Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal on the Second Coming of Art of Anarchy

If ever there was a cauldron of creative push-and-pull boiling over with contrary yet similar ingredients, it’s Art of Anarchy.
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If ever there was a cauldron of creative push-and-pull boiling over with contrary yet similar ingredients, it’s Art of Anarchy. The band is populated by two brothers (guitarist Jon Votta and drummer Vince), Creed vocalist Scott Stapp, Disturbed bassist John Moyer, and the musically subversive wild card—and former Guns N’ Roses guitarist—that is Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. These differing elements all fuse together on the band’s second album, The Madness [Another Century]. There’s what Thal calls the Vottas’ “Megadeth vibe,” Stapp’s pop-metal smarts, Moyer’s propulsive sense of groove, and Thal’s aggressive, unique, and eerie artiness. Somehow, it all works, and it’s also an exciting evolution from the more brooding sound of Art of Anarchy’s self-titled debut in 2015, where the late Scott Weiland handled the vocal chores. That’s an outside view, of course, but from an insider’s perspective, Thal is over the moon that this aggregate has coalesced into his vision of a true band dynamic—one where the members freely and openly collaborate, watch each other’s backs, save each other from musical excesses, and stand so strong as individual personalities that the music being made is an undeniable statement of its members.

What was the pre-production process like for the new album?

It really was the most band experience I’ve ever had—five guys in a room just battling it out. What would happen is each one of us would keep the other in check. We’d find this happy medium where Moyer might come up with something real groovy, Votta would play something very old-school metal, and then I’d bring in something completely out of left field. Scott was in there with a mic in his hand, too. He would start singing melody ideas, and everything would come together very organically and naturally. We had a week and a half together, and we’d hammer out a song or two every day.

How did you and Scott Stapp interact?

Scott is very melodic, ear friendly, and structured. I kind of go all George Martin with everything. You know, “Let’s take this, turn it backwards, and have the thing just shoot across the sky from this speaker to the other one.” He would take what I do, and make it more digestible for human consumption. And, anyway, I’ve always thought that it’s the vocals that dictate where a song is going to go—including the guitar parts.

I mean this in the most complimentary way, but was it difficult fitting your radical brain into a more pop-rock context?

It wasn’t really difficult. But the funny thing is that I’ll try to be straight down the middle, and someone else will hear what I do, and say, “Dude, that’s weird.” I’ll go, “No, it’s commercial. Why isn’t this on the radio?” And they’ll say, “Well, because it’s in 17/8!” [Laughs.]

And yet, your quirkiness—or however it should be described—definitely adds something interesting and unusual to the mix of personalities in Art of Anarchy.

Honestly, I’ve always wanted to be in a band where you can listen to the songs, and pick out what each member contributed to them. All of the musical personalities show themselves in the music, and everything mixes together to create a unique flavor that no other band has. You see, I grew up on all the ’60s and ’70s stuff when bands were nurtured. As a result, when the music finally reached your ears, they were the best versions of who they were. They weren’t diluted to fit a formula. Like, what is classic rock? It’s ten different bands that sound nothing like each other, but they all captured some kind of spirit. I think a lot of that is watered down today, due to the fear of not making it in the current economics. Many musicians are just playing it too safe. I want any band I’m in to be the best version of itself, and to play with honestly, integrity, conviction, and all of that good stuff that makes music really touching and mean something.

I think it’s difficult for a lot of musicians to truly play with danger these days—especially in the studio when you’re making a record that could make or break you. How do you manage to play unbound, so to speak?

That comes with time, and it’s not even time playing guitar, it’s time on earth. As you get more comfortable with yourself, and accepting of yourself, you can free yourself in the studio. I think when we’re young, and still feel like we have something to prove, that gets in the way. It’s actually a big leash we put around our own necks. But everything you’re trying to achieve will actually happen by not trying. You need to free yourself and let yourself do whatever you’re going to do without being overly critical or thinking too much. The best thing you could do in the studio is just let sh*t happen. Don’t stop yourself. Don’t think that you have to interject a certain thing into what you’re playing. Just go with the flow, go with the moment, and go with what you feel. You must have faith that whatever you do is eventually going to be the right thing, and it’s going to be an honest representation of you. Yeah, you may want to replay a spot or two to get it better, but, overall, trust your gut. Your gut will do more than your fingers as far as guiding you to the right place.

What was some of the gear you used to record The Madness?

My main guitar for pretty much everything is my signature Vigier DoubleBfoot fretless/fretted double-neck. It has a DiMarzio Tone Zone humbucker in the bridge and a DiMarzio The Chopper single-coil in the neck, and my strings are D’Addario NYXLs—.009-.046 on the fretted side, and .012-.056 for the fretless. The amp I use is usually my Engl Invader through a Marshall cabinet, but for this album—surprisingly—I used an Engl preset in AmpliTube. It sounded more like my amp miked up than my amp did. Most of the effects I used were in the software, but I also had my Dunlop 95Q Cry Baby wah and a TC Electronic Sub ’N’ Up octave pedal.

What inspired you to make the doubleneck your main guitar?

As a composer, I wanted to be able to choose either fretted or fretless without changing guitars. I’m more of an “andperson. I don’t want to choose between fretted or fretless, I want to have fretted and fretless.

You also do this thing that’s almost sorcery with a thimble. The notes you get with it are uncanny.

This is something I’ve been doing for almost 30 years. I just realized one day that I don’t have to be limited to the fretboard. What I do is keep a metal sewing thimble on the pinkie of my picking hand, and instead of touching the string to a metal fret, I touch the thimble down against the string. I can do it beyond the fretboard, and that’s how I would get notes that are higher than what the fretboard would allow. (To see the thimble in action, check out “Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal Demos the Thimble,” a 2008 GP lesson on YouTube.)

How did this technique first get into your head? You were just having a sandwich one day, and thought, “You know what? If I had a thimble…”

The whammy pedal didn’t exist yet, and I wanted to be able to get all those extra notes. So I was thinking, “What would be the most convenient and accessible way to have something metal that you can touch to the string?” I thought about having some kind of ring, and I also had this 9-volt battery that I’d use as a slide. It was on a rubber band, and I’d just kind of grab it. Ultimately, the thimble seemed to be the best way to do it.

Is there anything you need to do in order to manage the sound of those stratospheric thimble notes?

When I’m using the thimble, it’s pretty much a hammer-on or a pull-off, so the more saturation you have, the more it’s going to come through. Of course, in that high register, it also helps to have either a bit more compression or a little more drive. I usually have enough gunk in my signal chain so that the sound breaks out without me having to kick in something extra. I want the sound to cut through, but it shouldn’t be uncomfortable.

What do you most appreciate about Jon Votta, your co-guitarist in the band?

He has this relentless, fiery energy. I might play a little more jazzy, refined, and schooled in my picking, whereas Jon will be tearing the strings apart. When he rips into a solo, it feels like one of those old-school thrash-metal solos where he’s just violating the strings. I love it!