Steve Lukather: The Reluctant Guitar Hero

It’s a relaxed atmosphere at the Toto rehearsal in Los Angeles.
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It’s a relaxed atmosphere at the Toto rehearsal in Los Angeles. Band members and techs are milling about, tweaking gear, checking levels, and getting things straight. Steve Lukather walks in, tells a few jokes, plugs in, and begins auditioning sounds. Even though the band leaves for Europe in a few days, his settings are not finalized. He’s still futzing, kneeling in front of his two Bogner half-stacks, pulling out low end, boosting mids, adjusting gain levels. He runs through a variety of tones, kicking a few pedals in and out. When he launches into a single-note line, it’s undeniably Luke. The way he slides into a note, the way he bends so perfectly, and the way he works his silky whammy bar technique all add up to a style that is unmistakable after four decades. And for a guy who possesses ungodly technique, there’s not a bit of “look at me” showing off. He is comfortable in his own skin. He has nothing to prove, and, really, why should he?

After breaking into the L.A. session scene as a teenager, Luke quickly became the go-to guy for rock and pop dates. With his high school buddies, he found himself on impossibly hip recording sessions that led to equally high-profile live gigs with Boz Scaggs and others. He decided to form a band with those same high school friends, and that worked out pretty well, too.

Luke was on the cover of GP back in 1984, after his band Toto had swept the Grammys with their smash album IV, which yielded the mega-hits “Africa” and “Rosanna.” In that interview he talked about his beginnings, how he got a foothold in the super-competitive SoCal studio scene, and what he needs in a tone. His exuberance, enthusiasm, and humility came through in every answer.

Three decades later, he remains self-deprecating to a fault, and he seems to find it genuinely hard to believe that people dig his playing as much as they do. He doesn’t think he’s “good,” he thinks he’s blessed, and, even more than blessed, he thinks he’s lucky.

“I had a geographical advantage, being born in North Hollywood,” he says. “Millions of guys can play better than me. I was just in the right place at the right time, and some heavy cats took a shine to me.”

Let’s assume for a second that all that is true. It glaringly overlooks the zillions of hours he spent practicing, studying, and working his ass off. It conveniently omits the fact that when he got his shots, he capitalized on every one of them—killing on gigs and sessions that were way beyond what any teenager should be able to handle. And it says nothing about the crucial component of the hang. Luke is the textbook definition of a good hang. He’s funny as hell, impossibly upbeat, shows up on time, gets a great sound, nails his parts, and truly appreciates what other musicians are bringing to the table and isn’t shy about saying so. Who wouldn’t want to be around this guy?

That list is short, but it is not empty, as Luke himself is quick to point out. “Haters love to hate, man. I’m okay with people not digging my music. That is their right. But I don’t read the message boards anymore—no way!”

The list of people who do want to be around him, however, is positively, abso-freakinglutely ridiculous. To merely scratch the surface, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Elton John, Edgar Winter, Jason Becker, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Tommy Tedesco, Jay Graydon, Michael Landau, Michael Jackson, and three out of four Beatles.

The Beatles story is rather eerie, actually. When he was in an embryonic state, a psychic placed her hand on his mom’s belly and said, “You’re going to have a boy, and he will be a musician. When he’s seven, something big is going to happen.” Fast-forward seven years, and a young Luke is glued to the TV watching the Beatles play The Ed Sullivan Show. He watches George Harrison play the solo to “I Saw Her Standing There” and he instantly knows this is what he will do with his life. His folks get him a guitar for his seventh birthday. In the ensuing decades, he would play with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and, most recently, join Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

If you want to see the American Dream embodied in one person, look no further than Steve Lukather.

Luke insisted on doing this interview “old school”—in person, over dinner, and before and after a full-band run-through prior to Toto’s upcoming European tour. He talked animatedly about the first new Toto record in ten years, XIV [Frontiers Music], waxed rhapsodic about rhythm guitar, gushed about Jeff Beck, and told stories that are truly the stuff of legend.

The new Toto record opens with a killer riff in “Running Out of time.” It really grabs you because it’s all guitar, and because you start on a pickup note—the “a” of three, as in “a-four-e-and a-one.” I don’t think I’ve heard a record open like that.

