album. I blinked and now I’m 55. I’m like, “What the f**k happened?”
You tracked “Hold The Line” at 19?
I was 19 when I did that album. I turned 20 when we did the tour.
Listening to your new solo album, Transition, you sometimes—as has been the case with many Toto songs—have an instrumental section before the guitar solo.
It’s a subconscious arrangement thing that I do from all the years of playing with David Paich and Steve Porcaro. They always give me the greatest setup into the guitar section. They give me the push. It makes it easy for me.
I play keyboards, too, so I like keyboards. I’m not like afraid of them. “Oh, keyboards suck man—you’re not rock,” some might say. Well, I don’t even know what style of music it is I play, anyway. And these days, rock is about as vague a term there is these days. I like powerful music, I like big production, I like synths, I like keyboards, and I love the guitar and big drum sounds, too. Harmonically, I like a little bit more than just the standard fare as far as chords, clusters, and harmony in music.
You’re certainly rocking as hard as anybody else, yet, it’s difficult to think of any other guitar players who bring the hard stuff with as deep a sense of harmony in their playing as you do.
There’s Steely Dan, of course, but they’ve never had that hard edge.
Well, there’s Mike Landau. Mike is one of the most brilliant guitar players I’ve ever heard in my life. We’ve grown up together since we were 12 years old, and he was always brilliant. He is gifted. You can’t learn that. If somebody has a style your ear can pick up on that right away. That’s the greatest compliment you could ever pay someone—to recognize them by their playing.
There are a billion guys that play fast as f**k, but do they have a sound? Do they have a signature where you go, “Oh, this must be that must be that guy”? We all have our influences and wear them on our sleeves, but the tone is the way you bend and the way you do vibrato. Vibrato is your thumbprint. That’s your thing. Notes are notes and technique is technique, but it’s really all about how you play that one note, man. And everybody’s vibrato is different. It’s like snowflakes and fingerprints and that’s what defines a musician to musician as a guitar player.
And, in all fairness, Steely Dan was one of my favorite bands of all time. When we were in high school we were like a glorified Steely Dan tribute band—me and Mike Landau on guitar, Carlos Vega and/or Jeff Porcaro on drums, and Steve Porcaro on keyboards. Jeff was in Steely Dan at the time and David Paich and those guys would come down and play with us, too.
So we wanted to be Steely Dan. And when we met the Porcaro brothers, we got hip to who all the session guys were and actually had a chance to meet them—Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, and all the studio guys I got into at that time, including Rit [Lee Ritenour], Ray Parker, and Dean Parks. Those were the names that were on the backs of all these great records that I had in the ’70s. I wanted to be like those guys.
How will you approach the songs on this 35th-anniversary tour? I always love how you guys rearrange some of Toto’s stuff for live shows.
Some of it we want to stay true to the record. This year, for the first time ever, I’m going to do the whole “Rosanna” solo and ending jam exactly as it is on the end of the record—I’m going to pretty much play it note for note. If we extend it, I’m going to at least play the meat-and-potatoes part that fans want to hear that I’ve never played live. Remember, that ending section was a totally improvised thing in the studio. I never really went back and learned what I played, though I have kind of alluded to it over the years. For me, going back and having to learn that stuff is interesting, because I was in a completely different headspace then, and my fingerings were a lot different when I was a younger.
I was only 23 when we did that “Rosanna.” That was a lucky pass. That ending section wasn’t even supposed to happen. We just played it, and there it was—a moment in time. So everybody loves it and everybody’s going, “Luke, why don’t you give the people what they want? Play it for them, finally.” So I messed around with it the other day, and it really brought me back to a mental space I was in back then. I go for different stuff on the guitar now. Obviously, when 30-some odd years go by, you’re going to play a little differently than did back in the day.
When I listen to “Rosanna,” the groove is super loose and funky, but also very even, tempo-wise. Did you guys track it with a click?
I think Jeff had a click in his ’phones. He always liked to play with one when he tracked drums, but he didn’t want us to play with one.
The pocket on that song certainly has a nice swing to it.
