Howdy, soldiers! Are you ready to take the world by a storm with your solo act? Good!
Last week we talked a bit about the different frameworks for such acts, as well as the benefits of adding vocals to your shows. This installment furthers the cause of what I call the evolution of teaching. Mainly “Zurg, don't fall in sinkhole! Hurts! Zurrrrg! Zurrrrrg!” Yes, yes, that's right – learning from my Neanderthal mistakes puts you further along the path of musical evolution and enlightenment. After singing, this next topic was my biggest obstacle as a musician!
And what cliff did I tumble off, only to emerge with some newfound skill cleverly disguised as a goose egg on my head?
But first, a story...(As always!)
I had decided I wanted to try a solo gig. I had just wasted a few months in a basement rehearsing with a go-nowhere band, and I wasn't quite sure what to do. I thought “Hey, I'll record a demo CD, and get some gigs playing jazzy stuff at restaurants!”
A great idea in theory, but it didn't quite work out.
I dusted off a little digital recorder (I think it was a Boss BR-532), and started putting some tracks down. And then I hit that proverbial brick wall – HARD! I was a halfway decent guitarist, making a living teaching guitar, and had played live professionally, but...I couldn't write any songs! Everything I did turned into a formless blues jam. As I write this on Stevie Ray Vaughan's birthday, let me be the first to say that blues jams rock - But not the ones I was putting down. The lack of any structure, and the absence of vocals made my first “studio” effort something I'd rather not discuss. Well, I got several neat ideas, but all in all, it was a very weak venture. Sure, sure, I could do covers, but to be the artist I wanted to be, I really needed some originals as well.
I shopped the CD around, and only got one or two gigs. Mannnn! After tumbling off that metaphorical cliff of ignorance, I was able to see something that I had missed during my years of practice:
Songwriting is a skill vital to a musician of any style.
Since I had been playing electric lead guitar, I was able to get away with not writing my own stuff. One of my teachers looked at me one day and said “If you don't write your own stuff, you'll always be playing somebody else's songs.” Well DUH, but it actually sank in that time. I had always thought guitarists who sang and wrote their own songs where...gasp!...Singer-Songwriters! I considered my arpeggios to set me far above those saps who played Ben Folds covers and stole all my girls. (OK, sorry, but I'm STILL burned about that!) It slowly dawned on me that a lot of the heavy songs I liked were actually very well written, too. Another DUH, but hey, I guess I needed to learn this stuff the hard way. Another thing that had always made me think twice about songwriting was that when people said the song was very well written, it usually didn't rock. It wasn't a logical train of thought, but it still seemed to be the case. My dad would put on some lame song, and I'd promptly state that the band's guitarist was lousy. “Yeah, but they're such good songwriters!” he'd say. Hence my trepidation with setting foot into the arena of songwriters. Would I lose my magical rock powers? Once again, Ozzy Osbourne has a lesson for us.
Listen to any of his tunes, and notice how they're structured, coherent, and interesting without losing any of the power of rock. Indeed, the structure only adds to the ferocity! Bark at the Moon is a great example of what I'm talking about. Not only are the songs well written, but they're arranged snazzily too. For those scratching their heads in puzzlement, arrangement refers to what instrument plays which part, and when. Listen to Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends for an idea of how arrangement plays an important role in a song. They take two or three themes, and repeat them on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, and even bells! It keeps things interesting and fresh.
Good songwriting equals good songs, and we have no excuse not to learn this unique skill. And a skill it is, just like alternate picking or string skipping. The more we practice it, the better we get. “But Josh!” you say, “I should just be inspired to write a great tune!” Sure! But practicing the skills make it easier to express the inspiration, and can sometimes show you where to go when you're at a loss for notes. “But Josh!” you pipe up again, “My wicked awesome sequence of diminished arpeggios will blow the crowd away with the sheer skill required to play it!” It probably will! But here's something I noticed, and maybe it will help you:
There seem to be three camps of musicians:
Camp 1 includes great writers who might not be top flight musicians, or if they are, don't usually show it. A lot of country, pop, and alternative rock artists fall in with this crowd. Even if they can play their butts off, they usually don't for the sake of the song.
Camp 2 consists of the super shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen who are phenomenal guitarists, and absolutely own the top of the technical mountain. Their songs almost always feature their dazzling fret work, but usually aren't as catchy as Camp 1, and hence not as popular (ever wonder why it's called “pop” music?)
