After having been a member of Guns N' Roses for over four years, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal talks about, among other things, the re-release of his 1995 debut album, his take on Chinese Democracy, as well as the wide range of his musical preferences.
Almost exactly three years after I first interviewed Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, a request arrived in my inbox, asking me if I'd like to do a follow-up to the first one. But of course I would. After the Rock 'N Rev festival in Sturgis, South Dakota, and before Ron once again headed to Europe with Guns N' Roses, modern communication allowed a direct link-up between Copenhagen, Denmark, and Ron's home in New Jersey.
Sitting on his couch with a little black and white cat squished up next to him, he was eager to talk about the re-release of his debut album, The Adventures Of Bumblefoot (originally released in 1995), along with bonus tracks originally made for the Sega game, Wild Woody, and the accompanying 200-page tab book, as well as his thoughts on Rock Band. Furthermore, Ron talks about his contributions to Chinese Democracy and its subsequent release in November 2008, as well as giving an insight into his musical preferences – such as who'd be in his dream line-up and what his favorite songs by various bands are.
Never free from the strain of controversy, the band's current tour was preceded by two Internet-fused rumors: One that claimed that Ron was out of the band, and another that the tour was canceled. The cause of the latter was Axl's Twitter-account being hacked, leading to an announcement, seemingly directly from the frontman, that the forthcoming 26 dates weren't happening. Obviously, neither were true, and the tour could kick off as planned. (Well, almost as planned – the first two shows at Reading and Leeds were affected by curfew disagreements, and the fourth show in Dublin was paused for 25 minutes due to objects being thrown at the band.)
Being from Denmark and having attended the show in Aalborg on June 14th that ended the previous leg of the tour, I naturally started off by giving Ron my compliments for what I considered a great show. Turns out that Ron was specifically fond of that specific show:
– To me, that was the best show we ever played! There are certain shows where you just can't connect and plug into what's going on, and you feel like you're not there, no matter what you try to do. It's this separation between your brain, your body, and your soul! But there was something about that last show we did in Aalborg – it just felt like a perfectly functioning machine. Everything seemed solid, and we seemed so in sync. It felt like the perfect show. We were as connected as we ever were.
Are there specific moments during the show that you remember?
– I remember at one point I was on the ground, and it took me a while to get up! I remember thinking, "I need to sit here for a while", and the head of security came over and asked me if I was okay, and I just gave him the thumbs up – "just taking a breather!". And when you've got a 30 pound double neck guitar around your neck, it definitely wears you out a bit.
It's a town quite far from Copenhagen, which, being the capital, is naturally the city that most bands visit. As an audience member, it's often obvious that the crowds of smaller towns are different from big cities. Can you sense that when you're on stage?
– Sometimes it's crazier in a smaller town. Sometimes they're more into it. Maybe it feels like a bigger event if it's a town that most bands don't go to. I think that makes a difference.
Did it feel like that in Aalborg?
– Well, the crowd definitely kicked fucking ass! They were loud and really into it. But it's hard to say. If I played Aalborg and Copenhagen back to back, I could probably have a better opinion about it, but even from other gigs I've done, there's definitely something about playing smaller towns. I have nothing against the big towns, and I don't want to stereotype things here, but it almost feels more personal.
Climbing the personal Everest
What made this year the perfect one to re-release your debut album?
– The label finally decided to do it! Shrapnel Records own all the rights to that album and the one that came after it, Hermit, so I can't release it on my own. It's solely up to them what they want to do with it, and after I left the label in 1997, they never reprinted the album, so nobody could get it – except if you'd find one at some obscure store or on eBay. So they contacted me last year and said they'd like to re-release the album, and I was happy as hell! You wanna see all your music out there and available for people, so we got started re-vamping the artwork and adding the Sega tracks.
I read that it took you 6 months to transcribe the whole album for the accompanying 200-page tab book. Was it harder than you thought?
– It was harder than making the album! Just for the hell of it, in 1997, I decided to take every guitar track and put them all on a cassette, and then just listen to a few seconds at a time – remembering and learning everything I played, writing it down and putting it into the software. This year I fixed them all up – aligned them and took care of all the typesetting – and then put them into PDF-files, did artwork for them and so on, and that had to be another six months. So it was a huge undertaking, but I'm really glad I did it. It was my own personal Everest that I climbed!
Were you surprised at some of the compositions, in terms of how you've developed as a composer?
– Not really. Going back and looking at all that stuff, it all kind of made sense in my own twisted brain. "Alright, I put that #9 there to bring it into this", and "I kind of understand why I augmented the 11 to give it that sense of something impending" – it all made sense!
You're donating five bucks for every cd sold to Multiple Sclerosis research. Why this specific disease?
