AN INTERVIEW WITH RON THAL
Ron Thal is an unfortunately relatively unknown and hugely underrated guitar player, formerly of Shrapnel fame, now doing things his own way. The following is a really detailed interview covering Ron himself, his guitars, and a lot of things about his technique used on his various albums. If you wonder what the hell it's all about, buy his CDs.
Hi there Ron. Could you give us some biographical info?
Ron: I tore my poor mother's body apart in a hospital in Brooklyn. I believe it was September '69. That's when I knew I wanted to play guitar, join a band, and be the next Britney Spears. So I started taking guitar lessons at age 6 or 7, for about 8 years. I studied reading, theory, jazz, classical, and the Torah.
Did you do any recording apart from The Adventures of Bumblefoot, Hermit, and Hands? Can you tell us something about your latest project, Bumblefoot? That stuff about a soundtrack for the game Wild Woody, was that for real? What's it about? It sounds really obscene.
Ron: I have a recording studio in NYC and engineer/produce 20 - 30 albums a year. A lot of hardcore - Indecision, Shutdown, Inhuman, One Second Thought - and some hip-hop too. Of the last things I produced, there was the band Tyris doing a re-make of the Door's "Love Her Madly" for a Polygram compilation, and Bretagne Celtic rock artist Pat O'May's "Breizh-Amerika" CD. As far as my own stuff goes, I've done a lot besides the "Adventures", "Hermit" and "Hands" CD's. There was an instrumental guitar version of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu piano piece on Shrapnel Record's '92 compilation CD, "Ominous Guitarists From the Unknown," and Guitar On The Edge compilation CD's volumes 2, 3, and 4. Then there was Wild Woody, a SEGA CD-ROM video game about a giant penis that works as the leader of a Western nation, who fucks everything that walks in his office. Oh wait, that was Wild Bill. Wild Woody is a game about a pencil that can erase his enemies and draw shit - there were all different worlds he was caught in - a Pirate world, Mythology world, Science Fiction world, Mechanical world, and a Cemetery. A fun little game. In late '97, I bought out my contract from Shrapnel Records and started my own production company called "Hermit, Inc." I released my latest CD titled "Hands" with my band BUMBLEFOOT in the summer of '98, available all over the internet (cdnow.com, amazon.com...) and I'm finishing up my next CD, to be released the end of '99.
In your guitar version of Fantasie Impromptu, are you using eight-finger tapping? I can't really hear a pick attack. How long did it take to learn that piece? Was that inspired by Jennifer Batten's version of [Rimsky-Korsakoff's] "Flight of the bumblebee"? [Which was also done with eight-finger tapping]
Ron: Actually it's 11-finger tapping. No, 3-finger. Or was it 7. I'm not sure. Was it even my fingers? Wait, what song are you talking about?! Who's Jennifer Batten? Flight Of the Bumblefoot? Heh? Uh, I used a whole bunch of fingers, and sometimes I picked, but it's mostly tapping and legato riffs. I only tapped with 2 fingers. I guess that would make it 6-finger tapping. Glad we got that cleared up.
Weren't you in a guitar magazine Spotlight column somewhere around 1990? You already had the Swiss cheese guitar. What did you submit as a demo? I remember Mike Varney [talent scout and owner of Shrapnel Records] writing it was the most impressive demo he ever heard. He also compared your music to Zappa's.
Ron: Yep. Guitar Player mag, August '89 - Jeff Healey on the cover. No one remembers me - they only remember that Swiss Cheese guitar. Hahaha!!! I submitted some weird instrumental songs I had - one was called "Sex With Ducks" where there was a solo section in the middle of the song where I used a bunch of guitar tracks to make it sound like a big sex orgy involving a man, a woman, and 7 ducks. I think it was more of the light-hearted silly approach that reminded him of Zappa, and not the music.
Did DiMarzio finally stick your face in their catalog?
Ron: No. Haha - but I think they might in Europe this year.
Not many people release their multi-track stuff as an album, and especially not wacky stuff like "Adventures of Bumblefoot". Did Vai's "Flex-Able" inspire (or enable) you to do that?
