As a member of the very versatile and commercial band, Toto for more than 25 years, Steve Lukather may seem like an odd choice for us to interview. But those who know the man's playing, know that Luke is a totally killer rock guitarist, who's lead style embodies all the principles we hold dear at here Dinosaur Rock Guitar. If you're unsure of his Dino credentials, just pick up a copy of the 1994 Steve Lukather: In Concert DVD to see Luke tear up the fret board in the finest Dino tradition with his Los Lobotomys fusion project.
But despite having these Dino traits Luke, is a well-rounded musician who plays and appreciates a vast array of musical styles — as you'll read about in this interview.
As a former session guitarist who's played on more that 1000 albums, you've probably heard Luke play on stuff without even knowing it was him. And with that kind of studio experience on his resume, I figured he'd certainly be of interest to those of us who are into home recording.
I found Luke to be a energetic conversationalist, but also a laid back guy with a great sense of humor.
8/31/03 Interview conducted by Dinosaur David B.
DRG: Let's talk about your life as a working guitarist. You have a successful band that you've been in for years.
Luke: About 150 years — Dinosaur-like!
DRG: You have a great side-project in Los Lobotomys . . .
Luke: You know, I haven't played with those guys in ten years.
DRG: Has it been that long?
Luke: It's still lives on its own because they just released a German DVD we did in 1994. But for some reason, we just haven't done it in a long time. There's no bad feelings or anything like that. We're all busy just doing so much other stuff. I have a couple of other side projects. I have this band called Doves of Fire that I play with Simon Phillips and Melvin Davis and Jeff Babko. We do all 70s stuff — Mahavishnu, Jeff Beck, crazy shit — just for fun.
DRG: Is that just a live thing or have you recorded it?
Luke: We've recorded some of it, but generally that kind of stuff is too long-winded to put on a record. It's one thing to jam it in a club with all the psycho music — people get into the spirit of it. But it's like putting a drum solo on a record — you know what I mean? To listen to it without seeing it is kind of lame.
Luke: That kind of music is very self-indulgent. We recorded the stuff, but to go through it all — with all the fifteen minute solos, we'd have to edit it down for a record. I don't know if that's ever gonna happen. But I play around. Michael Landau and I have a little combo and we play together whenever time allows. He's one of my old friends.
DRG: So you keep plenty busy, but which things do you give priority to these days?
Luke: Whoever pays me the most money! (laughs). Well you know, I've got a family to take care of. I've got a girl in college. I am a professional musician by trade.
Luke: The Toto thing has its own legs — particularly outside of the U.S. We don't really play much in the States, but we play a lot in Asia and Europe. We still do arenas and big gigs and get paid a lot of bread. When that comes around. It goes in cycles. Right now were in the 25th anniversary cycle, which is now the 26th anniversary and its gonna go all the way through December. And I still love the guys — we grew up together and have known each other for thirty fucking years! All of them except for Simon (Phillips) and we've been friends since 1986. I met him playing with Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana. But I do all kinds of stuff.
I have this wacky Christmas album coming up on October 15th called Santamental. There's a lot of great guests on it. Eddie Van Halen's on it — his first appearance in a long time. I got him out of retirement to play with me. Steve Vai, Slash, my son, Trevor is on it. Edgar Winter, Michael Landau's on it. I sampled Sammy Davis Jr. and I sing a duet with him and it came out really funny — kind of big-band Vegas style, you know? So there's humor in it. And I did the whole record in seven days. All analog. No click tracks, no computers. All on one 24 track tape. It's about 90% live except for some of the guests who couldn't make it on the tracking date. So there's a couple of vocal overdubs. It came out great. Me and Jeff Babko did all the arrangements — and he's fucking brilliant. And we had a blast doing it, you know? A fun little project.
DRG: How did it come about?
Luke: Well, Elliot Scheiner — the guy who engineered for (Toto), Steely Dan, Bruce Hornsby, Van Morrison — he goes way back. Him and Al Schmitt — who's done everything from Toto IV — with us to Diana Krall to the Jefferson Airplane in the 60s. And Ed Cherney who I met with Quincy Jones back in the 1980. They started a record company called Bop City. And they came to me and said: "Luke — we want you to be our first artist — and we want you to do a Christmas record." And I go: What?!!!
Luke: At first I'm thinking: OK, great! They want me to be their first artist. What do you want me to do? They (say) a Christmas record. And it was like . . . silence. And I'm thinking, what the fuck? A Christmas record?
DRG: Well, they found something you hadn't done already. (Laughs)
Luke: And they say: "Yeah man, but it's gotta be in your style all the way." So I gave it some thought. And I took it on as a challenge. And you know, Christmas songs have the cheesiest melodies in the world. So what are you gonna do with them? So we revoiced it completely and changed all the grooves, and reharmonized the . . . the melodies are all the same, but the chords are all fucked-up. (Laughs) We got a great rhythm section: John Pierce on bass, Jeff Babko on keyboards, Lenny Castro on percussion, Greg Bissonette on drums — real strong rhythm section.
DRG: That does sound like it must have been fun.
Luke: And we cut everything live. It was so much fun. And it kept it loose. It has a feel to it. It has a vibe that doesn't exist anymore cause everyone ProTools everything out. Even the best of players — it's just an easy format to work in. So we took this on as a challenge to go really old-school. And it really sounded great, man. You forget how great two-inch tape really sounds.
DRG: I've been hearing that a lot lately. I interview players — and at least two other times recently, I've heard: I really wanted to do it on two-inch tape.
Luke: Well, you know what's happening now is that most people are cutting their tracks on two-inch and transferring it to a digital format, and then when they mix, they sync up Pro Tools, and they keep the rhythm tracks on the 24 track so you kind of get the best of both worlds. Working in the digital domain locally — just comping stuff — and being able to move quickly — you can't beat it.
