Steve Lukather: Using Tabs is Akin to "Playing Guitar Hero"

Steve Lukather
(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)

As one of the most recorded guitarists in history, Steve Lukather knows a thing or two about picking up and learning a guitar part quickly. 

Now, in a new interview with Ultimate Guitar, Lukather has weighed in on the often-simmering tab vs. sheet music vs. playing/learning by ear debate, saying tablature “doesn't even make sense” to him. 

"Why would you learn that if you can learn how to read music?” Lukather said in the interview. “I look at tablature and reading music the same way you look at playing real guitar and playing Guitar Hero.

"If you're taking all that time to learn the game, why don't you go on to learn how to play the guitar at the end of it? It's the same thing to me, like, why would you do that?

"But hey, a lot of people live by it, even in Nashville, with the number charts. Sure, it's easier to change keys but it's a drag when you have altered chords."

Asked about the oft-repeated refrain that learning music theory “takes the soul out of a song,” Lukather said "Bullshit!” 

“If anything, it has really helped my playing, especially back in the day when I had to come up with parts on the spot," Lukather continued. "They'd just give you a chord symbol and count off the tune and you're supposed to come up with something brilliant on the spot.

"Just knowing your common tones, your relative majors and minors, the simple dumb shit you learn right away, I don't care if you're a shredder or a classical player, it's important to know the language.

"If you're planning a trip to France, it might be a smart idea to learn French – to learn the language of where you're going. It's easier to just be able to read something than to spend hours having somebody show you how to play it.”

“I could give you a thousand reasons why knowing harmony and theory has helped the writing process, the options, the improvisation," the Toto guitarist continued. "The biggest lie out there is that knowing how to read music or knowing anything about music theory takes your soul away... Bullshit!"

Lukather did take a moment to point out, however, that he believes every guitarist learns differently.

"On the other hand, would I give, God bless his soul, my brother, Edward Van Halen, guitar lessons? Would I give Jeff Beck guitar lessons? No,” he said.

“My own son plays guitar weird because he didn't want to take lessons. But he started to come upon something that I would have never thought of, so I just stopped myself. And I was like, 'Carry on. Keep doing what you're doing. Just don't become a shredder. There's already too many of them. Write good songs, be a great rhythm guitar player, play melodically, and you'll always have work.' ”

"So, he listened to me, fortunately, and now it's working. But saying that music theory takes the soul out of a song is just a lazy man's way of saying they don't have the time to put in."

Lukather's new solo album, I Found the Sun Again, is set for release on February 26. You can read GP's recent interview with him about the record, the reformation of Toto and going viral at age 63 right here.

Jackson Maxwell
Associate Editor, and

Jackson is an Associate Editor at and He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.