GN’R’s new guitarist gets personal
Bumble in the jungle
An instrumentalist and rock player of the highest order, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal is perhaps the greatest guitarist nobody’s really heard of. But now he’s Guns N’ Roses’ main man – and with the release of Chinese Democracy the spotlight has finally found him
Words Charlie Griffiths Pictures Jesse Wild
We know you know this already, but Bumblefoot is of course an infection found on the feet of birds of prey and some other animals. It’s also the pseudonym of Brooklyn, New York guitar player Ron Thal, who has recently played on the slightly delayed comeback album of one of the most revered rock bands ever, stepping into the snakeskin boots of the most iconic guitarist of the last three decades in the process.
Not just anyone could step up to this kind of challenge. Yet the most cursory listen to any of his nine solo outings will prove conclusively that Ron Thal has the credentials and the talent for the job. His astounding guitar skills – an explosive mix of all the shred licks in the devil’s trickbag, and then some – have earned him an army of loyal fans, staring wide-eyed as two-handed tapping, sinuous fretless soloing, robotic picking techniques and super-fluent scalar rock licks are tossed off with almost cavalier ease. Thankfully, though, there’s also a slightly unhinged, comedic edge to his fretboard fireworks that elevate his technical pyrotechnics beyond the earnest ruttings of the tiresome music-shop fret ticklers: you know who you are.
His journey into the big-time limelight began in 2006 when, during the protracted 14-year, 10-plus-guitarist birth of Guns N’ Roses’ opus Chinese Democracy, he received the call to come and ‘jam with the band,’ leading to his live unveiling. We catch up with him to discuss how it feels to get in the ring with GN’R…
So, Ron, how does one go about joining one of the biggest bands of all time?
“It all began in the summer of 2004 when I got an e-mail from Joe Satriani, who coming from New York I’d known for years. He said that the guys in Guns N’ Roses were looking for a new guitar player and that he had recommended me. Pretty quick after that one of the guys in the band sent me an e-mail saying hello, then we started talking with management and the producers of the album and we started making plans way back then. It all went quiet for a while, then in early 2006 they had a tour ready to go and we got together in New York and started jamming. We would get together and play like three songs and say, Cool, let’s do three more tomorrow! And just kept doing that for two weeks, then we hit the road and played 27 countries in front of a million people. It was pretty damn good.”
Was it quite a contrast with your previous touring experiences?
“Oh sure! The previous tour I did, there were seven of us crammed into a van with the flue, driving all around France, coughing, sneezing, barely eating and playing to a couple of hundred people. Six months later, you have a crew of 60, you’re flying all over the place and playing gigs for 150,000, so definitely a contrast, at least on the exterior! The thing that surprised me the most was that when you’re on the stage, it barely feels that different to any other show. I guess everything you do kinda comes from within; my feet are still on the ground, I’m playing guitar, I’m still doing what I do.”
Did you feel comfortable right away, or did you have to adapt to fit the classic Guns N’ Roses sound?
“When I was around 18, I was in a cover band called Leonard Nimoy. We’d jam AC/DC, Aerosmith and KISS and we also did a couple of songs off of Appetite For Destruction, which had just come out: we did My Michelle, Mr Brownstone and Welcome To The Jungle. So I grew up knowing those songs and have total respect for them. As for adapting myself, for the most part I stay with what Slash played, especially for the big melodies because that’s what people really want to hear. But for the faster passages I do my own thing.”
How did you begin work on Chinese Democracy?
“In between the legs of the tour, we would hop in the studio and start laying tracks. The songs were already written a while back and a lot of the stuff had a very industrial foundation and for me personally, the one thing I felt I could really add to the music was the sleaze factor, and to make it sound like a guitar-driven rock’n’roll song, which is kinda funny because most people think of me as some kind of shredder guy and they focus on the solos, where to me the most important thing I feel I added to Guns N’ Roses was in the rhythms and overall vibe of the album. For example, I used fretless guitar for some of the rhythms – like on the title track – and I feel it really adds something to the verses with that whole growling sound.”
Did you feel a responsibility to respect the already existing guitar tracks, now those guys are no longer in the band?
