Native Californian guitarslinger Steve Lukather has been a mainstay on the Left Coast studio and concert scene for longer than you think. He’s best noted for his longtime association with platinum-selling Toto, which has sold 30 million albums worldwide since its first single, “Hold the Line,” hit the top 10 in 1978.
Even Lukather’s high school band, Still Life, made some noise in the L.A. area, and the guitarist has appeared on a myriad of albums by other artists. Still, it was a new release, Mindfields, by that band that had Lukather in an upbeat mood when VG talked with him about the instruments he has used throughout his career and on the new recording, which marks the return of original Toto vocalist Bobby Kimball (Lukather handles some lead vocals, as well).
Vintage Guitar: Are you originally from L.A.?
Steve Lukather: I was born, raised, and corrupted in the Valley. My buddy, Mike Landau (VG, October ’97), is also a successful guitar player, and back around 1969 we used to go hang out at a place called Saul’s. He had all the vintage stuff – old Strats, Les Pauls. It was the only place in L.A. where you could go to get old amps and old guitars. They were surprised that two little 11-year-old kids could play!
What about your earliest influences and instruments?
Man, I had some real classics. When I was seven years old, I got Meet the Beatles and a Kay acoustic, and I still have that guitar, but my parents made it into a lamp for me! I’ve given it to my son; he’s playing guitar now.
I also had an Astro-Tone guitar; one of those four-pickup drugstore jobs. I had it for many years, then a friend of mine broke the neck, and my parents insisted that I learn how to play with that busted neck. The next guitar I got was a Voxton, a fake black Les Paul. I played that for about a year, and my parents finally realized I was getting pretty good, and sent me down to Guitar Center, where I got a Les Paul Deluxe; the one with the little pickups. It’s killer, and I’ve still got it. It was a cherry sunburst, and it changed my life; it was the first great guitar I got. I also got an Ampeg VT22 (amplifier) to go with it.
And after the Deluxe?
I got a ’71 tobacco sunburst [Gibson] ES-335. After I’d discovered Larry Carlton, I had to have one of those (chuckles)! I played the Les Paul all through high school, and when I got out and started doing demo sessions – before I started doing real sessions – I knew I needed that 335. I took it on the road with Boz Scaggs in ’77, one of my first really cool gigs. I was 18 or 19, and I’d just started to play on a few records.
Details about Still Life, your high school band?
That band started in ’72, and had Michael Landau and me on guitar, John Pierce on bass, Carlos Vega on drums, and Steve Porcaro on keys. Jeff Porcaro and David Paitch had already decided to form Toto, and they used to come down to our gigs. In fact, Jeff was in Steely Dan when we were in high school, and we got to hear their albums before they came out. We learned “Katy Lied” before it was ever released! When we played those songs, people thought they were great, but they also thought we’d written ‘em (chuckles). We were like the Junior Steely Dan; Landau played the part of Denny Dias and I was Jeff Baxter. Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] actually came to one of our high school gigs, and we freaked out! They’re still one my favorite bands.
Did Still Life ever play at clubs like Gazzari’s or the Whiskey?
We auditioned, and they loved us, but we had to be 18 to play.
Did Still Life ever do any recording?
Somebody gave me a cassette of a prom we did at Beverly Hills High School in ’74.
When you got out of high school, how did demo sessions differ from what you termed “real” sessions?
Nobody had home studios back then; they’d hire a band, and you’d get about 30 bucks a tune. That’s where you got practical skills and learned how to get your sound, timing, and headphone balances – you’d learn on the gig. Now, guys have a sampler and an ADAT studio, and nobody gets any practical experience. It’s almost too easy to make demos these days.
What was your rig on “Hold the Line,” Toto’s breakout hit?
That was a ’58 goldtop Les Paul, through a blackface [Fender] Deluxe Reverb modified by Paul Rivera. I’ve known Paul for a long time; he made my first pedalboard, with all of the old analog units. It’s amazing; almost all of that kind of stuff has been stolen. I had four Tube Screamers Ibanez gave me – the original ones – those ended up missing from our warehouse.
I bought that goldtop for $2,500 during the making of the first album. Then when we went on tour, I went into a vintage guitar store in Phoenix, and saw a beautiful ’58 sunburst Les Paul and the guy wanted $5,000. I was 20 years old and had never spent that kind of money on a guitar, but I had to have it. I took it on the airplane, and the stewardess gave me a real hard time about it, and made me buy a seat for it, but it was my prized baby. I even tucked it into its seat with a seat belt (laughs). I used that guitar almost exclusively from ’79 to ’82; I used the Deluxe, as well. As for amps, I used a couple of Marshalls done up by Paul.
