Interview With Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal Part I

Some time ago I received an offer to conduct an interview with guitar wizard Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. Besides being a member of the current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses he’s also known for releasing his own music under the Bumblefoot moniker and many collaborations with other artists and bands, including Freak Kitchen and Q*Ball. He turned out to be a very witty and sharp conversationalist with a keen understanding of today’s music business and a healthy outlook on his status as a high profile musician. Other topics we discussed were Ron’s involvement with fundraising activities for MS Research, his frolics with with fellow guitar virtuoso Mattias Eklundh and the impact of being a member of GNR on his own projects…

Nowadays you release one song at a time, instead of full length albums. How come?

It’s more of an issue with time. I wanted to do a full length album for a long time, but I really don’t have the time. I’m simply not around long enough at one place to build up some momentum and get everything recorded and focus on that. There are too many things going on and with all the traveling I do that doesn’t help either. I found that doing one song at a time was the best thing to keep the music flowing and it made me consistently stay active and it isn’t as overwhelming as doing a full length album. Luckily there is the technology available which enables me to do it this way.

Another remarkable thing is that you releasing those songs in different formats. What’s the deal on that?

I didn’t want to release a bare mp3 on iTunes and leave it at that. I wanted to do something different, so I asked people on my forum what they wanted and they came up with lots of ideas. So I decided to release different versions of each song. For guitarists I have the so-called “player pack”, it has transcriptions on the lead guitar parts, which features the notes, picking and all that kind of stuff along with some remixes to accommodate that. Transcribing the songs was actually the most difficult part. I’m a big a studio geek, so I came up with a special “producer pack” for people who like to to play producer. It features all the different elements used in the song, so people can put in their multi-track software and create their own mix.

You can make your own Bumblefoot remix. Nice! How are people reacting to it?

Exactly, do your own mash-up! People are really enjoying it. Last year I released a transcription book of my very first instrumental album and people really tried to nail that stuff and I really liked that. I’ve received some great reactions from it from guitar players.

You recently said some very really interesting things about the current decline of the music industry and how bands and musicians should react to it. What should people do according to you?

Haha, I could talk all day about this. The thing is that I’m not talking about the Metallicas and U2’s of this world, but about guys who are trying to get their first bands together and getting their music out there. It’s about delivering the music to people in the best possible way and have a future in doing that. It’s geared towards those kind of people. Where to begin? It’s really simple. Fifteen years ago when I started putting out albums you still had all the big gatekeepers like labels and distro. There was a lot of money being allocated to promote albums and making people aware of their existence. This was before the time the internet got big. The only way to do it was through hellishly expensive ads in magazines and you didn’t get the worldwide coverage you get nowadays because of internet. If you wanted to get some visibility in a record store you had to pay 500 dollars each month on one location to have it in the listening booth. That really adds up and could wipe you out. The distro would be waiting on getting paid from the stores and it would hold up paying the label, and after all the expenses for recording and promo you wouldn’t see a dime as an artist. That happened to me several times. A label wouldn’t do a lot of promotion and they wouldn’t help set up a tour, and would say I owed them twenty grand. I was busting my balls making albums and not making a dime in return. I wasn’t in it for the money, but you still need to pay your bills. You’re putting all of your time in but it’s not putting food on the table. How are you supposed to live?

I can imagine it must be incredibly disheartening when you pour your soul into creating the best music you can and you get nothing in return..

Yes, it becomes a form of indentured servitude because you’re under contract. You’re forced to make music for years but not make any money. That’s how it used to be. Then the internet opened everything up, thanks to the old Napster. I had two computers set up, one for normal stuff and one for being connected to Napster 24/7 where people could download all these extra songs of mine and live versions on mp3. That was back in the late nineties. That was the best. It was the start of things opening to the whole world. Sites like Cdbaby and Amazon made it possible to sell your music online without going to a label. Then came Paypal which made it easy for people to buy it all. Now young bands don’t have to sell their soul anymore. That’s another thing that would happen. Once you surrender your music to the label they own all of it. When they’d decide to stop printing your album there’d be nothing you can do about it. When you’d give your music to a label you’d lose your ownership of it. Thel label owns the songs “throughout the Universe in perpetuity”.  That means, if you try to sell your music on the moon, they can sue you. Now, you can make your music, keep your music and your rights and sell your music to the whole world from your own laptop. It’s very easy now and that’s the thing I want young bands to understand. Don’t buy into the old myth. Now you can do everything yourself.

