Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal has not taken the short, easy path to get where he is today. Years before headlining massive stages with Guns N’ Roses, Ron was creating, recording and refining his craft on stages and in studios on the east coast and slowly becoming an underground guitar legend. This bears mentioning because I believe it says a lot about how he treats people and much he appreciates every shred of success he’s had in the music business. Ron is a jaw dropping, multi-faceted, amazing guitar player but treats fans, media and the people he works with in a way that just makes you want to support his work and see him do well. Bumblefoot has a benefit gig for Autism in New Jersey February 15th and Guns N’ Roses are getting set to do an Australian tour starting March 9th, but I recently had the chance to talk to him for the first (but hopefully not last) time. We covered his creative process, the embrace of the GNR faithful and his love of incredibly strong hot sauce, among other things. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: You released 8 albums prior to joining GNR and were on a lot of musician and guitar freaks radar but lot of people know you first and foremost as a guitarist in GNR and have discovered your past and current solo work via the band. Axl seems to be very open to you continuing to work on your own creative ideas which is all most musicians dream of. Is that kind of opportunity like the best of both worlds as an artist?
Ron Thal: Each has something the other doesn’t. I love creating more than anything, and need to write, record, co-write, produce… with my solo music I get to do all that and express myself fully. GNR is a big family, I love them and the experiences and people it’s brought to my life, and having both is absolutely the best of both worlds. I don’t ask either world to be something it isn’t, and accept both as they are, with openness that both will grow in whatever direction they’re meant to. And all is good!
LRI: I had read a great interview with you where you spoke about how there was a “settling in” period in GNR and you really had to learn the material on the fly in rehearsals because you didn’t have an advance copy of “Chinese Democracy”. Were the other guys in the band pretty helpful to you during that period of adjustment and did you feel pretty free to be your own player and interpret the songs in your own style?
Ron: In the beginning I was on my own. We toured for year, took a break, ‘Chi Dem’ was released, and soon after we were in the rehearsal room organizing our sounds and really digging into playing “together”. Through it all, nobody ever told anyone how to play, we all play the songs however it feels right to ourselves, and everyone’s cool with it. We were all brought into the band because of how we play and who we are, the last thing anybody wants to do is squash that.
LRI: In the past year there has been something of a melting of the ice in terms of public appreciation of the Chinese Democracy album and in public opinion about Axl. In my eyes this has as much to do with Axl doing some press as it does the fact there have been many accounts and fan reports of the band’s up close interaction and relationship with the fans. Has this whole experience of playing live with GNR also made you appreciate the simple fact that people of all ages in South America, Russia, America can all be connected by these songs, this music?
Ron: Absolutely. I make music to make people happy & lift their spirits, it’s that simple. To be able to do that for so many people all over the world, to have this connectivity on such a big scale, it’s wonderful. It’s something special, and I’ll always be grateful for it, to be able to give that to others. Agreed – the artist’s presence and support totally affects how people will accept their album, and them.
LRI: I’m going a ways back. Your debut album, “Adventures of Bumblefoot” came out in 1995. They say you have your whole life to write your debut, what went into the making of that album and how did you feel when approaching your recent re-release of it in 2010?
Ron: I don’t know if it was my definitive lifetime album or not, every album is a bit of a lifetime album as it’s a sum of your life up to that point. I wasn’t looking to do an instrumental album, the label wanted me to do it before releasing music with vocals, I wrote most of it in a few months time in mid ’94. I didn’t take an approach, I just wrote. I try not to over-think anything, it gets in the way. The album was pretty well received, charted on reader’s polls in magazines, got lots of positive press. When my time on Shrapnel Records ended in the late ’90s the album was not re-printed, and it became something guitarists would seek out on eBay. I’ve seen them go for as much as $600. In 2010 Shrapnel decided to re-release the album, I was ecstatic – had been a dozen years hoping for them to do this. We re-released it and added bonus tracks from a SEGA video game I did the music for in the mid ’90s. The CD is available at the BumbleStore (www.bumblefoot.com/store.php) where each CD is autographed and $5 goes to charities.
After the initial release of the album, I spent six months writing out and transcribing every detail of what I played – the TAB, notation, fingers, picking, strumming, weird noises, absolutely everything. It’s a 200-page book, also available at the BumbleStore.
I recorded everything at home, all the equipment was set up in my parent’s basement in a little area along the wall – a seat, 2 ADATs, 2 compressors and 2 FX processors in a rack with a Mackie mixing board on top, a pair of headphones, and a guitar amp with a mic in front, and a blanket over it. Five feet away was the big noisy air-conditioning unit for the house, and it was a hot Summer in 1994. I’d start recording, the AC would kick on, and I’d have to stop and wait for it to shut off. Then I’d start up again, and go through the same thing. Once in a while I’d sneak upstairs and turn the thermostat up to 90F degrees so the AC wouldn’t go on, and would get a good batch of recording in, until I’d hear my mom’s voice from the floor above, “Why is it so hot in the house?”, followed soon after by “Who turned the thermostat up to 90?!?!” “….RONALD!!!” I’d stop recording, get yelled at, then I’d continue recording. (And I’d sneak upstairs and turn the thermostat back up again…) I did all the punch-ins with a footswitch while I was playing. I didn’t have any speakers, and recorded and mixed the entire record using an old pair of headphones. All things considered, I think it came out great. It showed a lot of techniques that were my own, like using the thimble (metal cap) on my picking-hand finger to tap notes higher than the fretboard.
