Ron Thal is one of those guitarists that other, well-respected guitarists look up to in awe. He's earned public praise form such greats as Joe Satriani and Dream Theater's John Petrucci. Listen to about five seconds of his instrumental CD, "The Adventures of Bumblefoot", or any other of Thal's recordings, for that matter, and you'll see why. He's ALWAYS doing something different with his songs, though his distinct sound also shines through. Thal is also a great singer, which he showcases on "Hermit".
The following interview was recorded for my instrumental guitar show on Elizabethtown College's radio station during my senior year. Unfortunately, the interview never aired, as my obligations as a student "interfered" with the editing and production of the piece. I recently found and transcribed the recording:
DG: I guess we'll start off with the basics. How did you get started playing guitar?
RT: I was 6 years old and my brother and all his older friends were all into Kiss. I got exposed to rock music at a very young age. I had Kiss albums, Yes, Beatles - all kinds of stuff. It was all very inspiring - we wanted to be in a band and do what they were doing. First I wanted to play the drums, and my brother who was 2 1/2 years older than me was like, "alright, I'll tell you what - we're going to do a contest. I'm going to do a drum roll on my knee, and you do one on your knee, and whoever can do it faster, they are going to be the drummer. Of course, he did it faster, so he's the drummer. So, I was like, alright, I'll be the bass player. We go down the music store, and we try and sign up for lessons. I wanted to take bass lessons, but I was 6 years old, and the bass was bigger than me, so it wasn't going to happen.
So they lied to me - they said, alright, you're going to have to learn to play the guitar first - it's a mandatory thing. All bass players, before they can actually play a bass, they have to learn 2 years of guitar. I was so disappointed, but at that age, you don't question. So I was tricked into playing guitar! That was a good 21 years ago.
DG: So it all started with a lie.
RT: Yes, my life is based on a lie!
DG: It seems you have a lot of varied influences in your guitar playing. I know you mentioned that you listened to Kiss and the Beatles. Are there any guitar players or musicians specifically who have had a lot of influence on you?
RT: The things that influence me most are really bands. I'd say the Beatles had a big influence. The cello lines in my stuff - that's all from the Beatles. It's a total rip-off. As far as guitar players, I don't know, I've never really been into the whole instrumental guitar thing, even though I do that stuff. That's not what I'm really into. But, I went through all the different phases - like the Eddie Van Halen phase, where you just have to learn every solo and get it down. And the same thing with Malmsteen and all of them. I'm more into Rage Against the Machine - that's going to get me to play a cool guitar solo sooner than listening to Steve Vai or somebody like that.
DG: What type of stuff did you start out playing?
RT: When I was 9, 10 years old, it was me, my brother and another kid who now works at Tommy Boy Records. The three of us had a band together and we'd do shows in the back yard for 50 cents a ticket. We'd do [Pink] Floyd and Billy Joel, and whatever we could do - the Ramones and stuff like that. So I was always playing all different types of stuff. I was always playing in cover bands and original bands, and always learning songs. So I haven't concentrated in one direction - pretty much every direction at the same time.
DG: On [The Adventures of] Bumblefoot you definitely come through with your own signature guitar sound, and it's also apparent on Hermit, your new album. I was wondering how you came up with that sound.
RT: Well, it's not really something I came up with, it's just what's in my head. It's not something I sat down and tried to make, it's something that has developed over time to try and keep myself entertained while I'm playing. I don't know, I didn't actually set out to come up with anything, or even have a signature sound. I always liked playing - it kept me sane, it kept me out of trouble.
DG: So it's just the way you played...
RT: Yeah. If anything, it's just a very honest reflection of me. That's the best way to put it. I'm not trying to be anything, I'm not trying to do anything, I'm just doing whatever the hell I'm doing, and if I like it, that's it, if not, whatever.
DG: I heard that Bumblefoot is named after a thimble-type thing that you put on your foot?
RT: You read that on the Internet, right?
RT: I read that too. That's bullshit. You know what Bumblefoot is? It's an animal disease that fowls get. They get these lesions on their feet, and you treat it by rubbing Preparation-H on their feet, and wrap them up in a bandage. But that's where that came from. I read that too, and I didn't bother correcting the guy cause I thought it was just so silly.
I think just to be a wiseass, I used to actually try and play with my feet. It was two hands and one foot, and played a Bach piece lying the guitar on the floor, just so I could annoy people.
DG: Did you ever try the Hendrix thing where you play with your mouth?
RT: You know, I tried that when I was 10 years old and I chipped my tooth. I never tried it again. I cursed Hendrix, I cursed him!
But, Bumblefoot, that whole album - every song on that album is named after an animal disease.
DG: Yeah, I did read that, from the same place, actually. Was there any reason for doing that, or did you just think it was a neat idea and just went with it?
