Assessing his selections for the 10 albums that changed his life, singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal notes that many of them couldn’t possibly exist in the music business of today.
“I think what we’re exposed to depends on the economic structure of industry,” says the former Guns N’ Roses axeman. “Forty years ago, there were big numbers to play with. An A&R guy could afford to put a band in the studio with a producer. They would live there and nurture the work they were creating. That doesn’t happen anymore. Today it’s a lot of independent contractors, bands doing it DIY, or bands getting just enough money from a label – as long as they have a song that sounds like it could get pushed to a radio format.
“The numbers have totally changed, and that affects the kind of music you’re hearing,” he elaborates. “Anybody can make a record now, and there’s good and bad that comes with that. The good is that it puts power in everybody’s hands, and the bad is that the internet is flooded with choices. You have to go fishing in a sea flooded with information, and you have to take the time to find what you’re looking for.”
He pauses, then says with a chuckle, “I guess it’s like being in the biggest record store in the world, one that feels kind of endless.”
Among Thal’s picks are classics by Kiss, the Beatles and Rush, along with a few more obscure records by bands such as TNT and King’s X. All of them, he notes, have a transportive quality that takes him right back to the time and place he was in when he first heard them. “Each one is a beautiful, magical time machine,” he says. “I can remember everything about hearing these records, and I can step right into the body and frame of mind I was in when I experienced them. That’s the power of music, the way it plays with all of your senses in a way no other art form can. I never get tired of that.”
Kiss – Alive (1975)
“I was five years old. I was with my neighbours Tommy and Bobby, and I was sitting on Bobby’s bunk bed listening to the stereo. Albums were all over the place because their older brothers bought them. There was Yes, Elton John, the Beatles, you name it. And then we saw Kiss Alive! and put it on.
“When I heard Paul Stanley shouting to the cheering crowd, I felt something I’d never experienced before. I just stared at the speakers and imagined that I was in the arena at the show. It was electric. To the five year old that I was, everything changed in that one instance. I didn’t want to be policeman or a fireman or an astronaut or a dog groomer anymore. I wanted to do what Kiss was doing.
“I got an acoustic guitar from a neighbor and played it like a drum. I started writing songs about the solar system. By the time I was six, I had a band modeled after Kiss. Originally, we were called Target, and then we were called Starblast. We put on shows in the backyard and at the school. I made a banner and put together a show with cups of confetti. I even made merch comic books. I did everything a band was supposed to do, and it was all because of hearing Kiss’ Alive!”
The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
“What I love about the Beatles and George Martin, rest his soul, was the production. Those ominous cello lines and the intensity of the orchestral arrangements – they rounded out these rock songs and turned them into masterpieces.
“Kiss and The Beatles were both so important to me as a child, but for very different reasons: Kiss for the energy and for making me want to get up on stage and rock out, and the Beatles for the true love of music and sound.
“I listened to Strawberry Fields Forever over and over, but I would have to lift the needle before the end part because it scared the shit out of me. Those dissonant flutes and the siren were horrifying. I had nightmares. For the longest time, I could never listen to that section.
“There’s so many great songs on the record – Your Mother Should Know, I Am the Walrus, Hello Goodbye. I loved it. They were making sounds mere mortals couldn’t dream of. The Beatles exposed me to things that were beyond reality.”
Yes – Going For the One (1977)
“We’re back on my friend Bobby’s bunk bed, listening to records. I remember seeing the album cover with a naked ass on it. I felt so embarrassed to be looking at it. But man, those five songs are some of the most beautiful things ever recorded.
“What those people did with drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals is absolutely spellbinding. Immaculate writing, production, playing and arranging. To this day, it knocks me out.
“This wasn’t one of Yes’ more popular albums – it certainly wasn’t as big as Fragile, which had big radio hits. But to me, it’s an absolute masterpiece. It’s a must-hear album for anybody who has ears.”
Van Halen – Fair Warning (1981)
“I didn’t hear this album until several years after it came out. At this point, I was 12 years old and I was into the current metal of the day – Ozzy, Priest, Maiden, AC/DC – but I didn’t know Van Halen yet. As a guitarist, I was more like Angus Young in that I was into hyperactive blues-rock playing.
“At a band rehearsal somebody asked me if I knew how to tap on the guitar. I had no idea what he meant, so he showed me the Eruption-type triplets. I was fascinated. Then he put on Fair Warning and played me the intro to Mean Streets, and I was like, ‘Whoa…’
“I had never heard a guitar make that kind of sound. It was just like the moment when I first heard Kiss’ Alive! as a kid. Everything changed right in front of me. I realised that you could use the guitar for so much more than a utility instrument for writing songs. I started getting very experimental to see how far I could take it. That’s how I came up with some of my own techniques, like playing with a thimble. Guitar construction, deconstruction, building my own guitars – it all started after hearing Fair Warning.”
Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz (1980)
“I heard this album right before Diary of a Madman came out. Randy’s use of the whammy bar struck me right away – I’d never heard it used in quite that way. He was the start of things getting experimental, the way he merged classical guitar and metal into this perfect and singular style. He was the guy who did it.
“After hearing Randy, I got my first Marshall and an MXR Distortion Plus. I also knew that I had to get a guitar with a vibrato bar, so I tried to make one. It was kind of this weird design that I came up with. I was all excited and brought the guitar to my teacher. I started to do a dive bomb, and boom – the springs snapped and the thing broke. For the rest of the lesson, I was holding back tears.
“Randy definitely was a huge inspiration to me in terms of getting my tone in shape, but because of him I also started getting into classical music. My grandmother had all of these classical 78s, so I would listen to them and started to learn how to play them on the guitar.”
TNT – Knights of the New Thunder (1984)
“I was 14 and I saw in the paper that somebody was selling a Fostex reel-to-reel recorder. I went over to the guy’s place to buy it, and he handed me this album. ‘Hey, check this out,’ he said. ‘You look like you might like this.’ I didn’t know what to think – should I be insulted? – but I took it and went home, and when I popped it on I was taken aback by the singer, Tony Harnell. He was incredible. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to sing like him.
“Years later, Tony was looking to do something outside of the band, so we got together and tried to do it. Nothing ever came from it, but it was great to meet him. Years after that, I ran into him at a NAMM show. We got to talking, and that led to us doing some shows together, and eventually we did an acoustic album. We’ve done a lot more stuff in the past few years. He’s an awesome guy and a close friend.
“All because some guy said, ‘You look like you might like this.’ So that definitely changed my life.”
King’s X – Out of the Silent Planet (1988)
“Music at this point was a lot of hair metal being shoved down our throats. I was listening to the old-school metal and progressive rock from the ‘70s. I connected more to that stuff – it wasn’t about partying and things like that. Suddenly, I heard this band doing tuned-down, dark and groovy riffs, and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s this?!’
“King’s X made music that I was starving for. I fell in love with them instantly. Out of the Silent Planet, to me, is the first grunge album. They were pioneers of alternative metal. They might not have gotten the fame, but they got the respect of the players. They took the music back and brought it to a deep, artistic place.”
Muse – Absolution (2003)
“There was a lot of good stuff happening around this time. I heard Time is Running Out, and I thought that, production-wise, they were doing things that were very special in terms of the bass sounds and the way they filled musical spaces.
“Other things, too, made a big impression on me, like the way they snapped their fingers around a microphone and the way they used the piano. Not since Queen or perhaps Queensryche with Rage for Order was there a band that went back to this kind of care and artistry. It was enlightening and enriching to hear great songs with the kind of production that takes you on an emotional ride.”
Iron Maiden – Killers (1981)
“I remember browsing in a record store, just looking for something, and I pulled out the Killers album. ‘Huh, what’s this?’ I looked at the guy at the counter and asked, ‘Is this good?’ He shrugged and said, ‘I dunno. Go home and try it.’ I went home and listened to it, and a half hour later I begged my parents to take me back to the record store so I could get Maiden’s first album.
“They had that amazing Brit-punk energy, but they added it to the new sound of old-school metal. All the bands were turning up the intensity level, but Maiden did it better than anybody else. They were my favourite. I painted Iron Maiden album covers on the backs of dungaree jackets for $20 a shot. That’s how I made money to buy music gear.
“I even saved up enough to buy the Ibanez Roadstar guitar that I turned into the Swiss Cheese guitar, the same one that became my main guitar for 13 years. I toured the world with that guitar and recorded all of my albums with it, but I wouldn’t have gotten it if it weren’t for painting Iron Maiden covers on dungaree jackets. And I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t buy the Killers album. It all ties together.”
Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)
“This was the most recent Rush album to have come out when I was about 12 years old. I was hanging out with my friend Bob at the park near our school. We were drinking beer and hanging out with some girls, although I was really pretending to drink because I didn’t like the taste of beer. I remember hearing Moving Pictures and flipping out. From there, I went out and got Permanent Waves and all the other Rush albums.
“By the time I was 13 or 14, I had a band and we started playing bars. Half of our set was Rush and the other half was Kiss, Ozzy, Aerosmith and Maiden. The Rush songs we did were things like Beneath, Between & Behind, By-Tor & the Snow Dog – a lot of the early stuff.
“But Moving Pictures is the album I really remember as being the soundtrack to that time. The songs are so memorable and hooky, the guitar playing is phenomenal – I mean, all the playing is badass. It’s Rush taking you on a new kind of journey.”