– It became a personal thing when one of my closest friends was diagnosed – also around 1997, so it was quite a year. At that time, he was a guitar player in a band, and he just shifted his priorities and started this non-profit organization to raise money that goes directly to the labs doing research. And his friends and family all volunteered, and we just took our time to arrange concerts and different events that would raise money. And nobody takes a salary – we make sure that every cent really goes toward research. His site is msrf.org. Also, with anything I do that's autographed – whether it's a photograph or a cd, but if I sign it – five dollars goes towards MS research.
To what extent do you feel obliged, as someone who's done quite well for himself, to donate money to charity?
– I always felt that if you have something to give, it doesn't hurt you to give it. It takes very little effort to do something kind in this world, and if you can – just do it. When my friend was diagnosed, it raised my awareness – and it's a shame that it takes things like that, but we're living our lives and all these things exist, and we can't just randomly pick between them.
You started releasing songs to the Rock Band Network in June. Doesn't it bug you that the guitar playing doesn't really resemble reality at all?
– No! I like it! 'Cause it's not just about playing guitar – it's about connecting with the music. It's about getting to know songs that these kids would never hear – maybe not using an analogue guitar, but a digital one. And it does make kids want to become even more connected and start playing the real thing – and making the music that ends up on the games, instead of just playing what somebody else made. And I could be wrong, but I think that by the end of the year, we'll have the next version of Rock Band where you can play real instruments. So that's gonna completely change everything – we're gonna see some crazy players out there!
Can you play your own songs on the hardest difficulty setting?
– Aw, dude, I suck at it so bad! I can get five seconds in, and then I'm destroyed!
Not the new guy anymore
You became a member of the band but a few years before the release of Chinese Democracy, but you ended up playing on all the songs. To what extent did you add new parts to them, and to what extent were you redoing existing parts?
– I didn't redo anybody's parts. I only added my own things. And then in the studio they would make the decisions – let's keep this in, let's leave this out, let's make this louder, let's make this lower – but everything I played was my own stuff, whether it was rhythm chords or a solo.
Did you or anyone make a special effort to make sure you were on all the tracks?
– We just did a whole lot of time in the studio, and I kept playing and playing and playing – until we ran out of songs! I played on the stuff that wasn't released, too. I mean, there's a whole big chunk of music from that era, and I played on pretty much everything. Then they decided what to put out, and I'm sure something at some point will happen to the other existing songs. But I'm hoping we could write some music now, with the current line-up, and do something completely fresh.
You're pushing your five year anniversary as a member of the band. How is it different to be a member of Guns N' Roses today than it was when you first joined?
– Well, I'm not the new guy anymore! In the beginning, they didn't know what the hell to make of me, but now I think they get it. The good and the bad. And the ugly. And the very ugly! When I first joined, I'm sure they thought, "who's this dude that the stork just left on our doorstep?" Tommy, who was always a punk guy, knows I grew up with a lot of that stuff, and we connect on that level. Me and Richard will be jamming and talking about old Yes music. And actually, the first song that me and Richard both learned to play was Rock N' Roll Hoochie Koo! We all e-mail, call and text when we're on different sides of the continent, and when we're on the same side, we hang and jam. Frank brought his drums to my house last week and we just jammed for a few hours, and the week before that we went over to Sebastian Bach's house and jammed.
How is he doing?
– He's doing well! He's gonna be very missed on this next leg of touring. He's phenomenal live. He's so fucking good. And everyone he's had in his band was always great. But we've got some good bands coming with us, so it's cool... But it would be nice to also have Sebastian.
How did the atmosphere in the band change after Chinese Democracy was finally released?
– Oh, man! It was like having wandered in the desert for forty years and then finally crossing the border! It was very soon after that we all congregated back in LA and started rehearsing. At that point, Robin had moved on, but since then he and I have probably become even closer. I've seen him every time he was in town with Nine Inch Nails, and we've gotten to hang a bit. DJ had joined the band, and we spent a lot of time really making sure that when we started touring again we'd be very prepared. We made sure the guitar parts were perfectly coordinated, and that our tones and sound and gear were complimentary to each other. That everyone would stand out in their own place without stepping on anyone, so the sound wouldn't get too messy. Compliments to the front house guys, 'cause they're a big part of that. They put something a little forward and something a little back, making it as good as it could ever sound.
From Moscow to Athens via Seoul
What's your take on the reception of Chinese Democracy?
