Guns n' Roses Guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal talks Gear, Guitar Making, and
Local Music Gear Exclusive Interview
Written By: Dan O'Donnell
APRIL 26, 2012
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
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 boosted 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
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, bumblefoot.com.
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.”
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 N' Roses,
at least three are Vigier—two are 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 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
Democracy album. “I didn’t want to just play for the sake of
playing on it.” He added that the album pioneers the use of fretless
“One thing I think is really cool is
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.”
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
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 attenuate 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 N' 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 a killer sound make, 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 would 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 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
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 sounds 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 asked what cables he uses, he said they don’t play a big part in his stage
“(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 in front of them.”
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
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
But Ron is more than just a rock star. He is a volunteer and board member of
msrf.org, 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
He also works with music education for kids, including working with the
School of Rock as a guest artist,
which teaches kids how to rock out the right way, 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, share it. 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 songs. 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.”
View Ron ‘Bumblefoot’
Official Web Site
Official Facebook Page
Official Twitter Page
Guns N' Roses Tour
Big Hand guitar, Pensive
Vigier "Flying Foot" guitar