Excerpts from interview with
Guitar Player (Russia)
JULY 2002

Do you use a thimble for the high notes in "Guitars suck"? (if yes, who is the manufacture of the thimble?)

Yes, but I don't know the manufacturer - haha.   I took it from my mom's sewing box in 1989 and still use the same one.  I traveled around the world with it and never lost it.  (I should probably get a second one, to be safe...)   To use it properly, you must change how you look at the guitar.  Don't look at the frets - look at the entire string.  The notes don't end, just because the fretboard does.  So you must start measuring distances with your eyes and you must understand the harmonic relations of a string.

An octave is a multiple of a frequency (the higher octave of A 440Hz is A 880Hz, double the frequency.)  The higher octave of any note can be found at the center of the string's length (between the fretted note and the guitar's bridge).   Put your finger on the A note (880Hz) at the 17th fret of the 1st (E) string.  To hit the higher A note that is one octave above it, visualize the center of the distance between the active part of the string (between the 17th fret and the bridge.)  When you touch the thimble to that point, you will have the higher A note (1760Hz).  Having this metal cap on the finger of my picking hand allows me to tap all these higher notes - I use a metal thimble to get better sustain.

Do you have hobbies, besides music?

I used to have many art hobbies, but music has taken all my time.  As a child I would draw and sculpt (wood and clay) and loved to paint.  I'd make video games on my Commodore64 and I painted album covers on people's jackets to earn money to buy guitars.  I was very into photography by age 20 and began to teach it in a school.  The only art I've done for the past 10 years has been designing each new album cover - maybe someday I'll have time again, but I'd doubt it.  I'm addicted to making music and when I have a free moment, I spend it making music...

Is music the sense and aim of your life?

I have a life outside music, but I would not have a life without music.  Music gives us a constructive positive way to focus our energy, and a way to understand ourselves, express ourselves, and communicate beyond language/cultural barriers.  It's also my medication.   I've had problems with depression my whole life and making music has been a "magic pill" that kept me from being destructive.  It's funny, people think hear my music and think I'm this happy clown 100% of the time, but the music is my "alter ego" - it balances me.  As long as I make music, I have a good life.  And by adding more music to the world instead of spreading negativity, I'm changing the lives of people around me, and hopefully this is contagious.  This is the responsibility of musicians and has become a greater aim in my life.  If you combined every face on Earth, the mouth would be somewhere between a smile and a frown.  The goal of musicians should be to change this face closer to a smile.  To do this is the greatest achievement possible.

Which song from your catalog do you consider the best and which one - the worst?

That's a tough question...   a week after I release an album, I feel like I've changed and the album doesn't represent who I am anymore.  I don't listen to my albums and feel awkward when I hear my own music playing.  I have some horrible songs that never make it onto albums.  I like the songs "R2", "Delilah" but most of my favorite music is unreleased.  I've been writing alot of punk songs for TV/film this year and I think it's some of the best songs I've written.  The last song I've written is called "Mafalda", exclusively on a guitar comp CD in the UK called "The Alchemists" - today it's one of my favorites.  Tomorrow I'll probably hate it...   :)

How long do you play guitar per day?

Sometimes for an hour, sometimes I go 3 days without touching a guitar.  People don't need to practice for 8 hours a day - it's a waste of time and an excuse to not *live* your life to the fullest.  The human body can only grow and repair a finite amount in any 24-hour period - once you pass 2 hours of technical practicing, nothing is really gained.  The time you spend experiencing life is what makes your music more interesting the next time you pick up your guitar.  Art is an expression and a reflection of the artist - what kind of art will you make if your life story consisted of practicing in an empty room?

What do you recommend to break limits, to free yourself from the habitual framework, style, number of scales, usual keys?

First thing to do is to build your mind to think as fast as your fingers are moving.  Start slow.  Take a 4-chord progression, set your metronome to 40bpm with each chord lasting 4 beats.  Play *only 1 note* every 4 beats, 1 note per chord.  You'll find that you need to choose carefully - the note is important and needs to work well with the chord.  Think about the next note you can hit for the next chord.  Once you're doing this well over any chords in any key changes, try 2-notes per chord.  Then 4, 6, 8, 12...   soon you're thinking about what you're playing, instead of just playing patterns.

How to "open" a mind to start composing music?

Remember that music theory explains why music works, but it doesn't need to be the foundation for making music.   Use your ears.  Turn on the radio and play along with the singer's melody of whichever song is on.  When something sounds good, use music theory to understand why, *after* you've made the music.

Do you read books? Who are your favorite authors?

