In Search of ... Bumblefoot
An Interview with
Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal
May 11, 2008
Who or what is a Bumblefoot, you ask? At first glance, your trusty dictionary will describe it as "Ulcerative Pododermatitis: an infection found on the feet of birds of prey and rodents." Well class, throw those textbooks out the window because the Bumblefoot we will be discussing today is much more complex than that. Bumblefoot is none other than Ron Thal, an accomplished guitarist, solo artist, writer, producer, engineer, hot sauce connoisseur and guitarist for a little band called Guns N' Roses. With a resume like this, one might wonder, "Is there anything this man can't do?" Jason Price and Steve Johnson of Live-Metal.Net struck out on a mission to meet up with this man of mystery, find out what makes him tick and observe him in his natural habitat—New Jersey. The results of this grand experiment are below, as we go "In Search of ... Bumblefoot."
Live-Metal.Net: What inspired you to get into music and to go this route? Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: Oh man, this goes way back to when I was about 5 years old. All the older kids in my neighborhood were into KISS. Then I heard the KISS Alive album for the first time and it just blew my mind! I wanted to be a drummer and so did my brother. So we got into this contest where whoever had the faster drum roll got to be the drummer. Me being 5 and him being 8, he was a little bit faster, so he ended up being the drums. So I was like, "OK, I want to be a bass player because Gene Simmons is badass with the fire, the blood and the high shoes!" Bad shoes! [laughs] So, I went to a place to start taking bass lessons and at this point I was about 6. The bass was taller than I was and the strings were thicker than my fingers, so that wasn't going to happen. So they lied to me at the music store and told me that by law you have to play acoustic guitar for two years before you can switch to bass. So I was like, "OK, if that is what I need to do I will do my time, man! I am gonna take it like a man, like a 6 year old man, and do it!" So I got into it and just stuck with it and forgot that I was supposed to switch to bass. Twenty years and I forgot! But I do play bass now too, but I play it like shit because I never did get those bass lessons when I was 6. So it all kinda worked out and I have gotten to do everything, although I am the world's shittest drummer. So it is a good thing that I didn't take the drum lessons!
How did you brother do with the drums?
He did well with it, but he is probably the world's shittest guitar player!
For those not familiar with you or your music quite yet, how did the name Bumblefoot come about?
From her! [points to his wife Jen Thal aka Mrs. Foot] My wife was in veterinary school many, many years ago and she is a veterinarian now—she passed! Thanks to my help, of course! I was helping her study and one of the diseases was called Bumblefoot and I was like, "What the fuck is that? That is so stupid!" So I am reading about it and it said that turkeys get this disease and that one way to treat it is to rub hemorrhoid cream on their foot. I was thinking, "This is so idiotic! I am naming my band Bumblefoot!" It sorta became my nickname, which worked out to not being the best thing in the world. Especially following someone named "Buckethead" in a band. You get all the jokes like "Buckethead and now Bumblefoot? What's next, Bumperdick?" Everyone has something to say, but whatever! At the time I guess I was more in a Monty Python state of mind where I thought being named after a giant fucked up foot might be funny and good for the rest of my life. So I wake up one morning and I am taking myself a little more serious—or I should say that other people are taking me more seriously—and the name is, I wouldn't say a detriment, but it makes you scratch your head.
Ron Thal covering Iron Maiden's "Running Wild"
on Fuse TV's "Talking Metal"
Is the name something you think that you will need to separate at some point or are you not taking it too seriously?
I think I should just see what happens. If I have legal troubles, I can always come up with a symbol and do that whole thing. "The Artist Formerly Known as Bumblefoot" and then people will be asking what the fuck is this symbol and what the fuck is a Bumblefoot, just to make it worse! But who knows, I may wake up one morning and decide that I am changing my name to Bumblefuck and just do that. I almost considered doing that by putting out a press release saying that I have changed my name to "Bumblef**k" and then from there I can just shorten it to "Fuck"!