That’s funny about the pickup notes. I never in a million years would have given that any thought. That was one of the first things we wrote for the record, and one of the first things we cut. I wanted something strong and powerful to open the record, and it’s actually going to open the show as well. I just thought, we haven’t made a record in ten years, what’s the first impression you want to make? It was a riff I came up with at David Paich’s house. Me, Paich, and Joseph Williams wrote that tune in about an hour. That riff has a couple of weird little things, like the flat 5. It’s a little bit of a nod to Zeppelin, I guess.

It doesn’t sound that Zeppelin-y.

It’s not super obvious. It has a little bit of the “Immigrant Song” without stealing from it. See, the problem with writing blues-based rock riffs is that every permutation has pretty much been used. So I try to have a surprise note.

It’s a massive tone.

It’s my Music Man LIII guitar into the Bogner Ecstasy—all stock. I plugged straight into the amp in the studio. Any effects—reverb, delay, or anything weird—were done at the mixing desk. I double-tracked some of the rhythms as well.

Was that your go-to rig for the entire recording?

For some of the weird clean sounds, I would just go direct. CJ Vanston, our co-producer, would plug me into this really cool tube limiter. I also used the Kemper modeling amp on a couple of things. I think that’s a really cool piece of gear. I take it on sessions and it’s awesome—especially because people don’t pay cartage anymore. I haven’t really used that box to its potential, though. I haven’t profiled my amps or anything. I just kind of turn knobs until I find something I like, and then hit Save. Most of the time, I like to move air with a real amp, and there is a difference. But as far as any of the modeling amplifiers out there, the Kemper is far and away the best one.

Are you using pedal effects live?

I don’t really use much stuff anymore. I have a Strymon Lex Leslie effect that I use on two songs. The only thing that’s a constant is a very short stereo delay that I’ll mix in with just a little bit of ’verb. If I’m in a big room, I don’t even really need to use that. If I use a chorus on something, it’s for a very specific part, and then it’s off. I do use my signature Toneconcepts pedal—which can be a boost, a post EQ, or a pre EQ, depending on where it is in the chain. That’s a versatile box. I’m still messing with it daily with amazing results.

Let’s move on to “Orphan.” That tune is in 6. What are the challenges to making a tune in 6 groove?

The challenging thing for me wasn’t the time signature or the groove—it was the chord progression. That tune went through a lot of changes, because when I first heard it, I didn’t like it at all. It was a very ska/pop thing that Dave and Joe came up with. It has those changes that are just a little too familiar, and I tried everything in my power to try to hide that. But, sometimes, you can’t argue with a good pop song. I helped rewrite the song in the studio, and that’s when I came up with my guitar part. It’s very strange. It’s like three against four, but it’s in 6. It depends on how you count it.

It’s the dreaded I-V-VI-IV progression.

Yes, it is. Well, the whole song isn’t like that, but I still said, “David, this is everything that I bitch about.” But the hook was the hook, and we tried different substitutions, but we always came back to that. We got a little bit more intellectual, harmonically speaking, on most of the record, but, every once in a while, some things are what they are.

Is your solo in “Holy War” a composed thing?

I was very angry with David, because I kept playing stuff, and he kept going, “I don’t like any of it. Stop playing for your guitar player friends.” So that was my “f**k you” solo. I cut it, and he started laughing, and said, “That’s what I wanted to hear.” When you’re collaborating with people who have heard you play for 43 years, it’s a lot harder to impress them.

What do you go for in a solo?

I try not to do the obvious. I try not to get in the box. The blues is where we all start, but no one is going to play a better modern blues solo than Stevie Ray Vaughan. You’ve got to get out of that box. Try to be a little tricky with it—throw in an unexpected note. Then, it’s about your vibrato and the way you’re bending the notes.

Speaking of blues, what about about “21st Century Blues.”

That was my writing demo. We just overdubbed on it. I don’t actually do demos. We live in a world where technology allows you to use the freaking demo. In the old days, when I would do a demo, I would never sing a lead vocal or play a solo on it. Wanna know why? Because inevitably I’d try to redo it, and it would never be as good again. So I would purposefully just do a sketch. But now, you can keep these things. We were writing the song, and I created an interesting noise. I immediately double-tracked the basic riff and said, “I’ll just hang onto this and redo it later.” And it never got redone. Sometimes when you don’t think, cool stuff comes out. You think, “I can do that again. Let’s just move on.” A couple of days later, you listen to it and say, “There’s something about that. I can’t do that again.”

