Mayhem Music Magazine talks with Guns n Roses guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal about joining the band & his views on sharing his knowledge and love of music.
Interview and Photography by Dwayne Cavanas
Mayhem Music Magazine: You are an incredible technician on guitar. Yet, you still convey an emotion that your guitar is more of your voice than just an instrument. Has it always been this way for you?
Bumblefoot: No. I think what happens is you start off, you donít think about technique. Youíre just thinking about songs you like to play and things like that, and youíre just passionate about playing. Then as a technique builds you start focusing on how far you take it, how far you can take technique.
Then, you start to lose sight of the simple stuff. Itís like youíre so far down the road you forget what the beginning of the road is all about and you canít even see it anymore from where youíre at. Then it starts to circle around, and you take everything that youíve learned along the way and you put it all together.
And start viewing it as, instead of a linear line that keeps going in one direction, itís more of this all-encompassing thing that youíre just amassing and adding to. I say the older I get, the more tasteful you get.
So yeah, and I think over the past year has been a crazy year or two. If anything, I think some of that has made a difference too, just the things that go on in your personal life. How youíre feeling definitely shapes how you play, how vulnerable youíre willing to be, how much of yourself youíre willing to just expose.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Itís fair to say you love music in every aspect. From playing, song writing, producing, to me, youíre a total renaissance man. Where did that drive come from?
Bumblefoot: It all started when I heard the band Kiss when I was five. At that age, as soon as I heard the Kiss Alive album, I was like, ďThatís what I want to do.Ē It was also the Beatles that just - the cello lines that George Martin would put into everything just really touched me and it made me love music.
So, itís like Beatles made me love music itself, just the sound, just how it affects you emotionally. Kiss made me want to get up on stage and pyro and big show and everything. It started with that, and my whole life has just been devoted to all aspects of it.
I found that whatever I did, I started getting it down. I would share it. The same way it was taught to me, I would teach it to someone else. So, by the time I was playing for six, seven years and I was studying all the academics and everything, all the music theory, so I started teaching it. I was 13. I started teaching to 16-year olds in the neighborhood that are first picking it up. I was playing since I was seven years old at that point, so I was teaching them what I learned.
By the time I was 15 I had a pretty decent studio with my eight-track and the board and little drum room and everything. So, besides doing my own demos I started bringing people in and recording them as well. Whatever I was doing, I would share it with others, the same way it was shared with me. Just someone paid it to me and I paid it to the next person. Iím just paying it to the next person, because thatís what music is about.
Iíve been thinking about this a lot lately because Iíve been starting to branch off into other things besides music, like making hot sauces.
I just noticed the similarity in not what it is, but just in how you share it with the world. Itís like music. You love music and then you start to learn music, and then you start to make music, and then you share the music. I found itís like, with anything, whether itís photography, whether itís any kind of art, whether itís making films, whether itís just telling stories, whatever it is, making food, making hot sauce, you love it. So you make it and then you share it. So, itís just, Iíve noticed that this is the natural progress that happens with whatever youíre passionate about.
Mayhem Music Magazine: I know that you were sharing your knowledge to students via Skype. Do you still have time to do this on the road?
Bumblefoot: I havenít been able to because itís guaranteed that wherever I am, the internet connection will suck. I mean, you should see for the last two days trying to upload a video, just through my iPhone hotspot or through the connection here, or through anything I could, and for two days trying to get like everything. Wherever I am, itís guaranteed that Iíll just have a sketchy internet connection while Iím on the road.
Iíve been on the road so much that I donít want someone to schedule a lesson and then it gets all screwed up because of the Skype doesnít have - I canít get the video to go. Because that even happened, I was supposed to do something for a videocast and I was like, ďYouíve got to wait until I get home to do it,Ē because it just was breaking up. I guess the connection was too bad and I couldnít do audio and video.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Thatís funny because my next question is how has the internet affected you as a musician?
Bumblefoot: Oh, itís everything. The internet, when working, is everything. Itís everybodyís connection to the whole world. Before that, I remember there were times a dozen years ago where Iíd be waking up at 4:00 in the morning, so I could send a fax to someone to Japan. Now you just send an email whenever and they answer whenever.
As far as distro (a.k.a. distribution) with music, artists have been let out of their cage that was being locked and held shut and the key was held be record labels and their distro. Now anybody can make music and put it out there for the whole world, which is good for everybody. Itís good for the artists. Itís good for people who love music.
The only thing thatís tough about it is now that thereís so much out there, itís harder to find music, because there is so much. Itís like trying to pick something off a menu thatís 20 pages long.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Very true.
