Total Guitar magazine (UK)
JUNE 2008

Play Like Your... Heroes
Ron Thal

aka 'Bumblefoot'

One of the most talented and technical rock guitarists of our generation, Ron Thal takes time out from recording his forthcoming solo album and laying down guitars for Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy" to help you play better!

How much time do you devote to practicing guitar per day ?

I don't devote nearly enough time as I should.  II get so wrapped in everything else sometimes - writing, collaborating, engineering, producing, managing, designing, promoting, corresponding, negotiating, policing, traveling, touring, teaching - there will be times when I don't even see a guitar for days.  But the time away actually ends up being a good thing.  When I pick the guitar backup there's a refreshed approach, new ideas.  But when I'm touring, I play a few hours a day, every day.   So it varies - I practice more during the times when I have shows coming up.  But it's never enough.  I could be so much better.

What areas of your playing do you enjoy working on the most?

My favorite thing is playing guitar while watching TV, jamming to whatever I hear.  Whatever music comes on, I try to jump right in and play along, anticipate the changes, play rhythm and melody together as they're happening.  That's the kind of playing I do most, but nobody hears it unless they're hanging out in a room with me, haha.  Just thinking of songs, and playing all the parts of the song at once. Fun stuff.

Are there any techniques that you're not so good at? How do you aim to improve those?

Anything and everything could be better.  There's always room to grow, more to learn.  The day you stop learning is the day you start sucking.  There are some improvisational methods in my head that I can't pull off yet.  I would need to spend hours a day, for years, with a metronome just playing slowly, and training my brain to think a different way.  That's what it would take.

Is it important to work on your playing weaknesses, or is it best to concentrate on what you're naturally good at?

All of it is important.  Work on everything.  Just play, and over time it all comes together, the weak stuff becomes more natural.

The average Total Guitar reader has played guitar for around two to three years and would describe themselves as a beginner to intermediate guitarist. How much time should he or she spend on practice per day? Was this the case for you when you started a practice regime?

It depends on your day, how much time you have where you can really focus on playing without sacrificing too much of your life.  Life is what happens when you're not practicing in your room.  So don't spend too much of your time alone with your guitar, where you're denying yourself a fulfilling life - a half hour to two hours should be fine.  But ya gotta go out and live your life - all the experiences add dimension to who you are, and it'll reflect in your musical expression.  It's the best thing you can do for your music.

What can the Total Guitar reader do to increase the speed of his or her playing?

Use a metronome.  Don't push too hard to get fast, where your hands are tense.  Stay relaxed, don't tighten up.  And take care of your body, especially your brain. 

What do you do to keep your practice time fresh, ie, how do you prevent it from becoming a chore?

The mind gets bored, not the hands.  So do things that stimulate your mind.  Remember, music starts in your brain, it ends at your hands.  You need to exercise the source of the music - your brain.  Here's an exercise I would have my students do.  Requires another person, and knowing basic chord theory.  Have someone hit quarter-notes of a chord, and all you have to do is play whole notes.  So every four chord strums, you hit one note.  It has to be a note that makes up the chord.  (Example: play any C, E, or G notes on the neck while a C major chord is being strummed...)   Every time you hit the whole note, at the same time you need to name the *next* note you're going to play.  Next, try it over a changing chord progression.   Then, try it with half-notes.  Then quarter notes.  This will help train your mind to think ahead of your hands.  Your mind should always be one step ahead of your hands.

Scales can be pretty boring to play! How can you make this aspect of practice more relevant and interesting?

I'm gonna go back to when I was 14, playing about 7 years.  I started taking lessons from a great jazz guitarist named Pete Prisco.  Man, did he straighten me out.  He would have me play 3-octave major scales at 40 beats per minute, slightly behind the beat, as softly as I could.  That taught me serious discipline.  Then we'd start accenting, every 2nd note in groups of three notes, as if we were playing in 3/4 time, soft loud soft, soft loud soft, still at 40 bpm's, lagging behind the beat.  Adding dynamics to the picking brings so much to phrases and scaley runs.  Start working on adding accents to your scales.  Practice different patterns of dynamics while playing scales, emphasizing different parts of the beat.  It will be less boring to play - but better than that, it will be more interesting to listen to.

Finally, is there an exercise or technique you have learned that has transformed your playing more than anything else you've discovered?

While in the early teen years, what I liked to do was pick an album and learn the whole album in a day.  It would be AC/DC, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy, Rush, Van Halen...   It helped with ear training, inspiration for writing, a great mental workout.  I'd drop the needle for 10 seconds, lift it off, play what I heard, and work my way across the song.  Do that for song 1, then song 2, then go back and play song 1 and song 2.  Hardest part was to not forget the previous song while memorizing each new song.  You must always challenge yourself, and meet the challenge.  Doing that will transform your playing.


5 minute warm-up.  Play scales and four-finger chromatic runs.  Start by playing softly, barely touching the strings.  Gradually increase the intensity.

15 minutes - picking/rhythm.  Play rhythms to a metronome, with single notes, then with chords.  Go through combinations of quarter/8th/16th notes, triplets, straight and swing feel, accenting and muting different parts of the rhythm.  Slowly, then quickly.

15 minutes - make different chord progressions using jazz chords.  Arpeggiate each chord with the rhythms you came up with 15 minutes ago.  Slowly, then quickly.

15 minutes - legato/tapping.  Play previous arpeggios with your fretting hand only, all hammer-ons and pull-offs, in the different rhythms.  Then play them with your picking hand only, tapping all the notes, all hammer-ons and pull-offs onto different tapping fingers, in the different rhythms.  Slowly, then quickly.

15 minutes - put on some music you've never heard before, and do your best to play along with what you hear.  Work on getting familiar and retaining the melodies and complimenting them.