“I would just try to keep the existing parts in mind and play something that’s not going to step on something else and at the same time find the balance between not stepping on toes, but giving as many options and possibilities as you can. Plus, I didn’t really know how things would be balanced in the end, what’s going to be loud, what will be low, what’s going to be there, what won’t be. That’s why I was like, you know what, let me just try absolutely everything and present to you everything, and that way you can mix and match and later on everyone will sit around and say let’s go with this, or this bit sucks, or this bit is good…”
We now know that Brian May’s tracks weren’t used on the final version, which he has expressed disappointment about. What happened to his takes?
“Brian May had done a whole lot of tracking for the album that unfortunately wasn’t used. Brian had recorded a solo for the Catcher In The Rye years ago, and I had done some takes later on. And I guess they chose to go with the stuff I put down, which actually I feel a little guilty about: you know Brian May is definitely someone who is of ‘we are not worthy!’ status. Brian, if you read this, you’re welcome to play anything you want on one of my records. In fact, I won’t play any guitar at all and you can play all the guitars – that would be fine with me.”
Speaking of your own work, since joining GN’R, you’ve found time to produce and release two solo albums, titled Normal and Abnormal. What’s the story with those albums?
“Normal was about everything going on in my crazy life back in 2004 when there was some crazy GN’R shit going on. Some of the songs on there were inspired by GN’R’s old manager, who I got in a fight with, so I wrote a bunch of songs about the guy. Then there was also the whole battle going on between my being on brain meds to keep me sane, but not being able to write music any more and having to make that choice: do I want to be normal, or do I want to be a musician but have that war going on inside my head all the time? So that’s basically the underlying concept of that album.
“When the GN’R tour came along, it was like someone had taken the Life Intensity knob and turned it up a couple of notches. All the things that come along with that new experience inspired a new batch of things with the songs. It’s autobiographical, like, okay, what’s going on now? Different issues that I didn’t have before start to occur, like the objectification that happens when you get more recognition, and you’re on people’s radar more. Then there are the issues of being on tour. On tour, life is very regimented and planned out and military and you just have one purpose, which is to play the next show. You come home and you don’t know what the hell to do with yourself. Every time I came home I would find myself being very reckless, driving a lot faster and being a lot crazier and doing electrical work on the house with no training. It takes a couple of weeks to calm down, so when I got off the last tour, as soon as I got home, to keep myself out of trouble I just locked myself in the studio and busted out Abnormal.”
Your playing is very unique and immediately recognizable, both technically and harmonically. How did your sound evolve?
“It really shouldn’t be the way it is, because all I listened to growing up was Ace Frehley and Jimi Hendrix. And then the noodly noodly thing I got from Eddie Van Halen. I don’t know where it comes from; you just express yourself and whatever comes out, comes out. I guess there’s some kind of mix between an obnoxious rock’n’roll-type player and somehow thinking too much.
“I was always a brainiac kid, just into studying and learning and just being a sponge for knowledge, especially when I started learning guitar. I started taking guitar lessons when I was six or seven years old and had lessons for about eight years. I was studying jazz, reading and theory before learning solos and all that – for the first four years it was very academic, structured study. At the same time, the whole reason I started playing was hearing the KISS album KISS Alive, which was pretty over-the-top for a five-year-old. When I was about six, I put a band together with some of the neighborhood kids and we even wrote songs. You don’t have a lot of life experience at six, so all we wrote about was the Solar System. I had a song called Jupiter Is Nice. We figured out how to overdub using two boom boxes and we made some demos. I still have those recordings, and I recently transferred them all on to CD.”
So that was also the beginning of your production career?
“Yeah, I suppose so. Through the years the equipment just got better. We eventually got a mixing board, from that we got a little eight-track quarter-inch reel to reel, then we moved on to ADATS, then a Tascam DA-88 synched up to a computer with Logic on it, and then going to just a PC using Cubase, then going 24-bit, then 32-bit and so on. The toys are better, but I’m still a six-year-old kid!”
You’ve had a long relationship with Vigier guitars and your flying foot guitar almost became your trademark. Why did you retire it?
“Out of necessity! I think it was in Istanbul, in front of 10,000 people or so, I went to hit the [whammy] bar and suddenly these little strips of black and yellow wood hit my feet and the bottom wing came off. I was looking down like, Ah shit! Then I look up and see 10,000 faces waiting for me to continue, so I figured it was time to put that baby to rest. I’d used that guitar for so many tours and it was my main guitar since ’98, so I got eight solid years of bashing the hell out of it.