The changes in the middle take it way beyond a blues tune.

Yeah. You can’t shuck your way through that. You have to know how to get from point A to point B. There are these sharp 11 chords and changes that you wouldn’t normally hear in a rock song. Steely Dan was the only band that got away with that. Steely was always a big influence on me and on our band. For this song, I wrote my own “Larry Carlton” section. I said, “CJ, let’s write some ‘adult chords’ for this”—sort of as a nod to Larry, who is someone who has been so influential to me, a lifelong friend, and a great teacher. I love all this stuff, and it’s something I feel is sort of missing in rock music now. You’ve got adventurous rhythmic stuff and great riffs and really complicated time signatures in music today, but harmony should not be just fifths or fourths. Open it up, man! Everybody—put on a Steely Dan record!

“21st Century Blues” also shows your Jeff Beck influence.

I want to go on record saying that in my opinion he’s one of the finest single-note guitar players on the planet. It was a great honor to spend the time I got to spend with him, and to witness firsthand his touch and his feel. We made some music together that never saw the light of day, sadly, but there was some great stuff in there. Watching him play and watching his process—he’s truly god’s guitar player. He doesn’t ever come at it in a way that a regular guy would. He actually said to me once, “If it sounds normal, I’m not interested in it.” That’s why he’s Jeff Beck and I’m me. I have the deepest respect for him.

You’ve always seemed to have a complicated relationship with your chops. Where are you at with technique these days?

On this whole record, and in my playing in general, I’m laying back. I’m not playing as flashy as I once would have. We’ve come to the point with technique now that it’s scary. There are some absolutely brilliant technicians—people with chops that are jaw dropping. I start to feel like an old man when I hear these guys. They’re so good. But, on the other hand, a lot of these guys have all drawn from the same trick bag. The Internet is a great tool to learn things, but it can create a lot of sameness.

For example, you can hear guys these days with the exact same vibrato. How can that be? Vibrato is personal, and it’s developed painstakingly over years when we were kids lifting up the needle on a record—at least for guys our age. You learned an Eric Clapton solo or a Jimi solo by lifting the needle, and you got ear training, and even you if played it wrong, somebody older down the street would know how to play it right, and they’d show it to you, and the light bulb over your head would go on. But now, you just go to Google and, kapow—there’s every trick known to man up there. There’s a little mystique taken out of it. You immediately find out how the magician saws the woman in half. It takes away some of the magic. It’s still a great tool to learn, though, and there is so much to learn there. God, you can go in there and stay forever. I guess it really depends on what you want to learn.

What do you think guitarists should learn?

I want to see rhythmguitar.com. Is that in there anywhere? I mean, people should learn how to play pocket, play chords. I’ve seen a few of these YouTube wonders turn up at a NAMM show, and they’re so nervous. They’re about two bars ahead of the track they’re playing to, and they melt and their career is over. They get the big hype: “Wow, look at how great their chops are. Amazing!” Under pressure, with the world staring at them, some fall apart. It’s such a lost art to just sit there and play eighth-notes or simple pocket parts like hitting on two and four with the snare like on old Motown records. What I’m saying is, we learned how to play rhythm before there was “lead.” People would ask, “Do you play rhythm or lead guitar?” Nobody ever asks that question anymore, because people are almost ashamed to say they play rhythm guitar. There are some world-class rhythm guitar players. Look at guys like Ray Parker, Jr. and Paul Jackson, Jr. They own the rhythm. That’s where they live. That’s where they make their money. They’re not only great rhythm players, but they come up with great parts. Those are the guys I sat next to a lot. That whole aspect of creating little hooky parts and stuff like that—you’ll make a lot more money doing that than shredding sixty-fourth-notes.

It’s been 31 years since your last GP cover, so that means you’ll be due again around 2046. Can we schedule that today?

