Ron Thal, better known as Bumblefoot, is a busy dude right about now. In addition to his solo career – including his latest album Abnormal, now distributed here in Australia by Riot Entertainment – he finds time for projects such as playing guitar for metal queen Lita Ford and being lead guitarist in a little band you may have heard of, Guns ‘N’ Roses. Thal’s workaholism verges on the humbling, and when I first called for our interview he was baled up in band rehearsal. When I called back later it was pretty late for Bumblefoot but I found him as animated and excitable as his playing.
How ya been?
Good, good! Been insanely busy, but I always seem to be like that. I never know how to say no to things, at the sacrifice of sleep and sanity.
Who were you rehearsing with today?
I have a new band that I’m starting up. I don’t want to say anything about it until the line-up is exact. We’re just waiting to see who our bass player is definitely going to be, but it’s going to be heavier than a lot of the other stuff I’ve done. It’s gonna be interesting. A lot of fretless guitar. I’m really looking forward to recording and touring and getting it out there really quick.
Is it going to be under your name, or are you gonna do a Chickenfoot?
It’s gonna be a different one. Actually I saw Chickenfoot last night. I got to hang out with Joe Satriani a little bit and catch up. They have such a great vibe, so down to earth and just having fun. Picture the Hagar-era Van Halen with Chad Smith, Chilli Pepper grooves and impeccable, ass-kicking guitar every time. It’s just a great thing.
Now, my first question was submitted by my mate and fellow Aussie guitarist Chris Szkup (www.cs-songs.com)
Chris Szkup! Wonderful guy!
Oh man, let’s start off with the flight to Australia. At first I was dreading the flight because it was a good 14 hours, but it was the most comfortable flight I’ve ever been on. It was the first time I actually had a full comfortable night’s sleep on an airplane in my entire life, so it’s the first time I ever experienced that. So it was off to a good start. I think we landed in Sydney then shot all the way over to Perth. Then we drove up to Fremantle and visited Bon Scott’s grave, paid our respects. Just the little things you remember. I remember being on a train and there was a young girl who had part of her face painted – she was going to a football game and the way it looked was something different to what you see in America. She had a little flag painted under her eye. It’s the little things like that. I remember those things more than the shows. Just the normal, human moments. Those are the things that really stand out. Y’know, the view from the hotel in Sydney overlooking the Opera House and the bridge and everything. Walking around with my wife, Sebastian Bach and a couple of guys from his band, and suddenly some guy in a trenchcoat comes running up to us going “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and he opens his coat up and pulls out Axl’s microphone. It turns out that the night before, when Axl through his microphone out, that’s the guy that caught it. Oh what else… I remember also in Sydney eating in a really nice restaurant along the water at night… just the nice moments like that. The shows are always… how do you even describe a show? It starts and your brain is in this other mode, and next thing you know the show is over and it’s more like one of those hazish dreams: “Did I just play, or didn’t I?” So unless something very significant happens in the show, I don’t really remember the show in a very clear way. But it’s everything after. Going back afterwards and meeting Chris Szkup and his girl, hanging with them. I can still picture seeing them and this nice drawing they gave me in a frame, which is hanging in my living room right now. It’s hanging over my wife’s head as she’s sitting on the couch right now watching Hell’s Kitchen on TiVo. So it’s little things like that. No matter what happens, good or bad, those are the fond memories that make it an endearing experience you cherish. The dinners, the hanging out.
One thing I thought was really cool was the bio on your site. I’m so tired of reading really stuffy bios. Yours is more like a real autobiography. You started playing from a pretty early age?
Yeah. It was the whole KISS thing. A lot of people from my generation heard the KISS Alive album for the first time and it got them so psyched up that they felt like they needed to experience that themselves – then spent the next 20 or 30 years working towards it. It’s the same kind of story. I was 5 years old and all the older kids in the neighbourhood got KISS Alive. Where I grew up there seemed to be two ages of kids: all the kids that were my age, and all the kids that were two or three years older. And the younger ones seemed to get exposed to a lot of the culture of the ones who were a little bit older. So I was five, six, seven years old and going out buying Boston’s first album, Yes’s ‘Going For The One.’ Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines.’ Ramones’ ‘Rocket To Russia.’ Really getting exposed at a much younger and maybe even more impressionable age. And KISS and the Beatles, those were my two favourites that made me really wanna make music. KISS made me wanna get up on a big loud stage and put on a crazy show, but the Beatles made me truly love music. That’s what made me want to lock myself up in a studio, splice up tape, turn it backwards. All that kind of stuff. That was the creative inspiration.
That’s cool! For me my first hero was Mark Knopfler and I started playing when I was about 7, but then I saw Steve Vai in David Lee Roth’s ‘Just Like Paradise’ video when I was 10 and I was like, ‘That’s so cool! I’ve gotta do that!’
Yeah! The whole Van Halen, Steve Vai, Satriani thing, all those guys, they’re the ones that took everyone into guitar and showed them a whole other realm out there. They just make you rethink everything and start challenging yourself.
Let’s talk about Abnormal. It sounds so energetic and powerful and freaking awesome.
About five years ago I got an old house. I don’t live there, I just use the place to make a lot of noise and piss off the neighbours. When I got this house I started slowly renovating it and turning it into more of a studio than a house. That’s the Batcave, a place to get away from home and just have a place where there’s no internet, no phones, no cable, no TV, no anything. All you can do there is make music. And that’s where I go when I’m producing, if I’m working on my own stuff, whatever it is, that’s my Batcave.
What do you use to record?
