Bumblefoot Interview @ Gibson 'Lifestyle'

Six Strings and a Dream: Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal’s Tips for Working Guitarists

Peter Hodgson | 12.14.2010
Everyone who has ever picked up a tennis racket and rocked out in front of the mirror has dreamed of chucking in their day job to be a rock star instead. And why not? The adoration, the freedom from the nine-to-five grind, the potential for romantic entanglement – it sounds like a pretty fun vocation. Well, the bad news is that not everyone gets to have a career as a rock star, but the good news is that with a little hard work and a lot of covering your bases, you may be able to still carve a living out of six strings and a dream. One guitarist who has managed to do just this is Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal.
Thal first made a name for himself in the mid-’90s with his wildly creative solo albums and unorthodox techniques, and since 2006 he’s been one of three guitarists in Guns N’ Roses, performing on every track of 2008’s Chinese Democracy and criss-crossing the world with Axl and Co. While on tour with GN’R in Australia, Thal spoke exclusively to Gibson.com about how to make a career out of music.
He says the key is diversity. “You have to be able to multitask and be multi-faceted,” he says. “If you’re just going to be a guitar player that plays in a band, your options are going to be very limited. If you’re going to play in a band, you should also be able to teach what you know. If you record yourself, then record other people as well and get into the studio thing. If you’re taking care of a lot of the business for your band, maybe start doing it for other bands as well and get into that side of things.”
Thal advises being actively aware of the many different ways you can apply your various skills, and the ways they feed into each other. “You need to have as many avenues as you can at once, because while one thing is going slow, another thing is going better, and you put it all together and you can pay your bills,” he says. “Everything you do lends some assistance or makes you better at everything else.”
One of Thal's earliest music-related jobs was as a teacher, and it’s a career path he highly recommends. “I took lessons when I was a kid for a good eight steady years of just weekly lessons, very academic,” he says. “From there I started teaching out of the basement. Then I started teaching at a music store, and then in my early 20s I set up the music department at a private school. I was teaching music for children there, I set up a jazz band, a choir, music history… a whole music program for this private school. Right before that I was teaching at a music institute that a chain of guitar stores in New York had. At some point I worked my way up to teaching music production and guitar at an actual legitimate college in New York State.”
Thal believes that teaching others also can be an invaluable resource for your own playing, vastly increasing your repertoire and forcing you to think about the motives and outcomes of particular musical choices. “What happens is that everything you’re teaching, you’re also learning,” he says. “You’re learning songs that you can teach, so now suddenly you have a great repertoire if you want to join a cover band. Everything helps everything else.”
In fact, Thal says some of his solo tracks would not exist if not for their origins in giving guitar lessons. “Someone wanted to get into Latin chord progressions and I got into the whole I-II-V in harmonic minor thing in certain rhythms, and next thing you know it’s like, ‘Wow, this is a cool thing,’ and I ended up making a song out of it.”
When it comes time to work on a solo project, Thal pulls together all these skills, and as the owner of a professional studio, he’s uniquely placed to take advantage of the many luxuries this brings. “Having my own studio, I can afford studio time, obviously, because it’s my studio, and I can pay the bills of owning the studio by recording other people,” he says. “So by being an engineer, that allows you to record your own albums and gets you into production, and next thing you know, you’re a producer and you’re collaborating with other people that come in. Everything becomes this big web where everything is connected in some way, and the more things you do, the more depth it lends to every other aspect of what you do.”
The skills of deconstruction and adaptation that one develops as a teacher can also blend with studio nous in interesting and unexpected ways, including TV work. Thal explains: “There will be people for some TV show who don’t want to license the real song for something, and they’ll come to me and be like, ‘Can you make me a song that sounds like Mötley Crüe?’ and in five minutes I’ll bust something out in the studio and give it to them, and it’s an original song that's capturing the vibe of some other artist, and that right there, that’s another way that the studio and everything we’re talking about comes into play. And now you also have an income stream from the performance royalties of that piece of music. I did it for a sports team, I did it for some shows that have been on MTV once in a while.”
Thal says session work today is much different to the glory days of the ’70s and ’80s. “I could be wrong but I think reading music is less important now and it’s more about the ears,” he says, adding that producers are more likely to simply e-mail an artist an mp3 and ask them to come up with their own part, rather than provide sheet music or a chord chart. “If it’s a jazz thing they will give you a chart, but if it’s a rock thing they’ll just show you on the spot: ‘Alright, just go E to A and back to E.’ And as far as session playing, you have to be able to lock into a groove and have great timing. You have to have a good memory and be able to recall arrangements, or jot down your own little chart of weird hieroglyphics that only you understand, or you have to be able to read other peoples’ hieroglyphics.”
Across his entire career as a professional guitarist/teacher/songwriter/engineer/producer/composer, Thal has observed a simple set of rules for making yourself employable. “Number one, which will be funny coming from a guitarist in Guns N’ Roses, is don't be late! That was always my cardinal rule for everything,” he says. “In order to be on time you need to be early, then wait in your car for 15 minutes and walk in two minutes before whatever time you’re supposed to be there.
“Two: be someone that people want to work with, want to be in a room with and spend 10 hours with. Be relaxed, be calm, don’t cause the stressful vibe, just be cool and keep your intensity knob down a bit and just roll with things.
“Three: be overly prepared. If you just need to know the guitar part, make sure you know the other guitar part, too, and the vocals, and the bass, and the drum rhythm and where the accents are. Really know the song inside and out. Know more than you need to know, and be so prepared that you can bring more than is asked of you, if asked. Those three things matter the most: be on time, be cool, and be prepared. And that’s for anything.”

Originally posted at: http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Features/Six-Strings-and-Dream-1214/