I think my new album called The Dirt Nap should be coming out around that time, so sure. Seriously though, this means a lot to me. I used to be the youngest guy in the room, and then I blinked, and 40 years went by. But now I’m looking at it and thinking, I guess I made a little teeny mark somewhere. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t reinvent the instrument. I didn’t do anything other than find a little niche. All I ever wanted to be was a musician. Think about it: The Beatles were only together eight years. In Toto, we thought that if we could get ten years out of it, it would be amazing. And the shelf life of a studio musician was only about ten years, as well. But here I am—still doing what I do. I got to play with all the best players. I’ve gotten opportunities offered to me in so many walks of life, that it’s laughable. I’ve been writing “musician” on my tax returns for 40 years. That’s all I ever wanted.

Act Naturally

LUKATHER ON ROCKING WITH RINGO

Steve Lukather is in a band with Ringo Starr.

You get a strong sense that if that was all you ever said about Luke, ignoring and dismissing all of the other work in his storied career, that would be just fine with him. To find out how he got this gig of a lifetime, however, it’s necessary to begin at the beginning…

You play in a band with a Beatle. For a pop-rock musician, is there any sentence in the English language that could be cooler?

Probably not. For a guy my age, with my musical influences, it really is mind-blowing.

How did you get the gig?

Well, to back up, I originally worked with Paul on the Thriller record. He took a shine to Jeff Porcaro and me, and he invited us to work on his Give My Regards to Broad Street movie. It was a great experience for two weeks. We were jamming Beatles tunes, hanging out, and asking every question every Beatles geek would ever want to ask Paul, George Martin, and Geoff Emerick. It was a dream come true. At one point, I’m standing on the stage and there’s the classic “Beatles” Mellotron. I leaned over and played the opening of “Strawberry Fields” on it. I’m thinking, “Oh god, please don’t let me screw this up.” I actually played it right, and Paul turned around and smiled and started telling Beatles stories. I had my guitar around my neck, and I started playing “Please Please Me,” and Jeff joined in and Paul sang it. All the amps were live, and I got to sing the John part. At the end of it, the whole place erupted. It was surreal.

Years later, I ran into George Harrison at a club in Los Angeles. That was my second Beatle connection. Somebody said, “George Harrison is here.” I said to his friend, “Listen, I don’t care what it takes. I just want to thank him for inspiring me. I’ll leave him alone, but I want to say thanks and meet him. I worked with Paul. I’m not just some schlub!” He went back, talked to George, and I guess George said something like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.” So he took me back, and I said, “I want to thank you for your playing and for your solo on ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ I wanted to be you when I saw the Ed Sullivan Show. I played that song until my parents begged me not to.” He laughed. It was the greatest hang ever. Jeff had recently passed away, and George said, “I’m sorry about your friend.” I told him, “We’re doing a benefit. Why don’t you come down and hang? We do ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’”

That benefit gig had Donald Fagen on it. He hadn’t been in L.A. for a long time, and he came out to do this amazing tribute for Jeff Porcaro. Eddie Van Halen never played with anybody else and he made an exception. So many great people came out—Don Henley, David Crosby, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs. We’re in the dressing room and all of a sudden, I turn around and there’s George Harrison standing in the room. He actually showed up. We sat around the piano doing the Joe Cocker version of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and George was playing my ’59 sunburst. We start playing this one bit and he goes, “Oh, that’s not how me and the lads played it” [laughs ]. We started cracking up, and I said, “Look, you play whatever you want to play, man.” He was the icing on this wonderful, seamless event that Jeff must have been looking down at from heaven and smiling.

Okay, so years later, I saw Ringo and the All-Starrs. I said, “I’d love to be in this band. I really want to do this.” But you have to be asked to do it, and nobody ever asked. Then, Gregg Bissonette—one of my dear friends and the biggest Beatles fanatic in the world—gets on the gig as the second drummer. Dave Hart, this great cat who is also a good friend, is the producer of the shows, so he kind of scouts the people to bring to Ringo. Ringo has to vet everyone. He has to dig the music, and he has to dig what the person is all about. I was playing with Toto in Paris, and Gregg and the All-Starrs had a night off, so he dragged Dave Hart to the gig. Dave said, “That guy’s perfect. He plays guitar, he sings, he has the hits, and he loves the Beatles.” Ringo listened to my tunes and he liked them, and then [drummer] Jim Keltner put in a good word for me—which really held a lot of water—so I got the gig. I actually had to blow off the Toto summer tour to do it. I said, “Guys, I turned down Joni. I turned down Elton. I turned down Miles. I can’t turn this one down.”

