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.
And then there’s Chinese Democracy, which, as of this interview, Thal has still not heard in full. “I don’t want a copy,” he says, “because everything gets leaked. And when it does I don’t want to be on the list of suspects. So when it comes out, I’m gonna go down to Best Buy and get one, just like everybody else.”
As for how it is he wound up on the album, and in Guns N’ Roses in general, Thal has a more spiritual explanation. “Every musician has their own personality and their own little quirk about them,” he says. “I guess Axl was just feeling my quirk, you know?”
GUITAR WORLD Given the band’s tumultuous legacy, what were your thoughts when you were first approached to join Guns N’ Roses?
RON THAL I was actually pretty iffy on the whole thing. A big reason for that was because at the time I first started talking with the Guns organization, the whole Dimebag [murder] situation was still very fresh. And I was wondering, Will people blame me for the original band not getting back together? On top of everything else, do I have to worry about that? Also, I kind of liked where my life was at that point: I had gotten myself back on track; I was doing my solo thing, working in my own studio recording other bands, giving guitar lessons, licensing some of my music for TV, touring a little bit. I wasn’t rich and famous, but everything was on my own terms, and I dug that. My life was mine—my fuckups were mine, my successes were mine, and there’s something to be said for that. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to drop everything I had been working toward.
GW What ultimately convinced you?
THAL Sometimes you just have to say, “What the fuck!” That’s the truth. It’s very easy to overthink yourself out of anything. You can come up with a million reasons to not do something, when the reality is that you should just shut the fuck up and do it. You make it work. It’s like, these are your balls—juggle them. Of course, my balls are pretty lopsided right now. I have this little one over here that represents me, and then there’s this big one over there that’s Guns N’ Roses, which is, like, 10 times the size of a normal ball.
GW You’ve been doing the music thing for a long time. And you’ve said that you played your first gig at the age of six.
THAL Well, that depends on what you consider to be a real gig. Is a real gig a gig you get paid for doing? Because then it may not have been six; it may have been 36! But yeah, my friends and I had a band called Viper 5, which was because there were five of us, of course. Although one of the band members, Tommy, probably wasn’t that necessary—he played the paper cups. [laughs] But we did all originals and put on shows in my basement, charging kids 25 cents admission. And we had confetti for everyone to throw for the big finale. We were very into the whole Kiss Alive! thing.
GW By the time you were in your early teens you were not only gigging in bars but also giving guitar lessons. How did you progress to such an advanced level at so young an age?
THAL I was just really, really focused. And I practiced a lot. And I was the kind of kid who was into things like music theory. I found it to be really fascinating. I was interested in the math behind it all. It was like food for the brain; it wasn’t just mindless stuff to me. But I needed to keep my brain occupied—otherwise I would do very bad things. And I did. I would vandalize the neighborhood in the most creative ways you could imagine.
GW Such as?
THAL Umm….making paint eggs, for example. I would buy a dozen eggs, pop little holes in the tops and bottoms of each one with a pin, and blow out all the insides. I’d cover the holes on the bottom with glue and, using a little eyedropper or something, fill the eggs with paint and seal them back up. Then I’d go out and throw ’em—at people, houses, cars…anything that would break the shells. I think that was a sign that I needed to find a more positive outlet for my creativity.
GW You sound like you were a bit of an odd kid.
THAL Wasn’t every musician? I think anyone who gets into any kind of artistic crap usually feels like they’re not quite level with society in some way. That’s the edge that pushes this stuff out.
GW One of your biggest guitar influences growing up was Eddie Van Halen. Is it true that you learned to play “Eruption” backward?
THAL I had to—it was a challenge. And yeah, this was the early Eighties, and there was nobody like Eddie. Before that I was into Kiss, AC/DC, the Beatles. But the first time I heard Van Halen, it was like nothing else. I had “Eruption” on cassette, so I popped out the reels, flipped them over and popped them back in. I literally wanted to be able to play the song forward and backward. And at 12 years old, I could do it.
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.
GW How familiar do you think Axl was with your work?
THAL He knew the stuff I had done on Shrapnel. He knew the song “I Can’t Play the Blues” [from Thal’s 1997 album, Hermit] and I think he said that was one of the things that made him want to check me out. But I don’t know if he really knew too much. I don’t think anyone did, other than real guitar freaks.
GW You joined Guns N’ Roses following Buckethead’s departure. Were you basically called in to play his parts?
THAL Pretty much. I wasn’t there when Bucket was there, but it seemed like whatever he played, that’s what I played.
GW My theory is that, in sound and style, your co-guitarists, Robin Finke and Richard Fortus, function as the modern day Slash/Izzy tandem. Then there’s you and, previously, Buckethead, who fill the role of “X Factor.” You’re the go-to guys for any off-the-wall, “stunt” guitar bits.