Luke: But on the other hand, there is a warmth that you will lose (if you do everything digital) — though (the technology is) getting better with this — they have a lot of plug-ins that are making it sound a little bit more real. And it's a great way — when you recall a mix — bang zoom — here it is! In the old days, it took the whole day just to plug everything back in.
DRG: Yeah, these days, you ideally want the best aspect of both environments.
Luke: And I come from old-school, so I'm comfortable with it. But there a lot of younger kids today making records — they wouldn't know what to do if they actually had to play the shit right the first time. I hate to be a drag, but in owning a recording studio, we see a lot of great clients come in that are young and "happening." And the way they record — as opposed to the way I started out recording — is like night and day. They just know it can be fixed, so (they fix it later) . . . we just used to sit in there and do it until we got it (right) on tape. Fortunately, I was hanging out with great musicians, so it didn't take forever to get a take. But you know, if it took a while, it took a while. You sat there and played it until it happened — the magical take. Nobody fucking bothers with that shit anymore. Not rock and roll musicians, anyway. Maybe the jazzers.
DRG: I agree. And with all of the obvious advantages of the digital domain, I think you have really have to have lived through some of the pre-digital era to appreciate the things that are still of value in that older process — like analog tape sounding warmer than bits. Like micing real tube amps rather than using PODs and stuff.
Luke: Yeah, but there's no right or wrong way to do it. I'm not gonna just say the old way was the right way — because my kid — he doesn't see it that way. He just goes: "that sounds good. It doesn't matter how I got there." And he does some stuff that he could never actually play. But they're kind of cool, though. But you know, I'm just too lazy for that shit. I love to play, but I don't want to sit in a recording studio for twelve hours anymore. I did that for twenty-some odd years. I like to get in, fresh, frosty, get my shit done and go home.
DRG: Yeah, it gets tiring pretty fast.
Luke: I'd rather play the live gig. I really love to play live more than anything in the whole world. The travel, for me, can be difficult sometimes, but still — you're only working two hours a day. And it's incredible. The audience will love you even if you fuck it up. Which is so cool, because everybody fucks it up. Nobody's perfect every time.
DRG: It's still and awful lot to go through for that two hour payoff on stage.
Luke: Well, if you have a career, and you're lucky enough to have a large audience, it's worth your while to show up. And it's really a lot of fun.
DRG: Is there anything new going on these days with Los Lobotomys?
Luke: They put out a DVD from (a show the band played in) Germany.
DRG: That's that old Ohne Filter TV show footage, right?
Luke: It's actually pretty good.
DRG: Oh, I love that DVD. That's already been available on DVD.
Luke: Maybe it was a bootleg. It was from a that TV show in 1994. It was a pretty good quality bootleg. Now they put it out as a DVD, because it's never been remixed.
DRG: Wasn't there a couple of songs missing from that?
Luke: Well, we were only allowed to do an hour set on the TV show. We didn't do our whole set. We had limited time.
DRG: So are there any plans to get together with these guys and maybe do another album?
Luke: I'm on the road 'til December 22, bro. (Other than that) There's no plans to do anything with anybody right now. Next year, who knows? I have no idea.
DRG: So you just sort of take things as they come.
Luke: Uh huh. I take everything as it comes — and I'm always surprised. Often I think I'm gonna be doing something, and then something else comes along.
DRG: Like the Christmas album . . .
Luke: Well, yeah! Like I said, I did that in seven days. I had to hold it for a year because they screwed up the distribution last year. You can't put a Christmas record out in February. It's irrelevant. You only get a very small window. People don't wanna hear that shit (after Christmas). But that's why we made such a weird record. So people will say: Wow, I've never heard a Christmas sound sound like that! So I'm rather proud of how it turned out.
DRG: That's cool.
Luke: You'll crack up when you hear it. But it's actually really cool.
DRG: What about your non-Christmas solo albums? What determines when you do one of those.
Luke: Well the last one I did was with Larry Carlton. A "duo" album. We won a Grammy for that, which was really fucking cool, cause it made me relevant in the 2000s — so I don't feel so dinosaur-like (laughs). That was just a fun little fusion record we just did for a laugh, and people dug it. Nobody was more surprised (that it won a Grammy) than me and Larry — I'll tell you that! Of all the things we've done in our careers, to have that one (get the recognition). It just shows you — you never know what's gonna strike a nerve. It's like knowing what a hit song is. If I knew that, I'd be talking to you from my yacht. (laughs)
DRG: Well that album was a recording of a live performance. When do you get the itch to do a studio album of new solo material.
Luke: Well the Christmas record is a solo studio record. But as far a new material, like . . .
DRG: Like Luke and Candyman . . .
Luke: Yeah, right, . . . probably some time next year — I'll get into something like that. Depending on time and what happens. I can't really tell you exactly. I've sort of been able to do a lot of stuff outside of my old band. When I get a window of opportunity, and I start writing for that — I will, absolutely. Steve Vai has been after me to do something different than I've ever done before — for his label. He thinks I should make the definitive guitar record. I just think there are so many guys who do that shit better than me.
DRG: I don't know. I think your take on it would be as unique as anyone's.
Luke: Well I like to sing shit too, so it might be a half and half (with vocals and instrumental). I don't know man. It's so hard for me to say. It's so out of the realm of what's happening (right now). I'm focusing on this year, and getting through this year. Next year, God knows, I'll probably be doing all kinds of weird shit. But you never know.
DRG: You've done some of the tribute albums that come along. What is the appeal of these things for you.
