By Caroline Paone
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Solo shows, Sons of Apollo, Art of Anarchy, re-releasing his first two CDs, and a double-neck rundown.
Virtuoso guitarist Ron Thal, stage name “Bumblefoot,” (ex-Guns N’ Roses) is known for his fiery fretwork and double-neck guitar arsenal. Initially, taming those Vigier double-necks took some time.
Cover Photo Credit: Kevin RC Wilson
“The first one I played was more “neck heavy,” says Thal. “I had to keep a 5-pound weight on the strap to balance it out. All together it was over 30 pounds. The newer one has a smaller body with chambers, better balance – doesn’t need the counter-weight – muuuuuch better.”
Along with his unconventional guitar techniques and solo work, he’s in two notable bands who released albums in 2017. The first, a supergroup called Sons of Apollo, includes drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, The Winery Dogs, The Neal Morse Band; among others), bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs, David Lee Roth) keyboardist Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol) and singer Jeff Scott Soto (ex-Journey, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, SOTO). Whew!
Interesting note: Apollo is the ancient Greek and Roman God of music and poetry – an elite title one band cannot easily transcend. However, Sons of Apollo’s debut Psychotic Symphony (Inside Out Records) has met all expectations worthy of the bandmembers’ credentials and name. According to Thal: “Even though the music is some of the most complex” he’s played, it’s one of the “easiest albums” he’s ever made.”
After fans heard Sons of Apollo’s music, a progressive-metal revolution ensued for the band’s intricate but edgy songs. It’s rock music created by those bred on Deep Purple, Van Halen, Zeppelin and Rush; then refined in clubs and music clinics of the world. Listeners certainly responded as the album hit #1 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart and has enjoyed many gracious reviews. You can catch Sons of Apollo out on tour this year.
Thal is also in Art of Anarchy, a melodic metal band also comprised of skilled musicians: Scott Stapp (Creed) on vocals, John Moyer (Disturbed) on bass and New York-based twin brothers Jon (guitar) and Vince Votta (drums). The Madness album’s title track broke the Top 20 on rock radio charts. Plus, it was #2 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart. Praised for their unique sound, chemistry and signature vocals, Art of Anarchy is much needed arena-rock for 2018.
Before all that, Thal was in Guns N’ Roses from 2006 to 2014, and released 10-plus solo records (comparable to the G3-caliber guitarists of his day). Logically, guitar players and music labels are favoring his solo material. The most recent Bumblefoot album Little Brother Is Watching has been signed to David Ellefson’s (Megadeth bassist) new record label EMP (formerly Combat Records). The title track “Little Brother is Watching” is a particularly original and anthemic guitar masterpiece. Details at the EMP Label http://empmerch.com/?submit&s=bumblefoot&post_type=product
Additionally, The Orchard Record label (who bought the Shrapnel catalog) has re-released Thal’s first two solo CDs The Adventures of Bumblefoot (1995) and Hermit (1997). Both CDs contain a bonus song; and the Hermit has been entirely remixed and remastered. Find them at the Bumblefoot Official Store http://tinmanmerchandising.com//index.php?cPath=467_474&sort=3a&gridlist=grid&tplDir=Bumblefoot
The composer, instructor and guitarist-with-heart also works for international charities visiting orphanages and children’s hospitals around the world. Lately, he’s been performing full-band shows, acoustic sets, one-man storyteller shows, and clinics.
Let’s kick off the new year with a Bumblefoot Q&A…
In some of your solo shows you incorporate a stripped-down set list but with your brand of guitar wizardry. I enjoy your interpretation of “Baby I’m Amazed” (Paul McCartney and Wings) – really soulful. Are these songs you always wanted to perform live?
Thanks so much! I grew up on a lot of 60s/70s music, so many songs from that time that inspired me, moved me. When a song really affects you, becomes part of you, there’s a need to share what it did for you, and let the song out. Especially in an intimate show setting, like an acoustic show, or one of the electric storyteller shows – similar to the acoustic show, but on an electric guitar and playing some songs to backing tracks, some heavier songs as well.
Those unfamiliar with your solo work may be surprised to know that you’re an all-around musician as well as a shredder. You produce, sing and have studied jazz. Did you always sing?
