Interview:Massive Chops - Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee
by Adam St. James
Jam band and prog-rock heroes take notice: Umphrey's McGee is coming to a stage near you and they're wielding massive chops. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss may be simply two of the most advanced young players on the post-2K music scene. The whole Chicago-based band is, in fact, pretty damn musically adept. With Anchor Drops, the groups third release, Umphrey's McGee has really laid down an impressive collection which demands attention.
The disc, which hit store shelves at the end of June, is also the group's first on SCI Fidelity, the label owned and operated by 2004 Lollapalooza headliners, String Cheese Incident. If you haven't heard of UM, chances are they'll be playing a club or theater nearby soon - the band plays more than 150 shows per year and will look to increase that pace with this new release. And if you can't catch them near your hometown, you can always book your cabin on Jam Cruise 3, sailing the sunny waters of the Bahamas next January (2005), with Umphrey's and many other great jam- and improv-based acts on board. (See link below).
Guitar.com spoke with Cinninger in mid-July about his own musical journey, which he says got off to a quick and early start; his attitude of keeping his gear simple; and the music scenes in Chicago and South Bend, Indiana - home of Notre Dame University and the nursery from which Umphrey's McGee sprang to life.
Guitar.com: Jake, both you and Brendan Bayliss are clearly highly skilled players. Where is all this highly technical riffing coming from? What are your influences?
Jake Cinninger: Well a lot of stems from a lot of record collecting since I could barely look in bins. My parents were fairly keen on listening to good music, so I kind of acquired their record collection, which consisted of anything from Weather Report to Zappa to Little Feat to John Lee Hooker. Pretty much a little bit of everything. I was really almost a rock snob at an early age, 10 or 11 or 12. I really knew good music back in the day, and still collect a ton of music today, just a ton of different things.
Guitar.com: I definitely hear some Zappa, and some Yes, and maybe some early Genesis.
Cinninger: Yeah, all the early prog-rock stuff.
Guitar.com: Are you guys schooled, musically?
Cinninger: Yeah. Everyone kind of knows? Kris, our drummer, has his masters in jazz. I wanted to cut my teeth early and didn't really dig the college curriculum for music. I figured I could learn more out playing in a live setting. I've been playing every weekend since I was like 12, whether it be a rock band or whatever. Where I grew up in Michigan we used to play roadhouses three nights a week, five sets a night.
Guitar.com: From your early teens?
Cinninger: Yeah. I'd be playing with older cats most of the time, and they would just hire me. I was in like 17 or 18 different bands, just even through my teens. That's where I learned. Everyone else - Bayliss went to Illinois University for a little while for classical guitar. Kris has the most extensive background as far as schooling goes. I went out to Berklee for a little while. I took classical guitar for eight years from a guy named Jerry Zupko in South Bend (Indiana). That's kind of where I got my tack.
Guitar.com: You and Brendan do most of the songwriting?
Cinninger: Yeah. And I do most of the lead guitar work, usually. And a lot of backgrounds. I sing two lead vocals. I sing lead on the country tune, "Bullhead City," and "Mulche's Odyssey." It's nice to break it up a little bit. Since we have so many songs, the vocal duties get spread around. We have, I think, close to 85 originals by now, and probably 12 or 13 in the works. Right now we're ready to do another album.
Guitar.com: And your latest disc, Anchor Drops, just came out June 29th (2004).
Guitar.com: How long had Umphrey's been playing around the Chicago area before you went national?
Cinninger: I came here about late 2000. My band, Ali Baba's Tahini, disbanded. We were a three-piece, kind of progressive rock outfit, kind of like King's X, or McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. Fun, kind of funky at times. That band broke up, and Brendan had always said, 'Man, if your band ever breaks up, bring all your songs over and let's redo this thing.' So it was fun. It was a challenge for me to learn the bulk of their songs, and a challenge for them to make more arrangements of these old Ali Baba's Tahini. We just joined forces, and it's been great to bring a little bit of what I had to offer. We were all good friends. We all came from the same area. We were just in different bands, and we always used to play together at parties and gigs.
Guitar.com: In Michigan, before you moved to Chicago?
Cinninger: Yeah, in Michigan. It (our history) goes back like five or six years.
Guitar.com: What part of Michigan?
Cinninger: Right over the Indiana border from Notre Dame. That's where a lot of the guys went to school. We kind of created a little music scene in South Bend, Indiana. It was kickin' back in the day.
Guitar.com: And Umphrey's McGee is signed to a record label owned by jam band String Cheese Incident, correct?
Cinninger: Yeah, SCI Fidelity.
Guitar.com: I suppose you've played plenty of shows with those guys?
Cinninger: No, we haven't, actually. We're friends with those guys, we've been at festivals together, but we haven't played a show together. It was their record people who contacted us - Kevin Morris - and they have a completely different facility from the band. It's like a different entity from the band. They use that name. But we really wanted to get the album out, we didn't want to wait around for big label crap. These guys were like, 'Let's get it out there now, it's been a year and a half for us since we'd released something, [Editor's note: Umphrey's McGee self-released Local Band Does O.K. in 2002.] and we needed it now more than ever. They just jumped on it and gave us a really good deal. It was a sweet thing for us. It wasn't like big label pressure. We could get it out there, everybody makes a little money, and that's pretty much how it goes. It's not a big deal where we're tied in.
Guitar.com: What do you have in the works for tour plans?
Cinninger: Tomorrow we leave for the East Coast for two weeks, and then we go back down South, when school kicks in. Then we'll do a West Coast thing. We pretty much hit every place at least twice a year. We've pretty much been tour rats for the past couple years. We do up to 150 shows a year, all over the country. It keeps us busy. We're pretty much playing a gig every other day.