So, I fly into Canada to do the rehearsals, and I was really nervous about meeting Ringo. But he came into the room, gave me a big hug, and said, “All right now—off to bed with you. You’ve got to get up in the morning. I like to work early.”

What was the first day of rehearsals like?

We just clicked. It all fell into place very organic and naturally. Everybody in the band—Todd Rundgren, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page—got along so well, and worked really hard on everybody else’s songs. It’s just a great group of guys and Ringo has a blast with it. This band has lasted three years.

You do the big three Toto hits: “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa.”

Yeah, that’s part of the criteria: You gotta have the hits. I found new ways to do them that are different. I sing on the hits, except for “Hold the Line.” I kind of cheated on that one. Ringo realized it, and busted me on it [laughs ]. Fortunately, there are so many good singers in this band to help prop me up and sing all those high parts that were originally sung by other people. We make it all work.

What can you say about Ringo’s drumming: his pocket, his sense of the downbeat, and his vibe?

Ringo is the chicken that laid the egg of every rock drummer. He is the source. Without Ringo, nobody would be playing like that. He created an entire style of playing. And he swings, man. He has a pocket. He’s says, “Click track? There are no click tracks on the Beatles’ records. That was me. I don’t play with a click. I am the click.”

This gig led to you playing with both Ringo and Paul.

We worked together on the 50th anniversary of their Ed Sullivan gig. Ringo wanted me along. He said, “You’re going to do the Grammys with me.” I got to work with Peter Frampton on that—we were sitting at my house working out “Here Comes the Sun.” I can’t believe this has gone as well as it has. I really cherish the gig and my relationship with Ringo. I get to live the dream.
—MATT BLACKETT

Session Ace

LUKATHER ON HOW TO KILL IT WHEN THE RED LIGHT IS ON

Want to be impresse d? Go to allmusic.com and check out Luke’s credits. It’s page after page of A-list sh*t, and for a variety of artists in a variety of styles that will surprise you. Some sessions, like for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, are well known. Others, like dates with Roger Waters, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Chet Atkins, are not. It’s an astounding body of work even if you don’t factor in the records he did with a band called Toto. I asked Lukather to recount what he remembered about these sessions, in terms of the gear, the playing, and the overall vibe.

Let’s talk about Lionel Richie’s “Running with the Night.”

He called me and said, “I want you to play a solo on this song of mine.” It was right after “Beat It,” and everybody wanted to get a rock guy to solo on pop/R&B stuff. I show up with my ’burst and Rivera-modded Deluxe Reverb, and I cranked it all the way up. He plays me the song, and I just started noodling through the whole thing. I said, “I think I’ve got it. Let’s do it.” He said, “You just did.” I said, “Come on! I was just kind of wanking my way through.” He goes, “I love it. It’s fantastic! You don’t need to do it again.” That was a ten-minute session.

There was no chart or anything?

I showed up blind, man. We never got demos. We never got to rehearse. I think James Carmichael, his producer, had a road map, but it was all A minor. I said, “Let me mess around with it,” and they rolled the tape.

GP’s Los Angeles editor Jude Gold called your “Running with the Night” performance a “zero-take solo.” Do you have any other zero-take sessions?

I once did a solo on a David Crosby record without ever hearing the song. We had done one song and Crosby said, “Luke, do a solo on this other track.” I love Cros, but I was trying to finish up because I wanted to go hang with Danny Kortchmar—he was the other guitar player. We’d been there all day. Crosby said, “Let me play you the song.” I said, “No, man. What key is it in? Roll the tape.” With all due respect, I knew it wasn’t going to be “Giant Steps” or anything like that. I just reacted to what I was listening to. I played the solo in one take and it was done. He said, “You bastard! You never even heard the song!”

Speaking of Danny Kortchmar, he was on those Don Henley records that you played on, like “Dirty Laundry.”

