Tapping Into Genius

March 13, 2008

“It’s not about speed, it’s about groove. Get a flow.”

These words are spoken by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron Thal, perhaps better known to the music world by his nickname, Bumblefoot. As if to demonstrate the power of groove, Thal launches into a compelling syncopated figure on muted strings and then segues into the hook of a song called “Real” from his 2005 release, Normal [Bald Freak]. As he tears into the first few beats of the riff with the raw speed, grace, and snarl of a cheetah on the attack, he suddenly stops playing, looks up, and says with a devilish grin, “I lied. It’s about speed.”

Even as Thal blazes through the remainder of the riff with positively stupid speed, it’s obvious that groove, of course, does matter, because every note he plays is made all the more powerful by his flawless timing. It’s these unpredictable, humorous, and utterly in-the-pocket spasms of guitar genius that make Bumblefoot one of most sought after young guns on the scene today. With seven CDs (the first two as Ron Thal, the rest as Bumblefoot), a live DVD, and enough stamps in his passport to make a TSA officer look twice, it’s no wonder Thal had already established a strong global cult following even before landing the gig with Axl Rose and posse.

From masterful hybrid picking and two-handed polyrhythms to fretless forays and freaky sewing-thimble licks, Thal is the kind of player who reminds us that the guitar will always leave something new to be discovered. With his stunning and unique approaches, it’s no wonder Thal is able to take the used and well-abused technique known as tapping and make it sound completely fresh and invigorating.

Cliché Killers

The practice of tapping notes on the fretboard with a picking-hand finger seemed brand new when Eddie Van Halen introduced it to mainstream guitar consciousness in 1978, but the technique was also explored, to varying degrees, by Harvey Mandel, Billy Gibbons, Brian May, Ace Frehley, and Steve Hackett. Though Hackett was already recording three-note tapped arpeggios (arpeggios comprising one tapped note and two conventionally fretted ones) as early as 1971 with Genesis, nothing popularized the approach more effectively than EVH’s white-hot “Eruption” finale seven years later. For better or worse, Van Halen showed the world that tapping was a near-effortless way to play three-note arpeggios fast. Now, long after most every possible tapping approach has been done to death, it’s difficult to come up with tapped licks that don’t sound somewhat clichéd.

One way Thal got around this pitfall was by expanding run-of-the-mill tapped licks to phrases that employ more than one tapping finger. Sure, tapping with multiple picking-hand fingers is nothing new, but, as Thal’s astonishing solo on “Turn Around” (from Normal) proves in Ex. 1, it’s how Thal evolved this approach that continually blows people’s minds. In this blistering sequence of notes, Thal rips through extended arpeggios that not only employ ghost hammers— notes hammered by fretting-hand fingers on strings that weren’t previously ringing—but also notes tapped on adjacent strings.

This multi-string approach often finds Bumblefoot traversing as many as five strings in less than two full beats. Plus, musically speaking, it allows for wider intervals and more interesting, cliché-killing melodies and textures. It is this timbral vertigo and the disjunct melodic flow of lower notes on higher strings that gives the entire eight-bar lick its unpredictable sound. Also, dig how the tapped notes are hammered only and not pulled off from (as in “Eruption”-style tapped arpeggios). This gives the lick its hypnotic, percussive, pianistic, “keyboard sequencer” quality.
To control unwanted string noise, Thal suggests using the fretting hand’s 1st finger. “After it hammers the first note in each sequence, let it rest across the strings as a mute.”

Harmonics

“A lot of times instead of pulling off to a fretted note, I pull-off to a harmonic,” says Thal as he whips out Ex. 2, a lick from the solo in “Real.” “It’s a great way to sound notes out that would really be difficult to play otherwise, so know where your harmonics are.” This concept provides an interesting octave displacement aspect to Thal’s licks. It also adds a level of sonic trickery courtesy of the alternating timbres of fretted notes and harmonics. Taking this idea to an extreme, Ex. 3 is a passage from the outro solo in “Raygun,” from Bumblefoot’s 9.11 album. Unlike the “Turn Around” lick, the 1st finger lays across the strings to activate the 5th-fret harmonic whenever a fretting hand finger pulls off to it.

“It takes a lot of mental practice to make this happen,” says Thal. “You have to take it slow and make sure you relax your 1st finger so it will be able to make the harmonics come through clear.”

Calm Before the Storm

During his elaborate “tap-robatics,” Thal never puts down or cups the pick in his palm to free up his index finger for tapping. Instead, he maintains his grip on the pick between his thumb and index, and taps with his middle and ring fingers. This allows him to switch instantly between picking and tapping within complex licks. Now, get ready, because things are only going to become more complex—after Thal takes things down a notch with two “simple” practice licks that will get you prepared for the gauntlet to come.

“Here’s a little exercise to get you used to quickly going from picking notes with a sweep motion to using legato and tapping within the same phrase,” says Thal, playing Ex. 4. “First, the picking motion: Sweep pick the first two notes, A and C#, with consecutive downstrokes. Then, use hammer-ons, one middle-finger tapped note, and pull-offs for the remainder of the phrase. With these kinds of licks, you’ll want the sweep picking to happen over the fretboard so your picking hand is already in position to tap. Next, when you’re ready, expand the lick to include the ring finger to tap the high B on the 19th fret of the first string [Ex. 5].”

