Not many guitarists can boast a resume that matches that of Steve Lukather. In addition to his extraordinary work in Toto, the 55-year-old six-stringer has appeared, as a guest player, on more than 1,000 albums. Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Miles Davis are just a few of the many artists who’ve sought Lukather’s services through the years. No less a maestro than Quincy Jones has called him his favorite guitarist.
Today, at an age when many of his peers are slowing down, Lukather remains a musical dynamo. Two years ago, he released All’s Well That Ends Well, a solo album that earned rave reviews. Since then he’s toured with former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan, hit the road as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, teamed with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for a G3 tour, and played a number of dates with a reunited Toto. Somehow, in the midst of it all, he also found time to make a new solo album.
Transition, Lukather’s latest, finds him firing on all creative cylinders. Beautifully produced by himself and his longtime musical cohort CJ Vanston, the album features the sterling craftsmanship, transcendent melodies and silky grooves fans have come to expect. In addition to his live band (Steve Weingart, Renee Jones and Eric Valentine), Lukather recruited an A-list of guests, including Def Leppard’s Phil Collen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, among many others.
From his home in Los Angeles, Lukather spoke with us about how the album was made, the importance of rhythm playing and how he came to own his “Rosanna Burst,” the ‘59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst that’s one of rock’s most famous guitars.
How did you find time to write and record a new album, given how busy you’ve been?
I started making the album in December 2011. I would work on it for a while, and then go on a tour. The first one was with Ian Gillan and an 80-piece orchestra. After that I worked on the record some more, then did G3, then worked on the album some more, then went out with Ringo, and then worked on the record some more. After that I went out with Toto, and then finished the record and did G3 again. In the blink of an eye a year went by. I was able to make the album in spurts – to live with it and really take my time with it. That was a luxury I hadn’t had in a long time.
Did you go into recording with specific goals in mind?
I come from the old school. I like lots of production -- well-crafted, artistic albums with lots of colors. I’m not a punk rock musician. We sort of made the record backwards. My co-producer CJ Vanston and I would typically come up with a rough track, with the intention of re-doing it with a real drummer and real bass player. Then CJ would add some cool keyboard parts, some atmospheric touches, and it would just get better. In the end we thought, “We don’t need to re-do any of this. Sonically, it’s great.” At that point, I would start to think, “Hmmm, who would be great to bring in to play on this tune.” I brought in some great people, a lot of old friends. The running order of the songs is the actual order in which they were written.
It’s clear throughout the album that melody is very important to you.
I really put a governor on overplaying. Part of my “lost years” involved overplaying, because I was just so messed up. It was a default mechanism. “I don’t know what to do, so I’ll just play a bunch of junk.” When I see live clips from that period, I think some of it was cool, but some of it was like, “Oh, why did I do that?” Of course, in the studio you can take your time and be more methodical. I’m back to doing what I do best, which is to take a more melodic approach. It’s about getting back to what the guitar means to me, playing meaningful stuff and not trying to impress people. I’m not trying to be a speed demon.
Is rhythm playing an underappreciated skill?
It’s probably the most underappreciated skill. I came up during a time when you learned by strumming a folk guitar, and played to the beat of a real drummer. You got your time together organically, before drum machines came along and people started thinking in terms of metronomes. There are a lot of YouTube wonders out there who would fall apart in a recording studio, or in a live situation with real musicians. A sense of groove and rhythm is much more important than how fast you can play. Which is more useful? What’s going to get you more gigs? If you’re just a bedroom player and you get off on that, that’s great. Not everyone wants to be a professional musician, and some people just want to play for fun. But if you’re looking to become a professional musician, I would really recommend working on rhythm playing.
How did you come to own your “Rosanna Burst,” the ’59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst?
You know, I didn’t even realize it was a famous ‘burst until my friend Joe Bonamassa told me. He said, “Look, man, you’ve got one of the top ten ‘bursts ever!” I didn’t even know it had a nickname. I bought it in guitar store in Arizona in 1979 for four grand. [Drum tech] Paul Jamieson said, “Luke, you gotta buy one of these. It’s the holy grail!” So I bought it and fell in love with it. It had a newer tailpiece on it. Joe Satriani found a ’59 tailpiece for me, to put back on it. I’m trying to return it to its original state. That guitar has a rich history. I’ve got a photo of George Harrison playing it with me, at the tribute we did for Jeff Porcaro, after Jeff passed away. I’m actually staring at that photograph right now.
What are some of the more important recordings you made with it?
It’s on tons of hit records. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” the Toto IV stuff, “Running with the Night” with Lionel Richie. Plug it into a Marshall, crank it up, and boom, done. Very old school. I also used it for the solo in Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” (laughs) I’m always the guy who goes, “That’s never going to be a hit. That’s silly.” I said that about “Let’s Get Physical,” I said it about “Beat It” and I said it about “Africa.” If I laugh at something, it’s guaranteed to be a hit.
Do you own other Gibsons?
My first real guitar was a ’71 Les Paul Deluxe, which I still have. And I had a ’58 Goldtop that I used on the first couple of Toto albums and the Boz Scaggs stuff that I did. I’ve had lots of Les Pauls.
What’s it like being a member of Ringo’s All-Starr Band?
I try to stay true to the parts, to the originals, but still I get to wear a lot of hats. I get to do country stuff on “Act Naturally,” and there’s a pedal steel thing I do on one of [Mr. Mister singer/bassist] Richard Page’s tunes. For the Beatles material, and for Ringo’s solo songs, I listen to the originals and try to recreate those sounds as faithfully as possible. I want it to be right. I want to pay homage to the people who inspired me.
I’ll be touring behind this new album and doing more shows with Ringo, and doing “35th Anniversary” shows with Toto. We [in Toto] got back together for the right reasons, to go on the road and help our brother Mike Porcaro, who has ALS, which is a really debilitating disease. No new Toto music is planned, but we got the core guys back together, or as many as we could. We tend to work together in the summer, because everyone has such big careers outside Toto. I’ve got a full year ahead that I’m really excited about.