Ron: No, it was the fact that Shrapnel had no recording budget. HAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Seriously, Mike Varney gave me 2 ADATs and a Mackie board and said GIMME 5 ALBUMS!
You don't sound much like the average Shrapnel-shredder. Why are you on that label? Aren't you afraid that people will automatically assume you're a soulless neoclassical spandex-clad copycat? If the lyrics to `Can't play the blues' are anything to go by, you're not too keen on that kind of guitarist.
Ron: I'm NOT a Shrapnel shredder!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If I knew I'd be type-cast and labeled as one, I never would have signed with Shrapnel!! I was a singing guitarist in a rock band BEFORE Shrapnel, I did 2 albums for Shrapnel giving Mike Varney what he wanted - solo guitarist records. Now, I'm off of Shrapnel and I'm a singing guitarist in a rock band again. That's what I am. "I Can't Play the Blues" was just a silly song poking fun at guitarists (myself included!). But the truth is I don't like most instrumental guitar music, and I'll explain why. I really do enjoy ALL kinds of music, but there is a problem with guitar instrumental music. The great leaders like Malmsteen and Vai had passion and they expressed themselves. AND they had incredible technique. But then all these other players came around that did a terrible thing - they developed the technique, but didn't think the spirit mattered. So all this spiritless music flooded the guitar instrumental scene where it was all about technique and no one put in the extra effort to SAY SOMETHING in their music. Music is an exchanging of souls - it's like fucking. It's a musician pouring his heart out, or telling a story, or even telling a joke, but the point is to bring the listener inside you and make them see what you see, and feel what you feel. Too many technical players refuse to give that part of themselves, and they have re-defined "instrumental guitar music" as something empty and lacking soul. That's why it has such a small audience - people want to be MOVED and TOUCHED by a piece of music - whether it's technical or not, it doesn't matter - it MUST have a life in it. And too many shredders lost sight of what makes music. It's kind of sad. The good instrumental guitar music is GREAT MUSIC. There's just not enough of it out there, compared to how many CD's are released that suck. I think the shred record labels released too much quantity, and not enough quality - that was the problem. And that's why the primal sound of grunge followed as a backlask to the empty extravagance of so much 80's surface music that lost its depth. It's the same with a lot of R&B vocalists that do all this fancy shit, trying to capture in the throat what Stevie Wonder did from the heart.
Some of your stuff, especially on Adventures of Bumblefoot, is pretty advanced harmonically. Do you listen to a lot of jazz, fusion or modern classical music?
Ron: Actually I like listening to Manowar.
Some of your harmonies on "Adventures" sound a bit like Steve Vai. Do you use polychords?
Ron: Sometimes. It's all just a bunch of spices. And songs are FOOD. I like spicy food. Did you ever eat Jamaican Jerk Chicken? Now THAT'S some spicy shit. And Thai food kicks ASS yo. Polychords are good too - really whatever the song calls for... shit, I'm hungry now.
Did you consult a medical encyclopedia for the songtitles of "Adventures of Bumblefoot"?
Ron: I was helping my girl study for medical exams and learned a lot of strange stuff. She's a veterinarian now. All the song titles are animal diseases.
Do you suffer from Guitar Acquisiton Syndrome? How many guitars do you own?
Ron: I suffer from Not Enough Money To Buy All The Guitars I Want Syndrome. I have about 10 now, thanks to Vigier Guitars. Before that I had 7, of which all except the Les Paul were re-built. I won't cut up a Les Paul.
Do you build or customize your guitars yourself? Do you have any training as a luthier?
Ron: I built almost all of them myself. Now I let Vigier do it - they do a much better job. I didn't have any formal training in building guitars. Just a bunch of my dad's tools in the garage as a kid!
You demonstrated Vigier's new fretless guitars at shows. Was a fretless guitar your idea? How do you approach it, do you think it has more expressive potential than a fretted instrument?
Ron: It was Vigier's idea. I love the guitar - I use it a lot on the next CD. There are so many things you can do with it, such as micro-tones, sliding harmonics and chord shapes, bending notes in opposite directions - it's very expressive.
Fretless guitarists are quite rare, I can only think of Elliot Sharpe and the guy from Spyro Gira. Did you ever listen to them?