Bumblefoot: How do you choose? Now itís almost like everybody has the same gun and itís just a question of how well you shoot is whatís going to make one rise above the other. Anybody could put out music. Some 15-year old kid could put out music and make it as available as Metallica.
Mayhem Music Magazine: But thatís a good thing.
Bumblefoot: Itís a good thing. It is.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Because some people would never be heard if it was just up to the record labels.
Bumblefoot: Absolutely, and things catch on by word of mouth. So if youíre the better shooter all the people that hear it, same thing, they become passionate about it and then they share it. Theyíre going to tell each other about it and word gets out just like that.
The cost of things is a lot cheaper. It used to take $1 million to make a video. Now you can shoot one with your iPhone and upload it on YouTube, and more people will see it. Where, at the same time though, you donít make as much money. Itís like all the numbers got smaller. So, it doesnít cost as much. Itís like the cost of living and what you make has all shrunk down to this level.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Well, itís harder to contain it once itís out there too.
Bumblefoot: Yeah. You donít have the control. You can put it out, sell it for anything, but 90% of people are just going to grab it on their own.
Itís a world of free samples, and if people like it theyíll make a donation. Thatís kind of how it works. So, what I find these days is that itís not even about your music anymore. Itís about you, and if people want to support you, the person, they will support your music.
A CD is now a piece of merch that people want. They donít need it for the music. They take it because they want to support you and they want to have some tangible object that embodies what youíre about. They feel like they connected to you, the person, and because of that, they support your music. They like your music because they like you.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Well, youíve done so much of your own solo work in the past and now youíre releasing tracks to the public online. Are you still looking at doing the same thing, putting out CDs as a whole?
Bumblefoot: I am, because a lot of people... To me, itís very simple. Give the people what they want. Listen to them. Ask them. Find out what people want from you, and how they want it from you. A lot of people that like my stuff still want a CD. They want to have something they can hold in their hand. What theyíre saying is that they want merch.
Mayhem Music Magazine: The fans want CDs in their hands, yet you are also releasing a song every month via the internet.
Bumblefoot: Ah, yes. So, if I didnít put out a song every month and I was waiting for a full CD of 12 songs, letís say, it still wouldnít be out. Because I got nine out, and then I had to hit the road and just didnít have time. Life gets in the way when youíre home. Youíre gone for three months, you get home and thereís kind of like an inbox of just things to do at home that you have to take care of. So youíre just racing against the clock getting all that done and it gets harder and harder to make time to just get to the studio and be creative with it.
So, Iíll get home and Iíll bust out a bunch of guest guitar solos for different peopleís albums, things like that. But to just get in the right head space to just focus and write my own music and things like that, that gets tougher. So if I was waiting to put out a CD, it still wouldnít be out.
Thatís what itís all about is about working your music into your life. Neither one should be sacrificing for the other too much. Minor compromises, but you have to make them both work. You have to make music work for your life. You have to make your life work for your music.
So, for me, the best thing to do was putting out a song a month, getting a constant simmer of things for people rather than waiting to first boil the water when itís done. Itís better this way. We live in a world now where we donít have to do an album. As much as I love getting the full story in one book as opposed to putting out a chapter at a time, I think that people enjoy not waiting two years and getting a dozen things.
But if you just have this constant simmer going, itís like just putting out a little music at a time, and it just keeps everything warm, and it just keeps it going. Itís better for them, because every month they had something new to look forward to, as opposed to waiting two years.
If theyíre listening to all 12 songs, letís say for a month after it comes out, end of the month theyíre like, ďAll right. Iíve heard this. Now what?Ē But if you give them one song - and itís not just that I gave them the song. I gave them transcription. I gave them recording stems. They could do more with the song, which I think is better, because I wouldnít be able to devote that much time if I was doing the whole album. I like doing little bits of music at a time for people more often. I think that works, and we can do it. So we have the technology.
Mayhem Music Magazine: That we do. Itís been nonstop for Guns ní Roses for some time now. How are you finding time to still produce other artists?
Bumblefoot: Itís tricky. It has not been easy. Really, most of the time, you canít, because you need to be there. You have to wait until a time when thereís a definite break between touring and then you just get in and you live it for that time. Itís just constant multitasking. Always multitasking, doing a few things at once.
So, like last year, I was putting out those song a month things. We didnít get together until September. So for all those months, I produced - I finished three albums of other peopleís music. Plus putting out my stuff, plus giving Skype lessons, and just did everything I was doing until it was time to hit the road again. Then you have to just kind of press pause on everything else in your life and hit the road and thereís just not that much that you can do.