Who and what were some of the influences that have helped shape you, the musician, that we know today?
Oh Jesus! Ummm ... No, not Jesus—well maybe a little bit! Yeah, whatever! [laughs] Drinking hot sauce has been a major thing, whichI really need to stop doing! I have been drinking too much of it and it is way too hot! I got this stuff that is as hot as commercial grade pepper spray and can be used as a weapon. I put it on my food. You are supposed to put one drop in a four-quart vat of chili and I am using one drop on a forkful of chicken! It has reached the point now where I am basically taking a shot of hot sauce and putting a piece of chicken in my mouth! If I keep doing that, I am probably going to die! I will probably get up one day and shit out all my organs and they will all be liquified. So I need to quit that, but I definitely think that helped shaped what I am today. What else? My mom and dad, I got their genes so they are partly to blame. Oh wait, did you mean musically?
Guitar-wise, I was always into Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen really opened my mind up to a different way of looking at things. For the most part, I really played a lot like Angus [Young] when I was a kid and was totally into that vibe. When I heard Eddie Van Halen for the first time, I was like, "What? What the fuck is he doing?" and that kinda changed the road that I was on.
Who were some of the other guitarists that top your list as "the greats?"
Well definitely Eddie. Hendrix is there, for that feel and he had such a fucking vibe to him. It is so hard to say. Even Yngwie [Malmsteen] because, to me, I think of the ones that had such an impact on music or guitar players, or both. People started shredding because of him. He's to blame for that because he inspired a lot of people that went on to take what he did and add it to their schooled, jazz approach that they had to things and suddenly you have all the shrapnel artist for next 10 years. So he has to be given a lot of credit for being a major inspiration for a lot of people. I could even throw in some people that you wouldn't expect like Elliot Easton from The Cars because he was so fucking tasty in what he played. If you want to go down that road, you could even say Ace [Frehley]. You can sing his guitar parts more than you can even sing the vocal to a KISS song. You could go on forever, people were great for so many different reasons either by what they contributed or by how something hits you individually.
What is the biggest misconception about yourself?
I would say that one misconception is that everything I do is a big fucking joke, that I don't take it seriously and all I want to do is make people laugh. Maybe I put out a song with a funny title, but the 11 other songs on the album touch on some serious personal shit. Maybe I talk about it in a light hearted way because I am not trying to drag anybody down, but it is still serious shit nonetheless. I think that and being called "Bumblefuck," when you put those two elements together and I think that people may think I am not serious about music. So that is one misconception, but ya know, I am just being myself. I have an obnoxious sense of humor and sometimes it comes out in whatever I am doing. Sometimes I say the wrong thing at the wrong time because I know it's the wrong thing at the wrong time and that is why I just fucking have to say it. So I do it. Maybe I am like that a little bit musically too.
What else? Hmmmm, that I am tall! I'm not and I am not afraid to admit that! [laughs]
It was recently revealed that your new album will be called Abnormal.
Yeah, because the world was really waiting to know! [laughs]
So what can you tell us about the album?
Well, back up one step to Normal. That was pretty autobiographical about what was going on. I guess in a sense, everything anyone writes is autobiographical whether it is about an event that happened in their life or about the way they perceive it. Usually an artist is trying to get you to see something through their eyes—not that I am an artist, I'm a "Bumblefuck"! [laughs] Normal was trying to tell the story of where shit was at, where I was beaten, battered and bumblefucked! I went on some mind-altering medication before I put a bullet in my head and that got me through that. The side effect of that is that on those kind of meds, you can't really get creative anymore. They block a lot of the bad shit you use to create. So it was a whole time period of weighing what was better: to be happy and silent, or a head case but be able to give something. So in the end, music always wins! Otherwise there would be no musicians. If you ask half of them they are like, "Why the hell am I doing this?" It's because you have to. You have no choice in the matter. It was assigned to you and it is not your choice. You have to do it and if you try not to, you feel like your holding your breath. You have to breathe and you have to make the music.
