Steve Lukather on guitar tab: "Why would you learn that if you can learn how to read music?"

Steve Lukather
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

There's no doubt that Steve Lukather is one of the greatest session aces of guitar history, and one who has struck out with success as part of a band with Toto. He comes from an era where players read music or played by ear, so it may not be a surprise he's not a big fan of guitar tab. As he explains in an interview with Ultimate Guitar.

"No, tab doesn't even make sense to me," Lukather replied when asked if he was a tablature user. "Why would you learn that if you can learn how to read music? I look at tablature and reading music the same way you look at playing real guitar and playing Guitar Hero."

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His reasoning isn't necessarily born out of any elitism.

"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?" Lukather asked. "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."

And if the idea of learning music theory feels like something that sucks the 'soul' out of music, Lukather has some strong words for you.

"I don't care if you're a shredder or a classical player, it's important to know the language"

"Bullshit! If anything, it has really helped my playing" he reveals, "especially back in the day when I had to come up with parts on the spot. 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.

Learn music theory

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

Plenty of successful guitarists never learn music theory and Lukather is even-handed enough to admit that he doesn't think formal lessons work for all players – and uses a couple of famous examples of players who followed their ear more in their early years rather than learning theory. 

"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. My own son plays guitar weird because he didn't want to take lessons.

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"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."


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