Guitar virtuoso, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal has experienced success on every level imaginable. For over 20 years he has been thrilling fans and critics alike by releasing cutting-edge music, performing at international festivals, headlining solo tours, winning many album of the month/year awards and appearing on the covers of numerous music magazines as a solo artist. As lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, Bumblefoot toured sold-out shows all over the world, headlining festivals with crowds up to 150,000 people. Bumblefoot’s unique ‘fretless guitar’ can be heard throughout GNR’s 2008 ‘Chinese Democracy’ album. Even with all of his success, Bumblefoot is one of the most down to Earth people you could ever meet. His passion for music and sharing it with the world is undeniable!
On February 24th, he will unleash his 10th CD entitled “Little Brother Is Watching.” The album is an eccentric, upbeat collection of modern epic rock with haunting melodies, huge choruses and witty lyrics about life in the digital age and beyond. Specifically, his own life and coming to terms with what we all face – beginnings, endings, and moving on. The album was composed, produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Bumblefoot at his studio in New Jersey, and also features drummer Dennis Leeflang and a crowd of 100 fans stomping, chanting and singing backing vocals recorded at a listening party in New York.
Bumble foot keeps forging his own musical path but relishes and chance for collaboration. His current projects include collaborations with Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC from the iconic rap group RUN DMC, and Scott Weiland in the supergroup Art Of Anarchy. Thal’s spirit of giving doesn’t end with amazing music, as he also works with U.S. Embassies around the world on cross-cultural music programs, has his own line of award-winning hot sauces, and works with dozens of international charities visiting orphanages and children’s hospitals with guitar in hand.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal to discuss the challenges of bringing “Little Brother Is Watching” to life, his recent collaborative efforts with a plethora of artists, his line of award-winning hot sauces, his philanthropical work and much more!
Going back to your youth, what are some of your first memories of music?
I still remember hearing “KISS: Alive” for the first time, the feeling I got from it and just how exciting it was. It made me want to do that! I can still remember borrowing the logo for my first band, when I was 6 years old, called Viper 5. There were five of us and vipers were cool snakes and we were kids! [laughs] We had a big white window shade that we were drawing the logo on! The next band, I can remember cutting circles out of paper and taping them to the walls in the basement because our band was called Target! That was our logo! We took the rest of the paper and cut it up into cups of confetti for the audience to throw at the end of our show in the basement! I remember it all, man! [laughs]
Sounds like quite the production!
It was! It was! There was confetti everywhere! I am still finding pieces of it! I will occasionally find a piece of confetti in between my toes and think, “Wow! That is from that show in 1977! What the hell?!”
Who influenced you along the way both as a musician and a person?
Musically, KISS and the Beatles were my two first loves. From there I got into a lot of the progressive British stuff like Yes, Jethro Tull and things like that. There was also lots of classic rock from bands like Queen, AC/DC and whatever else was coming out from Blondie to the Ramones to Billy Joel. I was just a music lover! All of that played some kind of role and served as some kind of building block. There was certainly a lot of classic rock and punk. It wasn’t until the later years that I started taking interest in more of the technical guitar players, guys like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. I have to say that Eddie Van Halen was really the one who changed the way I thought about guitar and expanding the limits of what could be done. That had a huge impact on me. Hearing the intro to “Mean Streets” for the first time was mind-blowing. Of course, my father had a big influence on me, as well. He was cool as hell!
When you picked up the guitar for the first time, did you ever think it would take you to the heights it has?
Yes! I did! I had no doubt! I was 6 years old. I put the guitar in my lap and started playing it like a drum. I thought to myself, “I’m going to be a rock star! Woohoo!” [laughs] Had I known how much hard work and abuse would go into that, I would be an accountant right now! [laughs] For some reason, I am a glutton for punishment and I stuck with it and here we are having this conversation! Thank you very much! [laughs]
You experienced success on many levels in your career. To what do you attribute your longevity?
You have to keep your heart in the right place. You can’t let it get corrupted with all of the business crap and everyone trying to pull you in their own direction for their own gain or agenda. You have to keep it very simple. You have to be that 6 year old and say, “I love this. I love what I do.” Like I said, I love the feeling I got from hearing “KISS: Alive” for the first time and want to pay it forward to everyone else! I want to make other people feel the uplift of spirit that I was given. That’s it! It is really that simple!
You have a brand new album on the way this February. What can you tell us about “Little Brother Is Watching” and what we can expect this time around?