Ron: No, I haven't really listened to them.
Don't you have problems with sustain? Do you think it is an instrument similar to violin or fretless bass, or something completely different?
Ron: NO sustain problems - the sustain is incredible - you can move the same note around for hours and not lose anything. It's the secret ingredients in the neck. They won't tell me what it is - some type of alloy. It's similar to playing a fretless bass, more so than a violin.
Speaking of Vigier, I remember reading a review of the Arpege guitar. It has active electronics,a grafite neck, a semi neck-through-body construction and a fretboard made of phenowood, a phenolic resin that looks like ebony and feels like glass. Are your Vigier guitars built like that too?
Ron: I have a fretless and an Excalibur. I'm not sure what the "Bumblefoot" guitar is made out of. I can tell you it has wings and is shaped like a foot.
Why did you only use the Swiss cheese strat on "Adventures"? You don't seem to be short on guitars.
Ron: That was the best sounding guitar of them all. DiMarzio re-wired it and made it great. It played real well - very comfortable. But now, I don't touch it - I keep it in its case and leave it alone. It's been through a lot, and deserves peace now.
What's the 'hand-guitar'? Is it a bastardized stock guitar, or did you build it from scratch? It looks like it has a neck-through-body construction. And what's that on the upper half? A clock or a tachyograph?
Ron: The hand guitar was built from scratch. The neck and body are separate. On the upper half, there is a giant moth pinned under glass.
On your double neck strat, where did the lower neck come from? The headstock looks like it came of a bass. What does the decal say? How is it tuned?
Ron: The lower neck was a bass neck - I cut it in half and connected it to the lower horn of the Strat, put in a Badass bridge, a DiMarzio Super-Distortion pickup and fretted it to be an octave higher than a regular guitar. The pickup selected is a 3-way to switch necks. It said "The Mutant Cow" - because the guitar reminded me of a cow I once saw that had a second head and face growing out of its skull.
There seems to be a Parsons/White string-bender on it. Is it hooked up to a string on the lower neck?
Ron: No, there was just a Floyd Rose on the main Strat neck.
This is what I thought to be a Parsons/White string-bender. What the hell is it? A bicycle pump? A lightning rod? An anal probe? Inquiring minds want to know.
Ron: It was just the top of the vibrato bar for the Strat (not for the little neck). I hope you're not disappointed that it isn't an anal probe. HAHA.
No, that's the white thing on the right, I meant the thing on the left. Also, there's a round thing near the bridge, is that another moth pinned under glass?
Ron: Oh...THAT! It's a clock on a chain! I carved out the wood and put it in there. It helps me with my timing. Sometimes I use it as an anal probe.
What's unagi? And wasabi?
Ron: Unagi is eel. Wasabi is a hot green horseradish you mix with Soy Sauce to dip sushi in. Japanese food is my favorite.
"Hermit" sounds very different from "Adventures of Bumblefoot". It's a lot more song-oriented, it sounds almost poppy. It is closer to grunge than shred. Was that a conscious decision, did you want to move away from guitar-oriented instrumental music? Did you have any problems getting it released on Shrapnel? It is different from any other album they ever released.
Ron: Hermit was more of what my band sounded like. Actually my band was more funky and rappy, but Mike Varney wanted something more grungy. Varney will not release anything that isn't the way he wants it to be. I had more problems about it being released than he did. I felt the packaging and mastering could have been better.
What are you doing on the "Malignant carbuncle" solo? It sounds like it's recorded backwards. How did you play those large intervals and combine them with muted strings? It doesn't seem to be string-skipping, are you sweeping while muting some strings and playing legato phrases on the others?
Ron: It's a secret! Hahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa! It involves an upside hand, a finger resting across the neck to make harmonics, other fingers hitting the fretboard to make that thumping sound, and tapping notes with the right hand. It also involves a horse, a shoe, and a speedboat, as well as a paper cup, an ironing board, a pair of gloves, a tweed jacket, Copernicus, and a hot tomale.
On "Orf", "Blue tongue" and "Can't play the blues" there are some extremely high notes, weird sounds, smooth slides, and rapid arpeggios based on fourths. Did you use a slide for those things?