Luke: Yeah, for some reason, these guys call me to do those. I find it very easy. I'm usually in and out in 20 minutes. Some are better than others. One of the ones I really liked that I did was the Pink Floyd one for Shine on You Crazy Diamond. I sang all the parts. Played all the guitar. That one I spent a little more time on. Cause I really love Pink Floyd. (Dave) Gilmour is a good friend, and I've worked with Roger Waters, so it meant a lot to me to do something good, because I figured those guys would probably hear it. Some of this other stuff just kind of comes along. And I'm friends with some of the guys who (put them together), and they say: come on in, Luke. I know you'll only take an half hour to solo on this. And I just do it for a kick, you know? And I admire the bands (that are the subject of the tribute). Or I've actually worked with them at some point.
DRG: I've heard with those tribute sessions that you don't often get to meet the other folks who are playing on the same track with you.
Luke: Not so much anymore. You used to. In the old days, that was one of the great things. The camaraderie. Who am I playing with today? Who am I hanging with? That doesn't exist anymore — or at least very rarely.
DRG: Well that's why I thought it might not hold as much appeal for you. When you go into those things, are all the basic tracks already laid?
Luke: Yeah, I generally just do overdubs. When I do my shit, or when we do Toto, we always get together an play. We still go old school. I like to do it that way. You get something you'd never piece together. But most people don't have budgets anymore. So they'll make an all-in deal. So if they want a great drummer, they'll cut all these tracks and get the drum tracks in two days instead of two weeks. It's really budget constraints more than anything else. Plus people make records at home, and they don't have the facilities or the equipment to record a whole band. When the record companies got all hip to ProTools, they went fuck it, we'll give you $50K and whatever you don't spend, you can keep. Which makes people greedy. So then they don't want to pay the "A" session guys. So they'll get some kid who has good ideas but who can't necessarily execute them well. And it doesn't matter because they can fix it all. It's a different era, man. The session scene is dead. It doesn't exist! (The work) is so few and far between that no one can make a living (at it). Unless you're doing TV or film, which is a completely different area. I have a great deal of respect for those guys, but they never get called to do records. They just read the parts and go home. And they do it brilliantly — don't get me wrong — but it's a different animal. I mean, I can read, but I was always hired to bring that other element in.
DRG: To come up with the "rock thing."
Luke: Right. A little rawer. Instead of a little Fender and a 335, I'd show up with a Les Paul and a Marshall.
DRG: In those days, did they just tell you to just "lay a hot solo," or were you expected to play something they had composed and read it off a page?
Luke: Mostly it was come up with my own part. But sure, there was very specific stuff where you had to read.
DRG: But they mostly wanted you because you were the rock guy.
Luke: Yeah, pretty much. I brought that edge to it.
DRG: And you were doing it from a very early age, too, right?
Luke: I was 19 years old and full of endless energy — and humor. And I made friends. I was friends with all of these (session) guys and we would hang out. I went to school with the Porcarro brothers. I had already met most of these guys. Jay Graydon, Lee Rittenour, Larry Carlton. I was hanging out at their houses — letting them steal money from me for their poker game. And then they kind of said: hey, you're a good guy — you can play, let's get you on a gig and see how you do. And that's how it started. So I played on a record with Jeff Porcarro. I played with Boz Scaggs when I was 19, then Toto started, and it just snowballed from there. I was a lucky motherfucker! No question. And I enjoyed every fucking moment of it. And still do.
DRG: When you look back at that time in your life, what were the high points?
Luke: I can't even go there. If you look at the discography (on Luke's website) — and that's only a partial one — there's a lot of pretty amazing names on there.
DRG: Well what were your biggest thrills for you in getting to work with people you admired?
Luke: Working with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Jeff Beck, Clapton. Elton John. Miles Davis. Aretha Franklin. Quincy Jones. Don Henley. There are so many.
DRG: Did they all live up to your expectations of them?
Luke: Yeah. It was really awesome to be around people with that kind if experience. You get to see why they're legends. I watched Elton write a song. I hung out with Miles Davis for a couple of days. And I was on a sound stage with Paul McCartney every day for two weeks. Just hanging out playing Beatle tunes and hearing the stories with George Martin and Jeff Emery. Just being able to be around and hang with them . . . and being treated like it was OK for you to be there. It was overwhelming. Experiences that I will take to my grave with a big smile. I've had some amazing experiences that a lot of young musicians will never have, because, like I said, that scene doesn't exist like it used to. There are still some people who cut with a live band. Cheryl Crow cuts with a live band. And she's great. I love her shit. She cuts with real musicians, and she plays herself. That's why I like her records — because they sound real. Their some people out there who still sound real. But a lot of that metal stuff — they really piece it together.
DRG: Is there anyone you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to work with?
Luke: Well, I've been bugging Donald (Fagen) and Walter (Becker) of Steely Dan for years. It's become a running joke. I've played with each of them separately, but I've never played on a Steely Dan record. I've always wanted to play a solo on a Steely Dan record. That's one of my last things that I have to do. Cause they were my favorite band — still. The greatest cats in the world. Challenging harmonically, beautifully done. And you know, Walter plays the guitar so they don't need me. But I always tell him: just save me one fucking solo, man! Once before I go! So that, and maybe playing something on a Peter Gabriel record. I met Peter — love the cat — huge fan. Genius. I still listen to the old Genesis records. There's not too many others I haven't hit. I mean I'd love to play with the Stones, but that ain't ever gonna happen. I was at their rehearsal in Toronto, and that was really fun. I got to dig their rehearsal and that was awesome. And I've met the guys — we're not friends — but I've met Mick, Keith, and Woody. Bernard Faller, their background singer is a good friend of mine. You gotta love the Stones. They are still killer. I was just amazed at their rehearsal. They were smiling and dancing around at midnight for no audience. You know, you never think that the Stones would rehearse Satisfaction, but they played it like it meant something, man. Their commitment is deep. Smart, talented, brilliant fucking songwriters. They're the original punks, you know? They're still kicking and selling out stadiums.
