When Ron Thal tries to describe Yngwie Malmsteen, he pauses, making sure to choose his wording well.
“He has a reputation of, let’s say, having a big personality,” Thal says, chuckling.
Sounds about right. When Malmsteen phones the Weekender to talk about the upcoming Guitar Gods tour he’s headlining, which kicks off at Wilkes-Barre’s F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts this Thursday, he talks fast and never sounds anything but utterly confident. Calling from the road, it’s easy to imagine him burning rubber, driving at the same lightning speed with which he speaks – and with which he plays guitar.
“We had literally hundreds of artists wanting to do it,” Malmsteen says of the tour, which he and his wife organized, “but I’m very picky about the people I tour with.”
With sets including both pure instrumentals tracks and songs with vocals, Guitar Gods brings together Malmsteen’s Grammy-nominated virtuoso metal with the neo-classical psychedelia of former Scorpions member Uli Jon Roth, the bluesy surf rock of Gary Hoey, and the weirdo wildness of the aforementioned Thal, a.k.a. current Guns N’ Roses member “Bumblefoot.”
“I wanted to have variation,” Malmsteen says. “I did this festival somewhere in Eastern Europe, and this death metal band was playing. After that, it was another band that sounded like that, then another and another, just the same thing. You couldn’t tell the difference until towards the end of the show, when I was on. I was the only one who didn’t sound like that.”
Making sure Guitar Gods covers a hefty chunk of the six-string spectrum is something Malmsteen does both to give fans more bang for their buck and to keep things interesting for himself. It’s a philosophy echoed in his performance style.
“Every night I go on, my set is totally different. I never play it the same,” Malmsteen says. “I have been doing this for many, many moons, and the reason I can get on stage and still be inspired is because I challenge myself every night. Otherwise, you’re doing 30 shows in 30 nights and you become a f—king jukebox.”
DIRTY UNDIES ‘N’ DOUBLE NECKS
For Thal, the one thing that might be worse than becoming a human jukebox could be to get stuck covering someone else’s music forever.
Checking in with the Weekender fresh off the completion of Guns N’ Roses’ recent Las Vegas residency, Thal acknowledges that’s not necessarily the case when he performs with said band. He joined GNR in 2006 and both wrote and recorded his own guitar parts for the 2008 album “Chinese Democracy.” Nevertheless, sometimes a guy just needs to do his own thing.
“In GNR, I’m basically playing a catalog of decades of music that precedes me,” Thal says. “When I’m performing solo, I’m the lead singer and the lead guitarist. I have my double-necked, fretted/fretless guitar, and I’m switching between necks as I’m playing and singing. It’s a total juggling act.”
Taking full advantage of the freedom flying solo gives him, Thal doesn’t just go a little crazy on the stage, but off it as well.
“I like being spontaneous. I’ll jump into the audience and take pictures with fans, or I’ll break into an Iron Maiden song randomly because someone in the audience yelled it out,” he says. “That’s my vision of what I want a show to be – a big house-party.”
Of course, good parties don’t come cheap. While working as a solo act gives Thal the chance to step into the limelight, he’s not really alone. That’s why Thal and Hoey created a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to bring their own individual backing bands and road crews on tour with them.
True to Thal’s unconventional attitude, some of the perks that backers can receive are outright bizarre.
“For $200, I’ll tape a picture of your mom or your pet to my leg for the whole show,” Thal said. “The one we came up with that I’m hoping no one actually goes for is where for $5,000 I’ll wear the same pair of underwear for the entire tour. I’ll write your name on the waistband and take a picture of it before every show, and after an entire month of torturing everyone around me, I’ll mail them to you.”
SUMMER CAMP FOR SHRED-HEADS
Talking to Hoey, Thal’s Kickstarter partner-in-crime, one gets the sense that he and his fellow Guitar Gods are just as excited for the tour as their fans. After all, playing with a bunch of acts in the same genre as you is one thing; surrounding yourself with people equally passionate about the very instrument that made you into a musician is something else.
“I’m hoping that this tour is just one giant guitar lesson for me. I’m hoping every little minute we have in between stuff we’re going to be sitting backstage, hanging out, trading licks and jamming out,” Hoey says. “I’m sure, like myself, everyone on the tour is sitting at home right now and practicing.”
Though he’s released 19 albums over the course of 22 years, spawning five Billboard Top 5 singles (most notably the Focus cover “Hocus Pocus,” off 1993’s “Animal Instinct”), it’s clear Hoey’s love for the guitar hasn’t diminished a bit since his introduction at the impressionable adolescent age of 14.
“There was a guy who was dating my sister. He was over the house, playing his guitar at the kitchen table. When I saw him playing it, it looked like his hand was a spider running up and down the neck to me,” Hoey says. “When I tried playing myself, it took me over in a big way. It’s one of those things where you start doing it, then you look up at the clock and suddenly three hours have passed.”
Obviously, Hoey isn’t alone. The guitar is as much a pop culture symbol as it is an instrument. What’s the mystique?
“Five guys playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the piano is probably going to sound the same every time. Five guys playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the guitar, though, with distortion and a wah-wah pedal, each one’s going to have a completely different feel,” Hoey says.
“The guitar is so expressive. It’s so much a part of who’s playing it.”