I don't have alot of time to read books.  The last book I started to read (and never finished) was on J.S.Bach, artist M.C.Escher and mathematician Kurt Godel, showing how their ideas related to eachother in music, art and math.  After that, I got a book on "Chaos" and still haven't read it yet.  Now I have "Atlas Shrugged" sitting 3 feet from me as I type this.  I might actually make time to read this book.

What album of Manowar would you take to the uninhabited island with you?

Definitely "Battle Hymns".  If not, then "Hail To England"

What is your favorite beer or beverage?

Ginger Ale.  When I was a year old I was very sick and my body would reject every food and drink except Ginger Ale.  It kept me alive.  Still my favorite drink.

Whom do you consider the most technical guitar player?

Probably Shawn Lane.  But there are so many out there...  it's all about what we play with the technique.  And honestly, a guitarist only has to be good enough to play his own music well.   :)

How can a player develop his own unique style (as a musician)? What are the important things, that have an influence on this develpment?

Playing cover songs and learning solos from other guitarists help mold how you will play, but it's too easy to become a clone of other people that way.  Going the opposite direction and separating yourself from guitar music can be good because other guitarists' playing won't influence your ideas, but it's not good to deny yourself exposure to what other guitarists are offering.  It's good to transcribe solos from other instruments, such as keyboard or trumpet solos.  But the best thing is to play to please yourself, and not have other motives in your heart when you play.  Don't try to be better than someone else, don't try to be famous, don't try to be perfect - just let the playing happen without trying to control it, and the *real you* will be heard.

Do you like animals? Do you have pets?

I love animals.  I had a dog for many years, now I have 4 cats.  One was found as a kitten walking along the side of a highway, the other wandered out of a forest, the other was going to be euthanized at an over-crowded animal shelter, the other belonged to a friend and needed a home.  My wife is a veterinarian - she truly loves animals.  She married me because I smell like one.

Drugs - is it a catalyst or an obstacle in composing music?

An obstacle.  People think they're doing something special on drugs, because the simplest things *are* special in the eyes of a damaged brain.  We've lost too many great people to drugs.  For everything amazing they did on drugs, their potential was 10x greater *off* drugs.

How do you compose songs? What goes first - music or a text?

I write all the music in my head, the arrangements, instrumentation, usually with no instruments nearby.  I listen to the music first in my head, and if I feel something from the music, then I play it.  I hear the vocal melodies, but not the words.  Sometimes it can take years to find the right words (the song "Heart Attack" was this way - had the music for 4 years before I could find the words...)  Sometimes I'll write words without music, but most of the time the music comes first.

Do you improvise a lot on your concerts?

Yes.  There are some parts that are definitive parts of the song that should be played the same, but I like to be free on the rest.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Just from living life.  From everything.   I lose inspiration when people email me analyzing my guitar solos.  What about the *SONG*???  To me, only listening to the solo is like watching a film with your eyes closed.

Do you surf on the Internet a lot? Do you have your favorite websites?

Yes.  Mostly music business related sites that help independent musicians.  There are great articles at http://www.indie-music.com/  ,  http://www.starpolish.com/  and  http://www.musicianassist.com/  .  I collect some of the better articles I find and post them on http://www.ronthal.com/   Independent musicians need as much help as we can get and we need to help eachother.

You have strange untypical guitars. Why is it so?

I always built my own guitars - it was an artistic expression.  (Now I play Vigier guitars - they build them *much* better ! !  )

How did you start singing?! In our charts you are on the first place among guitarists, like Clapton, Vai, Kotzen…

Thank you!  I always sang - to me it was just part of making music.  In the 80's I was told "guitarists can't sing, you need a frontman" - I tried but every singer I found was insane or terrible.  So I started doing it myself.  It's important to be as self-sufficient as possible.  Learn how to: design your website in HTML and Flash, design your artwork in Photoshop or anything else, burn audio CDs of your music and make MP3s.  You'll be very glad you learned.

Why did you take part in the Jason Becker Tribute?

For moral support and musical support, and because I care.   My best friend Ralph Rosa was diagnosed with another myelin-degenerative disease, Multiple Sclerosis, in 1997 - he was also a guitarist who is unable to play anymore.  He now runs a nonprofit organization called MS Research Foundation http://www.msrf.org/ and I'm one of the boardmembers.  We work on raising money for research - we organized a dinner/comedy show in May and donated $10,000 to the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Facility where research is being done on opening the genetic code and triggering myelin cells to replicate.  He started this organization because all the big charities are corrupt.  So we're doing it ourselves - totally non-profit, everyone volunteers - the reward will be seeing my friend walk again.  And seeing Jason Becker play guitar again.

It's interesting to know, if you listen to your own albums after the release? Do you play only the music, that you compose yourself, or you also play the songs of other authors?