It was Jeff, and it was a second take. We never rehearsed the songs. We’d just show up at the studio and go, “Okay, I got one here.” He’d start playing it and singing the song and then we’d make a little rough chord chart or something like that and we’d play it as a band and then, in, one or two takes, we’d nail it. Or Jeff goes, “That’s my take,” and, if necessary, we would fix our takes to his drums, because Jeff never needed to play it more than once or twice. He had magical stuff, so why would you do it again? You keep that stuff. That’s the thing about recording live with other guys. Even if I messed up or something, or if there was a mistake from somebody else, it didn’t matter. If Jeff’s drum track was ripping—as often it was, right out of the box—we would just keep going, and fix our parts afterwards.
Jeff was a magical cat. He was really something else to be around. He made everybody a better musician, so there was a lot of inspiration from that aspect—plus, with Jeff, you had to be really on it. You had to play the stuff for real.
I mean, critics used to say we were slick, but I mean, come on—we sat in the room and played that s**t. It was live. Now, everything’s done piece by piece on the computer, and it’s beyond buffed out in Pro Tools—edited, copied and pasted, tuned, quantized, cleaned up. There are no sharp corners on any track on most mainstream records anymore.
It almost sounds like everybody’s using the same plug-ins for their effects and guitar sounds. It used to be that you could really tell the difference between, say, a Zeppelin album and a Pink Floyd album, because the production and the sounds and the choices of gear used and the way it was recorded was so vastly different between bands. Now, you listen to “rock” radio and you kind of go, “That could really be anybody, couldn’t it?” I sound like some bitter old guy, but my son’s 26 years old, and while he shows me all the time that there’s certainly some stuff out there, I am still going back and listening to old records a lot. I’m like, “Why doesn’t anybody really go for it nowadays?”
To be fair, there are some bands, like Porcupine Tree and people like that, who have brilliant musicians who are pushing that prog envelope. I’m not talking about those bands. I’m specifically talking about broad-stroke rock music—the kind of stuff that you would hear on the radio on a rock channel, not the kind of stuff that’s underground and much cooler that people are getting into. I’m looking at these broad-stroke acts. I want to love it—and some of it’s great, including the acoustic stuff, like Mumford and Sons—but it’s hard to take some of if all the way seriously when you see some cat in some band thrown on TV who is still struggling to make a barre chord. At that point, you go, “What the f**k is this guy doing there? His balls haven’t even dropped yet.”
Then again, I probably sound like some cynical old bastard saying that, because we started differently. I can’t compare anything of myself to what’s going on now. I’m an old guy. That’s fine, I’m an old guy, I can handle that now. [Laughs.] The good part of all this is that there is great stuff out there—more great stuff than ever—you just have to look for it.
Let’s take some questions from Facebook. Mark Stanley would like to know if you transcribe other instruments for guitar.
I should, but I don’t have the time to do it. It would be good for a lot of things if I did that. But I never was the guy who would sit down and transcribe. I would learn by ear, old-school style, by lifting the needle off the f**king record until my parents would pull the cord out of the wall and say, “What are you doing in there? If you play that again, I’m going to kill you.”
My parents weren’t musicians, so they could not relate to what I was doing. It was very tedious for me—and them. “Why are you playing that over and over again?” “Because I want to learn it!” “Well you haven’t learned it. Stop!”
Honestly I got the ear training in I needed in doing it the tedious way, but I just never wrote that stuff down. I’ve got to say, I really admire people who can sit and do that, and a lot of guys can. I studied orchestration, transposing other instruments, and stuff like that. I had a teacher, Dr. Albert Harris, who’s actually really cool. I learned a lot about voicings from him.
Knowing how to transpose all the instruments was a great thing to learn.
When I was starting out, there were people around me who thought that learning harmony and theory was tedious, but I found it very helpful. Learning music is a positive thing. It’s like learning a foreign language. How could that hurt you if it broadens your knowledge? I firmly believe that anybody who says reading music hurts your playing is a lazy f**k. You don’t have to be a great reader—you don’t have to speak perfect French, but if you know how to speak it a bit, it’s really going to help you in France.
John Noseworthy asks, “Who is the guitarist you’d most like to jam or record with that you have not had the chance to do so with, yet?”
There are a lot of great guitar players, so I’m kind of stumped right now. I love Wayne Krantz. We’re friends but we never played together. There are people like that. A lot of the jam band guys would be great to play with. Jimmy Herring’s really good. Warren Haynes and I played on the same records, but we never played together. I’ve got an invitation to play with him and I’d love to do that some time. I love all those jam band fusion-y kind of guys. That stuff is fun to play live.
