In-depth Interview With Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal
By Aniruddh "Andrew" Bansal
April 25th 2011, Los Angeles CA: Savor the delightful Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal as he opens up completely and talks to me in great detail about his new single 'Invisible', his role as a producer, solo touring plans, bizarre stories from recent Guns 'N Roses tours, teaching lessons, the future of music, and his famous Swiss Cheese guitar.
Andrew: I was just listening to your new single "Invisible", your first original release in three years. Can you tell me how it came about?
Ron: It's all down to just timing and juggling everything that I'm doing. I had put out "Abnormal" in 2008 and then Chinese Democracy came out after which I popped out a quick acoustic EP called "Barefoot", and then for two years I was away and couldn't really do too much. When I'm on the road I can never write. For me to write a song, I need to be able to step away from everything going on in music, just live the life and then write from that. So I have a hard time writing on the road and I get kind of burned out on all the music constantly. We finished at the end of December last year. All the words just started to flow and I was able to start banging out songs. This is one of the first ones that came about. Originally I had written the music in the mid 90s and that's why the song sounds grungy. It goes back that far, I just never did anything with it. Now, I just laid the drums and vocals and just popped it out. I didn't over-think it. Write a song and put it out, that's all I'm trying to do now. I do that every month and so far, I've been able to keep up with it.
Andrew: So when will you be ready to release a full album?
Ron: Doing a full album for me takes about nine months of writing, recording, prepping and doing everything, and I don't have the time anymore. I can only bite off things in small pieces. So I'm able to do this "one song every month" kind of thing. I could have put together all these songs, waited a year and then put them out, but I'd rather give it to everybody in pieces and just keep this constant flow of music coming out. I don't know, may be at the end of the year I'll take all of this stuff and put it on a disc to make it some sort of a physical embodiment of the music and not just files. But at this point I'm not even thinking about doing an album. I'm really content just giving people a song at a time.
Andrew: This single also comes in player and producer packs. Could you talk about that? I think it's a great thing for young musicians for them to be able to break down the song and learn it.
Ron: Exactly, that's the whole idea. When I wanted to putt out the song, I didn't want to just stick an mp3 on itunes. I wanted to give people a lot for each song, all the things that I would have loved to have for songs that I was really into my whole life. So I asked a lot of people as to what they would like. A lot of the guitar players were into transcription and that aspect of it all. So what I did besides putting out the song in different high-res formats like Wav and Flac, I would take the whole song from beginning to end and transcribe it. This was the most time consuming thing. It meant figuring the song out, and then going into transcribing software, doing the musical notation, the tablature, the fingers, picking, and making a PDF file of it all, taking care of the type setting and making sure everything is right. So I put that out along with a backing track that has all the music except for the guitar parts, so that you can learn the transcript and play it along with the backing track. Then as an audio guide for the transcription, I would also include a mix that has all the guitars boosted up very loud, and the music in the distance so that you can get a really good listen as to how it should sound. That's for the guitar players out there. I call that the Player Pack. Then what I do for the Producer Park is, I take all the stems of the recording and take each individual apart, so you got the drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, vocals, backing vocals and anything else going on. You can load all the wav files into a multi track software and you can make your own mixes, single stuff out, make edits and do whatever you want with it. So it's a lot of stuff you can do with each song.
Andrew: When the full length eventually comes about, how do you think it'll compare to the previous release "Abnormal"?
Ron: I don't know what it's going to sound like in the end. It's hard to say. Hopefully it'll be as good or better, and not worse (laughs). But as far as what kind of music it'll be, jazz, death metal or whatever else, I have no idea. Whatever is going to come out, will come out and I just go by where my life is at that point.
Andrew: Is "Invisible" a digital-only release or will you be putting out a physical release as well?
Ron: If I do anything of that sort, it'll be at the end of the year as a kind of 2011 CD. But so far everything is just 0s and 1s, just the digital shit, that's it (laughs).
Andrew: The reason why I asked is because I think the artwork is great, and I would love to see it being released on a 7-inch or something, for people to be able to get a hold of it.