So, with Abnormal, the meds wore off. I'm a fucking head case again! [laughs] Ask her! [motions to his wife] So same old shit, a lot of love songs. Sure! [laughs] From everyone that has heard it, they say it reminds them of the Sex Pistols but with this Queen musical thing that is going on. There are moments where there is a little bit of opera and I did have opera singers come in and sing on it. I think guitar-wise, my head was in a different place with this album. I wouldn't even say that I cared more about everything. I think I cared less about everything and that allowed me to do something a little more natural because I wasn't guided by the idea of "this is what people want to hear" and "this is what I should or shouldn't be doing." I was just like, "Fuck it!" I just have to do whatever. In the end, I think a lot more melodic shit came out. The crazy shit was crazier and the pretty shit was prettier because when you let go of something and let it run free, it's like taking the intensity knob and turning it up a couple of notches! So I am pretty happy with this album. It's in the same direction as Normal was as far as songs with noodley-noodley over it, but I feel like I have stepped it up in every way. The sound quality, I put so much more time into the tone of everything. It just hit me over the head one day that it doesn't matter what you play if your final tone is not pleasing. So I really put extra into that. I don't know if it helped, but I tried! [laughs]
So Abnormal, it's not as freaky as the name. Well, it's got it's moments. You know how I had that song, "Guitars Suck"? Well, now I have a song called "Guitars Still Suck" and it's a little crazier than the last one! It was actually inspired by my friend Guthrie Govan, who is a wonderful friend of mine and an old friend of mine going back 20 years, lives in England. I was a guest on one of his songs that had a kinda country vibe to it and I wanted to make a song that was an answer back to him.
So a battle of sorts?
In a sense or more like a reply. I would call it that because it's not like a challenge or that kinda vibe. It's almost like swapping porn! Here's one and here's one back to you!
Mrs. Foot: It's like they are having a conversation with guitars. Sometimes it will go on for an hour. They will come up with the most ridiculous things.
RT: Yeah! There are times when Guthrie and I will jam for an hour and a half straight of going back and forth. As we are trading off, we might even throw in the theme to some cartoon and stuff like that. We always have a great time. I love the guy, he is wonderful!
Bumblefoot in an impromptu jam session
in Parsippany, New Jersey
When do you think you will be releasing Abnormal?
Well, I would like to get it out there as soon possible. It's a plus and a minus that I am doing things all by myself. It's a plus in the sense that I don't have to organize and wait and work it out. I can just put it out as it comes out, which is also a minus because there is no big bang when it comes out. Suddenly it is just there, but I kinda like that. So I am just making it available as I can and hopefully people will discover it and they have the option of deciding whether they like it ot not when it is there.
You are also known for having quite a few signature guitars and you held a year-long contest accepting submissions for a new design. When can we look forward to that new design seeing the light of day?
Vigier is working on it as we speak. They've been sending me photos and schematics as it's coming together, working out any modifications that might be needed. Workin' out the kinks, making sure the hand can fit comfortably between the necks, making sure the weight is distributed properly, stuff like that. Kinks.
You just announced that you will be creating an "all-star band" for the 2008 Rock Against Diabetes charity concert. How did you get involved with the charity?
Darrin Buchanan, a wonderful guy, this is his baby. He is putting it together and he has been doing it for a couple of years. Diabetes has been kicking his butt a little bit, lost a few toes, lost a foot. So obviously he has personal passion about this, as any of us would. He is putting all together and he contacted me and asked if I wanted to play. I told him that I could play it, but I thought we should do something bigger than that. I don't know who is going to be available and what the end result will be, but I am sure everyone would love to do it if they could. Time will tell and I hope that I live up to the expectations of what this could be.
A lot of people might have become familiar with you by way of Guns N' Roses. How did your involvement with the band come about?
It was about four years ago that we started talking. Joe Satriani recommended me and then I got a funny email from Chris Pitman, the keyboard player, and we all just started talking. It took a minute for us to get it together but we started touring in 2006. We just started jammin' and the next thing you know we are doing it in front of people, then we are doing it in all different places, then I am laying guitar tracks on the album and then here we are in New Jersey!