Let’s zoom it out to all musicians, like singers or sax players—anyone. Any other heroes you’ve not yet worked with? You’ve played with almost everybody, it seems. Stevie Wonder?
You’ve probably worked with him.
Yes, I’ve worked with Stevie. There are not a lot of cats I haven’t played with—it sounds awful to say that, but it’s not a boast. I mean, I would have loved to play with Jimi Hendrix but that’s never going to happen.
Brian May? David Gilmour?
I played with those guys at one point or another. Gilmour—I’d like to do something with him again. That would be awesome. We’ve never played live together. He was a massive influence on me—him and Joe Walsh, and I played with Joe. David and Joe had a huge impact on me as a kid. I really loved those records—the production, the playing. It’s all simple, beautiful, huge, and memorable.
What of Joe Walsh sticks out to you most?
Oh, God, everything Joe’s ever done, from the first James Gang album to “Analog Man.” I’ve got it all. I’m a Walsh fanatic. I love Joe, and he’s one of the nicest guys on planet Earth. He’s a bud, and he’s a friend. I was so excited that we got to play on the same song. We did Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”—we both had solos on that tune. I was so excited to play on a track with Walsh—it’s like childhood hero s**t coming true.
This is from Mike Carlyle: “Have you felt any physical effects of aging, and have they hindered your playing at all?”
As a musician, you don’t really lose the facility if you practice all the time. But licks you would absolutely rip as a kid, well, you might play them differently later in life. It’s kind of like running or being an athlete later in life—if you work out and you stay at it, you may not ever be in the peak physical condition you were at the height of your youth, but, as you mature, you’ll gain a headspace that you’ll wish you could have had back when you had the peak physicality. [Laughs.]
I think you do stop running as fast—even though you can still run fast—but you find that you actually want to slow down a little bit in your life. It’s not that you can’t play fast anymore.
Sure you can, but your desire to do so lessens, as the desire to live your life a little slower increases. You begin to want to take things in. You appreciate the smell of the lawn being cut in the backyard and how good a cold glass of water tastes on a hot day—you’re not racing through that glass of water, chugging it down, and running as fast as you can anymore. That “racing” feel comes across in the music. Yes, it’s important to keep in physical shape and to keep limber and keep your chops up, but when your desire to run as fast as you can slows
down, the music improves.
Keith Beres: “What’s your favorite non-Luke-model guitar?”
I go to my Gibson ’59 Burst. It doesn’t get much better than that. Not a reissue. I have the real deal. Apparently, I have one of the more famous versions of that model. Joe Walsh told me I do, at least. I don’t really keep up with all that historical stuff, though. I really don’t play a lot of other guitars, actually. I’ve got to say, my Music Man model is always right there.
It’s my new friend. They make such fine stuff, I can’t argue with it.
Any other current models being offered by other manufacturers you like?
Fender makes some good reissue stuff. And Joe Bonamassa gave me one of his signature Gibson Les Pauls, which is a really nice guitar. That was a really nice gift from him. He’s a sweet guy.
Joel Hoekstra wants to know, “Outside of your own albums, what are some of the favorite sessions you’ve done? What are some favorite moments like, ‘I’m proud of that solo’?”
Joel’s a great player. Hey, Joel! So, to answer, there are a lot of great moments that come to mind. I’m writing a book about my life in the studios, actually, and not one of those tell-all, stupid books, but one that shares some stories and details about how these solo records came together, or how other albums and songs were done. I mean, we were doing Thriller. How fun was that? I want to tell these stories.
I’m writing the book with Lonn Friend, my high school buddy. We started the book, but it’s going to take a long time. It may take some different forms—I don’t know how it’s going to end up. I’m going to take my time with it. It will detail sessions, a lot of things that were funny that cracked me up, and a time when I was doing so many sessions that I would just blaze. I was known for getting a job done quickly—do a couple takes, done, see you later.
But, to Joel’s question, any specific sessions come to mind?
Okay, here’s a funny one. Lionel Richie called me to do his song, “Running with the Night.” I think it was his answer to “Beat It.” I guess he heard me and Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It,” and other rock vibes on Thriller, and he was like, “I better get some rock s**t on my record.” Knowing that I was part of that whole scene—and also knowing me from other sessions I had done with him before—he called me up and goes, “I want you to play all over this thing. I want you to do a solo on this.”