I started off as someone who loves music, like we all do. I was a songwriter, using whatever tools I had, for me it was singing, playing guitar, emulating the bands that inspired me…from the beginning I sang. On Bumblefoot albums I sing, and in other bands where there’s a lead singer I sing backups, often the higher-ranged parts.
I keep finding videos where you have a different double-neck over your shoulder. Hah! Tell me about the guitar in the SOA videos. Is it a Vigier?
The double-necks I use are all from a French company called Vigier. I’ve been playing their guitars for 20 years.
(See below for a rundown on his Vigier double-neck.)
You play very fluidly on the double-neck switching from the lower neck to the fretless seemingly easily. What are the challenges (if any) and the benefits of incorporating a double-neck into your playing?
For me, where playing fretless is a big part of what I do, I need quick access to both fretted and fretless. The fretless is like having a slide on every fingertip, it’s great. You can tune each neck differently, and have a different tone for each. The challenge is getting used to a guitar that weighs double, but the strength builds.
How heavy is that guitar?
The first one had a bigger denser body, and was more “neck heavy,” where I had to keep a 5-pound weight on the strap to balance it out. All together it was over 30 pounds. The newer one has a smaller body with chambers, better balance, doesn’t need the counter-weight – Muuuuuch better, haha.
As far as your technique, you seem to incorporate methods like tapping to complement songs rather than cluttering things up; at a clinic type of situation it can have a different spotlight.
Tapping, chicken-picking, any of the many different techniques, they give more ways to express yourself, to get the instrument to speak. It’s best when they flow smoothly within your playing, when you don’t have to stop the momentum to do a certain technique. There should be comfort when using different techniques.
In general, what doors did tapping open for you creatively?
Tapping, or any technique can lead to more writing ideas, more stylizing ideas, more ways to express yourself. It’s good to explore them all.
When did you get into tapping or first hear it?
It was when I heard Eddie Van Halen’s intro to the Van Halen song “Mean Street,” that was the first time I heard tapping, and it blew my mind. I never heard a sound like that before, and still never heard anything like it. It made me want to see what kind of sounds I can get out of the strings, beyond the traditional ways of playing.
Who were your musical heroes growing up? I hear a lot of diverse styles in your playing.
My favorites growing up were KISS and the Beatles, then Yes, Queen, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Cream, Hendrix, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Jethro Tull, and later a lot of old-school metal – Iron Maiden, Ozzy, Queensryche, Manowar; but I’m a big fan of Motown and “feel good” music: The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli, Tom Jones. I’ve gotten into all kinds of music, jazz, blues, classical, punk, funk, bluegrass, Middle Eastern; all music has something to offer.
What tip can you offer someone just learning to play?
To start, use a metronome, don’t rush…learn to read music, learn songs, learn music theory. Play with others, get comfortable improvising. Write songs – any style, whatever you feel. Create.
What guitar did you start on?
I started on nylon string acoustic guitars for the first two years, my first electric was a Les Paul-style guitar.
Check out Bumblefoot My First Guitars
With the Orchard Label re-releasing your first two albums The Adventures of Bumblefoot and Hermit, how involved were you in that process? Did you change or tweak songs?
I was completely involved in every step, and had complete musical freedom to add unreleased bonus tracks, to re-mix and re-master the Hermit album as I wished. They trusted in me, and I trusted in them.
When were the bonus tracks written?
The bonus tracks were written at the times the albums were being made, over 20 years ago…
Both albums are being released on vinyl. Do you find it ironic having your solo material from the ‘90s coming out on vinyl in 2018? That’s so cool.
I didn’t expect vinyl to make as much of a comeback as it did, and I’m glad it did. Holding an album in your hands, seeing the artwork for real, the comforting sound of a needle touching vinyl, it’s wonderful. And to finally have my albums on vinyl, 20 years later, with a fresh sound, and unheard songs included, it feels like a second chance at life for this music. There’s a 200-page transcription book for The Adventures of Bumblefoot album that I transcribed and typeset myself.
Onto your band Sons of Apollo. You all seem comfortable for a new group. When news posted that you were playing together the Internet was buzzing like crazy. It’s like how many virtuosos can you fit in one band? That could have gone terribly wrong, but you all seem cool…
Haha, it was a very comfortable scenario, we knew each other, had experience working with each other, and had respect for each other and trusted each other. One of us would come up with a spontaneous idea, and we’d all start playing, it would grow into more ideas, and by the end of the day we had a song recorded. Even though the music is some of the most complex I’ve played, it was one of the easiest albums I ever made.
