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.
Pro Tools is, of course, the industry standard recording platform, and for good reason. It’s extremely flexible and it facilitates the creative process by being only as complicated as you want it to be. The new Mbox line-up is the first to be released under the name of AVID, the company which recently acquired Digidesign, and this is the third complete overhaul of the Mbox range. As you might expect, the new-look Mbox line-up features several key hardware differences over the previous version, as well as a cosmetic makeover that brings the look more up-to-date. There are three units in the series (Mbox Mini, Mbox and Mbox Pro), all designed by the same engineering team behind the top-of-the-line ProToolsHD systems. I checked out the first two, and compared them to my trusty Mbox 2 Pro, which I’ve had for about four years now.
Both the Mbox Mini and the Mbox interfaces feature premium analog signal paths and high-performance analog-to-digital converters. The mic preamps are of a higher quality standard than the previous incarnation too – an important point, as the one real criticism I’ve heard levelled at previous versions is that the mic pres are perhaps a little lacking and occasionally require backup from the occasional outboard preamp.
The Mbox Mini’s converters deliver 24-bit, 48kHz sound while the Mbox ups this to 24-bit, 96kHz. The Mbox Pro goes all the way up to 24-bit, 192kHz with ProTools HD, or up to 96kHz with Pro Tools LE. Pro Tools 8.0.4 is included with whichever package you purchase, and it’s contained on a single DVD (Pro Tools 9 is released later this week though). The two new Mboxes on review are connected via USB, although the Mbox Pro is still FireWire capable.
The Mbox Mini interface is compatible with other major recording applications too, with drivers for Logic, Live, Record, Reason, Fruity Loops, Cubase, Nuendo, Sonar, and more. You can also use it as a CoreAudio device with your Mac. It also includes one XLR mic/line combo input with 48 V phantom power; two 1/4-inch instrument inputs (one DI, one switchable line/DI); two balanced 1/4-inch monitor outputs and one 1/4-inch stereo headphone output.
The Mbox interface has the same professional-grade soft-clip limiter circuit found in the high-end Pro Tools|HD 192 I/O audio interface, so you can track much hotter signals without overloading the inputs and clipping. This really makes it easier to get great-sounding tracks in the recording stage, and that’s super-good news for those of us who like to use amp sim software or reamping. The Mbox also includes built-in reverb, echo and delay effects (accessible through the driver settings in Pro Tools) which you can use during tracking – many singers and guitarists will find this very beneficial, and since the reverb is generated within the Mbox itself instead of your computer, it won’t tax resources quite so much. There’s also – gasp! – an integrated guitar tuner (also accessible through the driver settings or by holding down the Pad and Mute buttons), and a Pro Tools multi-function button for accessing various common software parameters like tap session tempo, start/stop record, and create a new track, right there on the front of the interface. It also includes two XLR mic/line combo inputs with 48 V phantom power; two 1/4-inch DI inputs; two balanced 1/4-inch monitor outputs; and one 1/4-inch stereo headphone output with volume control.
In operation, Mbox Mini and Mbox are similar in many ways, although you have more resolution available with the latter’s higher quality converters, as well as a few more more routing options. You can plug more instruments into Mbox and leave them plugged in compared to Mbox Mini. I’d definitely lean towards Mbox rather than Mbox Mini if you’re looking for more of a desktop studio setup with the added ability to cart it around when needed (and doubly so for the even more kitted out new Mbox Pro). It sounds great and is very easy to use. The Mbox’s soft limiter also also extremely transparent and musical – you won’t really know it’s on until you turn it off and hear the obnoxious peaks it’d been preventing.
The Mbox Mini is more for those who only need to record one instrument at a time and aren’t so fussy with needing to connect everything at once. This makes Mbox Mini a great in-the-field unit, especially for those who tend to work in-the-box more than with acoustic instruments, but who might need to lay down the occasional analog instrument or vocal line. Sound quality is great no matter which unit you choose, and I could hear a lot more headroom and dynamic range screaming out of the headphones of each compared to my old Mbox 2 Pro. This goes for my recordings as well as using Mbox as a CoreAudio device for iTunes.
It’s great to see the Mbox line overhauled for 2010, and especially in such a sturdy, high-quality series of units. The overhaul brings the Mbox family into line with the HD series and the visual overhaul to Pro Tools itself, and it’s cool to see AVID take the Digidesign legacy into such a confident new direction. This will become especially apparent once users get their hands on Pro Tools 9 in combination with the new hardware.