Rick Beato recently shared a new video on his YouTube channel, featuring a long conversation with Toto guitarist Steve Lukather. During the chat, the two reflected on Lukather’s work with Michael Jackson and the recording of the legendary hit song “Beat It.” For this piece, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones brought in Van Halen’s Eddie Van Halen for the now well-known guitar solo.
However, as Lukather explains in the video, there was another take on the song. Talking about the process, he explained (transcript via Music Radar):
“The lead vocal and the electric guitar solo had been done – there was another take of Beat It. Michael and Quincy, they’d done another take of [the song] apparently.”
“And they’d worked on Michael’s vocals meticulously – his vocals were quintupled at times, but very slickly done by the genius of Bruce Swedien, the engineer. When they set the tape up to Ed… The ambiguity lies with who cut the tape. It’s SMPTE code.”
Just to clarify, the SMPTE code that Lukather is referring to here is a standardized timecode set up by Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. The guitarist continued:
“[It was] was two 24 tape machines back in the day, after we were able discover you could get more than 24 track with one machine, they were able to sync up two 24 track machines that would give you 48 tracks.”
“Actually 46 because track 24 on both machines would have a SMPTE code which I believe is a permutation of a 60 cycle thing that would lock the machines.”
As the source clarifies, there was a major issue with syncing between the tracks. Eddie apparently didn’t want to play along to a section that they sent him and so he cut the tape and played the solo take that we now have in the song.
However, the whole thing wouldn’t sync up with the rest of the song. There were Michael Jackson’s take, Eddie’s take, the SMPTE code, and some minor accidental audio marks that were supposed to help them put the whole thing together. Lukather explains:
“Like anything like that, if you cut that it will not lock up. So what happened was, Ed didn’t want to play through the section that they wanted him to so he cut the tape and played the part that’s now the record.”
“So what happened is he sent that back to Quincy and it wouldn’t sync up. So you had Eddie’s first generation [take] and Michael’s first generation vocals and the SMPTE code.”
“And the only thing else that was on the track was Michael hitting a trap [flight] case on [the] two and leakage through four of five takes of Michael’s vocals through the headphones where you could hear what the track was.”
Yes, a real studio nightmare where some would even consider doing other takes. However, producer Quincy Jones insisted on these takes. Lukather added:
“So Quincy called me, [late Toto drummer who also player on the song] Jeff Porcaro and an engineer called Humberto Gatica to go to Sunset Sound [LA studio] and fix the track. He said, ‘… I don’t want to do Michael’s vocals again, I don’t want to transfer them – I want to keep it first generation [with] Eddie’s solo on this – you’ve got to make it work.”
Essentially, they all had to redo the backing parts —drums, bass, and guitar — and build it all around Michael Jackson’s and Eddie Van Halen’s takes. Which was far from a simple task. Lukather continued:
“So me and Jeff went down there and Jeff, the musician that he was, he goes, ‘I’m gonna go out and I want you to crank Michael’s vocal [bleed] so I can hear the two and four.'”
“And he went out there and two drumsticks and a mic, and he made his own classic Jeff [clicktrack] that he would do with drumsticks – I miss him so fucking much, he was the best.
“He got that together… so of course he goes out and it could have been the first, no more than the second take and he was done. He goes, ‘You’re up.'”
“Once I knew where the groove was as [and] heard Eddie’s solo… I got the Marshalls out!”
Further on, Lukather explains what went on after recording his rhythm parts beneath Eddie Van Halen’s solo. Additionally, he also played bass for “Beat It.” Recalling how he sent the final results to producer Quincy Jones, Lukather continued:
“[He] said, ‘We love it but Lukey it’s too much, I’ve got to get this on pop and rnb radio and it’s metal. You’ve got to come back down with it. Get that little Fender of yours out, don’t turn it all the way up.'”
The Fender that Lukather was referring to is his Blackface Deluxe Reverb combo amplifier that was modded by Paul Rivera. He added:
“They said perfect. Come down to Westlake and do the rest of the overdubs with Michael and [Quincy].”
Michael Jackson’s classic “Beat It” featured an incredible lineup of musicians. Apart from Steve Lukather, who played guitar and bass, and beside Eddie Van Halen who did his lead guitar part, it also included Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar, Steve Porcaro on synths, Jeff Porcaro on drums, Greg Phillinganes on synths, Bill Wolfer on additional keyboards, Tom Bahler on synclavier, and Greg Smith on synths.
Sure, that’s a whole lot of synths and other keyboard-based instruments. Nonetheless, the song captured the hearts of many guitar lovers worldwide. It’s not uncommon to have even the most devoted metal fans appreciating the song, mostly due to these guitar parts played by Eddie and Lukather.
In a last year’s interview with Ultimate Guitar, Jennifer Batten, who played guitar in Michael Jackson’s live band, recalled what the singer was like and whether he had any particular ideas about her guitar tone. She said:
“He didn’t have much to say, other than, which is very comedic at this point – I had a Whammy pedal, and I had the bright idea of having my tech run it with the octave up mode when I was out front, which meant I had zero control. I just thought it would be a wild solo. After I played, Michael, his only response was, ‘Can you have the sound you had yesterday?’ [laughs]“
“And I remember being out there, just being horrified at what was coming out of my guitar, because it was like putting a monkey on your pedal, right? [laughs] He’s very theatrical – he also had something to say about when I would go out front and play ‘Beat It’ and this was at rehearsals, I had a shit-eating grin on my face because I was having a great time. His whole thing was, ‘This is not a happy song. So, can you have a snarl?’”
“And I remember, specifically, he said, ‘This is kind of an actor thing. Think of something terrible your father did to you.’ And I immediately thought, ‘You’re thinking about your own father because my father was great.’ [laughs] I went from smiling to trying to have a tough look when I went out there to play.”