– It's like any album – some people are gonna love it, some are gonna hate it, and some are not gonna care either way. Production-wise, you can look at it two ways. Either it's The White Album, or it's Pet Sounds – a big, personal statement. There was so much production, and it was such a fine, fragile balance of getting everything just right. To me, it's more like an orchestration. It wasn't the typical raw rock recording, and I think it took people a minute to understand that, 'cause I think a lot of them were expecting Appetite II. With the Use Your Illusion albums, things were already heading in this direction, and if you take all these years of growth and suddenly you come out of the cocoon with this thing, it's definitely a shock to people. But now that people are more familiar with it, I see them singing along to all the new songs. And that's good. I like that certain ones stand out for people. Like Catcher In The Rye, for instance. There's so much going on, and it's a beautiful song with so many nice melodies in there. And speaking of Yes, one of my favorite Yes albums is Going For The One, and the things going on at the end of Catcher In The Rye remind a lot of me of the title track on that album. It just keeps going and coming around again and building and saying more. There's improvising on it, and the guitars and vocals sort of dance around with each other. And that's fucking cool!
Is Axl a Yes fan?
– You know, I don't know. I never asked him. I should text him. "Do you like Yes? This is a yes or no question!"
Chris Cornell has talked about how he thinks albums should be reviewed ten years after their release, 'cause that's when they will be seen in the proper context. Do you think he has a point?
– Oh, totally. When Chinese Democracy was released, it still had all the baggage attached to it. "It took this long to make, and rumors say it was this expensive! And it doesn't have the original band members on it!" And it biases people's opinion of what they're listening to, when they have all that stuff on their mind. But if you give it time and look back on it, all those things are no longer relevant, and you're just looking at it for what it is – an album, a collection of music – and you'd get to review it with a fresh take. So I think as more time goes on, people are gonna start appreciating that album more.
Is there something a critic wrote that really bugged you?
– Just the usual stuff. Everyone wants their opinion to be the truth, and then they'll voice it as if it is the truth. It's what they believe, so it's the truth to them, but it doesn't mean it's the truth to you, and you just have to agree to disagree.
You've got a big European tour coming up. What shows of the 26 are you especially looking forward to?
– All of them! There are certain places that I'm curious about, 'cause I've never been there. Like Serbia, Croatia and Belfast. And I love being part of the first incarnation of Guns N' Roses to play at a place. Like Seoul, South Korea, and Moscow.
Where have you been in the world that have made you think, "just let me stay here"?
– Moscow. I've been there a good couple of times, and it feels more and more like home and I have more and more fun every time I come back. And Japan.
What are the things that have made your trips there so enjoyable?
– Um, probably none that I should say! A lot of these places I just go to with my wife, and we experience things together, and that's really what does it. She's come out to so many of the shows, when I'm on tour – like London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Sydney, Milan, and Athens. I loved Athens! I had a great time there. Just one day last year, when I was on tour with Lita Ford, and my wife came out, and we just spent a day walking around the whole city and had a beautiful dinner on this rooftop restaurant overlooking the Acropolis. That was one of those moments, definitely.
Playing with Mozart, Bonham and Dio
You have a lot of fans that have been very excited about meeting you. Which artists have you yourself been the most excited about meeting?
– The guys in Kiss. I've met Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley a couple of times, and that was really cool. Also the guys in Avenged Sevenfold and Dream Theater. And Fozzy. All of them were a pleasure to hang out with. But who have I met where I definitely had to keep my cool? Um... Steven Tyler! That was last year at Sturgis, and we were both watching Toby Keith. Steven was standing right next to me, so I introduced myself, and we chatted just for a brief second. He was the nicest fucking guy.
If you could play just one concert with your dream line-up, who – alive or dead – would be in it? And you can't mention any GN'R members.
– I think I would put Amadeus on keys. He was just a fun guy and such a wise-ass. At least according to how he's been portrayed. On drums, I think I'll go with John Bonham. I'm gonna go with all dead people here. On bass? Jaco Pastorius. He was insane – so fucking good. One of those guys who inspired a whole generation of bass players. And the singer? I'm thinking... 'Cause I wanna have John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in there, too. This is becoming a big fucking band! But who would be a good, dead singer? No, wait, I'm gonna go with an alive one. Tony Harnell from the band TNT.
And then yourself on lead guitar, I assume?
– No, I'm just gonna sit down and watch them and be, like, "I'm not worthy!" I don't even wanna be in the band – I just wanna assemble them and listen to them! But no okay, I'll be in there on, I guess, guitar. But I'll probably spend more time listening than playing.
Where would you play?
– I guess in the underworld, since they're dead! But wait! Fuck! Dio!! Tony would have to be excluded from the band, 'cause I'm going "bring out your dead!", and he'd go, "I'm not dead yet! I feel fine!". So it's Dio on vocals instead. And we would play in my living room every fucking night. No, okay, we'll do the Garden. Madison Square Garden, New York City. That's home.
What's the song that you just can't get out of your head these days?
