Regardless of talent level, experience or musical tastes, most musicians (and especially guitar players) have similar long term goals. They tend to have the same dreams: standing on a stage with fifty thousand people chanting their names, soloing for two hours, and then withdrawing to the tour bus or hotel suite with two dozen groupies, a case of vodka and a sack of pot the size of a body bag. This is a pretty typical dream, and it is usually accompanied by a fantasy about whiskey and speed-fuelled seven-day studio sessions, followed by the release of a triple album guaranteed to go quadruple platinum.
Usually as a coda, there is also the retirement dream, where the young guitar god imagines his later days, spent sitting and laughing in front of a grand piano topped with a mountain of cocaine, before going to bed on a giant pile of money with a different supermodel for each day of the week. (For some reason this is how I always imagine Harry Connick Jr.)
If these are your dreams, I would hate to shit on your head, but you've got a long way to go. Sorry, but it's true. Even if you can already play through every Satriani record from memory, and everyone in your family including weird Aunt Ida tells you that you're a genius, you've still got a long way to go. The sad truth is, right now you're probably closer to sleeping in a box car and fishing dimes out of the sewer than you are to Harry's piano/cocaine mountain/money bed/supermodel combination. But why? You have all the skills! You make Slash look like a shallow chump in a propeller beanie! Why can't you reach the big time? The reason isyou don't write your own songs.
Or maybe you do, and they're awesome. If that's the case, I offer you my congratulations and welcome you to dance on my grave. If you don't want to wait until I'm dead, you can stop by my box car and hurl abuse at me, but if you do, please bring me your empty whiskey bottles so I can use the deposits to buy food.
If I'm right though, and you don't write your own songs, I think I can help. Or if you've already written a dozen songs about being dumped and have run out of ideas, maybe I can help get you going again.
Of course I realize that this is a website for guitar players, and many of you are already guitar gods and don't need help writing music. That's cool; I don't want to tell you how to play your own instrument. As well, many of you just want to play licks and riffs and leave the lyrics to the singer. That's fine. If you want to stop reading right now, that's okay. I can't blame you. But I should warn you that I'll be making some disparaging remarks about people who only read the first half of articles, probably somewhere towards the end.
Before I actually get started, I should probably state my credentials, so you know you're getting advice from a qualified professional. First of all, I'm a terrible musician. I sing out of tune. I can't play electric guitar, and the only thing I can do with an acoustic is hit people over the head like in wrestling. I can play bass, but I make Sid Vicious look like a virtuoso. One the other hand, several people have made positive comments about my spelling, and that's enough for me. Without any further delays, here are some good general rules for writing lyrics.
Rule Number One
Lyrics that rhyme are for pauncy tossers prancing through dewy fields and meadows. Okay, so this rule is obviously untrue, but when you're starting out writing lyrics, you'll probably discover how difficult it is to make things rhyme. Every time you write a good line and then can't find a word that rhymes, just repeat out loud to yourself: Lyrics that rhyme are for pauncy tossers prancing through dewy fields and meadows. You'll feel better, really you will.
Seriously though, you can dodge rhyming lines occasionally, and nobody is going to shoot you for it. Creative phrasing can let you get away with a lot, but that depends a lot on singing ability. Screw around with language. Anyone who speaks English can tell you that Antichrist does not rhyme with Anarchist, but that will never stop Johnny Rotten from pretending that they do.
If you're really sweating about it, find yourself a rhyming dictionary. I'm not making it up, they really exist. Lots of words rhyme. Just to prove it to you, later in this article I'm going to spontaneously write some lyrics that rhyme bat with Laundromat.
Rule Number Two
Exploit your feelings. Without meaning any offence, you probably get shit on every single day of your sad, miserable, lonely life. You should write some songs about that. Not only will your depressing experiences give you topical material, but you will probably feel better after writing it. Webster's dictionary describes this process as catharsis: the elimination of a psychological complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression. Get rid of your negativity by sharing it with your audience. The bitch dumped you? That's worth ten good songs. Dad threw you out of the house? Five songs. Grandma smoked all your dope? Ummone song.
Rule Number Three
Pick up the damn newspaper. Every time you feel like there's nothing worth talking about, open your eyes and take a look around you. The world is constantly full of murders, invasions, overthrows, disasters, injustices, intrigues, schemes and scandals. You can write songs about them. If you can't think of anything interesting to say about the things you read, just come up with a really long list of things and string them together. It works: Billy Joel (We Didn't Start The Fire), and R.E.M. (It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)) both had hits in the eighties doing this. As far as I know, no one has done it in this century. Hey, maybe you could be the new Billy Joel. Maybe that's how I should advertise this article: You could be the next Billy Joel! Maybe not.
