Play Music PICKUP magazine (UK)
Playing lead guitar with Guns N Roses,
composing TV theme tunes and managing a hectic solo career are all part of
the daily routine for American rock guitarist Ron Thal.
~ Words by Brad Barrett
The role of the guitar-slinger for hire is sometimes sneered at by those that labour under the misapprehension that these technically adept players strip away the soul and intensity that true band members provide. They’re being paid to provide licks and riffs so what do they care about the quality of the music? Now, imagine this narrow-minded, blinkered view multiplied by fifteen years of uncontrollable frustration from a Guns N' Roses fan. You can see why Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal could quite easily be a rather edgy, paranoid and uncomfortable character to try and question. Instead, I’m confronted by a man who has spent the last two hours talking to fans at his signing, playing lightning fast runs upon request and regaling us with tales of his tearaway youth. Believe me when I say you wouldn’t wanna live next door to this guy, unless you enjoy the odd prank.
“You can’t get worried about that stuff because it just gets in the way,” explains Ron when I ask him about following in the footsteps of past guitarists. “You can’t change something that’s already been so why even worry about it? All you can do is try to make it better for what you're doing now and what is to come. So, when I’m playing live and playing past songs I try and respect the past and give the people the songs they way they loved them. When it comes to the new stuff, I try and do the same only now it’s something I came up with. But I don’t compete with what I cannot change.” Ron has almost a Zen-like calm about him, with his laid-back attitude, soft vocal tone and easy-going Libran charm. It must’ve been this charisma and relaxed demeanour that helped him deal with the pressure cooker that is Guns N' Roses. Ron shows no sign of having had a hard time though, and it seems there was even room for creative freedom.
“There were times when there was a definite idea of what should happen and then other times when it was just open to anything. Pretty often it was trying to explore every possibility of what could work for the song and at the end, seeing what fits the best with everything.” Listening to Chinese Democracy, there’s definitely the more epic feel of the Use Your Illusion projects than the more single-minded Appetite for Destruction. So what is Ron’s role on the record?
“Playing rhythm throughout every song, trying to sleaze up the album a bit and really give it that driven guitar rock and roll vibe.”
A few months after the event, fans are either embracing Chinese Democracy wholeheartedly it or else have rejected the record out of hand, but the inevitable frenzy of activity over its release must’ve held some anxiety for Ron, surely?
“I couldn’t wait for that thing to come out! GNR fans have a waited a long time to get this album and my main concern was seeing them finally get what they’ve waited for so long. You can’t blow things out of proportion. In the end, I try not to think about that stuff. When you start thinking about that its best to clear your mind and say: ‘You know what? I’m just playing guitar, that’s all. I’m not curing cancer here. I make people happy, that’s all I’m trying to do.’”
Of course, to paint Ron as a hired hand would be incredibly unfair to a man who has released nine solo records, composed the title music for VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show and even the music for NY Islanders hockey team promos. His current release Abnormal shows a completely insane streak hiding beneath the cool exterior – containing schizoid solos, napalm riffs and a pace that most Olympians would struggle to keep up with, it’s a world away from his current day job.
“It’s the kind of thing where when I’m doing an album, there’s usually not much of a plan. It’s just throwing paint at a canvas and seeing what it looks like when you’re done. I never know what the album is gonna sound like until it’s finished and never go into it saying: ‘it’s gonna be this type of album’. It just sort of forms itself as it’s going along and is usually based on whatever my attitude is at the time I’m laying the tracks. You can sing the same line so many different ways and each one will make the song sound like a pop song or a death metal song or a punk song depending on how much disdain you have for the world around you at that moment. It’s sort of a multiple personality disorder for an album,” he admits, never raising his voice above its polite volume.
“I like to entertain myself when I’m writing, taking things that don’t go together and putting them together just for the fun of it. It’s not so much that it shouldn’t be done, or couldn’t be done; more like it wouldn’t be done.”
With two such diverse, full-time projects being worked on, and with such different styles running through them, you’d think Ron’s gear would be a large arsenal of weapons and tone-shifting devices. So, it seems even a surprise to him when he tells us what he used on Chinese Democracy and Abnormal.
“With GNR it was pretty straight forward – a Gibson Les Paul or the Vigier Fretless guitar going into a Blues Driver pedal for a little extra push and a Vox or Dunlop wah pedal. A Marshall JCM 800 head, we used that one a lot. That’s pretty much it. It wasn’t like a rack of sound shaping gear, it was just an amp and a guitar. For my stuff, it was pretty similar. I use the Vigier Excaliber Bumblefoot signature series. I have that going into an amp brand called Splawn which is like a modified Marshall; a juiced-up Eddie Van Halen ‘brown sound’ kill-the-tubes-in-an-hour kinda thing.”
Perhaps one of the more overlooked options for a musician, yet sometimes the most lucrative, is the heady world of television – more specifically the TV show theme tune. Ron has had some experience in these and we had to ask him what the differences were for a songwriter.
“For themes, there are definite guidelines. When you write your own music anything goes. There’s absolutely no limit, no boundary to anything. When you’re doing a show, they have an idea of what they’re looking for and they’re just looking for someone to create it for them: The usual brief is ‘I’m looking for a song that sorta sounds like this song but it can only be thirty seconds and in the last 10 seconds, it needs to drop so that there’s room for this to happen…’ So, you have very specific guidelines and then you write within those boundaries.”
So is it harder or easier to write for TV than for yourself or a band?
“It makes it harder and easier! It’s easier because it’s all laid out for you so all you have to do is fill in the blanks. It’s harder for the same reason. The only thing you CAN do is fill in the blanks and there’s very strict limitations on what you can do creatively.”
This feels at odds with Ron’s approach to music, yet you still feel like these boundaries are challenges for him and, therefore, worthwhile. With a man as ambitious as Ron – he expresses a wish to do an instructional guitar video, a line of hot sauce and being a voiceover for a cartoon character (“Because I sound like a cartoon character when I speak!” – he’s not far wrong) – his extensive back catalogue and the chance to contribute to one of the world’s biggest rock bands’ continuing legacy doesn’t surprise. What may shock though is the sheer effort, energy, passion, confidence and – yes – soul thrown into every note he lays down. Whatever your thoughts about the music he’s written and contributed to, this is pretty hard to refute. He’s paid to do a job, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe totally in what he’s doing.