EXCLUSIVE | How Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal went from standing at death's door to becoming one of the world's greatest guitarists
An award-winning vocalist, songwriter, producer and guitarist Thal has done it all. But calling him just a guitarist would be an understatement
He is identified across the globe by the name of a bacterial infection, which he came across while helping his wife with her veterinary exams. A good 30 years ago, he was part of a band called Leonard Nimoy where he covered songs of Guns N’ Roses. Fast forward by a couple of decades and this very same guitarist was recommended by Joe Satriani to be a part of Guns N’ Roses. He did for a good eight years.
But Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal’s (born Ronald Jay "Ron" Blumenthal) life is much more than that. It seems as though Hunter S Thompson wrote his life story. Well at least parts of it. For he has seen and been in the craziest of situations. An award-winning vocalist, songwriter, producer and guitarist Thal has done it all. But calling him just a guitarist would be an understatement. He was part of MusicRadar’s ‘16 Best Rock Guitarists In The World Right Now’ list and for those who have heard to or seen him live will definitely nod in agreement.
Currently part of progressive rock group Sons of Apollo, Thal also composes music for TV, films and videogames. And we’re still figuring out how he found the time to have his own line of award-winning hot sauces amongst all these?
In an exclusive with Meaww, he talks about his earliest exposure to music, risking being arrested for playing while on tour, his lowest point in life and jumping back to life from a deadly accident.
What was your earliest exposure to music and how did that mould you into what you wanted to be?
I heard the KISS Alive! album when I was five years old and immediately knew I wanted to be a musician. Very soon after I started studying music & learning guitar, put a band together, we started writing songs, making demos, playing shows, and never stopped. I listened to a lot of classic rock, 60s' rock, punk, old-school metal, prog rock, some classical and jazz. Hearing Eddie Van Halen for the first time changed my whole perspective about playing guitar, it was mind-opening.
What has been the greatest adventure of Bumblefoot so far?
There have been so many adventures, never a dull moment (Laughs). Here's one that comes to mind. It was two years ago, I was playing as a guest with a band in Malaysia at a big music festival. Ninety minutes before show time, the promoters told me that an immigration officer came to the festival insisting that I was not allowed to perform, because of a problem supposedly had with a previous band I played with in Malaysia three years prior, and we were all put on some kind of 'not allowed to perform list'. This was a surprise, as I had been there 4 times since with no issues.
The promoters said they worked out a compromise where I could play, but no one can say my name or the name of my old band during the show — not a problem. When the show was getting ready to start, the promoters asked if I could hide out of sight as I played, possibly off the stage, because the immigration officer is at the festival and still insisting that I'm not allowed to perform! I told them it's like asking me not to perform, or to give a bad performance to thousands of people.
I offered to talk to the immigration officer, they said it would only make things worse. They then said I should do what I feel is right and they'll deal with the outcome. We moved forward, the gear was set up, the show was about to start, and right before getting on stage I was told that I may get arrested if I play. My first obligation is to the audience, so I played. Meanwhile, half-way through the show there were police officers behind the stage ready to take me away as soon as I finished.
The promoters defended my right to play, lured the police away from the stage area, and as soon as the show ended the promoters grabbed me and said “You need to go now” and rushed me into a van waiting, grabbed my gear and quickly put it in the van and took me straight to the hotel. An hour later I got a message that I may need to flee the country!
They were going to have a driver take me from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore that night and fly me out of Singapore the next day. I told them I'd take my chances at Kuala Lumpur airport. All turned out fine, I've been back many times since, and always have a wonderful time with great friends, great music, and lots of durian! Life is all one big adventure, the surprises never stop and your greatest adventures are always ahead, waiting for you to take them on and make them happen. Life is to be lived, fully.
Congrats on being included in the list of ‘One of the best rock guitarists in the world’. It all seems fancy to outsiders now, who perceive things about your life. But can you share with us an anecdote that tells us about your lowest point in life and how you rose from that?
Thank you! Life is full of challenges, these things are tests. Even more than tests, they're opportunities for you to get smarter, to get stronger, to become humbler and understand everything around you. An early example, over 20 years ago, being under a record contract where I had limited creative control, made no money for years, and lost all rights to the songs, the recordings, everything. I had nothing.
From there, instead of giving up, I started my own record label to release my own music and taught other bands how to do the same so they could be self-supporting and wouldn't be stuck in the same situation I was. I got retail distributors around the world, and with newly-developing independent internet distributors, I started getting my music on TV shows, video games, indie films, and it was the first time I started making a living from my music. From the past situation, I learned what I wanted and didn't want, learned what kind of business I wanted to do (and not do), the challenge was an opportunity to learn and grow, and build the life I wanted.
Can a professional musician solely survive on music to support themselves financially? How did you/ do you deal with this?
If you have something to offer the world that the world values, then yes. Work hard, work quickly, be diverse, and be good at what you do – not just good, but special in what you do, don't hide your unique qualities, we all have them. Be smart and responsible with your finances and your lifestyle. It's not about getting, it's about giving. Share what you can with the world.
An accident rendered you brain damaged and the following years (from what I’ve read) were excruciating for you. Can you give us a glimpse into that period please?
It was a challenge. I was unable to raise my arms, close my hands, slowed speech, some cognitive limitations, and extreme constant never-ending pain. But the body, the mind, and the spirit are resilient. And if you can focus and align them all and dedicate yourself to the healing process, you have a chance. I worked very hard in physical therapy, I was getting my mobility back, but the extreme pain was still there, nonstop. Doctors gave me lots of pills and injections that masked the problem a bit, while making my overall health worse.
After a year of an unlivable life, I finally found an effective treatment, it was the most natural and simple cure — I stopped taking the pain drugs doctors were prescribing, and instead changed my diet. I removed sugar and processed foods from my diet, the inflammation went down, and the pain went down, and I was able to live my life again. The car accident led me on a journey to become the healthiest and most grateful I've ever been in my life.