Ron: Yeah, the art totally kicks ass. There's this guy in Australia, he's like my official artist now. I love his artwork so much, he's been doing all my stuff. He's phenomenal. So he did that art and we made a shirt of it. This time I went for full color digital printing so you get the full image and it's not just a cutout. So yeah, it's kickass art.
Andrew: You've also been known as a DIY producer. So in your opinion, what's the role of a producer in any artist's music? How much do you think a producer is involved?
Ron: For me, my feeling is that when I'm producing something, I am overseeing the entire process and I'm responsible for what people hear in the end. So, that being said, the songwriting, the arrangement of the songs, the sound of the instruments, the performance and how they are playing it, the mix, the mastering and every single thing about it. It's like being a psychologist for the musicians and controlling every little thing. Whatever I do as a producer is hands on. I pick the mics, and do every single aspect of it. It's a huge responsibility but I love it and I enjoy it very much.
Andrew: Is there any chance for you to go out on a solo tour? I know there's hardly any time for you to do that, but is there a possibility?
Ron: Well, it's something I haven't done since 2005. I had one tour planned in 2006 but I had to cancel it, because it conflicted with the GNR tour. I tried to book some shows in 2007 to coincide with different cities we were going to be playing at, but it didn't work out because plans changed and it just became so difficult. The problem I have is, for me to book a tour I have to do it six months in advance. With GNR, things happen very last minute, when everything is confirmed and good to go. I get just a month's notice a lot of times. So what happens is, whenever I book something months in advance, something else comes up and I have to cancel it all. I just hate doing that. There's nothing I hate more than canceling a show. So rather than all the wasted promotion, cost, and all the disappointment from people who were planning to go to those shows, I just gave up on trying. I figured that at some point when I know there is going to be a big hiatus on the GNR side, then I can make some plans. But before I can make any plans, honestly I need to get my own shit back into shape. I haven't done my own stuff for so long that I need to really bust my ass and get used to singing and playing all that crazy stuff again. With GNR and with most of the things that I do when I'm playing live with somebody, I just play guitar and it's pretty easy in comparison to my own stuff on guitar on my albums. Then having to sing on top of that and doing both at the same time, I definitely need to get myself back into that. I started last night, just relearning all the solos. Crazy shit man, what the hell was I thinking? (laughs)
Andrew: You did a GNR tour in 2009-10. You met a lot of the fans on that tour. What was that like for you?
Ron: Now see, that stuff is like my favorite. When I go on tour, I do the shows, the shows are great. But it's everything else, it's the human interaction that surrounds it is what you really remember to take with you. I can't remember the specifics of how we played a song on any given night, but I can pretty much tell you the date of every show we played, where I was, who I met, what I ate and who I hung out with, and what bizarre thing happened. I would take it upon myself to make all these contests. They all worked out really well. I did a bunch of meet n greets in summer last year in Europe and Moscow. When we were in South America, I had this thing where people would just write in and I would randomly pick people to get backstage passes, to hang out, get guitar lessons and lot of the times they got to meet Axl too and take pictures with him. There were always some really nice people. It was a lot of fun and great memories for them, just something out of nowhere. For Australia, we had the 2-year anniversary of Chinese Democracy coming up. So I had people singing Chinese Democracy songs backwards, where the last word was first and the first word last. So for "There Was A Time", it was "Time A Was There", and they had to go through the same melody, but starting with the last word. It was kind of crazy (laughs). It just felt like a different language and there was something very eerie about it. It just screws with your mind. The other thing they had to do as a contest was, they had to do a little dance hopping around on one leg with a full quart bowl of soup over their head. It would spill all over them as they were singing happy anniversary songs. So this one guy went into the middle of the street wearing a really nice business suit and the soup was splattered all over him. Cars were honking at him, and he won. So he got tickets to the show, hung out backstage. I also got in touch with some of the other contestants who already had tickets to different shows. I gave them backstage passes so we could all hang out. So that's the kind of stuff I dig. That's the kind of thing that happens just once and not the same way.