So, yeah, itís kind of like going on tour, getting back to your life, going on tour, getting back to your life, and constantly just running between the two. When youíre on the road a lot, you really start missing everything else in your life. You start really missing the teaching and the recording, the creative end of things.
Performing is great. Itís a wonderful workout. But to me, my heart lies in the creative process more than the life process. Even though I love being on stage. I love traveling the world. My wife comes along for most of it and we get to see the world together, again, making it work for your life. But, yeah, I like being creative and itís hard to be creative on the road because youíre so bombarded that itís almost like you need a break so that you can recharge your batteries and get into a creative mode. You never get a chance to do that on the road.
Mayhem Music Magazine: As long as you keep making time for it.
Bumblefoot: Thatís the thing, yeah.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Well youíve played with several different musicians over your career, including Joe Satriani, which is incredible. How do you feel about your present band mates?
Bumblefoot: Theyíre great. Itís funny because youíve got eight guys in the band that are all on stage together. Of all the bands Iíve been in, when I look back on it, Iíve got to laugh because you would think that Guns n Roses and all, again, the bombardment and the intensity and everything that could just wear you down, we get along better than I have with anybody in any band. Like in any of my own bands or any other band Iíve played with.
Like, GnR, we all get along better, all of us. I think a lot of it is that because we donít have time for little stupid, petty stuff, which those are the little things that escalate and make things stupid in a band.
So, actually, we all, the band members and our families and our crew and their friends, we all had a huge Thanksgiving dinner last night. It was just a big love-fest and, itís always just hanging out together in little groups. Either me and Richard will be working out together or me and DJ will be just hanging out in Central Bar together. Heís having his Jager. Iím having my water. Yeah, Iím off Jager. Iím done, whatever it is. Me and Tommy talking about old, obscure 70s movies or whoever it is. Or me and Frank and Pitman just cracking up, just talking about stupid things and just laughing at our lives, whatever it is. Or, hanging with Axl for 20 hours straight just talking about all kinds of crazy stuff, whatever it is, yeah, just hanging out.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Well, howís it playing with DJ compared to when he replaced Robin Finck?
Bumblefoot: Well, when I was first playing with Robin, I was new in the band and I think itís the kind of thing, itís like, I got the feeling it was almost like mom just got home from the hospital with the newborn. Itís like, ďHereís your new brother, play nice. The kid is like, ďWhoís this?Ē Just the skepticism and the doubt and the whole, ďIím the son, not you,Ē kind of, just all the things that come along with that situation, where suddenly someone else is thrown into your world.
Itís like, ďWait a minute. Donít I have a say in this? This is my family, too,Ē kind of vibe, just the little elements of that. So it was really rocky at first and for a long time. So, I think that me and Robin, probably after he left the band, we became better friends. When he was playing with Nine Inch Nails and I would go to see him with that and weíd hang out after the show, and I think we became closer after we stopped playing together because of the way we were thrown together.
Because, at the time, they were auditioning people for months and they were so burnt out. The tour was a few weeks away. They thought that, ďAll right, weíre not getting the third guitarist like Axl wants,Ē which was always his vision. He always wanted a three-guitarist band. He loves Boston. He loves a lot of the old classic stuff. Heís just a guitar lover.
He always wanted to have three guitars. Even on ďAppetiteĒ, left, right and something in the middle. He always had that vision. Yeah. They thought that they werenít going to have a third guitarist so they worked out all that stuff, just to be safe, for the two guitars. They were told, ďOkay, youíre good to go.Ē Then the next day, management says, ďYour new guitarist is coming in,Ē and didnít even audition me. They were just told, just like, ĒHereís your new guitar player.Ē
Mayhem Music Magazine: So this also meant that they would have to rework the guitar parts to fit with you and in a very short time.
Bumblefoot: It was weird for them, and I didnít know this. I didnít know the dynamic of the relationship, all the communication issues between old management and them or anything. I had a year and a half relation- ship with Guns they didnít even know about, going back and forth with management. I started talking to them in the summer of 2004 and the band first met me - other than Pitman, we first had contact with each other two weeks before the tour started in 2006.
Theyíre like, ďWho the Hell is this guy?Ē They were left in the dark about it, so they had a lot of resentment and it took a long time for them to warm up to me and for us to get past that stuff. It showed on stage, too. There was a strong disconnect throughout that isnít there now. You can see it on stage. When you watch, over the years, at least in the last six years, you find that every time we hit the road, we just seem more like a band, and we were more like a band.
