Ron Thal – also known as Bumblefoot – is perhaps best known these days as one of the guitarists in Guns ‘N’ Roses, but long before he was sharing the stage with Axl Rose on a nightly basis, he was an experimental guitarist cranking out such stunning displays of virtuosity as his 1995 debut, The Adventures of Bumblefoot. Long out of print, this instrumental gem comes off as a conglomeration of Zappa, Loony Toons, Spy Vs Spy and a medical dictionary. The album was recently re-released along with bonus tracks (and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to MS research), and a TAB book of every guitar part on the album, prepared by Bumblefoot himself is also out now. I caught up with Bumblefoot to discuss the reissue and what it was like to be an instrumental guitarist recording at home in the 90s.
Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and jump back to back in the day when you recorded The Adventures Of Bumblefoot.
Let’s see, this was the early 90s – god, can I remember that far back? I was teaching music at a school, every grade from pre-school up to 18 years old, and they didn’t have a music department, so I set up an entire music department for them doing music for children and doing music history, I set up a jazz band, a choir, everything for the whole school. The school ran out of funds and it reached a point where I was just looking at life and I thought, ‘There’s no such thing as job security. You just have to follow what you love.’ And I did love doing that, but I would do that during the day then I would put braids in my hair and jump in the car and go and do some gig out in New York City at night, then get home at 4 in the morning and an hour later get up and teach again. It was at a point where I really needed to make a choice whether I wanted to have the more normal, safe life, or did I want to really be a full-time musician and jump in and learn how to swim. And I took the leap and six months later I had the record deal with Shrapnel Records. Originally we had spoken about him signing my band and doing vocal music, but to start off he wanted me to do an instrumental album to keep in line with everything that Shrapnel does. So I had a few songs already existing, just a small handful of them, and one of them was the song Bumblefoot. And I figured it could spark a nice little theme for the the album. And from there I started writing other songs that were also named after animal diseases and in the same vibe, with this bumbling spy kind of vibe to it – something between Pink Panther and Get Smart, and very quirky and comical, and just me, because I was a pretty quirky and comical human being. The album pretty much flowed out naturally and easily and quickly. By then it was the end of 1994, and it was out by May of the following year.
How was it recorded? Beavering away in a home studio?
Yes, it was more home than studio! At the time I was still living at home with my parents, and I had a little spot in the basement where originally I had a 15IPS reel-to-reel 1/4″ eight track and a tiny little eight channel mixing board, and I did everything from that. When I got the record deal with Shrapnel I invested in two ADATs, a 24-channel Mackie board, two Alesis 3630 compressors … did I even get more mics? I think I just used what I had, which was a couple of Shure 57s and a Sennheiser 421. I had everything stacked against the wall of my parents’ basement, and that was it! I can still picture it. I didn’t even have studio speakers or anything like that. It was too noisy – it would have interfered with everyone trying to sleep at 3am – so everything I did was through a pair of old headphones. After that was just a Marshall half stack with a blanket over it and a little SM57 under the blanket. Every now and then you’d peek under the blanket to make sure the weight of it didn’t move the mic to some funky angle or anything like that. I had a little footswitch that was very simple, just Record/Play. That’s all it did. It had a slight delay to it, so I would always have to hit it a little bit earlier to have it kick in where I wanted it to. It was never on beat, and you’d just have to smack your foot down at this awkward spot and it would manage to kick in at the right time right on the right beat when you needed it to.
I believe you used some pretty freaky guitars back then.
Yeah, I used to make my own stuff, just my own little monstrosities. Usually I would just take some guitar and modify it until it was a freak. I’ve still got them all. Don’t use them all any more. Since then I’ve graduated to playing guitars that professionals have built, and it’s certainly a lot better trying to find your way around a guitar that’s built by people that know what they’re doing, as opposed to me who just closes his eyes and starts drilling holes.
Do you ever get people bringing you replicas of the ‘swiss cheese guitar’ and stuff like that?
Yeah, that used to happen a lot! I used to have a page on my site where people would send me photos of their own versions of the swiss cheese guitar that they’d made.
What was the deal with the one that had the bass neck bolted on it?
(Laughs) Looking back I probably shouldn’t have done those things to the guitars I did it to. That one was, I think, a reissue of a 50s Stratocaster. It was a really nice Stratocaster, but the thing would not stay in tune. It was real squealy. The neck was constantly bending all over the place, and to me the value of a guitar comes from how it is in your, hands, not the name or the date. So I took the thing and I just chopped it up, and on the bottom horn I took a bass neck, I cut it in half at around the 7th fret, pulled all the frets off and refretted it to have the spacing that would fit a guitar that was starting at the 12th fret. I set it into the bottom horn of that Stratocaster and had a little Badass bridge that I spaced at the right spot, put a DiMarzio Super Distortion in there, and had this little mini guitar sticking out of the bottom horn. Everyone once in a while I would flick a toggle switch down to it and hit these notes that would just squeal and scream so hard. It was just brutal. Just that tone that would go right through you. I was playing at this place in Brooklyn, and at the end I was using that guitar, and I switched to that neck and was holding this one note, and the whole audience was holding their ears in pain. I was just like, ‘Yeah.’ I was loving torturing everybody. It was cool.