DRG: Well, when I was in my early teens, they were it for me. There's just a back catalog of music there that's phenomenal.
Luke: They could do two weeks of gigs and never repeat the same song — and every one of them would be a hit. Geeze, look at the body of work. I don't care if you think they're old wrinkles, and think how can they do this anymore. Hey, we're all gonna get old! (You don't) retire just because you get old. Look at Les Paul.
DRG: Well its encouraging to see people still doing it at that age as long as they're still entertaining.
Luke: This shit keeps you young. Playing Rock n Roll, or whatever style of music you dig, it keeps you young.
DRG: You've done both of Derek Sherinian's last two records too (Inertia, and Black Utopia).
Luke: Yeah, those are fun records but difficult. That's some hard shit to play.
DRG: Oh yeah?
Luke: Yeah, just playing some of the parts — I never . . . I just showed up at the gig and it was like: OK, here's the tune. And it wasn't written-out, cause (Derek) doesn't write music. So I had to learn all this shit and figure it out. I've never had to play fifths that fast with that tri-tone — it was some weird shit. But it was really fun and very challenging. I'm very proud of the way that came out. It's music for everybody, but I dig it.
DRG: Well that's the kind of stuff the players at our site love.
Luke: I did it real fast. I plugged into some tiny Marshall with one 12 inch speaker. Just brought my guitar and that's it. It's a very popular belief that I have this refrigerator full of shit, but it's a complete fabrication. It's bullshit — that I can't play unless I have this huge rack full of shit. And I really don't have that. There was a point in the mid 80s — when that stuff first hit — everybody had huge fucking racks. Now, the only huge rack I wanna see is on a woman!
DRG: Amen! And that's a good segue, because I want to talk to you some about guitars, tone, and gear as well. The Music Man Luke guitar —
Luke: I love that guitar, man.
DRG: How did that come about? They obviously nailed exactly what you wanted because you've been using it for years.
Luke: Ten years.
DRG: How involved were you in the design and the specifications?
Luke: Huge — but first off, here's how it all started: Sterling Ball — who owns (Music Man), is one of my very best friends in the whole world. And we'd been friends for a long, long time, and I was (using) Valley Arts (custom guitars) at the time. And that was when (Valley Arts) was still right down the street in L.A. I grew up with those guys. (But) that went south — and they sold to the Koreans. And I was very loyal to them. And the guy who used to make my guitars, went to work for Music Man. And he said: Let us make you the ultimate guitar — just the way you want it. And you know, they did! Which is why I use it.
Listen, I have a lot of my old, vintage stuff, but there's no point in taking a $150K Les Paul on the road. You're just insane if you do that.
DRG: So when do you pull out the vintage gear?
Luke: For recording. Just looking for another sound. Sometimes during layering (of tracks). Sometimes you want to layer with different guitars. Like, I'd layer one with the Luke, one with a Les Paul, and then maybe an Esquire, or something like that. And just get a thick sound. I did a lot of that on my last solo record.
DRG: Are you at a point where you'd still pull out a Les Paul to cut a solo?
Luke: Yeah. Occasionally. David Paitch was like: break out your old Les Paul, you fuck! I want to hear that shit. So I go: OK. Hey, you're right. I forgot about that. (laughs) So I have that stuff, and I break it out in the studio. I sold some pieces off, because I thought it was a waste to have them sitting in a trunk — those guitars need to be loved. People want them. And I got tired of paying ridiculous insurance rates for shit I never play. So I kept my favorite pieces. Got rid of some stuff. I'm keeping some stuff for my son, (who also plays) for when he gets older, and I ain't here no more. Stuff that's invaluable. And you know, I love my Music Man, and I play them all the time. I get everything I need out of them. And if I didn't, I'd play other guitars.
DRG: Well I figured — you've been quite loyal to them.
Luke: Well they've been loyal to me. And that's (because of) Sterling (Ball). If I don't love the guitar — if I can't use it all the time, there's no point in me putting my name on it. It's so fucking jive for people who have their signature model — even though it's not real popular these days — and their's is different from the one you pull off the shelf. Or it's better quality than the one you could buy at Guitar Center, or whatever.
DRG: Or they don't end up using them at all.
Luke: Or they don't use them at all. Which is equally jive. Then you know they're just doing it for a paycheck.
Luke: And it's very important to me, because I had had some negative experiences earlier my career with a lot of people — which sucked. I'm not gonna name any names — but I always said that if I was gonna do (a signature guitar) again, I'm not gonna do unless I'm really gonna play the guitar. So that if I lost one, I can walk into any store, pull one off the shelf, plug it in, tune it up, and do the whole gig. And that's exactly the way I have it. And (the one you can get in the store) is exactly what I play. Granted — on one of them I have a Fernandes Sustainer — that's my big "wow" — my big trick. (laughs) So anybody could buy (that too), you know what I mean? That's an option you can choose to use, or not.
DRG: Well I heard that Joe Satriani recently had his chrome guitar stolen, and he only put up like a $500 reward out for it, because he has a similar kind of setup. But I guess if it had meant more to him, he would have put up more of a reward.
Luke: Satriani? Somebody stole that silver guitar? Aw, that's too bad.
DRG: Yeah, the number 1 one — vanished off the back of the truck. But I don't think he was all broken up over it, because it's basically a stock model apart from that paint job.