LRI: As I’ve become a fan of your playing it almost feels like every new album I dig into is something of a quest, an adventure. Back in the day, bands like the Doors approached music like that, you weren’t quite sure what they were gonna do next or where it would take you. Is that how you approach music as a listener or as a composer of music? Is that the ideal?
Ron: I’d always write music as a listener. Most of the time it would all happen in my head – the melodies, instrumentation, arrangement, and the overall vibe. The vibe is priority, where the music has to create the vibe I’m feeling. If I like what I’m hearing in my head and it sticks, I move forward.
LRI: You have a penchant for interesting song titles. “I Hate Me More Than I Love You” and one of my favorites “Chair Ass” come to mind but there are so many. Is the process of creating a title for a track something that needs to leap off the page to you, is it one of the first or last things that you consider when putting together an album or a single?
Ron: Titles can come from anywhere, can reflect how I felt, something the music reminded me of, a place I’ve been, anything… titles happen easily, especially when there’s lyrics. But a title can be anything. No rules.
LRI: I’m a fan of the traditional shred guys and girls that can play that style and you certainly can as well but you also seem to love incorporating other sounds, instruments and styles on to your music. Do you have a clear focus of what you want to do when creating in the studio when working with cellists and saxophonists and how you want to translate different things like that to a performance?
Ron: It’s usually pretty clear, I can visualize the cello or piano or flute or guitar or whatever it is… it’s the feeling you get and knowing what sounds will make that feeling happen.
LRI: Conceptually, your last two full length albums, “Normal” (2005) and “Abnormal” (2008) are a chunk. I can listen to them both and continually find something new in those songs. To the readers who might be unaware of the albums, what was your inspiration and how draining or cathartic was that part of your life?
Ron: All the albums are very personal, autobiographical. Especially those two albums. “Normal” tells the story of a musician who took depression medication to make himself ‘normal’. The only downside was that he lost the music in his head and couldn’t write songs anymore. Eventually he had to choose between being normal and being musical. He chose music, went off the meds, and wrote this album. I cared so much about that album, was obsessing over every detail of the sound, mastering & re-mastering, until finally Jimi Hazel (guitarist of 24-7 Spyz) said “Ron, I’m gonna tell you what a producer told me when I was going through the same thing.” He said, “When do you know an album is done?” I said “I don’t know, when?” and he said, “When you stop working on it.” Suddenly it clicked. There is such a thing as caring too much. I’ve learned to reel myself in and not be crippled by over-caring. “Abnormal” was easy. I trusted my instincts and had faith in myself. That was a fun album to make. I kept a video log during the process, it’s on YouTube.
LRI: People can go to your website and download an alternate track from those sessions for free just for signing up for your mailing list. You also have gotten into the process of releasing a series of singles which seems to be something a lot of artists are doing these days as downloads are up and hard copy sales are down. Some of your singles are really creative interpretations of familiar songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the classic “Pink Panther” theme which you also play in your GNR solo spot. How much different is it deciding what to release as a single format as opposed to a full length and are there any unique challenges to doing it?
Ron: At this point it’s about releasing anything I can when I can, as it keeps getting more difficult to find time for making music, with all the touring and life piling up in-between. So for me, releasing singles is the best way, if not the only way for me to get music out there. Releasing the singles once-a-month was the best way to go. And I was able to offer more options for each song. There’s a choice of hi-res formats, instrumental mixes, a “Player Pack” that has guitar transcriptions and backing tracks, and a “Producer Pack” of recording stems so people can make their own versions of the song. They’re available at www.bumblefoot.com/store.php
LRI: Youve worked with Mark Tornillo of Accept (and classic East Coasters TT Quick) and also with other legendary voices like Tony Harnell (of TNT) on recent projects. Do you find that working with other singers changes the way you approach writing melodies or singing yourself?
Ron: Yes. I like having other people’s ideas, spirit and sound, it adds dimension I could never get on my own. I’ve been blessed to make music with amazing singers – Tony Harnell, Mark Tornillo, and of course Axl. They all amaze me with how much talent flows naturally out of them, it’s in their blood.
LRI: Thanks for hanging with us Ron. I want to check out some of your upcoming hot sauces so I wanted to ask you about that before ending this. I love adding some fire to my food and breaking down the ingredients and all that so I would imagine it would be pretty fun. Is this another altogether different creative process?
Ron: Thank you and all the readers. Ah yes, the hot sauces…! I’ve been looking to do this for years and the pieces came together a few months ago. Now that the sauces are ready to be shared, I’m pretty f’kn excited about it! There’s mild flavorful cherry bourbon “Bumblicious!”, 6-Million-Scoville ginger-tropical-fruit-caffeine-ginseng high-energy super-hot “BumbleF**KED”, mild “Normal” sauce with Mediterranean herbs, medium-hot “Uncool” with curry & cumin, extra-hot “Abnormal” with tamari & tamarind, and sexy chocolate cherry “BumbleBabe” sauce with proceeds going to women’s health charities. You can find out more at www.bumblefoot.com, join the email list and I’ll keep you updated on everything….
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- Ron Thal: Legendary Rock Interviews | Planet 6 String | February 4, 2013