Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: Bumble in the Jungle
Orginally published in Guitar World, February 2009
After many years in the solo stunt-guitarist wilderness, Ron
"Bumblefoot" Thal is welcomed to the wild, wild world of Guns N' Roses.
Back in the earlier part of this decade, Ron Thal found himself in the midst of a severe life crisis. The Brooklyn-born, Staten Island–raised guitarist, then in his mid thirties, had spent the majority of his years struggling to carve out an existence as a working musician. And he had—though just barely. His greatest success came with the slew of solo albums he released as Bumblefoot, the moniker he adopted after reading about the inflammatory bacterial infection, which affects the feet of birds and rodents, in one of his wife’s veterinary-school textbooks. The albums married his skewed sense of humor and manic vocal style to music that encompassed everything from rock to metal, funk to punk, ska to pop and beyond, and were shot through with the kind of mind-boggling, incredibly advanced flash-guitar work practiced by guys with names like Vai, Malmsteen and Satriani.
Of course, unless your name is Vai, Malmsteen or Satriani, the solo rock guitar niche can be a hard road to travel, and Thal had hit a few bumps along the way. By the mid 2000s, says Thal, sitting in the Guitar World offices one afternoon this past October, “the music business had really kicked my ass hard. I went through a lot of bad managers, bad associates, all these people that just tried to fucking destroy me. It got to a point where I was like, ‘If this is what life is, I don’t want it.’ ”
In a short period of time, Thal found himself heavily addicted to mood-altering meds, 90 pounds overweight (“Bumblefat,” he says of his condition) and battling a crippling case of writer’s block. “At that point I knew things had to change,” he says. “So I decided that it was about time I got my shit in order. I weaned myself off the meds, started exercising and finished my next album [2005’s Normal].” He pauses. “And you know, I found that when you make a conscious decision within yourself to change a bunch of shit, your place in the world changes as well. Certain things move toward you and other things move away. New connections are made. And within a few months of making all these changes, I got a call from Guns N’ Roses.”
As of this writing, the now 39-yearold Thal appears poised to pull off a feat even greater than merely being asked to join Guns N’ Roses—he will also be a full-fledged member of the band when Chinese Democracy, the most famous album to never be released, finally, actually, unbelievably hits the shelves this November 23 (exclusively at Best Buy).
More than a decade in the making, the album will be Guns N’ Roses’ first studio effort of new material since the release of Use Your Illusion I and II 17 years ago. The incredibly long and winding road leading to this point has been well documented, with sole original Gunner Axl Rose standing in the eye of the hurricane, a monomaniacal, musical Howard Hughes battling time, technology, lawyers and leaks in an effort to see his singular vision through to its amazing end. The list of cohorts who have fallen by the wayside over the years begins with everyone in the Illusion-era band other than keyboardist Dizzy Reed, and continues through a slew of producers, engineers, managers, label execs and other associates.
On the guitar front alone, several big-name players have been involved with the project since its inception, from stars like Dave Navarro and Brian May to ex–band members Paul Tobias and Buckethead (the latter of whom Thal was ultimately called in to replace). As it stands today, in addition to Thal, the guitarists credited as official Gunners on Chinese Democracy are Robin Finke and Richard Fortus, who have been with Axl since the late Nineties and early 2000s, respectively. And yet, at press time, Finke is back on the road with Nine Inch Nails, and it is unknown whether he will return to Guns N’ Roses. If Thal has any knowledge of his co-guitarist’s current status, he isn’t saying.
“As far as I can tell,” Thal says, choosing his words carefully, “Robin’s in the band until I hear otherwise. With a band like Guns, everything has to come through Axl. Nothing can come from me.”
That said, Thal currently has plenty to discuss, including his collection of bizarre guitars with names like Swiss Cheese and the Flying Foot, and his new solo album, Abnormal (Bald Freak), which he wrote and recorded at his own New York studio last year during downtime from Guns. The disc combines Thal’s blistering guitar work and snotty vocals with some of his most creative arrangements to date, which include the Johnny Rotten–fronting-Queen technical punk of “Abnormal,” the angular, computers-gone-haywire attack of “Conspiracy” and the Chet Atkins–style shred dementia of “Guitars Still Suck.” The overall sound, he says, is as if he “took the intensity knob and turned it up a couple of notches.”
There’s also Thal’s own history as a musician. In addition to learning to play Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” backward at the age of 12 and becoming a Shrapnel-certified guitar hero in his twenties, he has developed a career as a songwriter, band member, producer, engineer, transcriber, guitar teacher and solo artist.