Learn how to play five riffs from the progressive rockers’ latest album, Similar Skin.

“Little Gift” Intro

With Similar Skin, we wanted to get back to this bigger rock sound that was a little less intricate and progressive. I wanted to come up with a few riffs that seem to just knock you over with simplicity—like AC/DC with cross rhythms. Growing up, some of my favorite shows were when bands took a “less is more” approach in bigger rooms. This riff harkens back to those feelings I had watching bands like Foreigner or Thin Lizzy—bands with big monstrous riffs. Plus, I wanted to get away from that crazy articulation that always seems to run through our music. “Little Gifts” was our shot at getting back to that arena-rock feel. It’s got some cool syncopation with the upstrokes, though for the most part, it’s a big simple riff that everyone plays together. I’d written this a couple of years ago, so it was intended for what became Similar Skin. Instead of writing across the board and having too many songs to plow through, we wanted to focus on what sound we’re going for. “Little Gift” was one of the first ones.

“Bridgeless” Interlude

This song has been in our book for about seven years. We recorded it because I think it tied into the heavier approach of the record. Umphrey’s is definitely a progressive rock-flavored band, and if we didn’t have any of that on the record people might be scratching their head a bit. Also, it’s great to end the record with this bombastic, riff-heavy tune with all these little intricate parts. The interlude here is kind of like a Steve Howe thing—lots of open strings and quick position shifts. When everyone played the riff together, it was like “Whoa, we got something here.” It illustrates the beauty of being different players and the way Brendan interprets a riff. If I wrote the riff, he has to interpret it and come up with something that sits nicely inside of it. It’s the stylistic differences that really humanize everything—it’s not so cold and calculated with exactly perfect harmonies. There’s a little bit of space to move inside that melody. For some bands, that doesn’t work, but that’s one of our go-to magic tricks. “Bridgeless” is definitely one of the tougher tunes in our book.

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In Umphrey’s McGee, we really like to turn rhythm on its head and are constantly in search of cool ways to change up a boring stock riff. In this

In Umphrey’s McGee, we really like to turn rhythm on its head and are constantly in search of cool ways to change up a boring stock riff. In this lesson, I want to look at a fun little idea that makes a small group of musicians sound big and bossy. The idea is to play three different time signatures against each other and eventually have the parts unite as one larger phrase. The riffs presented below are an example of using this concept to create something uncommon.

The first part—played on the guitar—is shown in Fig. 1. This riff was the original idea. The time signature is in 5/4, but the phrase should really feel like common time or 4/4 meter when you play it. This creates the gamelan feel. We are taking simple math and making more interesting parts over a common-time pulse. This part comes off sounding very much like Rush and King Crimson, and performing this particular guitar part can be tricky.

Download Figure 1 audio (guitar part)...

The goal is to make this part sound very consistent, even though you’re playing a slightly unusual pattern. To do this, use strict alternate picking—even when skipping to a non-adjacent string. As with many tough riffs, start by practicing this figure very slowly. Slight palm-muting will help make the arpeggio have more clarity—think Robert Fripp on the older Crimson tunes.

The bass section shown in Fig. 2 comes off more like a melody line. It’s written in 6/4 and should be equal to the guitar part in the mix because the bass is played in the higher register. To throw out another super-cool prog reference, this part makes me think of the hemiola patterns that Yes bassist Chris Squire would play. His way of phrasing over the barline was amazing.

Download Figure 2 Audio (bass part)...

When I was thinking up this bass line, I wanted it to fall over the guitar in a cyclical fashion. I played my classic old Rickenbacker 4003 and used a pick to accentuate the notes like a lead guitar line. When you play the bass part, approach it just like the guitar part: You want to feel it in 4/4 or common time—don’t waste energy always trying to count the written 6/4.

Finally, the drum section in Fig. 3 is meant to be as obvious as possible. It almost comes off as an old-fashioned Charlie Wattstype groove. It has that sound of a million drum patterns you’ve heard before. In this lesson’s audio example, the recording is very ambient and compressed, which gives the groove that instant ’70s vibe and flavor. Basically you could play any riff over this groove, but we are trying to make it tricky with simple math. That’s the game.

Download Figure 3 Audio (drum part)...

The word gamelan, to me, means layering ideas that typically would not mesh, but having them connect because they are mathematically correct. I tracked the audio example at my home studio in Michigan, and it should give you a good idea of the rhythmic vibe our band is going for when we’re performing these parts.

To download my actual tracks, visit the online version of this lesson. I’ve included the final composite track, plus isolated tracks for drums, bass, and guitar. Put these tracks into your own recorder and use them to practice over. Set up a loop of the whole form, and then try creating your own melody or soloing over the interlocking parts. This is an easy and cool way to make something sound complex and still be in the pocket.

Click here to download the full track.

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