Guitarist at age 6. Producer. Meet and greet impresario. Soundtrack master.
The list goes on and so do the many talents of Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, currently best known as being one of two current lead guitarists in Guns N' Roses.
Ron hit the scene officially in 1995 when he released 'The Adventures Of Bumblefoot' which, if nothing else, was perhaps the best foreshadowing title ever given to an LP. Talented, energetic and affable, Ron is an adventure and an exotic excursion into a world with very few limitations, an immense amount of flair, all anchored by a healthy dash of guitar genius.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Ron upon his return from the current Japanese leg of the Guns N' Roses tour and found out what makes this man tick like a rock and roll Rolex. As they say, timing is everything and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal is set in motion.
You have said that Gene Simmons is the reason you started playing...can you tell our readers more about your beginnings?
Sure, well I was 5 years old and all of the neighborhood kids were like 4-6 and then there was the next generation of kids that were 7-9 and they all went out and got the KISS 'Alive' album that had just come out. So I heard it through them and as soon as I heard it, it was like a little spark came on and I was like, that is what I gotta do with my life! So, immediately, I need to get a band together, writing songs, doing promotion, making demos..and make it happen!
Wait! Weren't you just 5 or 6 at the time?
Yeah! This was a 5 year old all motivated! Immediately I got together with some of the neighborhood kids and started writing songs and borrowed a guitar from one and I didn't even know how to play it. I would lay it on my lap and just strum it and hit it..and I had no idea what to do with it, but I started writing songs and the only thing I wrote about was what my little geek brain knew about like the solar system and the planets. My first song was a rip off of 'Fox On The Run' called 'Jupiter Is Nice.' But yeah, yeah...I really wanted to play bass because, out of everyone in KISS, it was Gene Simmons that wowed me the most. I wanted to spit blood, fly up to the rafters, breathe fire and play a bass! So I went to the store and the nearest place where they sold instruments and gave lessons and I was a tiny little kid and I was like "I wanna play bass!" My fingers were probably thinner than the bass strings at that point and they looked at me and somehow they conned me into playing guitar.....You need to play acoustic guitar for two years before you play bass...... and I'm thinking to myself, "that's a strange law", but if that is what it takes, fine! So I started taking guitar lessons and strictly academic stuff, reading and all eighth notes and sixteenth notes. Going through all of the reading books, Book 1 and 2 and 3 and my teacher would throw me a bone every once in awhile and teach me a song, the first song I learned was 'Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo.' And what was funny and coincidental is that one of the guys in Guns N'Roses, that was HIS first song too. Richard Fortus...
So that was how it all started ....writing songs, I started putting on concerts in my basement and the local school, we'd have cups of confetti to hand out for the end of the show and they'd all throw the confetti in the air and my poor Mom would have to clean it up.
Sounds like you were the first "Mini KISS"?
<laughing> Yeah, but it was good. And we made demos...we figured out on our own the best way to make demos was to have the drums like 15 feet away in the room and a little tape recorder..in the other corner and we had acoustic guitars near and that's how we got our levels and then we would take a second tape recorder and we would play what we just recorded and sung along to it and record all of that on top of it and that's how we overdubbed the vocals. And we made our own merch, we'd write our own little comic books. We had backyard concerts doing covers of Ramones songs and Sex Pistols, Rush and Pink Floyd and whatever we could do!
Sounds like you had quite the cottage industry at such a young age!
Yeah! If we had kept at it we could have expanded to coffins and bed spreads and we would have been just like KISS!
Joining a band with a long and rather tumultuous history must not be an easy task...how did you approach joining Guns N' Roses? Making your own mark on an already painted canvas..what has that been like?
Well, even the nice history with Guns N' Roses is rather turbulent and tumultuous! Umm, starting in 2004 I had gotten an email from Joe Satriani and it said "I have recommended you to Guns, so in case you want to check it out just so you know if they get in touch it's not a joke or anything." Then a few hours later I got an email from one of the guys in the band and then I got a call from the producer of 'Chinese Democracy' and then management got in touch and we ended up chatting on and off for maybe 2 months or so.
