Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: Bumble in the Jungle
GW A few years later you hooked up with Mike Varney, who at the time ran the preeminent label for shred guitarists, Shrapnel Records.
THAL I suppose that’s when I went “legit.” This was in the late Eighties. I had been gigging in bars and clubs around the New York area, trying to get a deal for my band, AWOL, and also playing in cover bands, doing, like, every Rush song known to man. But in addition to all that I started making these weird, strange instrumental songs, mostly for my own amusement. And a friend said to me, “Hey, you should submit this stuff to one of those guitar mags that showcases unknown players.” So I did. And the guy who got in touch with me was Mike Varney. He put me in his “Spotlight” column [in Guitar Player magazine], gave me a nice write up, and we stayed in touch. I wound up appearing on a few of his compilation CDs and also a few of the Guitar on the Edge compilation records his brother [Mark Varney] put together. Mike was also talking to me about doing a full instrumental album, but I always said no, because I wanted to be part of a band. I grew up on Kiss, the Beatles, Van Halen—I wanted it to be four names up there. I didn’t want to be known as the solo guitar guy.
GW But over the next decade that’s what happened. You were recognized mostly for the Shrapnel association and also the solo CDs you released as Bumblefoot.
THAL But I never considered myself just a shredder. I’m more like a songwriter that tastelessly plays way too many notes for the song. [laughs] But that said, it’s still the song first. And as a guitarist, the most amazing thing you can do is come up with one of those riffs that every player wants to learn: “Smoke on the Water,” “Paranoid,” “Stairway to Heaven” and, dare I even suggest, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” If you can come up with something like that, you’re golden. All the other bullshit doesn’t matter.
GW Speaking of “Sweet Child,” you were recommended for the guitar slot in Guns N’ Roses by Joe Satriani. How did that come about?
THAL I got to know Joe after reading some interview he gave to a French magazine where he mentioned that he was a fan of my playing. I tracked him down and reached out to him, and we struck up a friendship. Then, in 2004, he invited me to jam with him at one of his gigs in New Jersey. It was him, Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. I think we played [Freddie King’s] “Going Down” together.
Anyway, a little later on he mentioned to me that he had dropped my name to someone in the Guns N’ Roses camp because they were looking for a new guy to replace Buckethead. He wanted me to know that if anyone from Guns got in touch it wasn’t a joke. And soon after that I heard from [Guns N’ Roses keyboardist] Chris Pitman. He sent me a funny email, real obnoxious. I wrote back, and we started talking. Then I began talking with management and then with some of the engineers working on Chinese Democracy. So we’re going back and forth, everything’s sounding good, and then there’s this long stretch of nothing. Until one day it was, “Hey, we’re rehearsing in New York. Wanna come down and jam?” So I went down and met the band, met Axl, and we hit it off. I came down again the next night, then the next week, and the week after that, and then before I know it [in May 2006] I’m onstage with the band at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.
GW Were those rehearsals your first contact with Axl?
THAL Yes. The thing I remember is that he walked in carrying a huge tray of hamburgers. At that point I hadn’t eaten red meat in a long time, and I thought, What a perfect way to break that streak and have some beef. So I had a burger with him, and my God—that was the best freakin’ burger I had ever tasted! Maybe it was because I hadn’t had red meat in a while, but it was fucking good. But what I didn’t know at the time, and I’ve since come to learn, is this: Wherever we are in the world, Axl knows where to find the best burgers. We’ll be in Japan and he’ll find these little Kobe steak burgers that are just…wow. So I trust him when it comes to ground beef. Oh—and I also remember we were jamming to one of the new songs and he yelled in my ear that it reminded him of “Hey Bulldog.” So I thought, All right, he’s a Beatles guy. Cool.
GW What songs did you play at that first rehearsal?
THAL We did tons of stuff off Appetite [for Destruction], and maybe seven new songs.
GW Did you bone up on the Guns catalog before going in?
THAL Oh, yeah. I believe that you have an obligation to not waste someone’s time. I made sure when I went in there I knew every guitar part, bass part and even vocal line. If I’m going to learn the song, I’m going to learn the whole song, not just my part. I want to be able to cover anybody’s ass.
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