I NEVER listen to them again, once they're finished.  By the time they're finished, I'm sick of them!   I LOVE playing cover songs - sometimes in concert we do death metal versions of Britney Spears songs, or cheesy old crooner songs...   It's been 6 years since I've played in a cover band and I miss it.  I may do it again, just for fun...

Do you buy new CDs? Do you listen to different styles of music?

I think the last CDs I got were from Mr. Bungle and Radiohead.  I'm always working on my own music or producing someone, so almost all the new music I hear is something I'm working on.  I work usually 100 hours a week, so when I'm not working, I'm sleeping, eating and shitting - sometimes all at the same time.   When I do listen to something, it's usually Motown. "The Four Tops" kick ass.

Would you share with us any secrets or discoveries that you've made? I mean, in techniques, modes, theory, or just general in life…

The main discovery that I think helps guitarists is the one I mentioned before, about visualizing the string instead of the neck.  The other discovery is the fretless guitar - it's incredible!   It allows me to explore dissonance in new ways, combining frequencies that aren't very gentle with eachother.  There's also a more expressive reaction to dynamics - when you're sliding notes on the fretless, the decay of overtones is more sensitive to the attack of the pick, giving a more living inconsistency to the notes.  Everything is a little more precious, because there's less chance of delivering the music with the exact same expression.

The main discovery in life is what I mentioned earlier about the "collective human face" and that our responsibility in this world is to brighten that face.  Realistically, it can change the future and put the world onto a better path.  I'm not an idealistic person, I'm very much about being practical and accepting reality.  People who know me always say I'm the one person that won't bullshit them, and I'll tell them the truth even if it isn't pleasant.  So even though it sounds idealistic, the truth is, there is a great goal in existence - we cannot achieve the goal completely, but we must work towards it and if each of us moves an inch toward the goal, it makes a big difference.  Changing the collective human face.

Another discovery is the "string theory" of existence, that everything is part of a web, down to a sub-atomic level.  Picture a weave or spider web, where each connecting point is one of us.  There's an old saying "every man's death diminishes me" - as if it's breaking a connection point off the web, or losing a limb on a collective body.  When one point of the web shakes, the closest points feel it.  This is life.

Each person has an energy type, or personality.  It attracts certain types of people, repels others, builds strong bonds with some, weaker with others.  When a person decides to change how they feel inside and how they want to live their life, their energy type changes and suddenly they attract a different type of person, repel a different type, bond with other types, and often attach to new points on the web.  When I made all the changes in my life the end of last year and stopped having a band and changed my approach to how I live, all this attract/repel stuff happened to me.  New people took interest, old people lost interest, it was as if my place on the web changed and suddenly people I didn't know reached out to me and different possibilities came about, all from making a committed change of who I was inside.  Existence is a big game of "connect the dots"

How to find a label? Actually, would you tell some words about Ron Thal as a businessman? How did you promote yourself at the beginning? What should a beginner pay attention to, while working with studio?

The biggest mistake I made was signing to a label, when I could have done things better on my own.  My advice to bands, artists, guitarists is...  DO NOT wait to release your first album through a record label!!!   Artists need the experience of promoting a record to better understand the job of a record label.  Artists should keep the rights to their music - don't give it to a label that does nothing valuable with those rights.  Once an artist manages their own music career and has an existing album, they have more equity to eventually negotiate with a label.   Don't believe the myth, that a big label will spend alot of money on you - just because they *can* doesn't mean they *will*.  A small company will be more personal and care more, but the reason the label is small might be because they make bad business decisions.  Think of a label like a bank - the more you can put in the bank, the more important a client you are.  If you have no CD, no gigs, no career, what do you have to offer this bank in order to open an account with them?  The rule of life is, banks only give money to people that don't need it - and labels only sign artists that don't need it.  If you're looking for someone to take your responsibilities, you will always fail.  Take full responsibility for your future.  Make a great CD, sell it on www.cdbaby.com , sell it in local music stores and at gigs, try to get on local radio, promote on the internet, try to tour together with other bands and try to license to labels in other countries.  When you've honestly done all you can for yourself, bigger labels will be interested.  And you probably won't need them.  The best music is the music labels are afraid to touch, because it's something different - independent artists need to make themselves heard.  We have the internet - that's like having a CD, listening booth, presskit, and full inventory in every record store in the world.  Don't wait for anyone to hold your hand.  Do it yourself.

In the studio, RELAX.  Don't get so excited that you're playing in front of the beat.  Don't think about making/not-making mistakes, just listen to the song.  Give up your control - you don't need to lead the music - follow the music.  And make sure your guitar is in tune!  :)