It’s a combination of things. Way back when, everything I had was reel-to-reel, just little Mackie boards. After that ADATs and DA88s, then a Mac with Logic, then a PC with Cubase. For the longest time it was just digital, then last year I went and got a whole bunch of crazy analog gear, like the really expensive stuff that makes you really question if you should have spend that much. The tube EQs, the compressors that you just can’t hear any artefacts no matter how much you squash. I think people always have this ‘or’ mentality instead of ‘and.’ They don’t realise it’s meant to be analog and digital. Each one has something the other has and the other hasn’t, and together you get everything.
One thing I really like about Abnormal is the power of the rhythm guitars, and just how animated the vocal takes are. You can just tell you really mean it.
On this album I dug really deep and you can hear everything I was into at that primal, youthful… Sex Pistols, Ramones, AC/DC. Just a culmination of life up to that point. Like at moments you can probably pick out Van Halen, even Allan Holdsworth, maybe Yngwie, maybe Ace Frehley. All kinds of things. I think that album is a pretty good culmination. It’s sort of the score card adding up everything. It’s like ‘Here’s where your life is at up to this point.’ When I do these albums, that’s what they are. They’re as biographical as the bio on the website. I just put it all out there and spill my guts.
The energy almost makes it feel like a live album.
I definitely wanted that feel. Very natural, not studio-processed, not ‘Let’s do it again and make sure we got the right take.’ It was like, ‘That take is all screwed up but it’s honest and pure and human as you can get, so let’s go with that one.’ So if there’s a screw-up in there, if the voice cracks, keep it! That’s being real! Those are the things you rewind, like, ‘Listen to the way his voice broke up!’ Those are things that can’t be repeated. You caught a real human moment. It’s so easy to get obsessed and start just over-magnifying all the little things, I guess getting microscopically immersed in it to the point that you’re counting the tiniest little things, driving yourself crazy for an hour comparing two different takes. Don’t overthink it. If it’s right, trust your instincts and move on. If you were to take Robert Plant’s vocal takes and nothing else, you’d hear all these little noises and things that sort of get eaten up by the music, yet if they weren’t there, there would be something very sterile about it. On some level that stuff just gets into your soul. When the true spirit is there, you feel it. I think that’s the mistake people make these days. Because of the ability to edit so much, we’re editing away our spirit in the music.
One of my favourites is on David Bowie’s ‘Thru These Architect’s Eyes’ from ‘Outside.’ His voice cracks in the most awesome way. He’s trying to reach the notes and he’s pushing too hard but it’s perfect.
Yeah! The vulnerability, the strength when you’re just willing to let yourself be imperfect. It’s touching, it really is.
Are you much of a gearhead?
In some ways I am and then I tend to reel myself in. If it sounds good and it’s workin’, don’t overthink it. Find myself starting to get too geeky, then I just say, ‘Screw it, just give me an amp and I’ll plug in and play.’ With G’n’R the rig is an ENGL setup that I sort of modified. There’s an E580 MIDI II preamp. I can change the patches as well as anything else MIDI just from foot pedals. I had it modified so it’s even smoother when you go from one channel to another. I had them come up with some kind of circuitry to make it even less of a gap. That’s going into an ENGL 100 watt E850 power amp. That one, I had tried one with EL34s which I personally prefer, but with G’n’R where you have drums, loops, bass, keyboards, another set of keyboards, two other guitar players, vocals and backing vocals, it was getting a little bit lost. The EL34s weren’t cutting through and I found that the 6L6s in the power amp were very biting and very tight and they would just cut through everything.The tone was very pointy and stuck out. But it wasn’t as warm and comfortable as the EL34s. So what I have is, the left channel is 6L6s and the right channel is EL34s, and the front-of-house engineer can blend the two to get exactly what’s needed that’s gonna work best.
Can we talk for a moment about Les Paul?
I met his son a good handful of times at different events with Gibson. One thing that I’m so pissed about is that there are a lot of times when people said to me, ‘Man you’ve gotta come down and see Les Paul, he plays in the city every week and you could probably get up and jam with the guy. And I was like, ‘definitely wanna do that one of these days, definitely wanna do that one of these days.’ And now I can’t. But god, that guy, talk about the Thomas Edison of music. From multitrack recording to effects to the Les Paul. But all other things aside, we all remember him as the guitarist and the inventor and the innovator, but he was a member of a family and a person, and I think of it more as a personal loss for them, and I just wish his family the best.
Let’s talk about Chinese Democracy. Production-wise I think that was one of the best-sounding albums to come out last year.
Mastering was such a big issue and they were so meticulous about everything about it to make sure it stayed clear and the vision was realised. Mastering was a big part of making that happen. I think it was the first album of hopefully a lot more to follow that decided that quality was more important than the volume war – it would rather be not as loud and in-your-face, but something that keeps its dynamics and bandwidth. It’s such a full recording. There’s so much going on in it, so much information to be processed as you listen, that it needs to be clear and pulled back so you can really get it without it being just this giant square wave. So I’m hoping that with other albums that follow, people will start realising, ‘Hey, we can just turn up our stereo, turn up our iPod…’
What are your favourite moments on Chinese Democracy? For instance, my favourite track is ‘Better.’ What’s going on there?
There are little things I added to it. Besides the rhythm track I put in, there were some little bluesy riffs at the end of the second verse, just little things like a five-beat break after the Buckethead solo, then there’s the loud, screaming part going on… after all of that there was a break that was just keyboards and I just put in a simple thing with my fretless guitar. Just little things where, knowing I contributed something of value. But there are so many little things where you can go through it and find something that’s so interesting about the production, or musically, or performance-wise?
Are there any plans for more G’n’R touring?
There have been a lot of plans, it’s just that when it comes to battling the economy… there are so many variables that could make it not work. I’m guessing at this point that if something is confirmed, management would let everyone know. So at this point if I said anything it would be premature, so I should just wait for them to say anything.