So I came in. I had my Les Paul—the ’Burst—out, and it was going through my Rivera-modded Fender Deluxe, and I say, “Okay, let me hear the tune.” They play the tune, and I just started noodling to it. I noodle through the whole song to get a feel for it and learn the arrangement, and then I say, “Ok, I think I’ve got a handle on this. Let me do one.” Lionel goes, “You just did one. That’s it.”
I go, “You were recording? No, no, man. I played all over this thing. I was just warming up. I stepped all over the vocals. What are you talking about?” He goes, “No, really, it’s done.” I go, “Come on, let me have another pass.” He goes, “It’s done.”
I didn’t even know we were doing a take. I said, “Well, let me fix it.” He said, “I don’t want you to do anything.” I said, “But really, you got to edit this for me because it’s too much. I was just warming up. I played too much.” Sure enough, he used everything. So, within ten minutes, I was in and out on that session.
That was take zero.
It was take zero. There were a lot of those types of sessions.
Do you like the way it sounds?
I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but it was on the radio all the time back in the day. Another session I loved doing was the Randy Newman stuff, like “I Love L.A.” I was in that video. That was fun stuff. There was a lot of really fun stuff—all the Don Henley stuff. “Dirty Laundry” is still one of my favorite memories. I told you about that already, soloing on the same song as Joe Walsh. I’ve had a lot of “You’ve got to be f**king kidding me” moments just looking around the room going, “I can’t believe I’m in the room with all these guys.”
Peter Libby says, “How did you get that wicked scar on your head?”
I’m surprised anybody noticed that!
Peter is actually a drummer friend of mine, and he’s probably asking because he has a similar scar, which I think he got mountain biking.
Mine was an Absinthe accident. I was in Japan many years ago—20 some odd years ago, when I was still drinking—and I had a drinking contest with the head of Sony at the time, a Japanese guy. This was at dinner. I drank him under the table and then we went to another place called Pips, in Tokyo, which was the only place they could get legal Absinthe. People used to go blind from his stuff, and I don’t recommend it. Back in my drinking days, though, I had some chops, which I’m not necessarily proud of. At the time, though, I was very proud of those chops. In a half hour I had like seven shots of Absinthe trying to prove a point. I don’t know what point—death, perhaps.
Anyhow, I was so hammered that I decided that I needed to get something to eat, and I fumbled across the street to a McDonald’s. I don’t eat McDonald’s—that seems like f**king cow anus, if you ask me—but, at the time I was drunk, so I walked up this circular staircase. On the way back down, before I had eaten anything, I was drunk and slipped, and in the stairwell there’s this sheet metal that would be around to keep the rats from climbing up the walls. Well, on one part of it there was a jagged edge coming out. It caught my skin on my forehead and tore it open to the point where there was a flap of my forehead hanging over my eye. Blood was gushing out. It looked like the worst murder crime scene because, being that I was so hammered, my blood was very thin and it wouldn’t coagulate. They called an ambulance and got me down there and held me down, and stitched me up while I was screaming all kinds of bloody hell. That’s where I got my seven stitches.
The funny part to all this is that I now had seven stitches across my head and I was on a tour with the band called Los Lobotomys! So you can imagine the humor when you saw me bound up, because it looked like I’d actually had a lobotomy.
Daniele Bonadei would like hear about what gear you were using when you were getting started in the session scene in the ’70s.
Usually, in the early days, if I could get away with it, I’d have two Deluxes with a Boss Chorus Ensemble creating a stereo sound—Jay Graydon-style—and, at that time, maybe a Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer compressor [plugged right into the guitar jack]. The Orange Squeezer was also a Jay Graydon trick to give a little sheen to things. Great for clean stuff. Or, if you had a little distortion, it would calm the distortion down, yet give you some meat, so you’d get that nice grit. Otherwise, I would just play through my Deluxe and double track everything after we got the master take.
