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This article was originally published in issue #15
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Not only do we have an interview with the great Steve Lukather in this issue but we also asked Lukather aficionado Michael Casswell to review the latest of his signature Music Man guitars, the Luke III. Can it maintain the incredibly high standard Music Man guitars have set so far?
Any of you who know me, know how much I rate Steve Lukather as a guitar player's guitar player. Our recent meeting on and off camera for this issue's interview shed some light on how the guy ticks, especially since, by his own admission, he has recently cleaned his act up. He seems to have a new attitude to his playing, his music and his gear, so what better time to launch the latest version of his signature Luke guitar?
Back in the '80s and very early '90s Lukather was an endorser of Valley Arts guitars. These were hand built custom Strat-type guitars used by big guns like Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Steve Farris (Mr Mister) and Luke himself, and were, in my opinion, the best money could buy. Steve Farris gave me an introduction to the main man, Mike Maguire, at Valley Arts, who built me my very own swamp ash faded burst guitar with a black Floyd and EMGs. A guitar I still use regularly today, and a guitar that makes most high-end guitars available today, seem average. But in late 1992, a fire tore through the LA Valley Arts factory and put the company out of business. The company name 'Valley Arts' was bought by Korean giant Samick, which carried on production in the Far East, making hideous recreations of those pre-fire handbuilt gems, of which only 2,600 exist. Mike Maguire went on to run the Gibson custom shop, with Gibson eventually buying back the Valley Arts name from Samick, and Steve Lukather moved over to Ernie Ball Music Man, along with a couple of the more influential Valley Arts employees.
Around 1993/4 the first signature Music Man Luke guitar burst on to the market, copying a lot from Steve's favourite Valley Arts guitar. The neck shape and feel, EMG slv and 85 pickups, single volume pot, back routed Floyd, all owed a lot to what Steve had played for years previously. Like all Music Man instruments, it was a great guitar. The second generation Music Man Luke gained a tone pot, locking tuners, lost the the Floyd Rose trem in favour of Music Man's own superb, and more orthodox, system, and kept the EMGs. I have owned four of this era Luke guitar and currently have a great 2003 'black sparkle', which is the nearest thing out there to my now bigger collection of pre '92 Valley Arts "Strats".
So with the history lesson over with, we now have the latest version just out. The first example I played was Steve Latherer's very own. Prior to our interview for this issue, Steve handed me his guitar in its gig bag, while he quickly shot off to grab lunch. I tuned it and set the Bogner combo we'd taken to the interview with a Luke type sound, while the camera guys were setting up. I was interested to note that his guitar was set up exactly the same as most of my trem equipped guitars, which is with two springs with a trem upward pull of a minor 3rd on the G string. His guitar also sported a heavily flamed, 'roasted' look maple neck, which just looked and felt epic. The colour was a sort of a grey, unlike our review example which is called 'Olive Gold'. Initial examples on the market are going to be this colour or gloss black.
The newest Luke (now sporting the logo Llll) has a three per cent bigger body than the previous version, making the guitar look more sensible on taller players. The body is alder, which is a great all-round tone wood. There have been the Ball Family Reserve versions of the Luke 2, with fancy flame and quilt tops, which all look very pretty, but I would dispute they sound as good and as consistent as a plain slab of alder.
The big shock is no more EMGs. Steve has used EMGs since 1985, so swapping to passive DiMarzios for the Luke3 is a real big move. I tried to ask him what brought this change about, but he simply said 'some people prefer passive pick ups', which didn't really answer the question. He has also talked about the DiMarzios being more organic than EMGs, which I guess they are, but I have heard him record some fine organic tones using EMGs. The custom wound DiMarzios do sound very sweet and are helped greatly by the onboard boost circuit on a push push pot, giving you a 12db boost, upping the pickup power to what Steve might have got used to over the years with EMGs. There is a battery compartment in the back of the guitar to power that very transparent boost circuit and the LIII comes in splittable hb/hb and hb/sc/sc pick up versions, the latter being my preference. Our review example came with a beautiful all rosewood neck which looked and felt stunning.
I'm not going to go into a great deal of detail in words about how the LIII sounds or plays - that's what the video is for, but suffice it to say that I can honestly say I have never played an average Music Man guitar and I have played and tried many over the years. They are always absolutely superb, as is this LIII. Music Man is one of the few companies you could buy blind, without trying, and be guaranteed a brilliant guitar. And the LIII is a brilliant guitar. The version you buy in the shops will be exactly the same as the one Steve plays, which is rare in the signature guitar game, and whether you are into Steve Lukather or not, the LIII, or any Music Man instrument, will always be a sound purchase.
On that score, we have decided to give the Luke III the extra half star we award when an already excellent product is turned into an outstanding one by its price. That might seem unusual on a guitar costing not far off $3,000 list, but the actual street prices of these guitars, both in the USA and UK, makes them really fine value for money, offering an exceptionally high level of build quality and attention to detail.
So that's decided. I am going to buy me one!