Guitar.com: Well, that's good for your chops.
Guitar.com: Right, there's a lot of complex stuff to remember?
Cinninger: Yeah. It keeps us intact. It keeps the band running like a well-oiled machine. In fact, we just got off a three-week break, and the first gig was like, 'Whoops!' A little sloppy. But as long as everyone practices at home and keeps up on their chops, it keeps us pretty consistent.
Guitar.com: We both live in Chicago. How do you feel about the Chicago music scene right now?
Cinninger: I love it. It's really diverse. And there's a lot of really deep jazz and blues. As far as our scene goes, there's just not a lot of the jam thing. But it goes everywhere. It can be a tough town to play music in. If you don't have the support of the community, you're kind of screwed. It's just there's so much information here to take in, and everyone is so busy, they may not have the time to come out and see you. I'm very thankful to be as far as we are in such a short time. Dedicated fans and listeners are what it's all about.
Guitar.com: Let's talk about your gear. What are you playing these days, as far as guitars, amps, and pedals?
Cinninger: I mainly play G&L guitars. That's what I've been playing since I started playing electrics. I started with an old, early Strat copy - the G&L Legacy. And I've got a G&L ASAT (which is shaped like a Tele). Right now my favorite, over the past three years, has been my G&L S-500, the butterscotch and black one. I like simple guitars, single coils.
My amps are a mid-'80s, Marshall JCM800 combo, a 50-watt 2x12 combo. I've had it since I was 12 (laughs). It's my one and only amp that's been modified. I've got some old Jensen's in there now.
Guitar.com: What mods did you make?
Cinninger: I just had it redone. It's been really beat, so I had all the tubes checked and replaced. And some guy said, 'If we put this in it will do this?' And I said, 'All right, as long as it sounds good.'
As far as pedals I keep it simple. I've got three overdrive pedals. One I keep on all the time, even for clean settings. It's called a Cold Fusion pedal. I think it's from Bonzai pedals. It sends like 60 dB of clean gain to your amps, so if you're using Strats or whatever, it really works with weaker pickups. It gets this slightly growly, snappy sound on your clean sound. I compress it with an MXR comp. And that's pretty much the start of my tone. I leave that overdrive on all the time; my clean tone is fairly dirty. It's got a kind of Stevie Ray Vaughan grit.
And then I use an old Boss OD-1 overdrive for my first phase distortion, and then for my second phase I've got an MXR Double Shot. I like the second channel in the Double Shot it's real Warren Haynes-like: real thick, super meaty. And I run a phaser, a Bad Horsey Morley (wah), and my favorite pedal of all time is this little Guyatone Micro-Delay, the little blue delay pedal. It fits in palm of your hand and sounds super trashy. Trashy delay is like?why would you want a clean replication? You want it to get nasty, like with a rock lead. You want it to have that gritty, regenerated delay, rather than a digital sound. That's it.
Guitar.com: Do you have any tips for guitar players on using effects?
Cinninger: I would say keep it simple. It starts with the wood as they always say. A good amp and a good piece of wood. I always go into a compression pedal first. I go directly out of the guitar and the first thing in line is the compressor. It's on all the time. Use your ears: If it doesn't sound right, always pull back. Less is more, obviously. And I don't like people who use tons of reverb on their live rigs. You're already in a room (with lots of reverb, probably). Oh, and the big secret to my tone is the Sennheiser 421. That's what I mic up my amp with. I've had a pair of those for 20 years. That's the be-all, end-all.
Guitar.com: So you put two of them on?
Cinninger: No, I'll just use one. If we do two mics I'll use a condenser mic and a dynamic.
Guitar.com: How do you place the mic on your amp?
Cinninger: I put it just off of the center, right on it.
Guitar.com: Pointing straight in?
Guitar.com: And right up against the grill cloth?
Guitar.com: And what about recording? I know you did a few different studios on this record. Did you use all the same guitar gear?
Cinninger: Well, we wanted a bunch of different colors, so we used a bunch of different amps and guitars and stuff like that. But I mainly just used a Marshall. And I used an old ES-335 on a couple tracks, and a Les Paul Jr. on the first track, on the riff where I needed that tight, humbucker sound. Other than that we just went Pro Tools and then took it to Gravity Studios and dumped it through a Neve console down to two-inch tape. So then we could really edit it properly. And then we bounced it back to Pro Tools. So we sweetened everything up to tape, ran it through this mid-'70s Neve console that Steely Dan did Aja and Gaucho on - the actual desk they did those albums on. You could hear the air (or the sound of the board in it's quiet state). We pretty much just went two-inch tape back to Pro Tools so we could edit, and then we went from that to 1/2 inch tape. So we got the tape sound on the album, which is kind of what we were going for.
Guitar.com: So you did all your basic tracks in Pro Tools, then went to tape just for the compression and tone of tape, then brought it back to Pro Tools to edit?
Cinninger: Yep. And it really just blew the mix wide open. It's that big trick of going from the digital domain to the analog world, where your mix all the sudden gains this "air," a quality you can't get from digital.
Guitar.com: That's a great recording tip.
Cinninger: Yeah. I think the album has that natural tape compression sound on it. You can hear the passage of tape, the little bit of noise. But it's like, 'fuck it, leave the noise.'
Guitar.com: That one picture in the back of the booklet that comes with Anchor Drops, the picture with the micro Marshall and the big condenser mic in front of it - did you actually record something that way, or did you just do the photo 'cause it looks funny?
Cinninger: (laughs) That was a photo op. It was like, 'Where's the biggest, most expensive mic in the room? Let's use that.'
Guitar.com: Too cool. Hey man, thanks for your time and have fun on the road this year.
Cinninger: No problem man, thank you.
About the Author
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.