I was feeling it out but I was also teaching at SUNY Purchase College, I was producing a ton of bands at my studio, I was putting out my own music and touring, licensing music to TV shows and my world was pretty complete and I was happy with it. I knew that if I joined Guns I would have to give a lot of that up, and this was around the time when everything happened with Dimebag...and I started thinking, "Do I really wanna be the guy that gets shot, for stopping the old band from getting back together?" You know there was a lot to consider and at first I kind of turned them down. Then we didn't speak for about a year and a half and then they had a tour coming up and we all got back in touch and we decided to get together and rehearse in NY and I brought my guitar and jammed to three songs...said that's cool, lets do it again tomorrow..and we just did that for three weeks, and then we hit the road and played 27 countries!
The whole thing I realized is not to over think it...just jump in and learn how to swim and see where it goes and see what happens...don't worry about the what ifs and that's what I did. We played in Europe, US and Canada, laid tracks for 'Chinese Democracy' which took us into 2007 then we toured Mexico, New Zealand, Japan and then we took a big break and that's when I started working on my 'Abnormal' album and a few months later 'Chinese...' came out and we started rehearsing in 2009. We started auditioning for a new guitar player because we were one man down and we got DJ Ashba - started rehearsing with him , took a break and I did a quickie little tour with Lita Ford over the summer, and Guns started up again. We finished rehearsing and prepping and at the end of 2009 we started playing places we had never played before....breaking records and such....like when we played in Tokyo we played for three hours and 37-38 minutes....played 13 songs off the new album and AC/DC covers and such....it was great!
So that kind of makes up for those shows that were a bit shorter, eh? <laughing>
Yeah exactly! <Chuckling> We had to kind of fill in the blanks...this one is for Philly, this one is for St Louis, but that was another good thing - we started taking that into consideration as well. We played Montreal and gave them a complete show without any riots! We did Canada, all around South America and Central America, and we did Scandinavia and Russia which I loved, loved Russia! It was the first time the band was there but I had been a few times on my own, just touring in 2004-2005 so it was really good to go back and see old friends and make new friends. I had an amazing time there - the rest of the band went on to Copenhagen and I stayed behind for a few days. I book my own meet and greets and arranged all of those - so before a show or after a show I would spend 4 to 5 hours signing things, taking photos and taking some quality time with some of the fans - it was especially cool when I started meeting people I recognized from previous shows, it becomes more personal that way. I like that.
Let's dive into your philosophy about interacting with fans a bit more...on your website you have meet and greets scheduled, you're known for being accessible but in this business not everyone is like that...there are several well known rock stars who are the exact opposite...Some may say you are really exposing yourself so tell us more about your thoughts on the fan dynamic in music?
Well my philosophy has been that 30 yrs before playing with Guns N' Roses everything was very normal...you lug your gear, you quickly set up after the band before you finishes, you play your ass off and then you quickly pack up and stick it in the truck. You gather a dozen people from the show and go to a diner at 4 in the morning, get out 8 in the morning.... So that was what was normal for me, so even when I first joined Guns, after a show, like the Hammerstein Ballroom for example there would be like 20 people hanging out by the back door, so I would just hang with them, shake hands, hug and talk about anything and everything.
So I realized I don't know how to be a rock star - I have never been one before! <laughing> You mean we're not supposed to do this? I still do that stuff and to me it's two pieces that complete everything...you can't have a show without an audience there and an audience needs a band on stage...they are two parts that can't exist without the other.
In many cases it could be said that once you sign on for that gig, what comes with it in terms of fans, etc is to be expected...
And the fans deserve the acknowledgement, the recognition and participation and the inclusion, even when I would do things on stage and for my solo - you stand up there like a jerk for 5 minutes, and play whatever; I would do something where the audience could sing along and make them part of it, instead of making it just a 5 minute wang fest, and I would just do a song we hadn't done in the set, have the words on the screen for people to sing along, trying to make them a part of a show. So to me, having the fans a part of the show and having a connection to the fans is just a normal part of what I do. But, I understand others who can't do it. There are things that happen in your life, and I have had those things happen but I just refuse to change as a result - things like where people try and hurt your family or where they overstep and cross the line and you have to be guarded....and if you really cross the line, you know it changes you. You keep a safe distance and it's understandable.