I’ve done some interviews with relatively big bands and many of them are totally ignorant about the business side of things. I find that rather disturbing.

Yes, you hear that a lot. Most are doing it for the passion of playing music and not to be a manager or a promoter. The way I see it is that your music is your baby. You need to feed it, clothes it, and make sacrifices. That’s what it’s all about, making sacrifices for your music and your art. It means you have to get a job in order to fund and support making music. It’s a noble sacrifice to make. You have to be your own lawyer sometimes, because you can’t always afford one. You should be able to work out a simple contract and know what’s right and what’s wrong. Over the years musicians should learn how to do that. Don’t look for some Sugar Daddy to hold your hand and do everything for you. You have to take things in your own hands. You need to be smart and educate yourself. You need to know the business you’re in. There are sadly two words in it, namely “music business”. Nobody’s going to hear your music, unless you take care of the business.

Doesn’t matter how nice labels are to band, they still need to make a profit at the end of the day. If a band or artist doesn’t succeed in doing that you’ll get ditched sooner or later.

Yes, back in the late nineties when I ended my first record deal I never wanted to sign another. Nothing against the label, they did what they did, but it wasn’t my vision of how I wanted things to be done for my music. So I started my own business and took care of my music. People started asking me to sign them to my company and I’d always give the same answer, “No, instead I’ll teach you how to be your own company and take care of your own business.” That’s the way it should be. Artists should be self-sustaining as much as possible. So I started doing things myself and it was the first time I started to make money from my music and was able to support myself and continue making music.

Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails played a pivotal rol in releasing their own music without any major label support. Both bands managed to build up a substancial following back in the nineties. Do you think it’s vital having such a large fan base in order to sustain yourself in a reasonable way?

Those two bands really managed to become a part of the new scene. They both already had a massive fanbase, but the difference with them is they grew with the times. They evolved, they knew how to do things. The way of doing smart business is to make a smart connection to your fans. Instead of giving your music to them like it was done years ago, you have to give it the way your fans want it. It’s all about them really. I make the music and the most beautiful part for me is to share it with them. You can make all the music you want, but if you don’t bring it out there, it’s a tree falling in an empty forest. It’s all about sharing and finding the most creative ways to get it out there.

Perhaps musicians should accept the dire fact that it’s coming to a point when making music isn’t profitable anymore to actually make a decent living out of it?

Yeah, that’s a whole other point to contend with. The income from music is a tenth of what it was. Big studios started to experience it when home computers started to get better and better. Nowadays you can make a record on your laptop. You don’t have to buy studio time and you can do it yourself. You don’t need a photography darkroom anymore, because you have a digital camera and Photoshop. As a producer you don’t get 50,000 dollars anymore to work on an album, the numbers aren’t as high and the expenses aren’t as big. The ratios may be the same, just the proportions have shrunk. So now you’d produce that same album for 5,000 dollars. That’s reasonable because that’s the amount of money that is moved around and people aren’t making as much. Also because of all that your income isn’t as much in the very end. There was a time where making music was the nucleus and all the merch and promotion was based around that. That has changed now, everything orbits around you as an artist and as a human being from my point of view. Connecting to the artist is now the nucleus and recording music has become one of the aspects of what an artist does, like touring and whatnot. Hopefully people are understanding enough to grasp that artists are spending money to do all these things and they need to be supported in order to keep doing it.

It does take a lot of the magic away of being a musician…

That’s the way it is nowadays. It’s convenience over quality. We’ve gone from the warm sound of vinyl on this foot by foot square of art to compressed files streaming through your phone. There are definitely losses with that. If you are signed to a label there’s less support to make your masterpiece. But that’s where the economy of this whole planet is at. So, yes it’s harder to fund your music and it has to come out quicker. There are two sides to it, one you have less time, but when you have your own business you can spend a year working on a music piece and release it the way you want to. It may not make much money, but it didn’t cost as much money either, so you’re doing it for the love. So yes, in that sense music has become more of a hobby for many. It doesn’t pay the bills as it used to and meanwhile the bills have become bigger. You have to be creative if you want to make a living out of creating music. That’s life, you play the cards you get dealt and roll with it and you have to figure out the way of making the most of it. You can bitch about how things used to be or how you want them to be, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Interview part II

Interview part III

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