I was able to double my s**t really fast back in the day—all the little nuances and extra licks and stuff—I’d remember everything I did on the master take. I learned that from watching David Foster do that on the keyboards. He used to play the piano part and then double exactly what he played on a Fender Rhodes. No MIDI back then! He’d remember every lick. Paich was the original guy who did that, and then everybody followed in suit. Watching those guys, I realized I had to learn how to double. You have to remember everything you play because you’re going to have to double-track it. That was how you got the big sound. Then, you mixed it down. So that was really a lot of whatever the so-called secret of that era was.
Greg Riley asks “Who’s the most inspiring musician you’ve ever worked with?”
That’s a really difficult question.
How about one? For instance, you’ve worked with at least two of the Beatles.
Three. Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s a trip—I get texts from Ringo. Ringo’s my friend. It’s amazing. He’s the nicest guy. There’s a guy I’m learning how to live life from. He’ll be 73 in July, and he lives like he’s 40 years old. He’s done it all. He’s been as crazy as you can be. I’m learning a lot from him about how to grow old gracefully and happily. That’s been one of the most fun and inspiring gigs I’ve done because I’m looking around the stage and there’s Todd Rundgren, Richard Page, and Gregg Rolie—from the original Santana, the band that played Woodstock. I’m playing “Black Magic Woman” with Gregg Rolie!
What’s so fun about the Ringo gig is that I get to be so many different guitar players. I can do some of the Carl Perkins/George Harrison-y rockabilly old-school stuff. I want to play everything—from the Beatles stuff to everything else—with the right sound and the right parts. Then there’s the Richard Page/Mr. Mister aspect of the gig, which is great. And then there’s my stuff, too, which I do—and there’s Todd’s stuff, and he carries the ball on that. And there’s Mark Rivera there, too, and Gregg Bisonnette. It’s a great band. I just want to be a supportive player. And we all sing. Everybody sings great.
On one song, maybe I’ve got to be a pedal steel kind of player. Then, on the next tune, I’m doing something else—like using fast slap echo with a clean sound on “Act Naturally.” On that song, I’ve got to play all the country stuff, and I just get a great kick out of doing all that. I went from playing with G3 with Satriani and Petrucci, to touring with Ringo Starr. There probably aren’t a lot of guys who would be able to do that comfortably. To me, it just seemed perfectly natural.
Have you picked up anything guitar-specific tips from Ringo, like what he prefers a guitarist to do?
He responds to the simpler stuff. He laughs and goes, “Oh you guitar players with your this and that. Give me some meat.” He gets off on it all. I think I’m just a different guitar player than he’s had in the past. He’s had some great ones, too. I suppose my ability to morph from one guy to the next gets him shaking his head. Most guitarists have their style and that’s the only style that they play, but I take a little pride in being able to go, “Oh, okay, we’re going to do this song?” and then dialing in on the right tone and feel. I want it to be real. I try to play the right s**t and not just fumble my rock and roll chops over everything—not just hambone through it. I want to pay a great deal of respect to the music that came before me and the players who made the original recordings. It’s really important to pay respect to people that inspired me in the first place.
We do get to jam a couple Beatles things and stuff like that with Ringo, and sometimes cool things that aren’t on the set list—like the Lennon and McCartney stuff, which he doesn’t usually do in the set. You know, all of the sudden, you’re sitting there playing “I Should Have Known Better,” and you turn around, and there’s Ringo, and kind of playing into it—“Oh, so this is what you guys want to see?”
It’s like when you play with Miles, and you get him to do a “Sketches of Spain” thing, and he goes, “Heh, heh, you like that old s**t, don’t you?” And we’re going, “Yes! Yes!” And he laughs and goes, “Oh, I haven’t played that stuff in years.” …. And we got Miles to play on our record. We got Miles Davis to play on a Toto record! And then he wanted me to join his band afterwards. It was insane. I can’t believe it. I couldn’t accept his offer, as we were leaving the next day on tour.
Eric Brewer wants to know how you integrate jazz vocabulary into rock playing?
I learned a lot of it form Larry Carlton, really—he was a huge inspiration in that area. A lot of guys, when they’re playing the blues, they don’t get out of the blues box. But here are a lot of altered notes you can use. That’s really the key—knowing how to use everything. There’s a lot more harmony you can use than the blues scale or the Dorian mode. [Begins playing.]
Can you describe what you’re doing? I hear some #5s.