What can you expect? This album, compared to some of the other solo stuff, is a little punkier. Every album, you have the songs and you start laying them down. They eventually come out however they are going to. You have an idea of what you are going to get but you can’t really control it. It is kinda like throwing ink at a canvas. You can choose the color but it isn’t going to end up the way you predict. You have to step back, look at it and say, “OK, this is what it is. Let’s take it from here.” It is the same situation with this new album. I ended up being very melodic with very long songs, where a lot of the earlier stuff was more in your face and aggressive. It is more about the musicality, the melody, the harmonies and the guitar lines dancing around vocal lines and all that good crap! [laughs] It is a lot more melodic and, even with those melodies that are in there, they are all spontaneous. It was stuff that I just laid on the scratch track as Dennis [Leeflang], the drummer, was playing his drum tracks. They were just spontaneous, improvised melodies. Listening back to it, I said, “Yeah, I am not going to overthink this. This is what I felt in the moment, the first time I played with this stuff and it left my head and hand to be recorded. I like it! I am sticking with it!” A lot of those melodies are very organic, natural first impressions of my songs and what I was inspired to do guitar-wise.
What songs from this album resonate with you at this point in time?
The song, “Don’t Know Who To Pray To Anymore.” It starts off with a really singable guitar line and the words just really hit home. I think people are really going to get it when they hear what I am singing about.
What made now the right time for a new Bumblefoot solo release? Was there a particular catalyst for it or just an overwhelming creative need?
The need! I have had the need for a long time and it has been a battle or race against the clock trying to find time to get my head in the right place to focus and do it. With all of the touring, it is really hard. You can write but to get in the studio, commit, devote and keep the momentum going can be very tough. It was something that was long overdue. For me, if I am not being creative or putting out music, it is like having a bag over my head and I am suffocating. I need to do it. It is the only reason I feel I should be on Earth and, when I am sharing music with people, I truly feel alive.
Looking back on breathing life into this project, what inspired it and what did you take away from the experience?
I think there are always experiences to share. Doing this album, there have been more of them. Usually, for me, it takes some type of tragedy to make you feel and get in touch with yourself, so you have that story to tell. Any of those kind of things that hit, for me at least, get the words following. With this album, there was everything from a cancer diagnosis to my father dying to having to choose between two lives to facing some of the mistakes I have made.
You never seem to slow down and always appear to have those creative juices flowing. One of the new projects you recently announced is Art of Anarchy. What can you tell us about how it came about?
Sure! There are two brothers, John and Vince Votta, and I have been producing their bands for 18 years. We have always been friends. They finally said, “We want to put our own company together. We want to start a label and do this thing. The first thing we want to do is put out a supergroup type of album where we bring in people from all different backgrounds to come together and create music together for a really cool album of good rock music.” I brought them into the studio and they had 10 songs to start with and we laid them down. I laid down guitar. The amazing John Moyer came in and laid down his killer bass. He is truly amazing! He does what he does and makes it great! As we talked to different singers, Scott [Weiland] agreed to do a song and then he agreed to do the whole album. We did this album together and are hoping to have it out by the beginning of the year. It is all about the music.
I know that right out of the gate there was a little bit of, I wouldn’t say controversy, but maybe some unnecessary confusion about things. However, it is about the music, about the album and putting the album out. Anything beyond that remains to be seen. We don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t know if, after the album comes out, people are going to want to see something live. If they do, Scott is very clear that his focus is his solo stuff and mine is too. Scott wants to just do his solo thing and isn’t looking to do any live dates with this. Then we would find a new singer, if we did any live shows. Who knows what would happen with that new singer and if it would become a permanent thing or if it would just be for the live setting. We don’t know! Whatever is going to happen is going to happen organically and is going to come together the way the pieces fall at that moment. For now, let’s just take this music that we made together and share it with the people. I really hope they enjoy it!
From the one song I heard around the time of the announcement, it sounds very promising! I know a lot of people are anxious to hear what you all came up with as a unit.
Cool, thanks! Everything was recorded in my studio, except for what Scott wrote and recorded. He recorded his vocals on his own and sent them to me. I did the final mixing and mastering, so that is a little of what I have going on production-wise. The other thing I am doing is with a good friend of mine, Rob Dukes. We have been friends for years and he sang with Exodus. Now, he has this band called Generation Kill. It is really cool, nasty metal band. Good stuff, good stuff! They teamed up with Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC from RUN DMC, and are doing this rap metal thing together. Rob hit me about about being part of the fun, joining in and playing a couple of guitar parts, mixing and doing the production for it. We just have one song we have finished up so far but I’m sure as we get more stuff finished we will start putting out the little teasers and sharing everything. So far, we are having a blast and a great time together doing it!
Clearly, you’re a guy who isn’t afraid to take on challenges when it comes to new projects. Is there a part of the process you are more drawn to or intrigued by?