“I put a little contest out there through my website to design a new Bumblefoot guitar, and the winner was a guy called Jason Miskimins from Ohio. We ended up with a Jimmy Page-vibe double-neck with an almost SG-shaped body, with a fretless neck and a fretted neck – it’s a real nice design. Vigier are only building two of ‘em, one for me and Jason gets the other one. I can’t wait to see it. Then there’s my signature guitar, which is my everyday guitar: it’s pretty much a straight-up Vigier Excalibur, which we tweaked in all different ways. It has a little hole in the front where I keep my thimble, and the pickup configuration is a DiMarzio Tone Zone in the bridge and a Chopper in the neck position, with a cool five-way switching system where the bridge pickup can be single-coil or straight humbucker or the two out-of-phase, which has a real nice quacky tone to it. The Floyd Rose bridge is resting on the body, so you can bend without tuning difficulties; plus there’s nothing worse than breaking a string at a gig and your whole guitar goes out of tune. The coolest thing about Vigier is the neck, which has that sheet of graphite through it so you never have to adjust it; it’s always perfect, no matter what climate. I’ve tortured the hell out of my Vigier guitars and I’ve never had a problem with the necks.”
So what’s next in the adventures of Bumblefoot? A tour to support Abnormal?
“Right after doing Abnormal I knew Chinese Democracy was on the way and I wasn’t sure if we were going to do any promo shows or anything like that, so I didn’t want to plan a tour and have to cancel it like I had to once before. Instead, I just went back into the studio and did an acoustic EP called Barefoot, where I took five songs from previous albums and did really stripped-down versions of them, with acoustic rhythm guitar, acoustic lead guitar, bass and vocals. It was a real blast going back and re-interpreting my own songs. I actually had another website contest on that one where people would choose what the fifth song would be. I totally left it up to the forum to choose any song they wanted. The song that got the most requests was a song called She Knows, which was a song from about 10 years ago that never made it onto the Uncool CD and was a part of the anthology of stuff that never made it onto the other CDs. To fill up the space on the CD, I also included instrumental versions of the tracks with no vocals – karaoke versions.”
Are there any future plans for Guns N’ Roses? A world tour, or another album perhaps?
“There are no plans as of this moment. I would be surprised if we didn’t tour, but there are no plans just yet. I feel an affinity for Guns N’ Roses because GN’R makes its own rules, it does its own thing how it wants when it wants. And if you tell it it needs to do something, it will do the opposite just to give you the finger, and I’m the same way. A lot of people might not have it in them to go on that ride of not knowing what’s going to happen, that feeling of waiting to go on stage to the point that people are about to riot and destroy the fucking place, then you go on right before they explode. To me it’s the equivalent of going on a rollercoaster; you put your hands up and go, Wheeeee!”
Rumble Like Bumble
Apart from his usual Vigiers, Ron’s Chinese Democracy tone was brought to you through his ’59 reissue Gibson Les Paul plugged into his trusty Splawn-modded Marshall JCM800 head (seewww.splawnguitars.com for more info on Scott Splawn’s services). “It’s a real raw rock’n’roll brown sound, which is perfect for GN’R,” says Thal. Also in the studio was his Line 6 Vetta II head. “I’ve been using the Vetta IIs for years now,” he adds, “so I know them inside out. They’re so convenient and consistent and really diverse, especially live. I can get every sound I need from a clean Fender, to a dirty Marshall or a real heavy Diezel-type sound, without having to go and spend thousands of dollars. I only really use three or four different sounds…I like to keep it simple.”
Ron’s Seal Of Approval
Ron Thal has been collaborating with Vigier guitars for most of his professional career, and has always had a taste for the wonderful, be it Swiss cheese-bodied model complete with holes, to his mutant half-bee, half-foot Frankenstein sporting flapping whammy wings. For those with more restrained taste, Vigier has released a Bfoot 2009 Limited Edition signature model. The guitar benefits from Vigier’s uniquely stable 10 per cent carbon, 90 per cent wood neck design (known as the 10/90 system). The Floyd Rose pivots on ball bearings, providing extra-smooth motion and more accurate tuning. The front-mounted recessed magnetic thimble holder is positioned perfectly for easy application onto your fourth finger, and the push-pull kill switch is a great addition for all those Tom Morello/Buckethead/Thal moments!