As a guitarist, Steve Lukather is a wonderful paradox. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t class himself as a wizard of the fretboard, and although he’s a technically adept player, he places far more faith in heart and taste than blinding chops.
Music Radar.com got in touch with Steve shortly after he’d finished waxing stadium supergroup Toto’s first studio album in a decade, classically entitled XIV, to ask him what makes him tick as a musician. His answers, disarmingly frank and often irreverent, cut straight to the heart of what it means to make music on guitar – not just sterile displays of technique.
Though he’s certainly no slouch when it comes to navigating the frets with fire and flourish – you can hear it on powerful tracks from the new album such as Chinatown and 21st Century Blues. Read on to find out what Steve thinks is important to know – and what to let go – when you play guitar.
1. Push Hard For The Best Performance
“Making [the new Toto album] was blood, sweat, tears, love, pain, tears, f**k-yous, hugs, laughter… it was all that. And that’s why I brought in CJ Vanston, to kind of be a liaison between me, Dave [Paich – vocals and keyboards] and all the guys. Because he’s a great musician, somebody we respect, a great engineer and he helped so much. And of course we had fun – but we kept pushing each other, man.
"You think you’ve heard every lick. You gotta dig deep when you play with guys who have heard all your s**t, you know?”
“We had a couple of times when we almost killed each other but without any tension you make pussy music. Tension sometimes makes you work harder. Sometimes I get mad, like on the solo on Holy War. I was really pissed off at Dave – he kept messing with me and I got pissed off and played that solo. You can hear it’s like, ‘F**k you, Dave!’ But I say that with love – I’m just kidding. When you’ve been playing with each other for over 40 years you get to know them and it’s hard to surprise my friends. And yet I try to do that. You think you’ve heard every lick. You gotta dig deep when you play with guys who have heard all your s**t, you know?”
2. Make each note mean something
“I really try to play to my strengths, man. I’m never going to be Guthrie Govan: he’s a brilliant player. I’m not going to be Joe Satriani – I wish I was – or Petrucci and all the guys that play like that. I love ’em all but I figured I’m an older guy now, I’m not in a race. There are a million guitar players better than me – there’s no bulls**t about that.
"I was like, ‘Let’s just slow down and play the meaningful s**t'”
"So I wanted to say, ‘I’m going to try to dig deep with phrasing and choice of notes’ rather than, ‘Oh, look how fast I can play’ because there are guys that do that a million times better than me.
"If you get caught up in that ‘Fastest Gun In The West’ s**t it can bury you. So I was like, ‘Let’s just slow down and play the meaningful s**t.’”
3. Learn to laugh off criticism
“I’ve been guilty of the ‘athletic guitar’ aspect of things myself, particularly when I was drinking too much and that was almost six years ago, but – thanks to the miracle of YouTube – every humiliating thing I could have done in my life is there for all to laugh at.
"Every humiliating thing I could have done in my life is there for all to laugh at"
"I had lunch with Eddie Van Halen the other day and we started laughing and going, ‘Will they leave us alone?’ We had a couple of bad years! Look back at 40 years, it wasn’t all bad, you know?”
4. Do your own thing
"My son is a professional musician now. But when he was starting out he was doing the tapping thing – and I said, ‘If I see you do that again I’m going to get a bolt-cutter and cut your f**king finger off. That’s for uncle Eddie – that’s his s**t. Nobody’s allowed to do that any more – we all had a chance at it one time but no man, no more.Develop your own thing. Develop your vibrato and your time – the rest is easy, you know?’ So he consequently went a completely different way.
“What happens is people go, ‘I want to play the guitar’ and the first thing they do is hit Google: ‘How can I play this?’ and the next thing you know you’ve learned all these tricks but you’ve never learned how to play rhythm guitar with a groove.
"It’s like cutting into a cake that’s all frosting and no cake”
"So, therefore, you can sit on the edge of your bed and play all this s**t but if you play with a drummer, or, God forbid, you’re put in the position where you have to record with the red light on, you’re going to fall down the stairs, break your arms, your neck, everything else because you don’t know how to do it. It’s like cutting into a cake that’s all frosting and no cake.”
5. Practice what you don't know
“Don’t practise what you know – practise what you don’t know.
"Don’t make it easy for yourself when you’re sitting at home alone. Then when you’re on the gig you can do whatever you want, because you’ll have taken the time to enhance your vocabulary.
"Play from your heart not your mind"
"I would say that’s really what it is: enhancing the harmonic content of your playing. But play from your heart not your mind. Start out simple and work your way through it, because it’s like having sex for the first time – you don’t want to climax in two seconds.”
6. Train your ears carefully
“Having a good ear is really important. What I used to have to do painstakingly was lift the needle off records. So not only did I get the ear training that is required to learn things off a vinyl record, I also got to learn the solo and the mechanics.
"It was a lot longer and more methodical process – very frustrating at times – and it nearly drove my parents crazy.
"The internet has taken the mystery out of a lot of stuff"
“Now, the internet has made learning easier, but in some ways it’s a shame, because it’s like a magician: when you find out that the guy doesn’t saw the woman in half and you see what it is, you go, ‘Really? That’s all it was?’
"The internet has taken the mystery out of a lot of stuff and also the quest for it has become much easier – and therefore it’s churned out a lot of generic guitar players.”
7. Hit the back wall
“A lot of times playing fast is bullshit.
"It’s great to impress your friends in the living room or in a club, but if you get in a big place you’re never going to connect.
"You can play a million notes, but they’re meaningless until you hit the money note."
"Playing fast in an arena-sized venue is meaningless. You don’t hear the articulation even if you have a great PA system.
"You gotta hit the back wall – guys like Dave Gilmour, they have that: the ‘money note’. You can play a million notes, but they’re meaningless until you hit the money note.”
8. Make it all connect
“What gives me the most pleasure? When it all connects with the right phrase and the right note, the right vibrato at the right time.
"It’s that pleasant, satisfying surprise when you wind up a solo and know that you took the journey and landed on your feet. Even if you thought you weren’t going to.
"That’s when it feels good.”
Toto’s new album XIV is out now on Frontiers Music Srl. Their world tour kicks off in Glasgow 21 May. Head to www.totoofficial.com for details