Steve Lukather: “I’m a journeyman guitar player. And I’m proud to be that. I’m the guy you call to fix s**t”

(Image credit: Scott Legato / Getty)

As Toto toast their 40th anniversary with a new hits package and stadium tour, Guitarist finds Steve Lukather pinching himself, explaining eloquently that “Life is good at Lukey’s house, you know what I mean?”

Interviewing Steve Lukather is like riding a rodeo bull. You turn up with your list of carefully selected questions, hoping to gently probe the Toto guitarist on his 40-year catalogue and evolving gigbag. But you soon discover it’s more a case of holding on tight while he runs the conversational gamut. “My doctor,” he gabbles in one typical digression, “told me I should masturbate more.”

If Lukather is on giddy form, that’s understandable. It’s four decades since a crack-squad of LA session men set out under the dubious moniker of Toto (a name the guitarist always hated).

The line-up’s ferocious musicality didn’t stop them achieving monster sales, especially on 1982’s Toto IV, home to global hits like Africa and Rosanna. But they were never critics’ darlings, and though Lukather’s virtuoso guitar work has always dazzled through the decades, any betting man would have assumed their commercial peaks were far behind them.

Given that, Lukather is as surprised as anyone to find Africa leading younger fans upstream into the Toto catalogue, prompting the band to release a 40th anniversary hits package (40 Trips Around The Sun) and book their biggest venues in years.

“We’re selling out arenas,” gapes the 60-year-old. “We sold out the Royal Albert Hall. We’ve never had this kind of action before and it’s like, ‘Really? Now?’ It’s like some weird, demented joke, but I’m actually really fucking grateful.”

Steve in the studio with EVH

Steve in the studio with EVH (Image credit: Robert Knight Archive / Getty)

Back in the room

What are your favourite moments on the new 40 Trips Around The Sun compilation album?

“Man, that’s a hard question. I got four kids - which one do I love the most? There have been highlights. I can hear the youthfulness of my playing on, say, Hold The Line. To me, our signature song was Rosanna. That was the ultimate Toto track, where everybody had a chance to shine.

“A lot of it holds up pretty good. Some of it I wasn’t sure about, like 99, and those weird little tracks the record companies kept putting out that put us into soft rock land. Whatever, man. I don’t care what you call us any more. We’re making music and people are still showing up. I don’t even know what music it is. Because Toto could rock, then play a pop song, then a funk tune. That’s why critics didn’t like us. And we could have used a stylist, y’know? We look at these pictures and say, ‘What were we thinking?’”

Jeff was a no-bulls**t guy when it came to groove. He would let you know if it wasn’t happening, and he would get some of the best shit out of me

How would you describe yourself as a guitarist back in 1978?

“Well, I thought I was good until the first Van Halen album dropped. I remember, David Paich [keyboards] played Eruption for me right before I did the solo on Girl Goodbye. It was like, ‘Who the fuck is this cat?’ But it inspired me. I played my ’58 Goldtop, cranked in the studio, just full blast - and I blew up one of those big glass ashtrays they used to have in recording studios in the 70s. It blew up - and that was the last lick of the whole song. I hit a harmonic that I could never do again in a million years. It was a freak accident thing.”

You were a session ace. But did you prefer having control over your parts in Toto?

“Oh, don’t kid yourself that David and Jeff Porcaro [drums] were fucking easy. David was very specific. He had a vision, and I was a people pleaser: ‘What do you want me to do, Dave?’ We pushed each other very hard.

“Jeff was a no-bullshit guy when it came to groove. He would let you know if it wasn’t happening, and he would get some of the best shit out of me. Listening to these songs, they take me back into the room. I can smell the cigarette burning. I can taste the room. I can see who’s hanging out, what we were laughing at, the look on Jeff’s face when he was laying down the groove. I can close my eyes and see all this.”

Toto in 1982

Toto in 1982 (Image credit: Michael Ochs/Getty)

Gear through the years

Can you talk us through the setup you had for Toto IV?

“Oh, I would have just used my ’59 Burst through my Rivera hot-rodded Blackface ’64 or ’65 Deluxe Reverb. With a bit of compression and the Sunset Sound reverb. And I’d double my parts afterwards.

“As far as layering acoustics, I’d spend a lot of time fucking around with all these weird little parts that are kinda buried in the mix, but they’re part of the sound of the record. David and I would experiment with weird rhythmic things that kinda bubble the song along, but you don’t really notice it.”

I’ve been through every fear phase, from minimalistic to hot-rodded Fenders, to doing a whole album on a Marshall amp the size of a radio

How did your attitude to gear change in Toto?

“Oh, I’ve been through every phase, from minimalistic to hot-rodded Fenders, to Marshalls, to the Bradshaw rigs, to back-to-basics and doing a whole album on a Marshall amp the size of a radio. I’ve done it all. Right now, I play through a couple of Bogners [Ecstacy-101B half-stacks]. Nothing fancy. I’m pretty much using less shit. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Have you made any gear mistakes over the years?

