“People don’t buy a guitar solo. They buy a song”: Steve Lukather talks soloing, songwriting and success

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of Toto IV ­– the triple-platinum-selling fourth studio album from stadium rockers Toto that spawned two huge hit singles: Grammy-winning “Rosanna” and the Billboard Hot 100 topped the “Africa” ​​charts.

Back in the 80’s Steve Lukather was best known as the guitarist, vocalist and co-composer of Toto. But in Los Angeles, a city known for its dozens of electric guitar players, he also had a reputation as one of the first guitarists—perhaps the first—to call when a screaming solo or a crisp rhythm part was needed.

As well as lending his world famous guitar skills to the band, Lukather – a talented vocalist – also recorded vocals for some of them. Toto IVthe key moments. Indeed, the song “I Won’t Hold You Back” was both written and sung by Lukather.

After Toto IVthe exit, Guitarist caught up with Lukather to talk songwriting, soloing, hits, and “talentless clods.”

The following interview excerpts appeared in the April 1984 issue of Guitarist

Cover of April 1984 Guitar Player

(Image credit: future)

After all the success you’ve had as a studio guitarist, what’s the appeal of being in Toto?

It’s a place where I can write songs and perform. I can experiment with sounds and stuff that I can’t do during sessions. In sessions, you will play. You can experiment a bit if the artist or producer is someone you know.

Sometimes they’ll say, “Hey, freak out and do whatever you want,” which happens a lot more these days. I guess they trust me. As far as Toto goes, the band is the ultimate. In fact, I haven’t done many sessions over the past year.

The success of Toto IV must have reaffirmed your faith in what you are doing.

Yeah. We found that we had strayed from what we had originally planned to do, which was to be ourselves. We started reading and believing the bullshit reviews and tried to modify our sound accordingly. At least that’s where my head was at; I can’t speak for everyone.

I was pissed off by these reviews. I’d say 90% of them are talentless clods who don’t even know what they’re doing. They couldn’t tune a guitar or play a C scale on the piano. They couldn’t sing anything; they never wrote a song. They never played in front of people or made records.

They don’t know the pressures. How can someone write that an album is crap when someone has put their heart and soul into it, no matter the genre of music – from jazz to rock to classics and Moms Mabley?

We try to make music to make ourselves happy and to make anyone else who cares to listen happy.

Steve Lukather

Whatever the career of the artist, whatever his technique, he is always someone who puts his blood, his sweat and his tears – to use a cliché – in what he produces. It’s their ass on the line.

It’s okay if it’s stiff. It doesn’t matter that he sells records.

People ask, “What are they trying to say?” We’re not trying to talk shit! We try to make music to make ourselves happy and to make everyone who wants to listen to it happy. That’s all.

Steve Lukather, 1983

Steve Lukather, 1983 (Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

When do melodies come to you?

They come at strange times. I can wake up in the middle of the night with one. Then I make the mistake of saying “I know I’ll remember this tomorrow morning” and then go back to sleep and forget about it all.

I find it difficult to write lyrics; I am a terrible lyricist. I feel blood, sweat and tears trying not to make it cliché or cheesy.

What soloing philosophy do you apply to Toto’s songs?

I try to do what suits the song. I could probably play a lot flashier on our records; I tend not to be that flashy. This doesn’t happen most of the time. On something like “Rosanna” I played a solo at the end that was never repeated.

I make the mistake of saying “I know I’ll remember this tomorrow morning”, and I go back to sleep and forget everything.

Steve Lukather

This often happens with our group. We’ll just play one take, and all of a sudden we’ll start doing things that we’ve never rehearsed or even talked about. The solo in “99” [from Hydra] has never been repeated; it was the second take. That’s what’s so mean about this band. We are all best friends.

People usually assume that members of rock bands don’t really like each other because everyone is too selfish, especially with a band like ours where there are a lot of session musicians – people from different backgrounds who do the same thing.

How do you compose songs?

Most of the time it’s multiples – multiple guys in the band will write a song. We’ll just come up with the melody and start playing. We don’t write graphics or anything like that. I mainly write on the piano. I don’t know the piano so much, so I tend to write simpler things.

Plus, when you’re composing on the piano, you hear the full range of everything – lows and highs – and you can sing along. I’m not talking about big rock and roll songs – it’s basically guitar.

Isn’t it the song that sells?

Absoutely. People don’t buy a guitar solo. They buy a song. If you can add something to this song, then you’ve done your job well.

Are you satisfied with the progress of your career?

Very happy. My life is real together, and I’m very honored by what happened. I take it seriously. I’m not the kind of person who walks down the street and people recognize at all.

What would you like to be doing in ten years?

Same thing. Just playing and grooving while making music. More importantly, I want to be respected by my peers.

I just want to be remembered for being a good player. I have nothing political or intense to say to anyone.

I love to play music and be with people who love to play music.

That’s it.

Toto's 'Toto IV' album cover

(Image credit: Columbia Records)

To buy Toto IV here.

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