Luke: Well it's a funny thing. First off, who's gonna show up with that guitar? Who's gonna get away with playing that guitar, anyway? People will be going: hey man —isn't that the guitar you ripped off from Satch?
Luke: That's what's interesting about that shit. I happen to agree with Joe. I mean I don't want somebody to steal my wife or my kids. Take the fucking guitar. I'll get another one. There are things that are more important than a fucking piece of wood. And that's why you don't take your vintage shit on the road. But there's still sentimental value for your number one favorite guitar.
DRG: Yeah. I only have a few and they all mean a lot to me. Some never leave the house, and the ones that do never leave my sight.
Luke: You get them all worn in, and you put your blood, sweat and tears into them and they've been good to you, and you know what it's gonna sound like. So yeah, that's a real drag. But yeah, I agree with Joe: Ok, I'll give you five hundred bucks for it, you asshole! It's just an asshole thing — to steal. I caught somebody running out of my fucking dressing room with — I have like the number three Eddie Van Halen model from Music Man that they made for him way back when. I was there, and I was lucky enough — the purple one — I love the guitar — I don't play it that much, but a great guitar. It has a lot of sentimental value because I was there with Ed when they were making them, the whole thing. I had a little bit of input in helping him choose the pickups, and stuff like that. He would just go: Luke, what do you think? You like this one or this one? And I said I like that one. I don't know if he actually listened to me, or not, but he asked me. Anyway, I got one, and I caught some clown — one of my crew guys caught this guy — with the guitar, walking out of the fucking arena. And it's like: dude, what the fuck are you thinking? That is not yours. I can't steal shit from people. I don't understand it. It's not yours! Don't fuck with shit that's not yours! Go out and buy one. They're not that hard to come by.
DRG: He didn't know what it was? He just knew it was a guitar?
Luke: He didn't know which guitar it was, he just grabbed the case. I just had it backstage because I was gonna do something with it setup-wise. It was quite a few years ago.
DRG: So how involved were you in the design of the Luke? Were you involved with the wood choices, the body shape and all of that?
Luke: Well, what they did was they took the neck off of the Valley Arts guitar which was my number one guitar at the time, and they put the neck on the computer and figured out where it was all worn out and stuff, and they made this perfect neck for me. And then the body style, we messed around with a little bit. And the kind of wood — they were kind of trying to get me not to use the EMG active pickups, but I kept going back to them. And I said: look, for me, this is what I dig. I mean I have PAFs, I have Fenders, but there's just something about the EMGs — I've been playing those pickups since 1983 or 84. And I just like them. For other people — they don't like them. Apples and oranges, you know?
DRG: What I have found is that the EMGs sound really great in some guitars, and they just don't respond well in others. There seems to be little middle ground with them.
Luke: Well I wouldn't put them in a Fender Strat — what's the point? But there are some other guitars — look at my buddy Zakk Wylde, he puts them in his Les Paul. He gets a fucking fat tone now, doesn't he.
DRG: EMG now makes a signature set of pickups for you now, right?
Luke: Yeah, they do actually. I don't think I've ever gotten a royalty from them, (laughs) but yeah, they asked me a long time ago.
DRG: And are they the same as what you use?
Luke: Probably. They're the 85s, you know? That's what I use in my all my Music Mans and the Valley Arts guitars before that.
DRG: Why did you drop the Floyd Rose from the Luke?
Luke: Um, nothing against Floyd — I have like the third one he ever made, back when he was still in his garage. They're a pain in the ass for changing strings.
DRG: Just that?
Luke: Pretty much. I didn't want to have a locked nut. When you break a string, it takes forever to change it. I mean, (Floyd Roses) were a great thing in the late 70s and early 80s when they first hit. It was awesome! But you know, the guys — Dudley, over at Music Man — I said: make me a fucking tremolo that doesn't go out of tune, that I don't have to lock up. And he did! End of story. And then when I break a string, it's bam boom. Tune it up. I'm done. Instead of : where's the wrench? Or I have to undo the top, cause I don't have enough room at the fine tuner. Just a pain in the ass. Sorry Floyd — love you babe, but that's why everybody bailed. They were an essential part of your toolbox in the 80s cause there wasn't anything like it. But you know, Jeff Beck never used them. Jimi Hendrix never used them. And they managed to make some pretty amazing noises. Eddie when he first started didn't have one.
DRG: So you play the Luke 99% of the time. On the amp side, your rig has evolved over the years.
Luke: It's been pretty stable for the last couple of years. The rack comes up right to my knee. I've got a couple of delays, a rack mount wah wah pedal, a univibe simulator, a tremolo. Stuff that's not noisy. I'm always plugging un weird pedals, but generally it's pretty simple. I don't have all the fucking goo anymore and I hate harmonizers and all that shit.
DRG: You're not using any of that anymore?
Luke: No. I'm way over it.
DRG: You spent a few years with Rivera, and they were actually building amps and cabs to your specifications, but you're not using them anymore. Why?
Luke: (Paul Rivera's) an evil cat, man. He burned me. He ripped me off — my ideas for stuff and patented them under his own name. And he owes me money.
DRG: Oh, is that what happened?
Luke: That really hurt me because he was a friend for 30 years, and he stabbed me in the back with a fucking axe. I will never speak to him ever again. You don't fuck over your friends. He used me. And look, his business is falling apart. But I've got no sympathy for that asshole. Next question.
DRG: Well I was gonna ask why you were back using the CAE stuff, but I guess I got my answer.