Hurricane Chopin

“I use the sweep/legato/tap technique in a tune called ‘Chopin Fantasie,’ the guitar version of a Chopin piano impromptu I did for the Ominous Guitarists from the Unknown compilation for Shrapnel Records in 1992,” says Thal, blasting into the first part of the piece in Ex. 6.

Notice that for the D#m7b5 arpeggio in bar 3, the sweep is across four strings, not two. In order to get a passage like this up and running, you’ll need to approach it very slowly, as well as take a tip from Thal that will enable you to play those huge leaps more smoothly when going from position to position: “When doing this kind of stuff, it’s important to be one step ahead of yourself. If your hand is one place, your eyes should be looking ahead to where it needs to go next.”

After soaring through Ex. 6, Thal gleefully calls out, “Upside down!” and, with the same fluidity and ferocity as before, plays the next part of the piece with his fretting hand over the neck [Ex. 7]. True music, or some kind of circus stunt?

“It’s not for show,” says Thal. “I found it was more comfortable for my wrist to play the phrase this way. Also, I can play it cleaner because I’m able to mute the lower strings with my fret-hand fingers while I’m tapping. When playing music that puts high demands on your body, play the way that will cause the least amount of physical stress, because there’s no reason to hurt yourself. Everyone’s hands are different and we all have to find our comfort zones so we can play the best we can while still being safe.”

Thal’s Thimble

As a teenager the ever-inquisitive Bumblefoot was searching for a way to be able to produce notes beyond the fretboard. “Just because the neck runs out doesn’t mean the notes do,” he says. Though he was not the first to embark on this journey, he was determined to return from it actually able to play in this imaginary range somehow.

“I knew it had to be something metal to hit against the string to make a strong sound,” says Thal. Soon after rummaging through his mother’s sewing box, Thal found the perfect object: a thimble. Worn on the pinky of his picking-hand, the thimble taps the strings to produce sky-high notes located well offshore from the fretboard. These thimble notes are often used in conjunction with tapped notes and legato runs played on the high end of neck. To see and hear Thal’s thimble in action, click to guitarplayertv.com and prepare to hit the rewind button often.

Live Without a Fret

Where most players see only the immense challenges a fretless guitar poses, Ron Thal sees the many freedoms a smooth fingerboard offers. When he noticed that few other Vigier endorsees played the company’s Excalibur Surfreter Supra fretless model (featuring a unique metal fingerboard), he had one sent right over. The results? Some of the most outrageous sounding riffs, licks, and tricks since the introduction of the Whammy pedal, many of which you can watch Thal demonstrate on guitarplayertv.com.

“Most everything with fretless is done in a horizontal motion, not an up-and-down or vertical one,” says Thal. “There’s no bending on fretless, not even for vibrato. Instead, you slide from note to note, moving your finger in a horizontal motion as wide or narrow as you need. Slides are great on fretless—you can slide a note much farther than you can bend it. You can even slide harmonics and chords.”

One of the biggest challenges of fretless guitar is, of course, intonation. “Don’t try to press down on the string where you would normally press the string against a fret,” says Thal. “Remember, with a fretted guitar you’re actually pressing behind the fret. With fretless, you need to be the fret and place your finger exactly where the fret would sit. To play chords in tune, you need to practice intonating your fingers until you develop the muscle memory needed to consistently place multiple fingers down at just the right spots. Also, whenever possible, it’s helpful to use chords that require your fingers to be straight.”

The French Connection

Until 1997, Ron Thal was playing his own “Frankenstein” 6-string creations, but that all changed when French guitar builder Patrice Vigier of Vigier Guitars approached him. “While on a clinic tour in France, Patrice brought me one of his guitars to check out,” says Thal, who also plays Gibson and Parkwood guitars. “It played really well, and my hands were more comfortable on that guitar than on the ones I was playing at the time.” The fruits of the Thal/Vigier relationship would be some of the most perplexing guitars ever created.

The Cheese Guitar
Saving up cash by painting album covers on the back of jean jackets, a 12-year old Thal purchased a 1983 Ibanez Roadstar and soon put the guitar through a series of metamorphisms. One day, after attacking its body with a set of drill bits in an attempt to make the guitar look like a bite had been taken out of it, the instrument had enough holes in it that
it looked like, well, Swiss cheese. After an appropriately fromage-hued paintjob, the Cheese guitar was born. The one Thal plays today is an exact replica built by Vigier.

The Foot Guitar
This oddly shaped ax is a hybrid of a bumblebee and a depiction of Thal’s own foot—the foot seen on the cover of his full-length debut The Adventures of Bumblefoot [Shrapnel]. Incredibly, Vigier was not only able to build a guitar embodiment of Thal’s nickname, but also—thanks to the ingenuity of the late Georges Vigier—one with wings that pop out when the vibrato bar is depressed.

The Bfoot Guitar
In 2006 Vigier decided it was time to christen their most eccentric endorsee with an official signature model. Modeled after a stock Vigier Excalibur, Thal’s Bfoot guitar features many of the same components as the aforementioned axes, including DiMarzio ToneZone (bridge) and Chopper (neck) pickups controlled by a Steve Blucher-designed 5-way switching system. Comparatively speaking, this is a pretty normal guitar—if, that is, you consider a small cavity for thimble storage routed into the body normal.

Ron Thal uses Ernie Ball strings, and his rig includes Line 6 Vetta II amps and DiMarzio cables.

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