I love doing it all! Each one keeps everything else fresh! You learn from each aspect that adds something to all of the everything else that you do. You become a better songwriter when you are producing other people and helping to shape their songs. You get better at engineering from that, which makes you better at laying your guitar tracks physically because you have other things in mind as you are playing about dynamics. It is good to do it all because you just keep learning and applying what you learn to all the other aspects of what you are doing musically. My favorite thing is definitely producing and collaborating and making music. That has always been my favorite thing.
Do you have any thoughts on the musical territory you hope to explore in both the short and long term?
I don’t know. I have done everything from producing hip hop to opera to jazz to latin stuff to speed metal. I have done so many types of things and it has all been so much fun! I have also met a lot of cool people along the way!
So, I am assuming we can expect a Bumblefoot country album? [laughs]
Good question! [laughs] It is something that I should do! I definitely haven’t done that and I would love to do some kind of country thing! I don’t make plans, I just wait for the unexpected to happen and it always does!
It seems to be working out great so far!
Yeah! Just leave your doors open and let the unexpected things come! I love when something I never planned on happens. That is what makes life so amazing! That is when you are living, when you are not in control and just letting it happen! It’s like you are on the rollercoaster and you have your arms up, just letting it go.
One of the other stops on your unconventional journey is your line of hot sauces! Very cool stuff! How did you get into that world?
I have always loved spicy food. It’s like music in a lot of ways. You buy a few albums, listen to them and like it and, before you know it, you want more! You learn there are different flavors and you like them! It eventually reaches a point where you want to share that as well and want to start making your own! It was something I had wanted to do for years and I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the good people at CaJohns Fiery Foods in Columbus, Ohio. They were crazy enough to take me on and say, “OK! Let’s do some Bumblefoot sauces!” They took my ideas and together we made it happen! I designed the labels on Photoshop and they were picking out the best peppers to use. We were experimenting in the kitchen with which berries to use. Some of my original ideas didn’t work and then they came forward with some great new ideas. It was a collaboration just like in the world of music. It has been a terrific experience! You know, I would say that hot sauce is the metal of food. That is why you find so many metal musicians, guitar players and people who play intense music wanting to explore that world. If you think about it, there is no other type of music that is in your face as much or knocks you on your ass the way metal does. It’s the same with hot sauce. There is no food or anything you can eat that is as intense as hot sauce. To give someone that intense a feeling, whether through music or food, is an amazing feeling. Some hot sauce is very much like metal. That is why you find many musicians offering hot sauces, from Zakk Wylde to Joe Perry to Michael Anthony to Eddie Ojeda. It is all great stuff!
We certainly can’t overlook the work you do for charity. What do you have going on in that realm at the moment?
The next gig that I am going to be doing for a charity is for Jesters Care For Kids. It is a charity out in Thailand that I will be doing a show for on the 12th of February in Pattaya, Thailand. I am headed out there in two days for a Bike Week and I am going to play the Bike Week and do the gig for charity. Then I am going to Bangkok, Thailand, where I have something planned at the US Embassy. I am going to do a workshop and a little concert! Then I am headed home! I love connecting with charities with my own tours and I love finding ways to do that. I was just talking yesterday with a promoter in India that works with an organization that builds houses for kids and the homeless. We talked about doing a fundraiser out there in the next couple of months as well. There are so many great causes all over the world and I am happy to do it!
“Little Brother Is Watching” is set for a February 24th release. What are you looking at in regards to a tour in support of the album?
I want to, yes. I want to put out the album, see how it does and then figure out where I should, when and what kind of venues I can play. Before booking the tour, I just want to put out the album and see how people react to it. Until then, I am just doing little things here and there. The next thing I am going to do, in The States, is Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. I am doing that March 26th through 29th at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. That is going to be a cool one! It’s going to be metal oriented! Michael Schenker [of UFO], Bill Ward [of Black Sabbath] and Glenn Hughes [of Deep Purple] will be there as well. It’s going to be a great time!
Before we let you go, I have to ask one more question. What is the biggest lesson people can take away from the story, so far, of Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal?
The lesson is so simple. Never lose your love for making music. That part of you that made you want to start making, playing, enjoying and sharing music. That is always there but other things get in the way and weigh it down, so don’t let them! Don’t let anything get in the way and keep your eye on that one simple thing. Then you will be good! Annoying things will happen. That’s life! You don’t have to let it squash your spirit and your relationship with making music. Keep it unadulterated! [laughs] Keep it shiny! [laughs] Keep it shiny and uncorrupted and never lose sight of that!
Thanks so much for your time today, Ron. We appreciate it and look forward to all you have in store for us in the years to come!
Absolutely! I hope everyone enjoys the new music coming out! Thank you, Jason! Talk to you again soon!
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