Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guns N' Roses Guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal talks Gear, Guitar Making, and Music

Local Music Gear Exclusive Interview 
Written By: Dan O'Donnell

Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal is a guitarist with a lot going on. In addition to his main gig as lead player with Guns N' Roses, in his non-touring time he can be found working with a wide variety of artists in his NJ studio as a co-writer and producer of artists from Mexican female rocker Poc ( to New York City female rocker Alexa Vetere ( to Houston rapper ‘Scarface.’

Besides working with these up-and-coming artists, Ron is releasing his own songs as they come out, complete with extras that include charts for the songs, mixes without leads so listeners can play along, mixes with only leads, so listeners can try to replicate what he plays, and “stems” or separate tracks for each instrument so listeners can adjust the mix to their liking.

“I know my audience, I know what they like, and I know what I like,” Ron said. “They are guitar players, and they ask me all the time, ‘do you have tabs or charts for your songs?’ And so I write the charts for the songs and put them out there.”

Ron, an amiable guy with a Gene Simmons-like topknot and a braided beard the day we spoke, plays a style of guitar that is incredibly articulated, with clear, clean notes that he plays with both hands, far up the neck. He is the first person I have ever heard who will shred an old jazz standard like “Girl from Ipanema” (improvising, no less) on an archtop played cleanly through an amp. But he is an artist who cannot be pigeonholed into one genre.

Classically trained, Bumblefoot had eight years of private lessons and began playing the guitar at age seven. His musical career bloomed around five years later, when he began making his own guitars. Those guitars reflect his personality—a little off the wall, but with a distinct sense of fun—and some can be seen at his website,

double neck1957 strat reissue
He built a mutant double neck guitar from a 1957 strat reissue and a bass neck with guitar tuners—cut off at the seventh fret and tuned an octave higher than normal, which he would use to play piercing high notes that he couldn’t reach on the regular neck.

“I built some unique guitars, but it was the kind of thing that only a mother would love some of these. They were my little Frankenstein babies,” Ron said. “I would do shows at L’Amour in Brooklyn and I would bend the notes (on the half-scale neck of the strat) and they would be so high you could see the audience holding their ears.”

In addition to the double necked strat, he made such fanciful creations as his “swiss cheese guitar” which looks like a piece of cheese that a rat has gotten to. His luthier career began when he was 12, he said.

“I would paint Iron Maiden album covers on the back of dungaree jackets for high school kids for 20 bucks,” Ron said. “That’s how I got the money to get pickups for guitars, for old guitars that I would turn into some monstrosity.”

“swiss cheese”
Some of those “monstrosities” have been reproduced by the Patrice Vigier company, who have sponsored Ron since 1997 and supply him with his stage guitars.  Of the four guitars he uses on stage with Guns and Roses, at least three are Vigier—one is a double neck fretless and six-string fretted guitar, and one is a single neck. Vigier also made him a “flying foot guitar” (painted like a bumblebee) with wings that come out when you press down the whammy bar, and a remake of the “swiss cheese” guitar

He used the fretless guitar on his tracks on “Chinese Democracy,” which was widely reported to be the longest in production and the most expensive studio album made by a rock band. He said that adding his tracks to what was already a multi-layered mix was no easy feat.

“It really was like such a balance of sounds where, if I was playing something I had to watch not to step on the vocals, don’t step on the lead, don’t step on this instrument…but when I did it, it gave me a chance to use the fretless guitar and add something that I felt was my own spirit to it,” Ron said of the Chinese Democracy album. “I don’t want to just play for the sake of playing.” He added that the album pioneers the use of fretless guitar.

“One thing I think is really cool is Chinese Democracy is the first major-label release that has a fretless guitar as a major part,” Ron said. “So I felt like, ‘okay, I added something that made the album special. I did something that made me feel like my DNA was part of this child.”

He said the fretless guitar offers incredible versatility, though it does take some getting used to.

“It’s like having a slide on every finger. Say you’re playing a major triad, then you slide it up the neck and move a finger, suddenly you’ve got a minor triad,” Ron said. “You can do things with unisons that is like a natural chorus effect that adds tension to the chord. You can really explore the clashing of waves when you can slide and drag harmonics, drag pinched notes…there are a lot of things you can do that you'd need a whammy bar or a slide (otherwise), you just have to develop your finger intonation on the neck.”

He uses nearly the entire length of the string when he plays, often playing duets with both hands and even using a sewing thimble on his right pinkie to allow him to hit notes that aren’t on the fretboard.

His early days of guitar making behind him, he now has companies lining up to let him use their guitars. But he sticks with what works for him. For instance, he uses a relatively inexpensive Parkwood acoustic guitar with a Fishman pickup on it to play acoustically on stage with Guns and Roses, as well as to record his own “Barefoot” acoustic album.

