When Guns N’ Roses return to Southern California toward the end of November, there are two things that you are unlikely to hear members of the audience exclaim: “I can’t tear my eyes away from Richard Fortus” and “Damn, I wish Buckethead was still in the band.”
A total of 10 guitarists have passed through the Guns N’ Roses ranks, including the current pairing of Fortus and Slash. Famously, L.A. Guns man Tracii Guns was in for the formative years, while Izzy Stradlin is generally considered a vital ingredient whose absence has been much discussed during the ongoing reunion. Stradlin's immediate replacement, Gilby Clarke, has his fans among the GNR faithful, too, while fewer people lament the departures of Robin Finck, Paul “Huge” Tobias, DJ Ashba, Buckethead or Bumblefoot.
But that’s a pretty dazzling list of technically brilliant players, many with a unique style, and a testament to Axl Rose’s eye for talent. Many of them were maligned and dismissed by fans simply because they’re not Slash or Izzy, which hardly seems fair. So as Buckethead and Bumblefoot prepare to embark on (separate) solo tours, and Clarke puts the finishing touches on a new album, it feels appropriate to extend to them some kudos.
Buckethead, I was told on a number of occasions, doesn’t do interviews. Since I remembered him doing robot dances and nunchuck moves while onstage with GNR, I tried to think outside the box and offered him the opportunity to express his thoughts through a cartoon, a napkin sketch, an interpretive dance or whatever he wanted to do — but that didn’t work either. (The only interview he's given recently was for a self-help podcast, on which he revealed that he recently underwent surgery for a heart condition. A representative for his booking agency, American Artists, tells us he's doing fine.)
I did manage to speak to Bumblefoot, who plays the Whisky on Oct. 19. Bumblefoot (real name: Ron Thal) left GNR in 2014 when it dawned on him that anybody could be doing what he was being asked to do with the band.
“I needed the flexibility,” he says. “I wanted to get back to doing the things that only I could do. The reasons I was put on this earth. I feel that I’m contributing something of value that people enjoy, that people will remember and that will inspire people.”
Bumblefoot, as well as working on his solo career, has two bands currently active: Art of Anarchy (with Scott Stapp) and Sons of Apollo, a prog-rock supergroup featuring former members of Dream Theater and Journey. His latest solo album, Little Brother Is Watching, dropped in 2015, although it just got a vinyl release this summer.
Meanwhile, Gilby Clarke — who also agreed to an interview — is putting the finishing touches on his fifth solo studio record, which he describes as a "fresh approach on classic rock." “I'm pretty much finished with the recording — I’m in the mixing stages,” Clarke says. “As an artist, there’s always that question: Do you modernize your sound? I’ve always felt that I am what I am. I would hope that after all these years, I’m getting better at it."
Clarke became aware of the current Guns N' Roses reunion along with everybody else, although he suspected something might be afoot when Duff McKagan began performing with Axl’s band a couple of years ago. He hoped that he would be the second choice after Izzy for the rhythm guitar spot, but he isn’t at all disgruntled with the way things turned out.
“I didn’t feel I needed to make a phone call about it; I didn’t feel I needed to plead my case,” he says. “If it happens it happens, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It didn’t, and when it didn’t happen, I just went, ‘Uh, well, there it goes.’ I’m being honest about it. I have such good and fond memories from those years that I don’t need to relive it again.”
When Guns N’ Roses were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, Slash and Duff performed a short set of GNR songs with drummers Matt Sorum and Steven Adler, Clarke and vocalist Myles Kennedy, who performs with Slash’s solo band. Stradlin and Rose chose not to attend, but the event only cemented the idea that Clarke is the second-choice rhythm player in the minds of most when considering “classic” Guns N’ Roses. Sadly, even though Clarke performed at the ceremony, he wasn’t one of the members who actually got inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“From my point of view, I never really thought about it much, ever,” Clarke says. “I didn’t go through a process of pleading my case to be a part of the band. Not being inducted was definitely a bummer. To be a part of something and not be recognized for it. But deep down, I didn’t really care. It’s just another two lines on your Wikipedia page. Duff called me literally the day before and said, ‘We had a talk and we decided we’re going to play. We’d love for you to play with us.’ The only thing that was weird for me was when they went up to accept and I wasn’t there. I actually had to go somewhere else while they did that. That definitely felt weird.”
Meanwhile, Bumblefoot admits that his exit from GNR wasn’t friendly, and so he certainly wasn’t expecting a call when an Izzy-less reunion was announced.
“If I was there, it wouldn’t be a reunion,” he says. “I would be the thing stopping it from being a reunion, and I don’t want to be that. I would be the fly in the soup. Did I think they were gonna call? No. The way things ended with us, nobody was going to be calling anybody, unfortunately."
Bumblefoot is proud that he had eight years performing with Guns N’ Roses (between 2006 and 2014). But it ended and, as when any relationship ends, it can be awkward bumping into your ex. For that reason, he won’t be catching any of the reunion shows.
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“It would just be too strange,” he says. “For so many reasons it would be just awkward. One, because we didn’t end with hugs and handshakes and all of that. Two, what am I gonna do? Stand in the audience and have people around me go, ‘Hey, weren’t you in the band?’ The whole thing is just weird, and too awkward. They’re doing better than ever, and if you look at it, they’re happy, I’m happy, everybody’s doing fine and that’s how it should be.”
Of course, he’s right. Both Bumblefoot and Clarke continue to write new material, and they play out regularly with their various projects. Buckethead seems to release something new every other month, and he’s touring now, too, including an Oct. 31 show at the Anaheim House of Blues. DJ Ashba is a member of Nikki Sixx’s band Sixx A.M., and Robin Finck has returned to Nine Inch Nails as a touring guitarist. There’s even a great new L.A. Guns album, The Missing Peace, which features Tracii Guns back together with longtime L.A. Guns vocalist Phil Lewis for the first time in 15 years. There's plenty of life after Guns N’ Roses — even if Axl is unlikely to invite you to any of the reunion shows.
Bumblefoot plays with Powertribe and John Welsh Band at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Whisky a Go Go. Buckethead plays with Brain and Brewer on Tuesday, Oct. 31, at the House of Blues Anaheim. Gilby Clarke has no upcoming local shows, but you can keep tabs on him at gilbyclarke.com.