One notably ear-catching exception is Umphrey’s McGee.
A hardworking six-piece ensemble from Chicago with a singular blend of crunchy metallic riffs, greasy country fills, funky R&B grooves, and odd-metered modal jazz jams, Umphrey’s has won over the devoted minions of the jam-band scene. With their elaborate yet loose song arrangements, musically democratic live excursions, and sunny stage demeanor, the band has made the jump from local phenoms to festival headliners, with high-profile sets at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza already under their belts. Not surprisingly, many listeners have championed the group as the heir-apparent to Phish’s legacy. Plus, on the strength of progged-up studio albums such as 2006’s Safety in Numbers, 2007’s The Bottom Half (a collection of previously unreleased album tracks and demos), and their new concert album Live at the Murat [all on Sci Fidelity], their expansive, exploratory, and adventurous orchestrations are winning over the iPods of died-in-the-wool prog rock fans as well.
Putting the tandem 6-string “umph” in Umphrey’s McGee are lead vocalist/guitarist Brendan Bayliss and guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger, two wildly talented team players who bring a panoply of technique and inspiration to the stage while always managing to leave their egos at home. Hours before a Brooklyn co-headlining show with fellow jam stalwarts Disco Biscuits, Bayliss and Cinninger plugged in backstage and offered a primer on how they meld jazz, rock, bluegrass, and prog influences into a seamless whole.
To keep their protracted live improvisations from getting bogged down in self- indulgent muck, Cinninger and Bayliss each focus on what the other guy—and the rest of the band—is playing at any given moment, and react accordingly.
“Here’s a little motive stretched across the D and G strings I might lock into over a driving rhythmic groove,” says Cinninger, demonstrating the rippling sixteenth-note pattern [Gtr. 1, Ex. 1]. “It’s useful because I can just modulate it up and down the fretboard to take the jam in whatever direction feels right.”
“I’ll watch Jake’s fingers to see where he’s playing, then move up the neck and grab a harmony,” adds Bayliss, playing Gtr. 2’s part. By shadowing the original motif a fifth higher (as well as tracing Cinninger’s modulation up a minor third in bars 3 and 4), Bayliss adds color, depth, and stereo to the original phrase, and the composite guitar part jumps out of the mix like a musical hologram.
Taking the Plunge
“Playing note-for-note harmony lines in major and minor thirds is cool, but that approach can also sound too pedestrian, too cluttered, and weigh the groove down,” cautions Bayliss. “When we compose interlocking parts, I tend to play five notes to Jake’s seven. This helps things breathe a little and the spaces that I leave make everything sound a bit more three-dimensional.”
Case in point is Ex. 2, a cool Fripp/Belew-styled excerpt à la Crimson from Anchor Drops’ leadoff track, “Plunger.” This percolating odd-metered tendon tester starts out with D Mixolydian melodies harmonized in fourths. Then, as Cinninger’s part descends and Bayliss’ part rises, the music expands to restate the riff in octaves around a Bb tonal center. The real kick here comes from the phrasing. Dig how Bayliss—true to his claim—keeps things open sounding by leaving out notes (Gtr. 2, third sixteenth of bars 1 and 3). Also, Cinninger adds some oxygen by ghosting the open D string at the end of each measure (Gtr.1).
Picking Tips: Cinninger plays his part with palm-muted alternate picking, while Bayliss sounds his with hybrid picking—notes on the A string are flatpicked, while notes on the D and G strings are plucked with the middle (m) and ring (a) finger, respectively. (Note: to assimilate the feel of the alternating measures of 11/16 and 7/8, try practicing the groove slowly with your metronome clicking every sixteenth.)
If Andy Summers’ “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” verse lick had innocently walked into BALCO Labs one day, it might’ve come out sounding like Ex. 3, the pumped-up main riff to “Believe the Lie” (from Safety in Numbers). Again Bayliss drops a note from his part. Also helping create this sonic ’roid rage is the fact that the harmony is intriguingly skewed—things start out in unison for beat one of bar 1, but on the beat’s final sixteenth-note, Bayliss hits an open low E that clashes vividly with Cinninger’s 1st-fret F a half-step higher. (The harmony resolves into straight thirds on the second beat.) This unison-to-single-voice-to-dissonance-to-consonance move goes by in a heartbeat but gives the lick its quirky charm.
If Bayliss’ syncopated single notes against Cinninger’s stretchy arpeggios in bars 3 through 5 seem a bit frugal, it’s because he’s also handling lead vocals here—and besides, the simplicity works perfectly!
(Tip: Be sure to pay close attention to Jake’s picking pattern in the first bar to get the lick to roll just right.)
Wonder Twin Powers Activate!
“Despite their complexity, many of our parts arise organically,” say Bayliss. “The song ‘Ocean Billy’ [also from Safety in Numbers] had this big space in it, and playing it live we just sort of fell into these finger-tapping parts without too much in-depth discussion.”
Approaching a tandem two-handed tapping texture such as Ex. 4 might seem like stepping into a minefield of cheesy hair-metal excess, but the Umphrey’s lads handle it with aplomb by employing rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity for a cool textural effect. Notice how the flurry (mostly drawn from a G major pentatonic scale) seems to fly by without a discernable downbeat, mainly because Cinninger displaces his eight-note phrase by starting it one sixteenth-note ahead of Bayliss’ part. Experiment with the two parts, and you may notice that Cinninger’s tactic gives a 3+5+1 accent grouping against Bayliss’ 4+4 configuration, providing the whole lick with a vibey, off-kilter shimmer. Yet another adventurous guitar stunt that proves that when it comes to furthering the art of progressive dual-guitar, the McGee boys are the Real McCoys!
Guitars Paul Reed Smith McCarty and Singlecut. (“I play PRS guitars because their necks are the most comfortable. I blew my wrist out as a classical guitar major in college and I need something that’s not too taxing to play. PRS guitars are the musical equivalent of driving a Ferrari.”)
Amps Mesa Lone Star, Vox AC50 combos
Strings D’Addario .010-.046
FX Morley wah, Cusack Screamer overdrive, Boss DD-6 digital delay, MXR phaser, Analog Man Comprossor compressor
Accessories Boss TU-2 tuner pedal
Guitars Three G&L S-500s, circa-’85 Kramer American, Babicz acoustics. (“My first electric guitar was the G&L I got when I was 14, and G&Ls are pretty much the only electrics I’ve played since. Their Magnetic Field Design pickups are brilliant—there’s nothing happening above 10 kHz—which gives ’em a nice scooped-out midrange honk. As I like to say, it’s honky like a donkey, man!”)
Amps Fuchs OD-50 and Marshall Vintage Modern heads, Fuchs 2x12 cabinets loaded with Electro-Voice speakers
Strings D’Addario .0105-.048
FX Morley Bad Horsie wah; Clark Gainster, Banzai Cold Fusion (clean boost mode), and Tonebone Classic overdrive pedals; BBE Fuzz; Boss Phaser and Pitch Shifter; Guyatone and Moogerfooger delay pedals
Accessories Pedal-Racks True Bypass Strip pedal switcher, HBE Bytchn Swytchn A/B/C amp switcher, Mogami (instrument), George L (pedalboard), and Monster (speaker) cables
The Jake Blade
“I used to leave my bridges floating and I’d pull on the back of them to get a slight vibrato,” says Cinninger. “I did that because I never used a whammy bar. My friend Mark Benjamin saw me struggling like that, so he designed a nifty little oval-shaped metallic device he christened the ‘Jake Blade’ that attaches on my bridge where the whammy bar would go. I can grab onto the edge of the blade and rock it up or down for more precise pitch manipulation than I can with a bar.”