RT: Well, the girl I was seeing, who is now my wife, was in veterinary school, and she's now a veterinarian. So I would get all this secondhand information. She would tell me all these stories of things she had to deal with, and it would inspire a song.
DG: Kind of like the Ted Nugent thing with Cat Scratch Fever.
RT: Yeah. What is the story behind that?
DG: Basically the same thing. He heard of the disease from his wife, and he just thought it would be a cool idea for a song.
RT: Maybe I'm just stalking Ted Nugent and trying to live his life...
DG: It all comes out now...
RT: More questions, more questions!
DG: Ok, let's talk about the new album. This came out a few weeks ago...
RT: The release date is January 28, almost a whole month after Christmas, which is pretty good considering there's a Christmas song on there. Pretty smart thinking for the label, huh? No wonder they do so well!
DG: That's the dandruff song, right?
DG: You've got quite a sense of humor.
RT: Thank you. I've got too much time on my hands.
DG: I was wondering what your favorite song on the album was?
RT: My favorite, probably, if anything, overall I would say, "I Can't Play the Blues". It makes me laugh, and I like the solos in it. That one just came out really cool.
DG: You've got the rap/guitar thing going on with that one. Was that in any way influenced by Rage Against the Machine?
RT: Probably. I had a cover band, called "Mixed Bag of Nuts", and this was only like two years ago or so. We used to do a lot of Rage covers. I was actually the bass player in that band, but the singer, he also played bass, and we would switch off. So, he would sing all the Journey stuff, and then he'd take the bass, and I'd do all the Rage stuff, and I would break everything. It was beautiful. We would go through two mic stands, and a microphone in every show. We'd be at nice establishments, and there would be all these mosh pits. It was very cool.
So probably just from doing that, it fueled this Rage Against the Machine thing in me. Everything I do is a big rip-off. Nah. Actually, a lot of the songs I had on that album were songs from the demo I had from about three or four years ago that I got my record deal with. And the funny thing is that the head of the label said he hates rap. He signed my band, which was a Rage Against the Machine-ish type band, and he just changed everything, and the band broke up, and that's when I put Bumblefoot out, cause I had to put something out. Now Hermit - I don't know how many songs on there are from my demo. I just re-recorded them and re-did them. So all the label accomplished was stalling me getting my music out for a good three years.
DG: Is there any difference in the way you write songs with vocals vs. instrumentals?
RT: Good question. A lot of times I think I end up with the music first, and then whatever feeling the music is giving me, that vibe, I think the vocals come out of that, more so than writing a batch of words and then putting music to it. That way, it definitely gets tough. But, as far as writing differently for instrumental and for vocal... Well, it comes from the same place, the only thing is the instrumentation has to be different. You've got to leave more room for the vocals, cause you don't want to step on them when the person is singing, and things like that. So the approach is different in that respect, where I might get a little crazier with the instrumental stuff.
DG: Do you write a lot? How often do you come up with an idea for a song, typically?
RT: You know, it's funny. A lot of times I do my best writing under pressure. Like the job I did for Sega. I had to write 28 songs, and have them recorded and finished within a month, which means that every day I had to write a song and have it fully recorded. I had to have 45 minutes of music done in four weeks. And I pulled it off! It was good stuff. You know, sometimes when you have to do something, and you truly believe that, there is no choice but to do it or die, and you end up doing it. Uh, so I guess it comes in spurts - there'll be a dry month where you have no ideas, so you find other things to do. Then out of nowhere you get hit with all these songs in your head, which probably spurn from that past month where you just went and lived your life so that you HAVE something to write about later.
DG: So a lot of your songs mirror your life experiences?
RT: Totally. Dandruff song? I have dandruff. What else - ok, the song, "Freak" - that one came from in high school, there was a kid with really bad acne. And in gym class, he got hit in the face with a basketball. When the ball left his face, it was soaked with pus, and everyone was about to go for the ball, and they'd just put their arms up in the air and get out of the way, and the ball just rolled away and no one would touch it. And that became the song, "Freak".
And there's a lot of songs that didn't make it onto the record. Like there this one song about an accident I had with my bowels as a child, called "Dirty Pant Moon". It will probably be on my next record. I had an accident in school - I was five years old, and my mom had to come and get me, and the janitor came over to clean up, and he's like, "Hey, what happened?", and just then a little ball of turd rolled out of the leg of my pants, and he's like "Oh". And it was very humiliating, so I wrote a song about it, many years later.
DG: Generally, you seem like a pretty outgoing guy. The name of the album is Hermit...
DG: Is there any connection?
RT: Actually, when I was a kid, I could be extremely shy and introverted, and everyone called me a hermit. I would stay in when everyone was out playing ball, and read encyclopedias and things like that. I was a brainiac when I was a kid. I was a smart little fat kid. Now I'm just fat, not smart... I guess in a way I still am, cause I spend most of my time in the studio when everyone else is going out. I'm an outgoing hermit! I guess it's in a sense, a balance. I'm at extreme ends of the spectrum at the same time. I'm very outgoing, it's just there's no one there to see it! I'm entertaining the four walls...