Luke: Well first off, it sounds better. We were always trying to simulate that sound, but we never really nailed it. We got close. And there were other reasons I wanted to work with Paul Rivera, because I thought we had this great rapport, but it was all a lie. He's probably stab his own mother in the back for $5. That was really disheartening. I was really disappointed by him. But you know what, his karma will come back. I have moved on. Bob Bradshaw's shit dusts anything (Rivera) can possibly conjure up. So that's why I went back. When I plugged it back in an compared it, it was like: why the fuck did I mess with these other amps?
DRG: Are you one of those people who's constantly chasing the dragon, looking for something better?
Luke: Yeah. It's so hard, because it's a never ending quest. I mean come on. You're always trying to find some new box or new cabinet. Some way to make the guitar sound fatter, bigger. It's like playing the guitar. You don't just wake up one day and say: OK, I know everything now. That's it. I don't have to practice anymore now. I don't have to listen to anything anymore. That's the great thing about music — you go to your grave learning new shit. If you care to.
DRG: Yeah, it's definitely a journey. But is that true of your tone too? Are you ever at a point where you're satisfied with your tone? You seem pretty satisfied right now.
Luke: Well sometimes it's real interesting about gear. It's also part of like what's the weather like outside. Who's the engineer, where's the mic placement. You can have the same guitar and amp, and it can sound incredible in the afternoon, and then go to a session and night and the same gear sounds horrible — and you don't know why. It's something that you can't put your finger on. You can leave shit set up overnight, and the next day — why does it sound different? Cause there's more humidity in the air or something like that. Stupid, ridiculous things you never think of that really do effect things.
DRG: And it's not just your mind playing tricks on you . . .
Luke: No. I mean I'm not as anal as some of these people who claim to be able to tell the difference between the kind of batteries that are in a pedal. I'm not able to get that anal. I ruined my hearing using headphones — not playing live. Headphones are the most damaging thing you can do to your ears.
DRG: You mean while in the studio playing sessions?
Luke: Yeah. Way before there was individual headphone mixes. You had like eight guys vying for a place in the headphone mix, and the track, and sometimes a click track. And it'd be blazing (in your ears) all day long, twelve hours a day, every day. Feedback and all kinds of weird shit would give you ear fatigue. And after a while, you're ears go: what — are you kidding? I'm 45 years old. I've got tinitus — my ears ring all the time.
DRG: Oh no.
Luke: I can hear all frequencies. That part of my hearing isn't damaged. But there's a part in the midrange — like watching TV or talking on a cell phone, people talking to me in a loud room when there's lots of people around. It'll sound like your talking gibberish. It's a drag.
DRG: Oh, wow. I didn't know you had that.
Luke: There's nothing I can do about it. The damage is done. That's why I wear earplugs now. I've been wearing them for almost ten years. It hasn't gotten worse, but it isn't getting any better.
DRG: I would have thought that it would be much more of a problem for the people who play loud on stage all the time.
Luke: Well, you can get away from that. And the people use in-ear monitors and swear by them, they're just killing their ears. Your ears fatigue about halfway through the show, so you just turn it up and turn it up. I like to get away and hear the house. So it's not direct shit right in my face for the whole show. I try to keep my stage volume down. I have a little vocal in my monitor. A little keyboard. Kick drum in the side fills, and we can pretty much hear each other acoustically on stage. There's no need to play that loud. Unless you're AC/DC.
DRG: Well I know guys like Pete Townshend have the tinitus.
Luke: Jeff Beck too. Most people I know, have it. Drummers get it real easy. Snare drums, cymbals and shit.
DRG: Well I haven't come down with it, but I know I've got something going on in one ear and it was the ear that was always next to the drummer's crash cymbal. Whenever I'm at a loud concert or playing loud, I can get a twinge of discomfort in that one ear.
Luke: Well, you know how your ears feel after a gig or a loud concert? Your ears ring. Well imagine if that never stopped. That's a drag, isn't it?
DRG: Yeah. Absolutely
Luke: That's me, since 1985.
Luke: You get used to it. Fortunately, mine never got any worse since I caught it.
DRG: Well I guess, as you say, if you wear the headphones long enough, twelve hours a day . . .
Luke: All that signal is stuffed right into your ears. There's nowhere for it to go except inside your head. Think about it. The singer takes off the headphones and puts them around the microphone cause he doesn't know any better. He's putting a 10K tone in your head at something like 100+db. Keep doing that stuff for years and see what happens to your hearing.
DRG: Since a lot of us are doing home recording these days, how do you approach getting your sound now that you're not using a big rig anymore?
Luke: Generally in the studio, I just plug into an amp. Usually it'll be a small Marshall unless I'm doing my own stuff where I really do bring in my other stuff — but people don't want to pay cartage on that anymore. If the cartage company is making more money than the musician, then something's wrong. It doesn't cost $300 to get a fucking Marshall and a guitar in a room. It's ridiculous. Those guys shot themselves in the foot, because most people (contracting the session) have gear — like an amp that sounds great. And they'll say: come on over, bring your guitar, we'll use my amp. Or there's amp farm shit for people who don't immediately know what they want.
DRG: Sure. But what about those more ideal situations where you are gonna take the time and use your own stuff?
Luke: Same old shit, man. SM57 in front of the speaker cabinet. Then piece stuff together. You can add stuff at the console or if you have a small rack, you can use your effects. There's no really right or wrong way to do it. If it sounds great, then it sounds great. It's a lot of trial and error and experiment. And a lot of stuff is experience. If you're working with really experienced engineers, they don't even think twice. They just do it right.
DRG: So do you go mostly with the close mic sound?
Luke: I like room sound, myself. These days, they can simulate all that shit (with reverbs) because most people don't want to commit to (the time it takes to get a good ambient room sound). Where you'd record your room mic on a different track so that you can control how much of that (ambient room sound) you want to use. And you've got to (be careful with) phasing (issues) and stuff like that.