Camp 3 consists of folks who recognize the following: Camp 1 has it's brilliance in the set up and the writing. (Think Smells Like Teen Spirit: Simple, and devastating. A bullet doesn't have to be complex to kill you, and neither does a hit song.) Camp 2 is jam-packed with the best guitarists ever, and they can play absolutely anything. Their skill is in the execution, but not in the planning stages.
So the folks in Camp 3, like Ozzy Osbourne, Rammstein, Van Halen, etc, are well versed in both planning (writing), and execution (playing.)
Here it is, again:
(As I see it, as a highly opinionated random person):
Pop music is great at writing, but sometimes lacks the substance of playing. It slays 'em and sells millions of records by setting up impressive riffs before they're even recorded. Unfortunately, sometimes people lose sight of the spirit of the music.
Shred music is killer at playing, but oftentimes can't reach a wider audience because of it's lack of digestible riffs. It rocks, but do people dance?
The mega rockstars combine both great writing and great playing. Catchy, and deadly!
Disclaimer: There's a place for everything in the music world! I'm not advocating everyone everywhere always play three-minute bubblegum pop. As a matter of fact, I'd never advocate for anyone to play three-minute bubblegum pop. I'm just talking about how structure and brevity can be nice to use. That being said, the world would be much sadder without Dream Theater's epic treks through the sonic hyperspace!
I was a bit puzzled at how to start songwriting, but here's a few things that helped me:
1. Realize songwriting is a skill, just like sweep picking.
2. Realize that (most) songs have a clear, identifiable structure – verses, choruses, a bridge, and so on. Listening to your favorite tunes, and picking out which parts are which can go a long way toward understanding composition.
3. Don't try to write an epic tune on your first try. Pressure kills creativity!
4. Just like other guitar skills, daily practice is very helpful.
5. Education is important! I bought a few books, and attended a local songwriter's group. I got inspired to give it a good shot. Maybe these ways will help you, too.
Getting down to business
As a singing guitarist, I actually have two parts to write: the music, and the lyrics. The question of the hour is: Which one should one write first? Take note: For once, I have no opinion on the matter. Shocking!
I typically write things in parallel. I'll invent some cool riffs, and then work on writing lyrics. I'll then find one that fits the other, and try it out. It's just how I do it, but see if you can come up with your own way, too.
The best thing I've invested in for my music writing is a portable voice recorder. (But then I got an iPhone, which rendered the first obsolete.) My mind can only hold one song at a time. I either play one idea repeatedly, or I throw it out, and lose it forever. A recorder, no matter what shape or form, is a great way to document ideas, and free up the mind to invent new ones without the pressure of remembering the first. The program called Audacity is a great free way to get into recording. Google it, download it, and use It!
I'll sit down with my guitar, and doodle around until I come up with a nifty riff. I record it, and go on to the next one. At the end of the session, I review the pieces and see if I like any.
I've also heard that it's a great idea to write on other instruments, too, especially if you don't know how to play them well. Talk about some fresh sounds! Alternate tunings can also be helpful in this regard. I don't worry too much about refining the riffs, I just get 'em out there and recorded.
When I find one I really like, which may take a few days, I'll start polishing it. This is when I'll start to add structure to the song. The most common parts to a song are the Verse and Chorus. If I find a riff that I think sounds good for the Verse, I'll try to write a Chorus for it, and vice versa. Now, it can certainly have more parts, like a Bridge (part that connects the song, usually occurs only once, and is different), a Pre-Chorus, Intro, Outro, etc.
A very common structure is:
Verse – Chorus – Verse - Chorus
Adding a bridge:
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge - Chorus
Some songs are all verses (Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue.)
Some tunes have a hook or strong intro riff that is sometimes repeated later in the song. Think Smoke on the Water and Eye of the Tiger.
If these terms are new to you, think of it like this:
The Verse usually tells the story.
The Chorus usually doesn't change (but it can), and is repeated. It's the part that casual listeners know the words to, and oftentimes where the song gets it's name.
Thinking in sections like this can make the song more coherent. But remember, there's no formula. Each song is a little different. Listen to your favorites, and see how they're built.
Take off your Slash guitar top hat, and put on your writer's cap, good people! Pretend you're a poet out to observe and interpret the world, and get ready to have fun! It's like being a photographer with words. The pretending should be easy, because it's actually true!
