Featuring ex-members of Dream Theater, Guns N’ Roses and Journey, Sons Of Apollo is an exciting new supergroup consisting of Mike Portnoy, Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, Jeff Scott Soto and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal.
The group’s highly anticipated album, Psychotic Symphony, is a welcome introduction to the band, and pulls heavily from the quintet's eclectic musical influences, which range from vintage prog to classic and hard rock.
Particularly notable on Psychotic Symphony are Thal’s jaw-dropping runs on his 24-fret Vigier double-neck, and his fluid transitions from fretted to fretless.
Guitar World recently spoke with Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal about Sons of Apollo and more in this new interview.
How did Sons of Apollo come together?
We certainly weren’t strangers to each other. I had worked with Mike on Metal Allegiance and over the years have jammed with him and Billy in various situations. I also jammed with the guys and Derek at Progressive Nation at Sea a few years ago and have been a huge fan of Jeff’s ever since I heard him on the Yngwie album. It was only a matter of time before we [began to make] music together.
How would you describe Psychotic Symphony in terms of its sound?
When I think of the album, I think of the writing and recording process and the personal involvement. To me, when I hear the album, I hear five guys paying tribute to their influences. I hear The Who, Van-Halen, Led Zeppelin and Randy Rhoads. Everything that inspired each member of the band to play music the way that they do. There’s Billy’s distinct, undeniable tone, Mike’s tremendous playing, Derek—who is the greatest guitarist you will ever hear on keyboards—and Jeff, who takes the craziest songs and makes them into something you can sing along to. He’s a great singer with a fantastic voice.
What was the recording process like?
The original idea was that we would go into the studio for 10 days and see what we could do. So, me, Derek and Mike hit the studio first and started shooting ideas around. After Billy got off the Mr. Big tour, he joined us. I remember there was this beautiful trust and respect everyone had with each other. Every afternoon we’d start jamming and by the end of every day we would have a song tracked. Then, Jeff got off tour and started writing vocals to everything we had written. I went back to my place and added guitar solos, backing vocals and a few extra things. We mixed it together, made a few videos and now the album’s out and we’re on the road with a lot more to come. It’s going to be a busy year.
Let’s talk about a few tracks from Psychotic Symphony, starting with “Coming Home”.
That was written on the spot in the studio. I had my TC Sub ‘N’ Up pedal to give me that low growling octave and I just started playing that riff. I made a tweak to the verse and Derek added a pre-chorus. There’s definitely some vintage Randy [Rhoads] and Eddie [Van-Halen] in the pre-choruses.
How about the song, “Lost In Oblivion”?
That was a riff I came up with before we hit the studio. During the riff, I was switching between the fretted and the fretless neck. The fretted neck has a Drop D on the low “E” string, and on the fretless neck, I drop it down two and a half-steps to a low “B”. It’s almost like a seven-string, just skipping the sixth string and having the seventh string there. We threw some chords together in the studio that worked, Mike did some arranging, Derek soloed, Billy came in with this crazy bass riff that I had to learn to double up. Vocally, it was all Jeff doing his thing.
What it’s like working with Jeff on this album?
Jeff has that magical ability where he can hear the rhythm of the music and come up with a melody that no one would have thought of and is friendly to the ear. It’s an approach all great lead singers have. I’ve seen it in everyone that I’ve worked with: Scott Weiland had it; Scott Stapp did; Axl (of course) and definitely, Jeff Scott Soto. They will take a song and add this whole new layer you never thought it could have. That’s what makes them so great.
What’s your live set-up like?
I’m still using my Vigier guitar with a 24-fret neck and zero fret with a locking Floyd. It’s my everything guitar. It’s got five-way toggle switch, a DiMarzio Tone Zone in the bridge and a DiMarzio Chopper in the neck. The five-way is setup as bridge-pickup humbucker, bridge-pickup single-coil, bridge and neck together, bridge and neck out of phase and just the neck pickup. The fretless neck has the same setup with a toggle switch to go from one neck to both necks to the other neck. For amps, I have a bunch of ENGL Invader 2 heads and ENGL cabinets with Celestions.
Do you find it challenging switching from a fretted to a fretless neck?
Now, it’s like switching languages. That’s the best way to describe it. When you switch to the fretless, you’re playing and your vibrato are along the length of the string, and your fingertips are centered on where the frets would be.
What excites you the most about Sons of Apollo?
Just the fact that there’s so much potential in what we can do together. I’m looking forward to more writing, playing and doing what a band does. I’m in the most wonderful company of people I could ever ask for.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.