DRG: So do you still like to do it that way?
Luke: Yeah. But it really depends on the song. Some stuff lends itself to being huge. And with some stuff you'd want a smaller guitar sound. If everything is huge, how can anything be big?
DRG: The dynamics of the thing . . .
Luke: Yeah. It's nice to have options. That's the positive thing about Pro Tools is you've got a million tracks. In the old days, you had to commit. Are we doing this? Do we really wanna do this? It's gonna be like this forever — are you sure you want to do this? You had to make decisions and commitments. And it was cool, because once you committed, that was it!
DRG: Do you try to capture the sound you get live, or are you just trying to get the best sound you can while in the studio?
Luke: Well you know what's interesting about recording — how many people do you know that actually stick their ear up to the fucking cone of the speaker . . . to ascertain if their sound is any good?
DRG: Right . . .
Luke: No one. You stand in the room (and play) and you go: that sounds great. And you might be standing fifteen feet away. Put a close mic on it, and it sounds nothing like the sound you liked in the room. But then again . . . snare drums don't sound that way either when they're closed mic'ed. It's a whole different animal. In the old days, you'd throw up two room mics and record everybody live. So it's just different. Like I said, it depends on the material, the style of music.
DRG: So when you can do what ever you want . . .
Luke: If I have the opportunity to work at my own pace on my own dollar, I'll do whatever I want. Trial and error. I'll try weird shit, and sometimes it doesn't work, and sometimes it works great.
DRG: Well some people really love the experimentation and the trial and error process. Other people like a more tried and true way that they like to at least start out with before they vary it. I was just trying to determine which approach you preferred.
Luke: Well, we all have our "point A." Which is generally across the board, a 57 in front of a 12 inch speaker.
DRG: Just one of your 4x12 cabs?
Luke: Or a 1x12 cab. You're not micing up all four speakers.
DRG: Yeah, I'm using some Bogner 1x12 cubes that I think sound terrific.
Luke: They're great! Reinhold! (Bogner) He's a character.
DRG: So you generally add your effects afterward?
Luke: Generally. I mean, live, I have the left and right sides wet (with effects) and the middle completely dry. So we have the option whether its the size of an arena or the size of a club whether they want to use more of my effects or less of my effects. In a big (naturally) reverby hall, you wouldn't want to have as much reverb or delay from the effects. But most guys use a little bit of delay on their guitar these days.
DRG: How much do you like to use?
Luke: It depends.
DRG: Well you have a pretty flexible live rig, right?
Luke: Very flexible. But even if I like to hear it a certain way where I'm standing, it doesn't mean that in the back of the hall, they have to hear it that way. That's why there's three mics.
DRG: When you're recording, do you try to recreate any of that? Do you like to lay left and right side rhythm tracks?
Luke: Well it depends on how I wrote the song. A lot of times I like to physically layer it — rather than using something that will simulate a thicker guitar sound.
DRG: Oh yeah. You can't really beat doing it for real.
Luke: And I like to use different guitars to create a larger sound. I don't want the guitars to get too big sounding so that there's no room for anything else. But there are really no rules. It's like asking: what kind of clothes do you like to wear? There's so much great stuff out there. If you (take the music) out of your studio, and listen to it in your car, or at your friend's house, and it sounds great, then you're doing the right shit. If it sounds awful, then you've gotta adjust what you're doing a your own house — without over EQing everything.
DRG: Yeah, you want to leave those flat as long as possible.
Luke: You're better off moving the mic to change the sound rather than cranking on the EQ.You can move the mic one inch or two inches, and it's like: wow, that's it! That's the sweet spot. That's how the great engineers do it.
DRG: What would you consider the indispensable items in your studio?
Luke: Talent! (laughs) It's fucking true, man! Ok . . . A good set of mics, good compressors, good mic preamps and a set of monitors you can know and rely on. And if you don't engineer yourself, a great engineer who knows how to get a great sound quickly.
DRG: Is there any advice you'd give to those of us who are trying to get the best possible results out of our spare bedroom home studios?
Luke: Yeah, I've heard great sounds coming out of people's houses. Chuck stuff in the bathroom for ambience. Put stuff in a closet for dry. You can make some amazing sounds. You don't have to have these "tuned rooms" and all that crap we used to have in the 70s. If it sounds good, dude, it sounds good.
DRG: Let's talk a little bit about playing. I know you and your friends studied music pretty intensively as teenagers . . .
Luke: Well I played by ear from the time I was about seven or eight years-old until the time I was fourteen or fifteen and I started taking it real seriously. I wish I would have started (formal training) earlier — I really do. Cause anybody that tells you that learning how to read music, or learning everything you can about harmony and theory — anybody that tells you that that wrong is just full of shit. How can it possibly hurt you? I love when people say: well, it takes your soul away. Yeah, right. Say that to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Yeah, you don't have to lear how to read music. There are Jimi Hendrixs and Jeff Becks and Stevie Ray Vaughans, but there's also Pat Methenys and cats like that. You know what I mean? It doesn't hurt you to learn how to read music . . . learn something about it all. I'm glad I learned what I learned. I just wish I wasn't so pig-headed when I was young.
DRG: Do you remember which things you found hard, and which things that came easily to you?
Luke: Well when you can already play pretty well, and you have to go back and learn how to read Mary Had A Little Lamb on a piece of paper, it's very boring, tedious, and frustrating. Cause you don't wanna be doing it. That's what's funny about keyboard players. They're usually great readers because they learned to play classical piano when they were kids. Horn players too — always brilliant readers.
DRG: Yeah, it's just us lazy guitarists who usually don't read because the instrument doesn't really demand it.