Did you know any of the others in the band before joining?
Pretty sure most of the guys had a previous relationship, except for me, haha. Tommy [Stinson] and Richard [Fortus] worked with Frank [Ferrer], things like that. Funny thing about Frank is that we had all these mutual friends, going back 20 years, but Frank and I had never met. Or maybe we did but just didn't realize it. So relationships developed. Frank and I get together whenever we can.
Ron Thal performs "Novemeber Rain"
with Guns N' Roses at Rock AM Ring
How did you react to the news that Robin Finck was leaving Guns N' Roses to rejoin Nine Inch Nails?
He's playing the 27th of August up at The Meadowlands, which I will always call it. I don't give a fuck if they are calling it Izod Theater or Continental or whatever they want to fucking call it. It's the Meadowlands! Bring the name back, dammit! [laughs] That's all I'm saying, haha.
Do you ever tire of being asked what is slowly turning into the Million Dollar Rock Journalism Question, "When is Chinese Democracy going to be released?"
How can you not ask that question? It's like, "Doesn't anyone notice that elephant in the room?!" We have new management and they are good guys, and it's in negotiations.
It has to be exciting for you, since Chinese Democracy is becoming such a piece of rock history. Do you know what your contribution to the album is?
I played on every song. Yeah, it is exciting, but I can't get that excited without thinking of the other guys. I am more excited for them because their journey with this is so much longer than mine. For me, it has been two years of seriously being active and there are guys who have been doing this for 10 years and I am just so fucking happy for them.
Bumblefoot on stage with Guns N' Roses
Warsaw, Poland 2006
Ever had a Spinal Tap moment on stage?
When haven't I? [laughs] On stage, off stage, that movie rings more true all the time. A great Spinal Tap moment was when we were playing in England two years ago. We're doing "Rocket Queen" and as we are doing the intro we see a bunch of guys bringing out these little, foot-high platforms behind us. As they are bringing them out, we are looking at each other like, "What the hell is going on?" and we go into the song and they quickly take them away. We had no idea what that was about. We found out later that we were going to have a bunch of "little people" dancing on these platforms for an extended intro to "Rocket Queen," but we were never told, so we had no clue. So we are arguing about the communication breakdown after the show, so I of course in the middle of it have one question to ask in a British accent, "Will we be doing 'Rocket Queen' tomorrow night? [instead of "Stonehenge"] And one of the guys says back [in an English voice], "No, we won't be doing fucking 'Rocket Queen'!" So that was a Spinal Tap moment. Little things like that can happen and when they do you just have to laugh. We try and make a rule of not mentioning anything from Spinal Tap before a show because it will jinx the show. It's all in good fun.
What does a guitar virtuoso like yourself think of Guitar Hero? Is it fun or is it like when those little kids are watching Marty McFly play Wild Gunman in Back To The Future 2? "That's like a baby's toy!"
It's a fun game. I like playin' it. It's like asking a race car driver how he feels about a racing game. They are two separate things, but it is a fun game. [laughs]
Being in the music industry as long as you have, are there still surprises?
The changes that happen in the industry now happen at an exponential rate, where the growth that would happen in 10 years now happens in a year. I guess technology is moving so fast, everything has to restructure to keep up with it. So there are always surprises but it boils down to it being the only form of legal slavery still allowed in America. I am not speaking on Guns behalf, I am speaking from my own personal experiences. I have had to remedy situations with baseball bats or hire hitmen to kill the owners of labels. [laughs]
How do you feel about the current state of rock music?
Well, with any kind of music, there are gonna be a million people that love it and 10 million people who hate it. It's not for everybody. Whatever that is out now that you don't like is not for you, it is for the people who do. That's just how it is. My music is for the 10 people that like it, for everyone else, it's not for them. So fuck 'em! [laughs]