I think a lot of times, fans may not understand that...you know running frantically over to someone while they're going to the bathroom and then not understanding why the guy won't give them an autograph or something like that, it's like your defenses are up... in any other scenario it would be considered not cool to be running up to a complete stranger and asking for things! <laughing>
There are times when like you're trying to get on a plane, or there was one time when we were on the plane, we'd had no sleep but every 10 minutes or so someone would wake us up and tap us on the shoulder and hand us a barf bag and a pen and ask us to sign it for someone's cousin...of course we did it but that can be tough... Sometimes people don't realize when the timing is right...like if my wife is on the phone talking to a Vet clinic about a case and some frantic fan is interrupting her call, tapping her on the shoulder asking, "get this autograph for me, get this autograph for me", and I'm checking in my luggage...so leave family out of it, they didn't sign up for this!
But as far as doing things for fans, I like to, I like having that connection. When I was in South America on tour I didn't have meet and greets because I couldn't really arrange them, it takes a lot to put those together, and it rarely coincides with the ever changing travel itinerary of the band, so I would just do little things, like go into a hotel and do autographs in front of the hotel, if you even approach the entrance a mob would congest so I'd go out there for 2 hours and sign things and take some photographs. They deserve it. There were times when shows got cancelled and not for any reason of ours, like for example there was a show in Rio where the show got cancelled right before the doors opened and a big storm had hit the stage. A big portion of the stage had been hit and had the doors been open it would have killed the first 30 people by the stage, and the reason why the doors weren't open is the bus carrying the crew had broken down for 2 hours on the way and it delayed everything ...so there were these events in the South American tour that would lead to another event that was bad ....random acts of God or I don't know who...the fans were so upset in Rio, so there was an acoustic guitar there, so we gave them an acoustic show for two hours and they all sang along and any time we didn't get to play, I would just give an acoustic show! Stage or no stage I'm going to do it!
You are quite open in your bio about the struggles to be you, maintain a sense of your own creativity etc...can you tell us more about what that has been like?
I think it's the same struggle everybody goes through...now that I am getting older, I have more I can look back upon than I can look ahead to...(laughing) so it's a timeline or I could at least assume. You know we are all just a work in progress, we are a victim to our own hormones, we have to undo the mental damage we have done to ourselves through hereditary reactions to our environment or however you want to put it - we get our battle wounds in life, scars and scabs but you move forward and try and be a better person. But I think that goes for everyone, you know? Someone who is trying to be a better Mom, someone who's trying to be a better songwriter, be a better anything I don't think that my story is different from most people's, maybe the goals aren't the same, but having goals is the same and I guess, I'm ok with putting it out there, I'm comfortable with saying that I am no different than you, we are all human, we are all broken, we're just trying to repair it...and as time goes on you do - hopefully!
I feel like I have .. you start making peace with reality and the key to everything that I have learned is don't over think it ...we tend to over think ourselves right out of good things, and just roll with whatever and enjoy the roller coaster. My struggles are just typical human struggles of any person in the world that's trying to achieve something more than being a lump on the couch. I guess if anything people can take that and know they are not alone in how they are feeling. There are a million other people who are also the same way and finding their way out of that hole and everyone can find their way out of it...!
You have quite a bit going on professionally... your first album, 'The Adventures Of Bumblefoot' is being re-released after 15 years, as well as (what must have been a huge undertaking) a 200-page transcription book of the album by yourself. Tell us about these and the creative process that went into them?
