Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: Bumble in the Jungle
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.
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