Luke: Yeah, guitar players are generally bad readers — for many reasons. First off, you can play the same note four or five different places (on a guitar). It looks the same on the staff. So you have to learn positions. The guitar is a strange instrument. It's not like a piano where you go: C D E F G and it's like the same fingers. Plus it's tuned to fourths, except one string is a third. It's like: why? Why did they do that?
DRG: Yeah. I've always thought that was a bit weird
Luke: It makes sense to me now, because it's the only way that you know it. But if you were going to reinvent the instrument, why would you do that? Why would you throw that in? But hey, the guitar is also the most expressive instrument there is.
Luke: Take the same guitar and amp and put a hundred guys in the room and have them play the same exact blues lick and you're gonna get a hundred different versions of what it sounds like. So you really see that good gear is important, but it's not what makes someone a great player.
DRG: Would you say that any aspects of guitar came easy to you?
Luke: Um — I had a natural feel for it. It just sort of came to me. It all made sense. It was very weird — almost spiritual. I had been struggling with it, and then all of the sudden, one day, my fingers fell into the right positions. And then it all started (coming together). Man, this feels like what I should be doing. Now I understand. Very weird!
DRG: How much practice did you put in back then?
Luke: You know, you hear these stories about the guys who put in twelve hours a day, and most of that is a complete fabrication. If they did, it was stupid, because now they have tendonitis and they can't play. I practiced for a couple of hours a day. Tried to. It's also important to have a life. Go out and hang with your friends. You can burn yourself out on the music. Not to mention physically, you can really hurt your muscles by over practicing. The rule I was taught by all my teachers was don't practice more than 45 minutes to an hour without taking a break, and walking around and stretching your arms out. And if God forbid if it starts to hurt when your playing, for fucks sake, stop! You're not gonna get better by forcing your muscles.
DRG: Do you still practice much? Do you have a routine?
Luke: I try to. I don't have a particular routine. I only really play acoustic guitar at home. Cause it's harder to play. If you can bend those fucking hard ass strings, when you get on electric guitar, you're flying. And I practice all kinds of weird shit. Sometimes I get out some music and read a little bit. Sometimes I try to write stuff. Sometimes I practice finger picking or techniques for playing faster. Just trying to find new weird shit to play. I've got a pinched nerve in my right arm at the moment, so I haven't played a lot lately. I just slept on it wrong. It's a freak thing. I got an MRI, but it's just a matter of giving it some rest — not lifting shit. Which is a drag, because you don't like to put the instrument down for that long. You start to lose your calluses. But at the same time, I've been playing my whole life. It'll come back. It may hurt a bit the first night, but it'll come back. It's more important to let myself heal, and not be all macho about it. Plus, sometimes when you take a break, you come back with a bunch of fresh ideas.
DRG: How do you go about putting your solos together?
Luke: Generally I just play. It's a very out-of-body thing. I mean, sometimes there are times where you work out something that is very melodic, and those are pretty obvious. But when you're just blowing — I may do three or four takes and put one together. Generally I like to get a good performance. If I fuck up one thing, I'll punch in and fix it. But I try to keep it real. I don't like to do a hundred takes. I don't have it in me. It's either good or bad. If it's not happening, take the day off, come back tomorrow and try another guitar. Maybe you'll get a new idea. Don't beat yourself up if you don't nail it the first day.
DRG: Did you ever try to pull Toto in a more hard rock direction? I know you did that a bit on the Kingdom of Desire album . . .
Luke: Yeah, I tried. You know we have very rabid fans. Some people really loved that record — it's one of my favorites. It was really the direction I wanted to take the band in. But some other fans really got freaked out by it. They got mad at me for trying to turn the band into a heavier band. What those fans liked about the band was all the other influences as well. Classical, funk, jazz, pop. You know, I never really think about it that way. You write a tune and you go that's a cool tune. I don't say: what kind of style is that? Plus you know, rock radio didn't want to play us. Thanks to our fucking useless record company, Sony. We started out a rock band, but they kept putting out ballads, so the perception became that we were this cute little soft, pop band. Then when people come see us live, they go: wow! So we were back — and then rock radio just lost interest in us. So we kind of shot ourselves in the foot, or rather Sony did, as far as any rock credibility. Even though we can rock harder or be heavier than just about any band from our generation. And if anybody actually sees us play live, they'll see that that's what we like to do, and all different kinds of shit which sets us apart from other bands. We do the hard and the ballads, and a lot in between.
DRG: What is your fascination with Sammy Davis Jr. ? Other than the fact that you often do a great impression of him on stage.
Luke: Aw, I'm a huge Sammy fan! I think he was one of the greatest entertainers in the world. I read his book. I collect his stuff. I managed to sample his voice so I could do a duet with him on my Christmas album. I love Sammy. Sammy's a great inspiration. I've got huge pictures of him in my studio. I love Sammy. He paved ways for a lot of Black entertainers. Just a soulful cat. If you ever read his book — Yes I Can, it'll bring a tear to your eye. He was a heavy dude. I love the whole rat pack thing. Those guys were the rock stars of their era. They were fucking gambling, and fucking boozing — yee ha! In an era when Sammy would be headlining, but they'd make him walk in through the kitchen (because he was Black). That was bullshit. So yeah, I joke about Sammy, but I actually really love the guy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
DRG: Are you a fan of his music too?
Luke: Yeah, I love the music. It's real 60s tiki lounge shit — martinis and Sammy — know what I mean? And Frank (Sinatra). I was born in 1957, so as a child, I remember hearing all that stuff growing up.
DRG: Well, OK, Luke. That's all I had for you for this time. Thanks for doing this.
Luke: No problem.
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Steve Lukather for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.