And I don't know if I could ever do that again, my God! <laughing> It's one of those things that I look back on and think how did I do that? How did I make the time and have the patience? Put in the effort and not pull my hair out?!I had my first album released in May of 1995, 15 years ago before that I was just releasing my own songs, and would get onto different instrumental compilation cds and stuff like that. I got signed to Shrapnel Records label, put out the first album and then a second, but then I got out of my contract and started doing it all myself. Online, on my own label and the record was out of print at that point. The only way you could get it was to go to eBay and I started getting emails from people saying, "Hey I got your album ..it only cost me $75 fucking dollars!!!!" It's not my fault! I saw one person selling one for $600.00 so people were making the most of it as it was very hard to find. Then last year, Shrapnel Records said they wanted to re-release the album, and I thought that was great - so I worked with them and we had a real nice go around this time and started to work together on the artwork and getting the soundtrack from a video game I had worked on back then, and I will be making that cd available at my site - it will be $20, I am signing every copy and donating $5 to MS Research. Any autographed stuff, I figure I don't know what my signature is worth, but if it's worth something to someone then let me put that to some good use, to serve a greater purpose...so any autographed stuff I give a chunk of it to medical research.
As far as the tab book, in 1997 I started doing the tabs to the first album..I worked on it for 8 hours a day, I took every single track of every single guitar part in a song, all on separate cassettes and I would have to relearn what I had done on each song, I would sit with my guitar and think this is how I played it, this is how I did play it, this is how I would play it..etc...and 200 pages of musical notation, the tablature, and the picking and fingers and details like turn your hand this way, etc..and it was a huge undertaking. Hopefully this week I'll be meeting with the printers, to see the paper, the copies, trying to make a little mock up of it - making sure everything prints correctly, trying to get everything manufactured and available this month... They are very detailed, it was brutal!
You must be a guitar hero to many, but who inspires you today?
The last band that did it for me, that really blew my mind was the band Muse. In hearing the 'Absolution' album, they definitely inspired the hell out of me, in fact his tech just got in touch with me right before I left on this last leg of the tour and he was getting himself a double neck, fretted, fretless guitar just like what I play, which is the main guitar I use now with Guns, and on 'Chinese Democracy' I used a lot of fretless guitar, so I'm lugging round this 30lb double neck guitar around my neck for a good half of the show!
What is the greatest piece of advice you would give to an up and coming shredder?
Don't! <laughing> What would I say? Be diverse. You don't know where life is going to take you and just how broad your passions might be - don't keep a narrow view, definitely explore all parts of the music making process, teach, collaborate, record, work with other people, play, do covers.....you never know where these things will lead to and what you will get out of it. Make your own website, be very versatile and diverse and do it all. Each thing helps with the other..so for example if you're looking to be a better song writer, producing some band and helping to shape their songs will help with that. Teaching someone songs, why certain notes in this melody works so well with this chord, etc all of that helps. Bottom line, be diverse!
What else can I say?
Use a metronome! Guitarists always rush the beat and they always think because they are standing in front of the drummer they are the leader - they are not! The drummer hits the beat, you follow that beat! That's why it's called the Buddy Rich Orchestra, or Gene Krupa band, because back then they knew that the drummer was the leader.
In short, the drummer is always the back bone.
That's right! You got it!
What do you consider your crowning glory moment so far in your career?
I would have to say playing Madison Square Garden. It was where I saw my first KISS concert, and that was back in '79. I always wished that someday I could do that...and sure enough many, many years later I got to do it...what I had aspired towards...what I had envisioned...the pyro, lights sound, etc.. it had finally happened. After that show, I thought if I had to retire I wouldn't feel completely, like I didn't get it done.
You had to be nervous, right? Realizing a dream can be an intense experience.
The whole time I was worried something would happen to screw it up ...thinking to myself please don't let anything screw this up! I just wanted to make sure we completed the show! Please, people don't throw anything at the singer, please for me...<laughing> I just wanted to finish the show...and do my guitar solo.
Final thoughts for our readers?
For the video game enthusiast, my work is going to be on Rock Band, the first song is 'Guitars Suck' and it's out there, challenging on the expert level, there will be many more songs to come after it...It's looking like we'll be working from the end of August thru October we will be performing our way all the way through to Croatia and then hopefully some key dates back in the USA!
Well, Ron, it's been a pleasure - thanks for your time....you're the first artist to run out an entire interview tape, but it was worth every minute!
<laughing> Really? Wow! Yeah, well I love to talk - it's been great!
For more information on Ron go to www.bumblefoot.com
Special Thanks to Barry at www.baldfreak.com