Andrew: Since you said that you remember everything that happened on the tour, what was the most bizarre thing that happened?
Ron: Let me see (laughs). I mean, there's always bizarre things that happened. I guess one thing that comes to mind is the whole series of events surrounding a gig we had scheduled in Brazil. There was an acoustic show that we were asked to play, and we had said no because we were playing three shows in a row and then this was way too much for any singer to do. We had two big shows after that night. It was the acoustic show in Sao Paulo and then we had the big arena show, and the next night in Rio. It was totally up to Axl if his voice was up for it. We said that if it doesn't jeopardize his throat, we would do the show. When the time came, we said we can't risk it. So we didn't do it, but the people that were running the event had advertised it anyway even though we hadn't agreed on doing it. So it was like we were being pushed into it. So I guess they freaked out when we didn't do it. There was a lot of violence and a lot of negative rumors started, so there was that. The next night we played Sao Paolo and it was great. And then in Rio, while the crew was on the way to the venue, the bus broke down. They were stranded for about two hours and it delayed setting everything up for that show. So they got there, started setting everything up and suddenly a big storm hits. It was a fucking tornado. From what I understand and from what people told me, there had never been a tornado in Rio. This was the only one ever, and it hit our stage. A saw a video of it because we weren't there yet, and there were pieces of sheet metal flying through the air at 80 miles an hour that would just cut people in half. The whole right side of the stage collapsed down and landed right in front. It would have taken out the first 30 feet of people. There would have a lot of death and a lot of injuries. The only reason it didn't kill a bunch of people was that they had to delay opening the doors because the bus broke down. So if the bus hadn't broken down, a lot of people .. So it was like a series of crazy events. And then, Sebastian Bach was opening for us. His bus full of gear went off the road, flipped out into a ravine and his whole gear was smashed. This was all in a matter of 48 hours. So of course, that show was cancelled. Outside the hotel, there were 60-100 fans, they were crying because so many of them waited so long for this and flew out to be there. Someone had an acoustic guitar and I just started hanging out with him, and playing songs. I ended up making it just a private little acoustic show for them, two hours of just singing and playing. So at least we were able to do that together, just me and them. So the next morning the crew had to go through this pile of twisted metal and broken gear which got rained on all night. The wood was all soaked, everything was messed up. They loaded it into trucks, got it into the next town, repairing and replacing what they could, and they managed to be able to make the next show happen right on time. It was incredible. I'll never forget that. I don't know how the hell they did that. This is just one of I don't know how many stories, you know (laughs).
Andrew: One thing you also told me earlier was that you go to music schools and arrange clinics. How much do you enjoy doing that? That's also one kind of interaction which people enjoy from musicians.
Ron: Yeah, just last weekend I drove out and visited a high school class in New York. A friend of mine was with them. I came out and spent two hours just talking to them, playing little bits of songs on my guitar, talking about how to make music, crazy road stories, life lessons and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, any chance I get to do this kind of stuff, I take it. I started taking guitar lessons when I was seven, started teaching by the time I was 13 and stuck with it. For me, doing that stuff is important and just feels like something that needs to be done for your soul, and part of being human is to take what you have, what you know and what you've learnt, and give it to the next bunch for them to carry that torch.
Andrew: I also saw one of your blog posts in which you talk about the future of music. Currently, what do you feel about it? What direction do you think the music business is heading in?
Ron: It evolves so fast and it's all about technology. In the last 30-40 years, the styles of music we have only exist because of the technology that developed and allowed for it. So it's the same thing with the music business and how we distribute, promote, make our music, and connect with people who listen to it. The bandwidth is getting larger and 3G is turning into 4G. I think there's going to be a lot more streaming. The CD sales went from CD Baby who started doing it for independent artists to Amazon who came up with the Amazon Advantage Program back in the late 90s. The thing that's going to happen now is, companies are going to start making streaming services solely for independent and unsigned artists. It's an idea that I've had and been thinking about doing myself, just making some kind of streaming service. I think there's going to be a lot more of that coming up, though I have my own biases about the music business based on my own experiences and the experiences of everybody I've met. I've always been about empowering indie artist and not trying to be part of this half-flawed system that has screwed its own artists and in essence screwed itself.
