Amped Up

Find the right amplifier with sound advice from guitar master Steve Lukather 

When it comes to crafting the perfect sound, the amplifier is every bit as important as the guitar itself. And with the countless variations available—from monster stacks to boutique boxes—there are seemingly endless choices when it comes to selecting the right amp.

We turned to five-time Grammy-winning guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer Steve Lukather to discuss his amplifier insights. For a guy who’s appeared on more than 1,500 albums as a session player since he was a teen, Lukather is an expert’s expert. Paul McCartney, Elton John, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson are among the many artists who’ve sought his talents. Yet the 57-year-old ace is best known for his work with Toto, the band he founded with high school friends in the late 1970s. Toto went on to sell more than 35 million albums powered by hits like “Rosanna,” “Hold the Line” and “Africa.” Lukather, who plays Music Man, Yamaha and Ovation guitars, started his solo career in the late ’80s and has released seven solo albums. Meanwhile, Toto is releasing a new album later this year.

Whose amp tones influenced you?
When I heard George Harrison play on “I Saw Her Standing There,” I said, “What in God’s name made that beautiful noise?” That twangy, reverby solo just got inside my soul. And I said, “I wanna be that guy.” I got to tell him that, too, which was really wonderful. We became friendly around 1992 and I played with him a little bit. The “on switch” to my life in music was the Beatles—and now I’m in Ringo’s band, plus I’ve worked with Paul on a bunch of different projects.

Recall your first amp?
It was called an Alamo—real cheapo stuff when I was a kid. My parents were not having this, “I’m going to be a musician” thing at first. They thought it was kind of cute but that I’d grow out of it. So they didn’t put any big investment into my gear. There was a guy who would teach me songs and show me stuff on his Fender Jaguar and his Blackface Reverb amp—the first great amp I ever played through. I just turned up the reverb and cranked up—and it had this big sound. I was always playing with older guys because I wanted to learn all I could. Plus, I’d borrow their gear. I’d bring this stuff into the house, playing so loud my parents had no idea what was going on.

What came next?
My dad realized I was getting kind of good at this guitar thing, and was actually making money at it. He got me my first really good amp—an Ampeg VT-22, which I still have. It’s what Keith Richards played on Exile on Main St.—and it’s what I played through my teens, into Toto and my first sessions with Boz Scaggs. I had to get a master volume installed because it was face-meltingly loud. And that thing was heavy. When I was in Toto, I bought a little Marshall combo amp. Soon I was constantly trying different amps. I actually found a modded Blackface Deluxe that I ended up using for a lot of years. [Noted amp builder] Paul Rivera had done a mod on it—gave it a midrange boost so it would have more heft. It just recorded great—I used it on all the Toto stuff, including “Rosanna.”

Why use smaller amps in the studio?
Keep in mind, on [the Who’s] “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” that’s a little Fender Champ amp with a Shure 57 mic on it. That’s a pretty big sound, right? When you’re recording, you don’t have to move much air if the amp is miked properly to get a big sound. Brian May had a little homemade amp that he did all that Queen stuff on. These days, a lot of players have home studios or they live in an apartment. Small amps are perfect for them. They want to record and not have the police arrive 10 minutes into it. And there’s so much information on the internet about recording. If you have the time and patience, you can learn how to move mics around and get some brilliant sounds with a small amp.

How about modeling amps?
The best modeling amp I have is the Kemper. If anyone has a home recording setup, that’s an amp they should look at. You can go direct with it or plug it into a system and use it live. You can model your own amp sounds, and then you won’t have to carry a big amp wherever you go. If I’m guesting on somebody’s record, I’ll often bring the Kemper amp. I like to have a couple of options—something I can throw in the back of a car for a session, or that can go in the truck for a gig. It’s good to have both.

Onstage amp preferences?
Right now, I’m using two Bogner Ecstasy heads—which I love. I’m using them in stereo, but only for a bit of stereo delay. I don’t have my amps directly behind me—they’re behind and to my right, and my vocal monitors are in front of me. This way I can hear the drums and the house and a little of the kick drum in the side-fill speakers. I can pretty much hear everybody from across the stage. I’ve never liked having the amp sound through a monitor—I like hearing it from the amp.

Thoughts on effects?
When you use effects, especially reverb and delay, put them through the amp’s effects loop. You can mix in the amount of effect behind the signal. That lets you keep your tone and presence and not bury it with effects.

Advice you would offer a novice?
We live in a world where you can look up online how to get Eric Clapton’s sound. I mean, you can’t sound like him because you can’t play like him—but you can find out what his amp settings are. Find a tone that you dig on a record and do some research on how to get that tone. And perhaps you just might end up with something you can tweak into your own unique sound. Also, find out what your favorite players use, and try it out. The key thing is trial and error. There’s no wrong way to do it. It’s just what you feel—and that’s different for us all. Tone comes from you. It comes from your hands and from your heart.

Advice you’d give your younger self?
I’d say keep everything—and keep it clean, in a closet somewhere. Don’t lose sight of it. I’ve acquired so much gear, and it would get moved into storage areas without my knowledge. And things were stolen—really valuable, great stuff. Take care of your gear. That’s my advice. Take care of yourself first, but then take care of the gear.

—Mark Hutchins

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