Yeah. Jeff Porcaro, Kootch, and I cut this track called “You Better Hang Up” for Don’s first album. It was mostly live. We were doing a playback and Kootch said, “I’ve got this song ‘Dirty Laundry.’ Walsh is doing the solo in the middle. Do you want to do the one at the end?” I said, “Are you kidding me? Joe Walsh is one of my all-time heroes. That would be psychotic.” They rolled the tape and I played this thing in like one take. I messed up one thing at the end, and they punched me in.

You’ve told the “Beat It” story a million times. What’s another Thriller story?

“Human Nature” had no guitar part on it. The running joke was that Steve Porcaro wrote the song, so it’s really a Toto song with Michael Jackson singing. I had been working with Quincy Jones since his The Dude record, and I came up with a lot of parts for that. I’d get a chord sheet and come up with these quirky little muted parts. So Quincy knew I did that, and he called me and said, “Look, this is a great pop song, but it’s not funky. I need you to funk it up.” I started noodling around, and I came up with the entire guitar part. It was all me. I wrote that part on the spot, to the point where he gave me arranging credit on the record, and we got nominated for a Grammy. We didn’t win, but it was nice for him to give us the credit. We were all over that Thriller record—me, Steve Porcaro, David Paich, and Jeff Porcaro.

When we last spoke, you told the story of a terrifying session where Lee Ritenour swapped charts with you, giving you the easier one as he read down the complicated one. What’s another session that scared you?

Let me just say this: Kids, don’t smoke weed on a television film date. I did this session decades ago with Jeff Porcaro and it was all done live to two-track with 70 people in the room—full strings, horns, singers. It was bumpers for a whole season of TV in one day. Most of the stuff we did in the first half of the day was really easy, so on the lunch break, the horn players and Jeff were like, “Come out and burn one with us.” I said, “I don’t know—this is like a legit date.” But then I thought, “The parts are easy, it’s lunch break—what the hell? I’ll take a toke.” So I take a toke, and it’s Jeff Porcaro’s nuclear weed. I’m freaking out. Lunch break is over, the conductor calls the next cue we have to record, and I look at the chart, and it’s written like a piano part in Db. It was16 bars, and not a chord symbol to be found anywhere. On a date like this, you get two takes and you’re on to the next cue. The first take is to get the balance and to make sure the parts are right, and the second take is the keeper. I’m looking at this thing and I’m high and the paranoia is causing me to get higher. They count off, “1, 2, 3, 4, downbeat,” and I just froze. Seventy pairs of eyes are staring me down like, “What the hell was that? Thinking on my feet, I pulled out my guitar cable and went, “Oh man, I’ve got a bad cable here. I’m sorry.” Jeff Porcaro and the horn players are laughing at me. I’m going, “Oh god, please help me. I’ll never get high again. Please, god.” Now, I see the chart isn’t that hard—it’s just in a weird key with no chord symbols—so as I’m pretending to deal with my cable, I’m writing triads and chords on the chart. I gave them the thumbs up, they hit the downbeat again, and I managed to play the part. I never, ever smoked weed on a session again, and I never took another one of those f**king TV film dates. It was a very humbling experience.

What about the Tubes’ “Talk to Ya Later”?

David Foster was producing the record, and he said, “I need you to co-write a song with Fee [Waybill, Tubes singer].” I had never met Fee, and some of the other guys in the band were pissed off that they brought in a ringer. I didn’t know until I got there that there was any bad vibe at all. So it was me, Prairie Prince, Foster, and Fee. I came up with the opening riff, and we ran with it and came up with the song. It was written and recorded in less than an hour. I overdubbed a bunch of guitars on it, and I also played bass, because the Tubes’ bass player refused to play on the track. He said, “It’s not a Tubes song. It wasn’t written by us.” And it was their first hit. For the solo at the end, there was one track left, and I had to do the thing in one pass. At the very end of it, it’s a little flat, but they wouldn’t let me fix it. There were certain imperfections on records back then. All the records of my childhood have things like the tambourine being way on top of the beat or something. But there’s a charm to the strings being out of tune, or the horns being a little off. It’s a vibe. Nobody cares. The standard for that is a lot different now.

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