STEVE LUKATHER WAS WATCHING SOUTH PARK one evening when it suddenly became apparent the episode was about to parody his band, Toto.
“Oh, no,” he said out loud.
“Oh, yes,” said his son Trevor, sitting next to him. “Bring it.”
South Park has not been Lukather’s only comedy cartoon cameo, though. He was also drawn into Family Guy, which did a whole episode themed around Toto’s global mega-hit, “Africa.” These and the many other instances of mainstream TV attention Toto has been paid over the years bear testament to the iconic status the group has earned in American pop culture. And, as has been the case since a then 19-year-old Lukather tracked the fiery guitar solo and impressive wall of power chords that propelled the 1978 hit single, “Hold the Line,” the Southern California native’s influential guitar playing has been a major voice in Toto every step of the way. But, even though Toto has garnered album sales of 35 million and counting, Lukather’s work with his “original band” is only one reason he remains a hero to guitarists everywhere.
Like Lee Ritenour, Elliott Randall, and the other ’70s session guitar kings who inspired him as a youth, Lukather is also a hero of the liner notes. The Grammywinning guitarist/composer/producer is revered worldwide for being the sharpshooting 6-string studio star that has worked with everyone from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin to three of the four Beatles (all except Lennon). He’s also respected for being on Quincy Jones’ short list of first-call session cats, for being the guy who played the other guitar parts on “Beat It” (not to mention playing guitar on other Michael Jackson classics), and for throwing down white-hot lead guitar tracks on hit singles such as Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” the Tubes’ “Talk to Ya Later,” and Boz Skaggs’ “Breakdown Dead Ahead.”
2013 has been a prosperous year for Luke, as it finds him touring large venues with Toto and Ringo Starr, and as a solo artist in support of Transition [Mascot], the latest album under his own name. Flash back to a dark day at a Frank Zappa audition in the mid-’70s, though, and Lukather’s future in the music business didn’t seem so bright ….
What happened at that Zappa audition?
It was this big cattle call, and Frank pulls me up first. I’m standing there, just 17 years old, and all the guitarists I know from the L.A. scene are in the room watching, awaiting their turns. Frank starts by playing this crazy four-bar phrase that’s all over the neck, and then says, “Play that back for me.” I’m looking at him, but it’s like I’m underwater—all I can hear is my own breathing. I go, “I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous. Once again please?” He plays something completely different. I start to fumble through it, and he says, “You have poor comprehension. Next!”
I felt like someone had punched me in the solar plexus. I was trying not to cry. I put my guitar in its case, and started the whole failed-the-audition walk of shame toward the door, when suddenly I noticed the entire place was emptying out behind me. Later, I realized I was the sacrificial lamb Frank used to clear the room. At the time, though, I was thinking, “I’m just not good enough. I’m not going to make it in this business.” When I got home I started ’shedding twice as hard. That’s when I started meeting other people, and everything began falling into place.
Just two years later, at 19, you’re tracking Toto’s debut album.
I’ve been lucky in my career—right place, right time, every time. I was studied up and ready for each opportunity, but I also got a chance to ease in and build a career slowly. Nowadays, there’s no easing in. The industry expects you to be a thoroughbred winner straight out of the gate. In the old days, you got to fall down the stairs, have a bad set, play like s**t, and not have it on the Internet the next day so that everybody can have a whack at you. YouTube has made people more paranoid about making mistakes, but come on, man, mistakes are part of music. They shouldn’t follow you around forever.
The good part of all this is that even young kids are becoming hip to the fact that most mainstream rock and pop has become overly buffed out, auto-tuned, and time-corrected— that it’s become like McMusic. And they’re savvy enough to hunt the ’Net until they find something real, something they feel is their band. Plus, if you’re the artist, you can now say ‘f**k you’ to record contracts that demand you leave everything but your soul and testicles on the paper. You can make the music you want to make, throw your own s**t against the wall, and if it sticks, you get to call the shots and make the money. You’ll still need a good lawyer, though [laughs].
You have said that Jay Graydon helped you get your sound together when you first started in the studios.
I learned a lot from him, because he had a guitar voice all his own. Plus, this was when effects started creeping into guitar players’ rigs, and Jay was very on top of it all. For example, he was the first guy to have amps running in stereo in the studio, thanks to a Boss Chorus Ensemble, and soon every producer wanted that shimmery, doubled guitar sound. But this was the ’70s, before Pro Tools, so going stereo was a big deal. “What? The guitarist needs two tracks?”
Really, though, it was the notes these guys were playing that most influenced me. They were jazz guys, but they had more meat on their guitars. They turned the amp up. Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, with Larry Carlton, was life changing, because it featured this great-sounding distorted guitar playing all this cool bebop stuff. I was like, “Holy f**k, I wanna do that.”
The first giant “wall of guitar” sound I remember hearing on the radio was “Hold the Line.”
Boston was probably before us with that, actually. What we used to do is use VSO—variable speed oscillation—to speed up or slow down the tape ever so slightly to get that detuned, chorus-y sound. With one normal track and two VSO tracks, you get the whole wall of guitar thing going. I am pretty sure the amp on that song was just my Paul Rivera-modded Fender Deluxe cranked up with my ’71 Les Paul Deluxe plugged straight in, no pedals. You don’t need a big amp to get a big sound—just ask Brian May or Jimmy Page.
What is your current gear of choice?
My main guitar is my new signature Ernie Ball Music Man LIII, featuring my signature DiMarzio Transition humbuckers. The one thing I want people to know about each of my signature models is that I don’t get special ones—for instance, I play the same LIII anyone else who has one does. That’s how good Music Man’s quality is. The same is true of John Petrucci, Steve Morse, and Albert Lee and their signature Music Man guitars. They play the same one you play.
As for my rig, it is pretty much all analog now—no MIDI, just pedals on the floor that I can swap out and reconfigure without having to call a scientist. I run two Bogner Ectasys, getting distortion from the amps, with Hardwire DL-8 Delay/Looper and Strymon BlueSky Reverberator pedals in the loop. In front of the amps, I have an Xotic SP compressor, a Jam WaterFall pedal I use for a wide, Hendrix-y vibrato, a TC Electronic Flashback delay set for a fast slap, and a Strymon Lex rotary speaker simulator for getting cool, Beatles-y Leslie sounds when I’m playing with Ringo.
No MIDI, no active pickups? You’ve simplified.
It’s a very straightforward setup. A first-grader could fix it. I’ve become clearer in mind, body, and soul in recent years—I quit boozing four years ago—and I wanted my sound to follow. No wireless crap. I don’t need to run around like a fool, I just need to stand there and play. If I play well, I’ll get a good reaction. My playing will be a work in progress until the day they start throwing dirt in my face. [Picks up guitar, starts playing.] I will forever be in love with this piece of s**t.
Your chops are insane, as always. Your string skipping seems effortless. How do you practice?
I just wake up in the morning and start playing. Sure, we all need to work on our technique, intonation, and time—bedroom cats especially need to work on that last part—but the best thing you can do is identify everything you love in the playing of your favorite musicians and learn it. Then, at some point, you’re going to have to stand up and play in your own voice. To borrow advice Pat Martino shared in GP long ago, learn everything you possibly can, practice your ass off, and then forget it all and just play music.