“Oh yeah. Here’s where I get my ass whipped most. It was 1985 or something, the first day I’d got my new Bradshaw rig, with the Tri-Stereo Chorus and all this shit. I’m halfway hungover and I’m doing this Starlicks video - which I didn’t want to do in the first place. I just turned on all the buttons. So it’s the [epitome] of what was wrong with the overprocessing of the 80s, and that thing has followed me around like herpes. 

“Then there was a live concert in Japan with Jeff Beck, where I used the same gear, but they only used the effects side of my channel. It sounded kazoo-like. It was embarrassing. But it’s like, ‘Guys, that was 35 years ago. You never made a mistake? You never turned the echo up too loud?’ It happens! If you fall down the stairs, you didn’t mean to do that, but you did.

“On the studio side, the weirdest guitar sound was Fahrenheit [1986]. That one bothers me a little bit. I’d like to go in and record some of those parts without all the jizz-wah, y’know? It’s nothing to do with Bob Bradshaw. It was my fault. Bob makes incredible gear; he doesn’t tell you what button to step on. It was just over-usage. It was the 80s. Everything was overused.”

Technique talk

Toto are heading out on a world tour. Which songs are most challenging?

“The most challenging thing is not any particular guitar part, but it’s like, on some of the old records, I’d do six different parts. So I have to find a way to rearrange all six parts into one guy.

“Y’know, it’s funny: I didn’t think I’d be playing Hold The Line at 60 years old. I was 19 when I first played that. And I was so fucking nervous. I was just a kid, man, and the guys are staring me down through the glass, like ‘You better fucking play good’. I’ve probably played it a million times. Live, I go, ‘Should I play the solo like I did it on the first album, just to blow some people’s minds, or should I just play whatever I feel?’”

We found five unearthed things that we went back and fixed and rewrote and put back together again. I was playing with my 20-year-old self…

The new compilation also features songs found in the archives and reworked, right?

“Yeah. We found five unearthed things that we went back and fixed and rewrote and put back together again. Playing with Jeff, 25 years after he passed, was wonderfully bizarre, bittersweet. And then, playing with my 20-year-old self… just the way I approached the instrument was completely different than it was 40 years ago.”

Do you have a different attitude to technique now?

“When you’re in a big hall, you gotta understand what’s hitting the back wall. Y’know, Dave Gilmour goes out, hits one fucking note, brings tears to your eyes. If you go out there shredding, you can’t hear the individual notes because of the sound of the room. It just sounds like cacophony.

“You gotta play to the room. If you’re playing in a club and you’re playing fusion music, go for it. Plus, I was in a tour bus accident [in 2016], tore all the muscles off my left shoulder all the way down to my elbow.

“So I’ve become a bit more minimalistic in my playing. Ironically, people are saying they like it better. I’m lucky I can still play at all. But in terms of getting older, you can say more with less. Y’know, there’s a 12-year-old girl that plays faster than anybody I’ve ever seen before in my life. I saw her in Japan: it was astounding. But where’s the tune, y’know?”

Toto in 1984

Toto in 1984 (Image credit: Jim Shea/Getty)

Fame and fortune

Did you enjoy the heights of Toto’s fame?

“People think being famous is fun. It’s not. Even a little bit of fame. It’s bizarre. It’s weird. Don’t read your own online shit. Believe me, bro. I’d rather cut my own dick off than read that shit. It’s poisonous. There’s a lot of really unhappy people in the world. And for some reason, they don’t like me. Even with my small-time fame, it’s like, I have to have a gate around my place, y’know?”

How do you feel about your legacy as a guitarist?

There’s so many cats better than me. This is not a competition. I’m not looking for a stroke

“I’m not out there trying to blow everybody’s mind, like I’m the best guitar player in the world. Because I’m not. I’m not even close. I’m a journeyman guitar player. And I’m proud to be that. I’m the guy you call to fix shit or fucking come up with a part.

“I wish I could say I changed the world, like Jimi Hendrix, but I didn’t. There’s so many cats better than me. This is not a competition. I’m not looking for a stroke. I’ve had a fine career. I worked hard for my good fortune, but I never in a million years think I’m in the league of the cats we all revere.

“I’m not Allan Holdsworth. It’s not fair that a guy like that wasn’t [revered] like Mozart, y’know? He was our John Coltrane, and to me, he didn’t get enough love. You can’t figure it out: why me and not somebody else? Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason to life. It just is.”

You sound pretty happy with your place in the world…

“I’m just happy to have a career, bro. I’m not in the race any more. It’s liberating to be 60 years old, and not be worried about if I’m in competition with somebody or not. I’m not that guy any more.

“I’ve had a great career with Toto and my solo career has been fun. I’ve got to play with my heroes. I still practise and give a shit. I still try to learn. But I’m not trying to run the race to win. I’m just glad to still be standing upright at this point. 

“I got plenty of what I need. I’m not a greedy guy. I take care of my family and people that need some help, y’know? That’s what’s important to me. Not having a big diamond ring. I’ve got a nice house. I drive a Tesla. I go to pick my kids up at school like everybody else, y’know? I’m your neighbourhood guitar player. I don’t mean no harm to anybody.”

Well, thanks for the interview…

“Try not to make me sound too much like a douchebag, man. I don’t mean to. I’m just a silly old guy!”

40 Trips Around The Sun is out now on Sony Legacy.

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