One of the best books I've read on lyric writing is Andrea Stolpe's Popular Lyric Writing. Buy it, it's great.
I don't want to present the information I learned from it, because that's called plagiarism, so I'll say it again: BUY THE BOOK!
Here's something I came up with on my own, though. Many people say that writing words to songs is difficult for them. Lyric writing specifically, and the creative process in general. can be viewed as oil production. Yep, it's another one of my crazy examples! Here it is:
1. The well is drilled, and oil (ideas) start pouring out. Hopefully they don't coat all the pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico. (Sorry, BP joke.) Most people start to refine their ideas here, but that is a mistake. Let 'em flow, and don't worry about if they're quality or not.
2. The oil (ideas) is transported (via our technique.) If we're writing music, this is where our chops come in. If we're writing lyrics, this is where we use our vocabulary and metaphorical sense.
3. The oil is then refined. We throw out the trash, decide “hey, that would make a good country song, so we'll file that for later, oh that's exactly what I'm looking for in a blues tune” etc We polish it up, make everything rhyme, and get the right number of syllables in each word.
4. What if we don't have any oil? Turn to the American way – invade a country! Ha ha! (I'm American, so I can make fun of myself, right?) In all seriousness, what I mean is that we can seek out new ideas and inspiration by listening to different genres of music, going to new cities, listening to old people tell their stories, you name it! As a matter of fact, I got ideas for two songs from my new CD on a train trip I took to New York City.
We're likely fairly familiar with step 3, and also probably make the mistake of starting there. But it's hard to write a song starting here – the creativity just ain't flowin' if we're trying to count syllables! Back it up a bit, people, and start at step 1. Get yourself a little notebook, and take a walk. Write down anything that you think would be a good song title. Some of the top writers say they can write a song from just a title, so it's mighty important! Your first excursion might be terrible.. “Rusty fences” and “overpriced cars” might be the only things you come up with. But keep trying! Hey, maybe you've got a song burning in your head, and it just writes itself. GREAT! But try this if you don't know what to do.
Step 2. Once you've got some neat ideas to work with, start writing the words. (This is an art in itself, and really deserves more of your time than this article can give. So check out the books listed at the end of this article.)
Don't worry too much about rhyming. You can repeat words as “place holders” just to keep the flow going.
We would add the structures we discussed in the music section (verse, chorus, etc), but still keep it fairly loose. Often the sections will show themselves.
Step 3. Refine that song, bro! Make the lines rhyme if that's your thing, and get it just so. See if you can get everything to blend nicely with the sections of the song. Remember, not every tune you write will be epic, so this is where the garbage can comes into play. Don't be afraid to discard, and start again. Note that we waited till step 3 to make things rhyme. You don't want to have your nose in a rhyming dictionary while you're trying to be creative!
Go back to your music, or if you haven't written any, try to come up with some. Wrestle with it, make 'em fit, and then record that sucker! Again, it doesn't have to be perfect to record it. Think of all of this as practice.
Write as much as you possibly can! If you're like me, you'll be horrible at first, and then you'll slowly get better. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Keep these points in mind:
- Songwriting is a skill that should be practiced.
- A great way to practice is to keep a sonic journal, and record a song each day.
- The creative process doesn't like restrictions. Don't worry about the rhyming at first.
- Record ideas to free up “mind space” and document your riffs.
- Lyrics and Music can be written in order (that you choose), parallel, or months apart. (The tune Handy Street off my new CD was written over the span of a few months, and contains the parts of two songs.)
- Writing on new instruments or in alternate tunings can be a great source of inspiration.
- Writing riffs to a drum machine can be fun and productive.
- Educate yourself as much as possible about songwriting. This brings us to...
Some books that have helped me:
- Popular Lyric Writing- Andrea Stolpe
- The Craft and Business of Songwriting – John Braheny (get the most recent edition.)
- Six Steps To Songwriting Success – Jason Blume
Find a local songwriter's group or association!
Make friends with a better songwriter than you.
Check out www.thesaurus.com
Here's a great rhyming dictionary: www.rhyme.poetry.com
And most of all, start writing.
See ya next time!
Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he's not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he's busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first “real” EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at www.joshurban.com, and say hello!
Copyright 2010 Josh Urban, all rights reserved.