– Okay, this will make you laugh, and it'll be completely unexpected. It's a song called Bat Macumba by Os Mutantes from their self-titled album, which came out in 1968. It's this Brazilian psychedelic rock band, which was very "Cream meets psychedelic-era Beatles", and I have that song stuck in my head. Probably because I listened to that album eight times in a row. It goes like this: (plays guitar and sings) "Bat macumba, ê ê, bat macumba, oba, bat macumba, ê ê, bat macumba, oba..." Like that, over and over. It's been in my head for a good couple of weeks now.
What's your guiltiest musical pleasure?
– The one thing that I'm ashamed to admit that I love to listen to? I don't know if I'm ashamed. I'm proud to say that I think the Bee Gees were fucking amazing songwriters and singers.
What made you think of them?
– I started just listing bands, starting from A, and I didn't wanna say ABBA, so I got to B and came up with the Bee Gees! But let's add to that: Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me". And "Misty Blue" by Engelbert Humperdinck. "With These Hands" by Tom Jones. But this is stuff that I'm absolutely not ashamed of in any way. Actually I'm rather proud to share this information. Yet most people might not consider it cool.
Do you have a favorite joke?
– Oh boy. I'm trying to think of the words to the one in my head. Um... "How many e-mail responses do you have to make before people believe the tour isn't canceled? A thousand!" Twitter-gate! There were also rumors that I was quitting the band, and that's not true either. I'm still here. The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated! But what's my favorite joke? "I'm a tee-pee, I'm a wig-wam, I'm a tee-pee, I'm a wig-wam! Relax, you're two tents!" And I saw one with a picture of two snowmen standing next to each other, and one of them says to the other one, "do you smell carrots?" They're so stupid. And then, of course, there are the raunchy ones. "What's the best thing about fucking twenty(-)four-year-olds? There's twenty of them!" But that's too terrible.
Finally, I'm gonna mention a bunch of bands, and then you tell me your favorite song by them – is that cool?
– Sure. But it might take me a second to come up with my favorite.
– Dang, that's a fucking tough one. I'm such a huge Zeppelin fan, and I love every fucking song! The first one that comes to my mind is Friends.
The Beach Boys?
– God Only Knows. Do you know that song? (starts playing it on guitar and singing along) Now I can't stop playing! (reaches the minor 6th chord) That's what does it! That's the chord that goes right through me and makes the song my favorite! Like in What It Takes by Aerosmith!
So that's your favorite Aerosmith song?
– No, it's Nobody's Fault. That one and S.O.S. (Too Bad).
– Holy fuck. Every fucking song they ever touched. But I'm gonna go with Strawberry Fields Forever.
– Holy shit, another tough one. But I might go with Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
– Blondie! Nice! Parallel Lines is one of the first albums I got. Dreaming is a great song, but let me think. Not the disco-y stuff like Call Me or Heart Of Glass. 11:59 is a good song... Sunday Girl... But you know what, for now I'll go with Dreaming, 'cause that's first one that popped into my head.
– Verse Chorus Verse.
– The first thing that popped into my head was Fairies Wear Boots. But there are so many great fucking songs.
The Rolling Stones?
– Gimme Shelter.
– To me, the Master Of Puppets album was the pinnacle of amazingness, and Disposable Heroes is one of my favorites. But there's a million old Metallica songs that I fucking love. Creeping Death. But it's a tough one. There are certain bands where every single song they'd play at a concert would make you go "yaaay!" But I'll go with one of those two I mentioned, or even Battery.
– Bon Jovi?! Oh shit, let me think. Fuck. I might have to go with the big one, Living On A Prayer. I'm gonna get beat up after this! "He would rather be in Bon Jovi!!"
– Every fucking song they made, from the "fuck you" song all the way to now. I might go with The Day I Tried To Live.
The Jesus And Mary Chain?
– Oh shit, I don't know. What do you recommend?
The Darklands album.
– I don't know enough of their stuff. I gotta check them out.
– (starts playing Don't Look Back In Anger and Wonderwall) It might be Wonderwall. I know it's a cheesy pick, 'cause it's the popular one, but it's a fucking good song. And I'm a sucker for cellos!
– A Boy Named Sue! That's a good one. And I loved his covers. Rusty Cage!
– Who Killed Bambi?
– Oh, that's a tricky one, 'cause I was raised on that. 100,000 Years. But again, it's one where I could name fifty songs!
Guns N' Roses before you joined the band?
– I'll go with Don't Cry.
And then your favorite song from Chinese Democracy?
– I'm gonna go with Shackler's Revenge. Now I've got Kiss songs in my head. (starts playing and singing Let Me Know) And then at the end, they go into the whole jam! (plays on) And that was the coolest thing! What a great way to end it! Holy shit!