At one time in the ’80s, you were an Ibanez endorser – guitars, not effects.
They came to me around ’81, and wanted me to design a guitar for them, and I have the only one – I designed it, they made it for me, I signed a contract, and then they put out another guitar with my name on it. It was basically a cheesy Rickenbacker copy that sounded like **** and played really bad. But I was tied, contractually. They make great guitars now, though.
And the one I designed is a real interesting guitar; a one-of-a-kind, but I don’t play it much anymore.
So I blew those guys off. I thought what they were doing was misleading. Then Mike McGuire at Valley Arts made me a Strat copy; I think it was the third one he ever made. That was also when I started digging EMG pickups. In those days, before Valley Arts was sold, they were really hands-on in making what you wanted and needed.
Toto performed on the ’84 L.A. Olympics soundtrack, and as I recall, different artists had different sports to perform themes for – Bob James, for example, did a song called “Courtship,” about basketball.
We had boxing. It was a really pompous, fanfare kind of tune, like ELP with horns.
Then there was the theme from Dune…
We wrote the whole score; the orchestral stuff. It was kind of an experiment for us, because we’d just fired our singer, and we didn’t know what we wanted to do. [Director] David Lynch came to us and wanted us to do this movie, and we thought it would be great; a Star Wars kind of movie, but they pulled the plug on the money, and he didn’t get to finish it the way he wanted, so now it’s known as a cult film.
It was a learning experience for us. At the time, we were offered Dune or Footloose; we chose Dune, and the Footloose soundtrack sold something like 10 million copies!
Still, unless someone had read Frank Herbert’s novel, the movie probably didn’t make much sense, and it was widely panned. Someone noted that Sting shouldn’t quit his day job.
(Chuckles) It was terrible. We were at the premiere, and as the movie went on, we kept sliding lower and lower into our seats (laughs). I remember Marty Paich, David’s dad, was sitting behind us, and he leaned over to his son and said, “Dave, I told you this was a turkey!” It’s not Lynch’s best work, but I’m still a huge fan of his; The Elephant Man was tremendous.
Around the time Toto IV broke, MTV was really starting to pick up steam, and the band did videos for “Africa” and “Rosanna.”
We’d done videos before that; we did a concept video in 1979 or ’80, before there even was an MTV, for our second album, Hydra. We used four songs, and almost everyone thought we were crazy.
When MTV came along, it was supposed to be a noncommercial channel, with just music videos 24/7, and the artists weren’t supposed to be paid anything – it was just supposed to be promo. We were one of the first bands that had videos, so we were all over MTV for the first couple years.
A general observation from people who recall the early days of MTV might be that the channel doesn’t show videos anymore.
No, they don’t. A group of guys think they’ve figured out what’s cool, what they can sell, and how much money they can make. And they’ve got a monopoly on the situation. For me, it has ruined the entire music business – it’s turned it into McDonald’s instead of an art form. There were some good videos – people like Peter Gabriel – and if you look back at our videos, all of them were pretty cheesy, because we weren’t too comfortable doing them; we were musicians not actors.
The video for “Stranger in Town” had more of a “concept” than some of your earlier ones, and Brad Dourif appeared in it typecast as a psycho, a la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
We met Brad when we were doing Dune. He did that as a favor, and it was up for an MTV award. It was also the last time we would ever do anything MTV would play – 1985. So we stopped making them, figuring, “What’s the point?”
One of the things that had to be awkward around that time was the revolving door of lead vocalists.
Yeah, that was really unfortunate. But we’ve come full circle, back to our original guy.
We don’t have time for a complete list of your recording projects with other artists, but are there any you might want to highlight?
I’ve played on almost a 1,000 albums, so it’s really hard to say. I’ve had a chance to work with all my heroes. People used to give us a lot of flak (affects stoner/doofus voice), “Aww, you’re studio musicians – no soul…” That’s bull****. I’ve worked with all kinds of tremendous players – Miles Davis, Elton John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, all of the Eagles on their solo stuff, Aretha Franklin. There have been some really great moments, but there’s a lot of cheese in there, too – “Let’s Get Physical,” for instance (laughs). But think about the era in which that came out; Olivia Newton-John’s really a sweet girl.
Another thing was the perception by some ***holes that we were a bunch of drug addicts. How could I possibly have done Toto and played on all of those records if I’d been wacked out? I experimented – everybody did – but not to the point where I was ****ed up and couldn’t get out of bed to go to a session.
What was the most successful record you played; chart ranking or sales?
Thriller. Michael Jackson. I played on almost the entire album.
Have you done instructional videos?