Yeah. You’re just playing over a dominant-seventh chord, but there are all these other alternate notes. [Plays a line infused with #11s and b5s.] You don’t want to play the scale. Define the thirds and sevenths and throw an altered chord in there, and, all of the sudden, there’s a lot more harmony.
I’m amazed by how comfortable your picking hand is with fast string skips.
Everybody has their own way that they play. I learned to play relaxed because of what my teacher told me: You’ve got to stay loose. When you tense up, you’re not going to get it out anyway. You start to get all hung up and you can see the muscle going, “Stop!”
How was the G3 tour for you?
On the first one, it was Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and me. And then I did it again, but instead of Steve Vai, it was John Petrucci. I can’t stress enough how great all three of those guys are. Here I am walking in the footsteps of Steve Morse and Yngwie and all the people who have gone before in that spot. I’m probably the weirdest wildcard that they’ve ever put into that particular gig. It was very humbling to me. I was so nervous. That first night, if you were to put a piece of coal in my ass, it would have been a diamond in the first five minutes on the gig.
But, at the same time, I have played with Joe and Steve and John in various situations—jamming and things like that, which that helped be more comfortable going into that gig—but never as a G3 guy. We’ve worked together and we’ve been friends forever—which made the difference and is probably why I got the call, because it’s Joe’s baby. Joe was like, “I really want you to come.”
When he asked, Vai chimed in and said, “Oh, you’d be perfect—you’d be great.” And I was going, “Are you sure you called the right number?” He said, “We’re going to Australia,” and I was thinking, “Interesting,” because I would never do this in the United States. Australia, though, sounded cool.
At this particular time, I was coming out of the darker period of my life. He said, “We really want you to come. Please come. Bring your band, you can do your thing and then we’ll just come out and have fun.” So I said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do it.” I was really nervous and I’m going, “I don’t know what people are going to think. These people don’t know what I do. They think I’m the guy who plays ‘Africa’ or something like that. Maybe they think I’m not worthy of being in the spot.”
So I was nervous. I practiced. Then I finally came to grips with the fact that I’ve just got to be me, man, and not try so hard. Just do what I do. So I brought my band down and sang a couple of my solo band tunes, and I did more fusion-y kind of things, a ballad-y kind of thing—I just played my 45 minutes.
The first night it went really, really well. At first, the crowd was like, “Hmm,” but then I won them over. And Satch and Vai were standing on the side of the stage, giving me a lot of love, which was a really great moment for me. I felt like I had gotten over a little bit of a hump. I never went into that thinking it was even remotely going to be some competitive thing, though. I’m going, “Don’t beat me up, guys, I’m an old guy.” And they’re going, “F**k you. We’re the same age as you.” But I showed a great deal of respect to them, and they were so lovely to me. When you’re standing there, the level of musicianship is crazy. I’m going, “This is insane.” It doesn’t get any better than these guys as far as technique, ability, originality, and just sheer chops.
You’re very open about your insecurities, which is cool. Do you think insecurity is a common trait amongst high achievers?
Yes. I have done a lot of reading on the subject to try to learn about my own insecurities. If you take anybody who’s really good at what they do in any field, you’re going to find either a false macho posturing—which is really just a cover for, “Am I okay here?”—or, you’ll find a deeply insecure cat who’s trying to anesthetize whatever internal paranoia there is inside. If you look at it, most artists are tortured in some way or another. In most guys, especially the trailblazer guys, there’s always an addiction of some sort or some weird shit. I don’t know why, man. It’s DNA. It’s in the gene pool. I’ve tried to figure it out so I can fix it.
The great thing about getting older is I don’t want to be 20 years old again. I actually like who I am now more than I did 20 years ago. I’m not looking for the, “Oh, it’s ok, buddy,” pat on the back anymore, and I think the music is better now, because I’m more relaxed. If I listen to something I do now, instead of sitting there looking for imperfections, I’m going, “That’s f**king awesome, I love that—that’s music.” I’m not like, “But that G# is a little sharp,” or “I rushed that one.” People don’t even hear that s**t.
There are a lot of tracks I’d like to go back and fix if I could, but sometimes you’ve got to live with things. We have an unrealistic view of perfection of music these days because it can be perfect. You can make it technically perfect in Pro Tools. It’s the era we’re in. I mean, look at people’s faces—plastic surgeries everywhere! You don’t see old women anymore. They are old, but they fight it, and they look awful once they start fighting with their faces.