Ron: I keep a "thimble" on my picking hand, 4th finger. I hit it against the string to get the high notes that the fretboard doesn't allow for.
Most lyrics on Hermit are not very serious. The lyrics to the title song seem to be more personal. What do they mean? Is it a statement about your musical identity?
Ron: It was how I viewed my place in the world at that time. Someone that didn't fit the mold, and that should have been doing something different.
Did you use a harmonizer for the volume-swell passage in "Strawberry footrot"? What interval was it set to?
Ron: Ah, if I remember right, that was a chorus effect, where I sped up the sweep so it sounded like the guitar was spitting up phlegm. I was feeling very ill that day.
Did you use fingerpicks on `Limberneck', or just bare fingers? And on "Ick"? Do you have classical technique?
Ron: "Limberneck" was with a pick (thumb and index finger), and bare fingers (2nd 3rd and 4th fingers) - chicken-pickin' I believe it's called. "Ick" was with a pick on a nylon-string guitar. "Ick" was one of the last songs I wrote for "The Adventures" CD.
You also played slap-bass on "Hangup" and "Q fever". Did you develop your bass chops because you were recording at home, without a band?
Ron: I always loved the bass. I wanted to be a bassist originally! I signed up for bass lessons as a kid but they said I was too young and had me start on guitar.
Speaking of "Hangup", do you make a lot of prank calls?
Ron: Sometimes. But only to sensitive people that will be very disturbed by them.
There are 14 people doing background vocals on "Hermit". Why so many? There's a wide variety of singing styles, from harmony singing to Beastie boys-style rapping/yelling to raggamuffin to faux jazz. Did you do all those lead vocals yourself?
Ron: I do all the lead vocals myself. All the backing people were for the "HANG UP" chants, and the "Heil Ronald!" parts in "I Can't Play the Blues".
Some parts on "Hermit" sound very Beatlesque. Did they have a large influence on you, or did that come from listening to bands that were influenced by them, like King's X or Soundgarden?
Ron: No, I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE the Beatles! George Martin was the greatest producer!!!!! They're my all-time favorite band.
The solo in "Hands"'s "Chair ass" has an unusual sound. Did you use a ring-modulator type of effect? Are you playing harmonics there? The main riff sounds like you're tapping octaves.
Ron: Actually, nothing is tapped in that song. I used something better than a ring-modulator - I held a half-full can of Ginger Ale against the strings, and played all the notes with my left-hand only. You can hear at the end of the solo I took the can off and the notes are normal...
There's a weird little sound in "Dirty Pantloons". Is that a synth, or a slide noise?
Ron: Ah - it was 3-guitars harmonizing and I swept the midrange frequencies on the mixing board.
One of the line-ups of Bumblefoot consisted of you and the Morglbl-trio. How did that come about? What did it sound like? Did they give you a passport for Morglbl land? Do they have any connection with the Muppets or the Tele-Tubbies? Are these guys completely out to lunch or what?
Ron: They are the funniest silliest people I've ever known. I had the best time with them. We played for 2-and-a-half hours on a Friday night in Astaffort France. We played their music, my music, and we jammed a lot - a jazz version of Ironman (Black Sabbath), a hardcore version of Wannabe (Spice Girls), I took a drum solo (I can't play drums!!) - and songs from every CD we've done... it was great. But it was very difficult for me - my brother quit the band 3 weeks before the show, and we couldn't find a replacement so quickly. So, the Morglbl Trio learned all my music, and I learned all of theirs, and we played as a combined show. It worked out best this way, and I made good friends with them.
You have a deal with a French guitar company, you did concerts and clinics in France and you worked with the French Morglbl-trio and a Celtic rock artist from Bretagne. What is your connection with France? Are you popular over there?
Ron: Yes. It was the only country in Europe that Shrapnel sold my records to - that's why.
Why do you prefer working with a second guitarist for concerts? Most solo guitarists feel it just muddies the sound, or they claim that they like the challenge of arranging songs for a single guitar. Are you still looking for a second guitarist at the moment? Who would be your ideal sideman?