DG: You have an amazing vocal range. On some songs, it sounds like a different singer singing. I was wondering if you had any formal vocal training.
RT: Actually, I did. This woman named Debbie Chamberlain - now I think she's somewhere in the Philadelphia area - she was the greatest vocal instructor. What happened was I had a pretty good voice, and this was back in the late 80's. I had a Stryper / TNT kind of high-pitched metal voice. And one day, I guess my testicals dropped, cause I was having a problem, so I went to her. And she took those testicals and put them right back into my abdominal cavity! And my high notes came back.
DG: That's on the cutting floor, right there... (laughs)
RT: (laughs) On the CD, I'm pretty much trying to stay a little bit on one end of the spectrum...
DG: I guess a song that really deviates is "Every Time I Shake My Head"...
RT: Oh yeah. I'm trying to do my Bing Crosby, or Perry Como, I don't know. I've got to find some of my high-pitched stuff here...
DG: Do you have other stuff that you've released? I know you did the Sega thing, is that on an album as well, or is just in the game?
RT: It's a Sega CD-ROM. You can actually take the game and throw it in your CD player. Oh man, that was a lot of fun. That was a trip doing that stuff. I had a horrible case of pneumonia at the time, and instead of going to the hospital, I locked myself in my room with some recording equipment.
DG: How did you get involved with that? Did somebody from Sega contact you?
RT: They heard the Bumblefoot album, and said hey, this would be good for one of our games, this type of stuff.
(at this point, Ron finds an example of a high-pitched scream on one of his old DAT tapes and plays it for me. It is VERY high-pitched!)
DG: Wow, that was you?
RT: My cheesy heavy metal scream...
DG: Talking about screams, you've got a 12-second scream going on at the end of "Unsound"...
RT: Oh yeah, I totally emptied my lungs.
DG: That was all you? No effects or anything?
RT: Oh no. That was all just a deep breath. You can even hear it - at the end, my lungs were so empty that when I held the note, they immediately suck up full of air.
DG: That's great! I tried to match that, and I couldn't even get around 10 seconds. I guess you've got better lungs than me.
RT: 'Cause I lived in Staten Island. Do you know about that place?
DG: Not really...
RT: It is the unknown borough of New York City. Everyone knows Manhattan, and Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx cause of the crime and stuff. But no one knows Staten Island, yet it has something incredible. It has the world's largest landfill. In fact, they say that from orbiting the earth, there's only two man-made things that you can see. One is the Great Wall of China, and the other is the Staten Island landfill.
DG: There's something to be proud of!
RT: Yeah. There's an incredible rate of leukemia around it, and all the kids have autism. Beautiful thing [sarcasm]. So that's where I developed my lungs, breathing Staten Island air.
DG: What was it like working with your brother, Jeff, on the album?
RT: It was like... you come over at 11 o'clock at night and we'd start laying tracks and fall asleep on the floor and wake up in the morning and continue. And then you'd come home and come back and do the same thing the next day. It was a lot of fun. What happened was he decided that he was going to move to Florida. I said, you know what, I want you to play on my next record before you do. So, let's write up the record real fast. So I pretty much wrote this album in maybe two or three weeks. And I would show it to him maybe three or four songs at a time, and we'd jam and get them down, but it was definitely crazy.
And half of those songs - I don't know how to describe it - I didn't edit my thoughts. Like you know how you think of something, then you judge it and critique it, and then you say, no I can't do that. Well, I left out the last part! At the time I did this album I was producing three records, and I was working literally 140 hours a week, which means a three day stretch, then another three day stretch, without going to bed. Just working nonstop. What I'd do was I'd fall asleep - I'd just collapse right on the floor - and keep a notebook and a pen next to me, and I'd wake up in the morning, or at night, or whenever it was, and there'd be song ideas written down. I'd be like, where did that come from? God, this is ridiculous! I'm going to use it!
Songs like Rowboat - I woke up out of a dream, and wrote that song in about two minutes. I even wrote down the time - I have the piece of paper. It says 2:52 to 2:54 am!
DG: You wrote a four-and-a-half minute song in two minutes?
RT: That's how it works. You hear everything at once, all in one boom. It's almost like when someone says, "Hey do you remember that movie?", and you can recall the whole movie in one second. It kind of works like that. Very strange.
DG: One more question. You got the deal with Vigier Guitars. Are you still allowed to play your Swiss Cheese guitar?
RT: Yeah, that's the one stipulation, that I can still play my own stuff. I'd like to eventually at some point see if they'd want to make some kind of special guitar, something weird. I've got to talk to them about that. I haven't actually signed the agreement yet. I want to talk to them first, and make sure that everything is covered.