Keyboardist Derek Sherinian is known for his guitar-oriented style. Tell me about playing with Derek?
I also say, “Derek is the greatest guitarist on keyboards,” he has the soul of a guitar icon. One of us would come up with an idea and show it to the other, and the other would raise the bar with the next idea. It was a lot of fun writing and recording together!
Seeing you play with Billy Sheehan reminds me of the David Lee Roth “Eat ‘Em and Smile” tour with Steve Vai. Now Sheehan’s playing a double-neck, too, with another adept guitarist. Live, will you do any cool stuff like trading solos?
I can see us doing something like that. We start touring in February, on the road things like that fall into place over time.
Your “God of the Sun” fretless solo (Psychotic Symphony) has a lot of feeling and unique phrasing. And your “Little Brother is Watching” solo contains slides and rich harmonics. How does a Bumblefoot solo evolve?
Most of my solos are improvised, going by the feeling of the song, the energy level. I think about the whole song, the groove and melodies, the dynamic point in the song during the solo and where the music is heading after the solo, so I can help it build and resolve when it gets there.
You’re in another well-received band Art of Anarchy. It’s a melodic metal band, with a rich sound. How do you manage all your bands and projects?
It’s a juggling act having more than one band, and especially when the members all have other bands! But if everyone agrees to commit to a schedule and prioritize the band when they have to, everything works out.
Art of Anarchy’s “The Madness” is a massive tune. Did you write the lyrics or was it Scott Stapp? I like the lyric “the other side of fear is freedom.”
Scott wrote the lyrics, and the band wrote the music. All five of us were in a room together, jamming, and letting ideas evolve into songs, that’s how most of the album was written, organically, all of us in a room.
Your playing on “The Madness” has a repetitive theme for a lot of it, which gives the song a bright, positive vibe.
Thank you! I felt like the song needed that, a “theme,” something ominous, but hopeful. 2017 was a good year for releasing music [Art Of Anarchy The Madness in March, re-releasing Bumblefoot The Adventures Of Bumblefoot and Hermit in June, re-releasing my latest album Little Brother Is Watching on CD and vinyl and releasing Sons Of Apollo Psychotic Symphony in October] all while traveling around the world playing Bumblefoot shows, doing clinics and music camps, events with U.S. Embassies, charity events, touring with Art Of Anarchy.
Let’s see how 2018 goes – bring it on!
All things Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal:
“The 16 Best Rock Guitarists In The World Right Now” ~ MusicRadar
Bumblefoot “Little Brother Is Watching”
Bumblefoot “Don’t Know Who to Pray to Anymore”
Sons of Apollo “Coming Home”
Art of Anarchy “The Madness”
Connect with Ron:
Bumblefoot’s Vigier Double-Neck Rundown
The Vigier Guitar company makes Bumblefoot’s signature series “DoubleBfoot” fretted/fretless double-neck guitars.
The guitar has a DiMarzio Tone Zone by the bridge and a DiMarzio Chopper by the neck.
There’s a 5-way toggle with the settings 1- Bridge (Humbucker), 2 – Bridge (Single Coil), 3 – Bridge + Neck, 4 – Bridge + Neck (out-of-phase), 5 – Neck.
The necks don’t have truss rods, they have a sheet of graphite going through them that keeps the necks straight. And a magnetized hole to keep the thimble in.
What’s a thimble you ask? As they say, necessity is the mother of invention: the thimble (normally used to protect your finger while sewing) aids Bumblefoot’s quirky arpeggio “thimble tapping.” Learn about his Thimble Tapping Technique. https://youtu.be/AAnG7WD5sBkl
Fast Facts on Vigier Guitars
Patrice Vigier started Vigier Guitars and is a long-time advocate for the fretless guitar and artists who play them.
Bits of History per Vigier Guitars http://vigierusa.com/index.php/about/history/
1983: The Passion series is revealed.
An Arpege guitar with a flat fingerboard is made to fit Stanley Jordan’s way of playing, the action of the string is set very low.
2006: The Roger Glover signature bass and the Bumblefoot signature guitar are unveiled.