Uriah Duffy: Turning Technique Into Tunes

“That really cool slap-tap-sweep lick is only an exercise until you find a way to put it in a musical context,” says ultra-dexterous Uriah Duffy.
By Jimmy Leslie ,

“That really cool slap-tap-sweep lick is only an exercise until you find a way to put it in a musical context,” says ultra-dexterous Uriah Duffy. When Bass Player presented his progressive power trio Points North at the Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco, Duffy exemplified the idea of turning technically proficient playing into solid songs. Many were from the band’s latest album, Points North, and Duffy was happy to share deep insights on his compositional contributions.

Can you describe how specific techniques inform “Northstar”?

“Northstar” started as a solo piece and includes nods to influences like Stanley Clarke and Stu Hamm. I mostly employ a claw technique, thumbing bass notes as my index and middle fingers pluck melodies and chords. The bass takes the melody on the first verse while keeping simple, open-string bass notes underneath. Pre-choruses consist of root notes with double-stops on top to fill out the trio’s sound. I usually omit the 3rd or 5th in lower registers to avoid muddy-sounding chords.

The solo is a bit weird. I used Larry Graham’s old, ultra-dead strings from a gig. I teched for him a couple times, and was on a bit of a mojo search. There are neat, bite-size musical stanzas throughout, including double-stopped 6’s, which I had never done before. My favorite bass moments are the single-note lines at 1:10 and 3:26. I used movement to illustrate the chords, dancing around the changes. It’s a cross between Geddy Lee and a walking bass line in a pop–prog format. That’s got to be a first!

What’s going on in “Rites of Passage”?

That ballad sounds easy, but it’s deceptively difficult to play. I’m pretty much tied to a five-note tapping arpeggio in 5/8 that moves through alternating major and minor sections. To cover chords originally recorded on guitar, I use a Keith McMillen 12 Step controller onstage. It’s a one-octave floor keyboard. I program chords into Apple’s MainStage software via the Chord Trigger MIDI plug-in, assign them to single-note triggers, and then play them with my feet.

What inspired “Turning Point”?

Someone challenged us to defy our usual “pop arrangement” format and do something longer, à la prog bands of the ’70s. Rush and Yes albums were the basis of my musical upbringing as a kid. My goal was to have clear sections cleverly glued together that take the listener on a journey and end up feeling like a great movie.

In Points North, we create musical phrases that comprise a full sentence before repeating, deriving the time signature from the riff itself, as opposed to truncating or adding beats to force a certain time signature. 13/8 only sounds cool if it’s listenable and head-noddable without any herky-jerky surprise left turns. In this age of simplified, produced beats, there is still a place for music that shows skill both as instrumentalists and as a band.



Points North, Points North [2015, Magna Carta]


Basses Modified Fender Standard Jazz Bass; Lakland U.S.A. & Skyline Series basses (various)
Rig TC Electronic RH750 head, TC Electronic RS210 & RS410 cabinets, Line 6 Relay digital wireless
Effects TC Electronic TonePrint pedals (various), Darkglass Microtubes B3K CMOS Bass Overdrive, Darkglass Duality Dual Fuzz Engine, Red Witch Zeus Bass Fuzz Suboctave