Ralph Benitez wants me to ask you what you believe is the best way to teach oneself how to play more melodically—how to avoid playing anything sounding like scales.
Don’t play scales! The basis of most good music that we all like is the blues, and the blues is really just a feeling—it’s a bending thing. Great blues players don’t go like this [plays scale-based line]. They don’t do that. They find ways to sneak around the notes. You have to know the notes in the scale, but also how to have fun with them. If you know all your chords, it should propose those ideas, instead of scale runs.
Does part of being a melodic player come from emulating singers, too?
A lot of the old bebop guys, their whole thing was to try to be horn players—to try to be singers. In other words, one thing about guitar players is that, unlike horn players, we can keep going and going without taking a breath. The problem with that is it becomes monotonous if you don’t take breaths. If you’re going on and on and on, it doesn’t mean anything, so stop for a moment. Take a breath.
Prairie Prince says, “I just want to thank Luke for having me on his first solo album,” and he also wonders which guitarists inspire you most.
Prairie played on my first [solo] album. Tell him we got to play again. I miss you Prairie!
Prairie is playing drums with Todd Rundgren now. As for inspiring guitarists, well, it all starts with my first guitar hero, George Harrison. That was it. The on switch to my life was the Beatles, who will always be my favorite band.
Shane Soloski asks how you feel about the state of the recording industry, and if you feel it would even be possible to have anything like the career you’ve had if you were starting out today.
[Laughs.] I’m not sure that a career like that still exists. There aren’t many kids coming up going, “I want to be a studio musician,” like there was when I was a kid. The sad answer for that is there’s not much work, even if you’re good enough. You have to wait for one of the old guys to die, and you have to be able to read well, because reading gigs are the only ones that will have you working every day. And those guys with the cool reading gigs are going to die on the gig, so you’ll have to wait. They’re not going to retire.
Ben Decker wants to know how your approach to playing differs between when you’re working as a sideman and when you’re playing your own music.
I don’t really do a lot of sideman stuff anymore, aside from Ringo, which is not really a sideman thing. It’s more of a featured player thing. I like playing my own stuff because I have complete control of how it works out. If you’re working for somebody else, especially now, they can take it and manipulate it any way they want—and maybe not favorably, necessarily.
Now, they cut and paste it and you’re like, what the fuck?
Dylan Elric Wright wants to know how to build the kind of rhythm chops necessary for studio work?
Sometimes, in coming up with a great part for a tune on a session, it’s not about how much you play, it’s about finding the right little thing to play. And the best way to do that is to always remember that it’s really important to know what the vocal’s doing. Then, you can find a little muted part or a little arpeggio thing that comes in right at the right time, with the right voicing, the right sound, or something—a little glue to hold the song together. And when you get a cool idea, it’s really important to have great time and a wicked groove, if you want to make that idea happen. You got to be able to bring whatever you’re playing to life.
When you’re playing somebody’s song, you have to come up with a part that makes people go, “I’d never have thought of that. That is like the coolest thing ever.” That was how I got to work all the time. It wasn’t because I read well. Getting that kind of work is because you’re composing your parts on the spot, under pressure, with Quincy Jones staring in your face.
That’s really what you had to be able to do.
You just get this [holds up a keyboard chart]—and that’s just the piano part. So you go, “Okay, what do I play over that? Do I just play the f**king piano part?” No. Nobody wants you to play the piano part. It’s a reference. Some cats just play that, and they’re told, “No, that’s not what we want. I want you to play what’s not on the paper.” You have to find a great part that’s not on the chart. They want you to make them sound better than what they really are. [Laughs].
Marcelo Paganini asks, “When you send a track to somebody, which I don’t know if you do a whole lot of, do you send it totally dry or do you send it with effects?”
Well, it depends on who it is. If it’s somebody I really trust, I send the dry signal on a track and then a 100-percent wet stereo effects signal on stereo track they can mix in as they please. That way, they can take the dry guitar sound and have control over the panning as well as the amount of effects, depending on what’s going on. Or, I’ll send it pre-mixed with any effects it might need, and go, “This is how it is.”
Marcelo also wonders if it’s still possible to hire you as a session player.
The gig is yours, man. I did my time.