Ron: I'm not a solo guitarist. I CAN play solo guitar style music, but I am a TEAM player, and want to work with another guitarist, that I can trade off with. Live, I do a lot of singing, and the 2nd guitarist plays all the rhythms, and we both play leads. I'm still looking for the perfect guy. My choices would be 1) Joe Bochar - but he lives in Los Angeles and can't leave, and 2) Steve Ross - who is too busy with his own work right now. The search continues...
The next Bumblefoot CD will be an interactive CD and will include a few guitar instrumentals. What will the interactive content be, some multimedia stuff or a real game? Will the instrumentals be like Adventures?
Ron: The songs will be similar to the Adventures CD. Perhaps a little more polished. I'd like to make a Bumblefoot game if possible, as well as all the lyrics, transcriptions, interviews, multimedia stuff, etc...
Would you ever consider releasing a live album? According to the bio on your site, Bumblefoot performs some quite intense shows.
Ron: YES. We were considering releasing the February '99 Astaffort concert on a double-CD, but the sound quality wasn't good enough. I'd like to re-do the Chopin piece for the next CD, video-tape it, and have it all on the interactive CD...
I read this on your site: "July '99 - Ron Thal works with Turkish composer Fahir Atakoglu.* Fahir just signed a contract in Istanbul to create all music for CNN-Turk (CableNews Network in Turkey.) Joining forces with Istvan Leelossy of Sound with Vision engineering and production services, Fahir will compose and arrange 30 different themes and tunes, arrange and record them, with Ron Thal on guitar." How did you land that gig? Usually only people with a squeaky-clean image (or no image at all) get to do stuff like that. Also working in Turkey isn't an obvious career move for someone from NY.
We had mutual friends that introduced us. I love his music!! Very powerful - exotic scales and rhythms - often very progressive. And image means NOTHING!!! It is the spirit that matters - we have great musical chemistry, despite any differences in our outside image. Music is the bond we all have in common. We are planning a benefit concert in the US to raise money for the victims of the recent earthquake in Turkey. Fahir is talking next week to the Embassy and we're planning for October 15th. That's the great thing about life - you can NEVER predict where you will be in a year. You can set a plan for your life, but it is only Fate's plan that matters.
Did people ever tell you you look a little like Jack Nicholson? Two axe-wielding psychos crashing through doors, is it JUST coincidence?
Ron: They tell me I act like him. I don't see it. Perhaps I should become an actor.
Did Calvin Klein design your hat? I've got CK underwear exactly like that.
Ron: Actually, it's not a hat. It IS a pair of CK underwear.
Please react to the following names:
Ron: OK, I will type the first things that enter my mind...
Frank Zappa - Deep Dish Pan Pizza with Fresh Mozzarella and Tomatoes.
Steve Vai - Cold Lo Mein Noodles with Sesame Paste and Fire Sauce.
Allan Holdsworth - Humphrey Bogart.
Yngwie J. Malmsteen - Burger King's #4 Value Meal.
David Tronzo - Bananarama.
Buckethead - Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Henry Kaiser - Tuna Salad on a Roll.
Sonny Sharrock - Cher.
Vernon Reid - Lives near my studio.
Bill Bruford - Tight.
Chris Poland - Warsaw.
Mike Varney - Old friend, had a bad experience, put it behind us, now friends again.
Shawn Lane - Andy Gibb.
None of those answers have any hidden meanings or insults or anything like that. It's just the first words I had in my head.
Can we expect a new solo album in the near future? Will you be touring? Any work as session musician?
Ron: I was going to do another instrumental solo record, but instead I'm putting a few instrumentals on the next band record. I'd like to do an instructional video for the Vigier fretless guitars soon. I played in France a lot last year, and did a small show at the '98 Music Expo in Rotterdam. I want to gig a lot to promote the next record. I do little bits of session work here and there in the studio - usually if a client needs a guitar line I'll throw one down. No biggie. Now I will go eat dinner - a deep dish pan pizza with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, some cold lo mein noodles with sesame paste and fire sauce, a hot tomale, a Burger King #4 Value Meal, some KFC, tuna on a roll, and some unagi with extra wasabi. Peace my brutha.
Written September 1999
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