Photo by Annie Atlasman.
Bumblefoot (aka Ron Thal) is a monster guitarist. His astounding chops, incredible ears, and innovative techniques are the stuff of legend. He’s also an accomplished singer, songwriter, teacher, transcriber, engineer, and producer. He’s as comfortable onstage as in the studio, and has been producing and recording music for as long as he’s been playing (since age 6).
Thal’s first break came in 1989, when he was featured in Guitar Player’s new talent column. He made more waves with his 1995 release, The Adventures of Bumblefoot, and built a cult following with subsequent albums and tours. But the cat was fully out of the bag in 2006, when Thal joined Guns N’ Roses, replacing outgoing shred master Buckethead. He subsequently toured the world, playing its biggest stages. Thal’s stellar guitar work is all over GNR’s 2008 release, Chinese Democracy, and the band’s live DVD, Appetite for Democracy 3D. He’s also worked with Jessica Simpson, Lita Ford, Guthrie Govan, and many other artists.
Thal is a fun interview subject. His custom doubleneck Vigier Double Bfoot was on his lap throughout our conversation. He demonstrated techniques, illustrated points, and played examples mid-sentence, displaying his command of contrapuntal fingerstyle classical, jazz chord melody, and of course, classic rock. He ripped through the Yngwie solos he learned note-for-note as a teenager. “I can’t believe I still remember this,” he said after playing—perfectly—an obscure gem from the first Alcatrazz album.
When Thal isn’t touring or recording, he teaches, hosts workshops, raises money for charity, and hypes his line of incendiary hot sauces. His latest album, Little Brother Is Watching, was released in February and he is—you guessed it—touring like a madman in support.
PG sat down with Thal to discuss his new album, influences, unorthodox guitar techniques, production work, guitars, and amps—and why being gear-obsessed isn’t always a good thing.
Some songs on your new album make it obvious that you’re a Beatles fan.
Oh yeah. My first musical loves were the Beatles and Kiss. Hearing Kiss Alive when I was five is what made me want to get out and do this. But as far as just really loving music, that was the Beatles. All five of them. I include George Martin, the producer, because he added everything that made those songs special.
How did they influence you?
As time goes on I realize more and more that music is about telling stories—sharing your overall feeling, the picture you envision, and trying to bring listeners into that experience so you’re there together. It comes from the words, the melody, the intensity, the dynamics—everything! It’s all the ingredients combined, every spice in there.
Photo by Catherine Asanov.
And Kiss was more about being a rock ’n’ roller?
Yeah. They were more about getting onstage and letting your energy out.
Who was your man in Kiss? Ace? Gene?
The great thing about bands like Kiss and the Beatles is that you know them on a first-name basis. Each name is so important to the entirety of it. If one of them wasn’t there, it just wouldn’t be what it was.
You’ve said that Eddie Van Halen gave you permission to do things. What did you mean?
That’s when I started chopping up guitars, pulling off frets, and getting into other things. Before that, I always thought guitar was just a tool for getting a song out there. But when I heard the things he was doing, I realized that this instrument can do so much more, and can have a life of its own. That’s when I started experimenting with what you can do with the string. You’re not just playing the fretboard—you’re playing the strings themselves. The string has sounds to offer beyond pressing it against the fret. I started really thinking about divisions of strings, harmonics, and what you can get out of that. For example, we’re always shortening the length of the string toward the bridge, but you can also shorten the length of the string toward the nut and get all these other sounds. [Plays an example, touching a metal thimble to the string above the bridge, shortening the string length and raising the pitches of the fretted notes].
It’s like putting a capo on the wrong end of the string.
Yeah. Once you have that, you realize you can get a lot of extra fingerings.
Did you always use a thimble?
I’ve tried other things, such as a nine-volt battery and a rubber band, but I needed something I could immediately access, and having a thimble on my fingertip seemed like the most practical way to do that. So rather than touching the string against the fret, I’m touching the fret against the string. That’s how I get everything else I need.