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Steve Lukather: "The bassline was easy. It wasn't like I had to be Jaco Pastorius"

Nick Wells

Wed, April 19, 2023, 9:47 AM EDT

Steve Lukather of TOTO performs at Freedom Hill Amphitheater on August 15, 2015 in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

A riff that everyone’s heard on a song that everyone knows by the most famous artist in the world – there’s probably not much we can tell you about Beat It that you don’t already know, is there? Aside from helping Michael Jackson’s Thriller become the world’s best-selling album of all time, Beat It received Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, as well as two American Music Awards. 

One of the key players in the recording was studio guitarist Steve Lukather, who recently spoke with YouTuber Rick Beato about the session. “Michael had to sing me the guitar lick, but the lead vocal and the electric guitarsolo was already done. I would never have thought it was going to be a hit. I used to laugh at the title and stuff, but what do I know?”

While the infectious basslines of Louis 'Thunder Thumbs' Johnson had been a mainstay on much of Jackson’s Off the Walland Thriller albums, it was, in fact, Lukather who played bass behind Eddie Van Halen’s iconic guitar solo on Beat It. “The bass guitarpart was easy," said Lukather. "It was just the guitar part! It wasn’t like I had to be Jaco Pastorius or anything like that.”

Perhaps the craziest part of the story lies in the studio session at Sunset Sound. In a 2019 interview with Musicians’s Hall of Fame founder, Joe Chambers, Lukather said: “There was another take where Eddie had cut the two-inch tape, which means it wouldn’t sync up to all the rest of the tapes. So Quincy Jones called me, Jeff Porcaro and an engineer called Humberto Gatica to go to Sunset Sound and fix the track for him, working with just Michael's lead vocal, Eddie's solo and Michael hitting two and four on a drum case.”

 

“Jeff made a click track with his sticks and laid down the drums. I played the rhythm guitar first, but there was no bass on it. It was just a riff tune, so I said ‘bring me down a bass and I’ll play bass.’ Eddie Van Halen was on it, so I figured they were going for the rock shit. We sent it to Quincy and he loved it.”

 

"Beat It was Michael’s riff, and when I changed it a little he started dancing, doing the Michael Jackson thing two feet away from me," Lukather explained to Guitar World in 2021. Jackson later said, “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song. That’s how I approached it.”

Bass seems to have always been at the forefront of Jackson’s music. Alex Al, Jackson’s bassist from 2001 and a member of the band featured in the documentary This Is It, concurs. “Bass was the most important instrument to him. He’d make references to Paul McCartney’s melodic bass playing, James Jamerson being upfront and center with Motown, or Stevie Wonder’s left hand.”

Thriller and Michael Jackson's This is It are 

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