I’ve done one. It was the second one the company made, around ’84, and if you watch it, I look like a deer in headlights. I bluffed my way through it – showed up completely unprepared, and thank God for Wolf Marshall; he got me through it, telling me to just be myself. These days, some of the guys in Toto will get hold of the instructional videos that Simon Phillips, who plays drums with us now, and I made back in the early ’80s, and they’ll put ‘em the VCR on the bus to torture us (laughs)!
You’ve gotten into some memorable jam sessions on occasions, particularly at NAMM shows, right?
Oh, yeah; the Music Man jams were fun – Eddie Van Halen, Steve Morse, Albert Lee. Albert, Steve Vai, and I once played at a birthday party for Sterling Ball at a little Mexican restaurant in L.A.
There was also some kind of offshoot band called Los Lobotomies that had a live track that appeared on a guitar magazine anthology album.
That was a one-off in ’89. Will Lee flew in, Joe Sample was on it, and there were three drummers – Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Coliuta, and Carlos Vega. Lenny Castro was on percussion.
We rehearsed one morning, and recorded live later that day. One rehearsal, one take, no overdubs.
What’s the story on your signature Music Man instrument?
After Valley Arts sold out, Sterling Ball became a close friend, and he approached me about doing a model. The other signature players involved with his company were world-class, and it turned out Dudley Gimpel, who designs Music Man guitars, used to work for Valley Arts. I sent him my favorite Valley Arts neck, and he put it on a computer scanner, and made me a neck that was better.
We tried different pickups, and worked on the shape of the body, but I really didn’t have to do much because he sent me a world-class instrument right away. I kept going back to EMG pickups, and the final result was an unbelievably nice guitar that’s very versatile – it can sound like a Strat or a Les Paul. And we keep developing it.
I’ve always felt like if I had an instrument with my name on it, I’d have to want to play it all the time, and that’s how I feel about this guitar. It can take a beating, and it stays in tune. The Music Man company has actually asked me, “What do you need” on more than one occasion; they’ve even made me a guitar with a piezo in it. I’ve never worked with a company that’s more on top of what they’re doing. They don’t miss a beat.
You’re doing some of the lead vocals on the new album, on songs like “After You’ve Gone.”
I’ve worked really hard on my singing. I do about half of the lead vocals during a show.
What gear did you use on Mindfields?
My Music Man, plus a few vintage things here and there, like a Les Paul on “Mysterious Ways,” but I would also layer things with different guitars. Music Man made me a great “bastard” guitar – it’s got an Eddie Van Halen body, a Luke neck, and DiMarzio single-coil pickups on it, Telecaster-style. My amp is one I designed with Paul Rivera, called a Bonehead. That’s the only amp I used on the whole record. It’s a three-channel amp, and we got a patent on the subwoofer system. I like a lot of low-end on a guitar. It’s really versatile; great clean sound, great mid-crunch, great full-on shred, and everything in between.
In the liner notes to Mindfields, you thanked Larry Carlton, “…for teaching me how to play the guitar again.”
I went on tour with Larry in Japan last year. Every night before the show, he’d sit down and teach me about certain jazz improvisations, or wacky country licks. He was my sensei – Japanese for “teacher.” It really got me fired up about playing guitar again, and the only other time that’s happened was when I was working with Jeff Beck. Larry and I did a live album; hopefully it’ll be out by 2001; we’ve each got a lot of stuff coming out.
You’ve also worked with jazz-er Lee Ritenour…
Rit’s an old pal of mine, and he saved my ass one time (laughs)! When I was about 19, one of the first records I ever did was with him, and he befriended me. One time, I showed up late for a session, and there was a room full of session musicians – strings, horns, the whole deal. They were just about ready to count off when I came in. I sat down quickly and pulled out my guitar; I had Guitar Part #2, but when I looked at the sheet music, it was a ****in’ piano part in D-flat, and there were no chord symbols anywhere! I looked over at Lee, and I must have looked like I’d seen a ghost – you could probably have shoved a piece of coal up my ass and gotten back a diamond! Lee grabs my chart and gives me his, which had things on it like 24 bars passive, a few fills, nothing. And he nailed my original part. He made me look great.
Mindfields had an overseas release before it hit the U.S. market.
Everywhere else in the world, and it has sold half a million units so far. It just came out here, and we’re just starting to promote it with some gigs. We’ll be working for the rest of the year, and I’m also doing a blues tour of Europe with Edgar Winter. I’m also doing some solo stuff, and I’m doing some producing, as well, so I’ve got a pretty full plate. But it’s great to stay busy. I still love music, and I still practice. You never stop learning.
One gets the feeling Lukather’s plate has been pretty full for most of his career. And remains dedicated to providing memorable guitar work within many contexts, both with and without Toto.
Steve Lukather: Terrason.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.