THAL Yeah, I know what you mean. I can agree with that. But all I know is Axl has a vision, and I trust that vision. For a lot of things, especially earlier on, it was like, “All right, we’ll take care of the pretty stuff. You just shred.” But I think things have loosened up quite a bit. For instance, onstage I’ll play the pretty stuff in between the verses on “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Or the end solo of “November Rain.” Or the second part of the “Nightrain” solo.
GW How are the parts split up live? Why do you take the verse solos in “Sweet Child” as opposed to, say, the lead in “Welcome to the Jungle”?
THAL There’s not too much thought behind it. During rehearsals we’ll be like, “Hey, you want this one?” It’s pretty relaxed like that. And me, I don’t really give a fuck. As long as in the end the song sounds good I don’t care if I’m playing freaking kazoo parts. Whatever the song needs.
GW When you’re playing something like the extended outro solo in “November Rain,” which is pretty well ingrained in people’s minds, how much do you keep to the script and how much is improvised?
THAL For a lot of the Guns stuff, the guitar melody is a major part of the song. Straying too far from what was originally recorded would be like changing the lyrics. So I like to respect the song. That said, with “November Rain” I tend to pretty disrespectfully go off and do whatever the hell I want! [laughs] In fact, I usually grab the fretless guitar for that one. But there’s just a lot of creative freedom. No one says, “Don’t play this,” or “Don’t wear that.”
GW Creative freedom is not exactly something that Axl is known for. For example, it’s been rumored that you were forced to start playing a Les Paul onstage with the band.
THAL That’s completely untrue. I mean, for a while I was up there playing a guitar shaped like a giant foot, with wings coming out of the sides! Nothing could be further from a Les Paul! [laughs] But in many ways the Les Paul is the sound of Guns N’ Roses. So I pulled out my old one and I use it on a lot of the stuff. But I also use a Parkwood acoustic, the Vigier fretless…a bunch of guitars.
GW You can hear the fretless on the verses in the officially released version of “Chinese Democracy.” In the earlier, leaked versions, there’s a gap in those spaces, which makes it easy to pinpoint your contribution to the song.
THAL Yeah, all those leaks are from before I started recording with the band. So probably in a few cases you’ll be able to hear exactly what I added, and where, on the official release.
GW How did your parts come together? Would you listen to the demo versions and just try to see where you could fit in?
THAL Some stuff came about just from playing the songs onstage over the years and figuring out where my part is in all of it. But a lot of it was just being in the studio and experimenting. Try something low, something high, try something that goes with the kick drum, try something that follows the vocals…I would try a hundred things per song for 10 hours at a time, just blasting through every possible idea to see what jumped out. In the case of “Chinese Democracy,” the fretless thing was one of the millions of things I was fucking around with, and everyone dug it. But I’m only on the rhythm track in that song. The solo is a mix between Robin and Buckethead.
GW You play the lead on the other song that was officially released before the album, “Shackler’s Revenge.”
THAL Yeah, all the leads on that one are mine. I start off the main solo with the fretless guitar, hitting different harmonics and sliding them up the neck. People think that’s a whammy bar, but it’s all sliding harmonics, like something [British fretless bassist] Tony Franklin would do. Then for the second half of the solo I switch to a fretted-neck guitar and do some runs and noodly crap. I also alternate picked notes with thimble taps way up on the string, near the guitar’s bridge, for those super-high sounds [Thal wears a metal sewing thimble on the pinkie of his picking hand, sounding notes beyond the guitar’s standard range by tapping it against the string above the fretboard]. I’m actually having Vigier build me a double-neck with one fretless and one fretted neck, so that I’ll be able to do that solo seamlessly onstage.
GW What gear did you use on Chinese Democracy?
THAL I had an old Marshall JCM800 that I brought in for a lot of my stuff. My whole thing is that I’m on an eternal quest to get that classic Eddie Van Halen sound. And I know I’ll never get it, because I don’t have his fingers, his energy, his body. But I try. For guitars, I brought in my Les Paul, my Foot guitar and my fretless. The Paul is an ’89 reissue of a ’59, and it sounds really nice. The majority of my parts on the album are that guitar through the 800, and then sometimes I added a [Boss] Blues Driver or a wah in front of the amp.
GW So now that the album’s finally done, a large-scale tour seems imminent. Do youhave any idea what the next few years of your life will look like?
THAL [laughs] Does anybody?
GW No, but your situation seems much more like a case of your hearing things on a need-to-know basis.
THAL I could inquire and probably find out a lot more, but I’m kinda happy doing things this way. It’s the whole “ignorance is bliss” concept. I don’t want to know things until I have to know them. In fact, my brain is so overloaded with everything right now that I want to know less. That way I can focus on just making music, and nothing else. I’d rather just wait until I’m right up to that bridge, and then I’ll cross it.
GW It makes it easier for you to juggle those different balls.
THAL Exactly. I’ve been walking a little funny these past few years, trying to handle these lopsided balls. But I’m doing it. And besides, there are much worse things that people deal with. I could lose a limb. I could be battling a serious illness. My biggest problem to work around is that I gotta record and tour with Guns N’ Roses? Fuck, I’ll take it.