Andrew: How much importance do you give to social networking these days? Promoting is all about facebook, twitter and youtube and all of that stuff.
Ron: Yeah, at this point, that is your distributor, your publicist and your PR company. All the reasons that people had to get signed in the past, you can kind of do all of that yourself now, or get a friend to help you do it. I talk a lot about how you don't need labels and this and that. I'm not talking about bands like Aerosmith, Metallica or Guns, but I'm talking about and talking to the kid that is just starting out, and bands who've been at it for a couple of years, the 99.99 per cent of people making music out there. You don't need give away your publishing rights, you don't need to give away the right to record in the ownership of your music. You don't need to seek out a loan you can never pay back. I think even labels would agree that they don't want to deal with bands that they have to raise from infancy. They want to deal with bands that have something going on. So even if you go on and get signed to a label, you need to do all the stuff I'm talking about. Music is your baby, think of it that way. You need to feed and clothe that baby and raise it, do your best for it. So social networking is your means to connect to the rest of the world. You don't have to pay for a thousand ads in magazines and you don't have to pay to have your album in the front of the record store in the listening booth. Now all you need to do is just reach out through the internet, and to find a creative way for people to pay attention to you amongst the other millions that are also doing it.
Andrew: Since you talked about singing songs backwards, have you played any of your songs backwards, specially the "Guitars Suck" thing that you did?
Ron: Yeah, when I play things backwards, there is a hell of a lot of fucked up messages that I heard. When you put on albums backwards, you hear stuff. When you hear my songs backwards there is a lot of fucked up shit in there. That's what you should do, you should all go and check out my songs playing them backwards. You won't believe what you fucking hear. I was just kidding (laughs). But I have listened to songs backwards from a songwriting stand point. I remember when I was ten years old, I had the Scorpions' Blackout album and for some reason I just felt the need to listen to that album backwards. The songs were just as good.
Andrew: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the Swiss Cheese guitar. That is the most unique guitar I have ever seen. You did that, and then stopped using it in the late nineties. How did that idea come about and why did you stop using it?
Ron: Originally, that started off as an Ibanez guitar. I would paint Iron Maiden album art for like 20 bucks each, and I had saved up enough money to get an Ibanez Roadster guitar. That was in 1984 when I picked it up. Over time, I got into modifying and re-building my guitars. That guitar went through a couple of changes. One of them was when I had a drill and a router, and I tried to make it look like I took a bite out of one part of the guitar. It didn't quite work, and I was just like, fuck it. And I just took random sized bits off of it, and slammed holes through the fucking thing. I then looked at it, and said, "Yeah, this looks cool". I took a slice of swiss cheese, went to a paint store and kind of snagged it on the table, telling the guy to make that color on the guitar. The guy looked at me funny for a couple of seconds. He said, "You know, a week ago someone came in holding a walnut and asked me if I can match that color too". So it was kind of strange for him, people bringing in food. So he made up the thing. I had a little paint sprayer in the garage, and yeah I made that guitar. I have Dimarzio pick-ups in there. It must have been around 91. So I've been with them for about 20 years now. I tried different pick-ups and finally found this really cool set-up. That was my main guitar that I toured with for 13 years. Then I met up with Vigier guitars in France. I was touring there in 1997, and one of their reps came to a show with a guitar and wanted me to check it out. It felt a hell of a lot better than my guitar. I wasn't looking for any endorsements and was intent just building my own Frankenstein monstrosity, but these things played really nice and I spoke to them. Everyone was cool at the company. We started talking about things and we made a little deal. From that point on, they made all my weird guitars instead of me. They do it much better than I can. So I'm leaving it to the pros. They did make about 10 or 11 replicas of that exact Swiss Cheese guitar. I have one left, and hopefully at some point this year I want to auction it off for medical research or disaster relief. I have the last remaining one.
Check out Ron Thal's official website.