“It’s a great guitar. On stage, recording, it’s one of the best acoustics I’ve used,” Ron said. “You can get some really nice sounds out of that Fishman. It plays like butter, it doesn’t sound like a toy.”
But guitars alone do not make a killer sound, and Ron was looking for a special sound from his amplifier.  He said he went through a lot of soul (and head) searching to find his perfect sounding amplifier. 

“I spent months in a rehearsal room at Burbank, 96 or 97 days. I went through every single cabinet, every speaker, every head, customizing preamps and power amps until I could say, ‘this is my sound. This is as close to the sound in my head as I can get,’” Ron said. Then he came home. “After stepping away from it and coming back to my setup I said, ‘I’m making this way too complicated.'”

Saying he doesn’t like to hear the distortion, but focuses instead on the tone of the amp, Ron said he felt he was looking for an impossible to find quality.

“I was looking for something that’s very hard to find, I was looking for clean dirt,” Bumblefoot said. “For me, out of every one I tried, Engl (the Engl Invader 100) was as close as I was going to get.”

He paired that head with a Marshall 4-12” 65 watt cabinet in a Hermit iso-cab with two AT4050 mic's going to the front of the house. His favorite pickup is a DiMarzio “Chopper” because “It feels almost like a high-output pickup, but it has the characteristics of a low-output. What you do is what you hear, and I like that. I want the human imperfection, I don’t want this mechanical sound that is fully saturated.”

For effects, he uses a TC Nova System. “I’m not a big effects guy, I’ve always been…for me, just try to get the best out of your fingers,” Ron said. “But I do have that nice Nova system in the FX loop that gives delays and reverbs and anything else I need. It pretty much has everything.” When traveling without his gear, he said he keeps a delay, wah, and distortion pedal handy.

“(When starting with Guns N' Roses) I wanted to use a cable. I could hear the loss of quality of sound, but they said, ‘man, it’s a 100-foot stage and people are running around’” so he ended up using a wireless system. “If it was up to me, I’d just play cable, amp…I don’t even want to hear the amp. Usually when I’m playing I turn myself down in the monitors, I want to listen to everyone else.”

His pick choice is much like that of many other guitarists. “Medium, heavy, whatever I borrow from somebody because I never have a pick in my pocket,” he said with a smile. Strings are Ernie Ball Hybrid slinky, .009 for fretted guitars, .012 for fretless.

When asked what advice he had for guitarists, he was succinct.  “Use a fucking metronome so you can learn how to play nicely with others. The metronome is the best friend you’ll ever have,” the world traveler said. “And guitarists need to remember, the drummer is the leader of the band. They lead, you follow. You do not step on their lines.”

While playing sold out arenas all year sounds glamorous, Ron said there is a down side to the screaming throngs of people waiting to see him play.

“In front of 100,000 people, that can actually be the most alone feeling. If you’re doing that every night of the year and not getting enough of a personal connection with the audience, you start feeling like you’re just a 2-D image on a movie screen,” Bumblefoot said. “I think it’s important to break that disconnect.”

To that end, he said the band played theatre gigs earlier this year. “Walking out each night, and the audience would reach up and play your guitar, you could put a guitar pick on the security guy’s head…it was so normal and real, like it’s supposed to be.”  Other times, he noted, the band goes to a club to jam after their show was over.

“We played two nights at Wembley and in between, we went to the Cuckoo Club in London and played an acoustic set at 4 AM,” Ron said. “Just random shit, we do that.”

But Ron is more than just a rock star. He is a volunteer and board member of, a non-profit organization begun by Ralph Rosa, one of his former students who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1997. He helps with fund raising, holding different events so that money can be donated directly to help fund research. And a portion of all Bumblefoot autographed items sold are donated to the MSRF as well.

He also works with music education for kids, including working with the School of Rock, which teaches kids how to rock out the right way, as a guest artist and has recently teamed up with Musicians on Call.

“We went to Dallas to visit a children’s hospital,” Ron said of his recent Guns N' Roses touring. Then, sounding a bit like a kid himself, “I took my guitar and one of the kids there had his guitar, so we jammed a little bit. It was cool.” 

His philosophy is “If you have something to share, let it go. Pass the torch, keep it going.” He says that being good doesn’t mean being able to play every song in the book, either.

“You only have to be good enough to play your own song. Talent is playing your own songs well, and knowing when it’s not your game and you shouldn’t be playing it,” Ron said. “The ping pong champion is still a champion even if he’s getting his ass whipped in football. So if he wants to be remembered as a champion, he should stick to ping pong.”
But the bottom line is that he performs for the love of the fans.


“We (performers) do this to make people happy. We don’t do this for any other reason,” Thal said. “Comedian, actor, whatever it is…if you break it down and strip away all the business bullshit, that’s all it is.”

(Left) hand  (Right) Pensive Expenguin
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Posted 04/2012
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