Mayhem Music Magazine: I guess itís safe to say that when you joined the band, you werenít automatically met with open arms.
Bumblefoot: So, yeah, when I first came in, it wasnít warm and fuzzy. I was like, ďYou know what? This is not about me. This is about the audience and Iím not going to get involved with all of that stuff. My focus is on giving the best show to the audience and I donít care if Iím hated, I donít care, by my band or if they donít know me or want to know me or whatever it is.Ē
But it was tricky. Even learning the Chinese democracy songs, they wouldnít give me the music. I had to learn them in a half hour listening on the road managers laptop with a pair of headphones and a piece of paper and pen. And just listen one time through and learned it all from that and just take notes.
After seven rehearsals that we had together, Iím supposed to play this stuff around the world for a million people, with no support on my end to make sure that I can do it properly. So I just did the best I could.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Well, youíre no longer the new kid on the block anymore.
Bumblefoot: No, and I made sure that when DJ (Ashba) joined the band, I had a chat with our band. I said, ďLook. No one is ever going to be treated like that. It doesnít matter who joins this band next, weíre going to treat them like family from day one, and thatís never going to happen again,Ē and it didnít.
Mayhem Music Magazine: At this point in your life, if you could change anything, what would it be?
Bumblefoot: Oh, Iíd be releasing music.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Focusing more on the creative aspect?
Bumblefoot: Yeah. What I wanted to do - and I say this a lot, and it just didnít happen, and itís not going to happen - but, in my perfect world, if I could align all the planets and do everything, before every time we go out for a leg of touring, I would have us go into the studio a week before, write a song, force it out.
Write a song, record the song and release the song for that leg of the tour so that every time we hit the road again for six weeks or 12 weeks, whatever it is, we have a new piece of music that we just wrote right before hitting the road thatís relevant and connected to that tour.
If we did that, we would have had a whole album done by now. Everybody would know the songs because theyíd get to know them one at a time and each one would be fresh written by this band in that moment over this last bit of time. To me, that wouldíve been the best way to do it because we wouldíve grown together writing as well as touring.
Iím sure that there would have been some songs that people really liked. We wouldíve had some good stuff. So not only would we have been getting more and more solid performing, but also writing as a band.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Which that creative process brings people closer anyway.
Bumblefoot: Yeah, and thatís what the fans want. If the fans had a choice - and again, give the people what they want and I always listen to them when they speak. Theyíve said it to me before, if they had to have the choice between us touring or putting out new music, theyíd rather have more music. So, I would rather - I mean, if weíre going to be touring thatís great. But we should really be putting out music.
I know Axl wants to. Itís just a question of, with so many outside things breaking focus and just little fires you always need to put out, we just need to focus on that. Iím hoping that we do. Weíre not getting younger, and neither are our fans. Letís do this. Itís what they want. Ultimately that doesnít even matter. They want music. So, thatís what I care about.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You have a performance tonight and you are wrapping up your bandís residency at The Joint In the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino here in Las Vegas tomorrow night, any surprises we should know about?
Bumblefoot: Yeah. Itís a crazy day, because Izzy (Stradlin) is going to join us.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Are you shitting me?
So, around 6:30, weíre going to do a sound check and go through it.
Weíre just going to brush up on ď14 YearsĒ with him because we
usually play that.
Bumblefoot: Thatís a tough one because I donít think about it. Iíve never been the kind of person where acceptance was that important to me or where all that stuff... I became a musician to make people happy. Thatís why anyone who entertains, whatever theyíre doing, thatís why they do it. But you donít necessarily need it in return.
Itís like, you can do things to make the world happy, but the world doesnít owe you anything back, if that makes sense. Thatís how I look at it is that, it doesnít matter if the whole world hates me, because itís still called Guns n Roses, but itís not the version of the band that they fell in love with or whatever it is. Thereís that issue, but it doesnít matter. My focus is about just putting things into the universe that make people smile.
No one owes me anything back. As far as what people, what I want them to know about me, it doesnít matter. They can know whatever they want to and itís all about them. Theyíll decide for themselves as to what feeds who they are. Thatís pretty much how it works is that you take the same person and if someone has love in their heart, theyíre going to find things to love about that person.
If someone is looking for someone to crucify, theyíre going to find things or twist things or make things or whatever it is and theyíll look for things that they can do with. So itís out of my hands. That part of it is out of my hands. All I can do is just be me, unapologetically, and thatís it.
Mayhem Music Magazine: I think itís well put. I think you said it right.
Bumblefoot: Well, thank you so much.
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