Even if you don't find any good material in the newspaper, you should read it every day anyway. The more you read, the more words you learn, and it's much easier to make words rhyme if you know a lot of them.
Rule Number Four
Absolutely forget about being original. Seriously, no shit, just fucking forget about originality. People have been writing songs for thousands of years. Thousands. And yes, they've been writing songs about drugs and social protest for most of that time as well. So unless you plan on writing a bunch of songs about the information super-highway (cough, cough, mega-dork), just don't worry about trying to be bold and new. Just be yourself. If you don't know who you are yet and don't know how to be yourself, just follow Ben Johnson's advice (I'm talking about Shakespeare's contemporary, not the disgraced Canadian sprinter). He said to observe how the masters have imitated, and imitate likewise. So look at your favorite songwriters and rip 'em off until you find your own style. Don't worry, everyone does it.
Take a look at The Rolling Stones. They've had maybe seven million hit songs, but all of their stuff is about getting laid, getting dumped, getting drunk, getting in fights, and playing music. These are not new, cutting-edge topics. And yetthey just work so well.
Rule Number Five
Learn the two major methods. There are two super-easy songwriting forms. Pick one and use it. If you don't like it, pick the other one.
Major Method One: Theme and Variation
This is probably the easiest way to write a song, and I can almost guarantee your lame elementary school teachers pulled this one on you a few times. It's called brainstorming. Think of a topic, and then think of maybe three things to say about it. The topic is now your working title. Each thing you can say about it will form the core of a verse. Rocket science, isn't it? Just check out this shitty example.
One day it occurred to me that I hated my job. I decided to write a song about that. I decided the punch-clock at the entrance of the place I worked would be my target (I mean topic). Song name: Punch-clock. The lyrics went something like this:
Punch-clock keeps on ticking, yet here we remain sitting,
Waiting, waiting, waiting for a reason to live.
Soul-sucking, spirit-crushing, taking my mind away.
Sexless, soulless, spiritless, face, nothing to think or say.
Total crap, huh? Yes, definitely. But it's a start. It also showcases my astonishing skills with making words rhyme, doesn't it?
The Sex Pistols had a lot of fun with this method. Their arch-demon manager Malcolm McLaren used to give them words that he wanted them to brainstorm and make songs from. One of the words was submission. McLaren expected a song about handcuffs and rubber masks, but the boys gave him a song about a submarine mission, just to piss him off. Get it? Sub-mission. Good shit.
Major Method Two: Narrative
This is also a pretty simple concept, much abused by country music artists over the last five or six decades. Just tell a story, try and include some rhyming words, and repeat the first verse several times over and call it a chorus. For examples of this, look to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and just about everyone who ever ran out of ideas for Major Method One.
Rule Number Six: Gimmicks! Gimmicks! Gimmicks!
Think up a good gimmick and repeat the ever-loving hell out of it. There are many, many bands that have gotten a lot of juice of a single songwriting gimmick. I'm not talking about all the bands out there that seem to have a few repetitive topics for all of their songs (like Pink Floyd: war sucks and I'm insane), but there are bands that have simple patterns they follow. Here are some examples.
Ramones Gimmick Number One
Get a piece of paper and write a list of things you want to do today, and a list of things you don't want to do. For the items on each list, write three or four reasons why you do or don't want to do it. Try and make your reasons rhyme. Congratulations! You have written an entire Ramones album. Think I'm joking? Check out these catchy song titles: I Wanna Be Well, I Wanna Be Sedated, I Just Wanna Have Something To Do, I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You, I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, I Want You Around, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, I Wanna Live, and I Don't Want To Grow Up (although that last one is actually a Tom Waits cover). That's a lot of mileage to get out of I Wanna and I Don't Wanna.
Ramones Gimmick Number Two
Take the name of a person you know and think of a word to describe that person. That's the title of your song. Now think of a few things to say about this person, and why they have earned the title you have given them. Examples: Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Judy is a Punk, and Suzy is a Headbanger. This is really easy. I will give an example right now.
(insert name) is a (insert descriptive noun).
Vanessa Is A Goth Chick
Vanessa is a goth chick; I met her at the Laundromat,
She wants to find a way to change into a bat.
Vanessa is a goth chick, Oh! Oh-Oh!
See? I told you I could rhyme Laundromat with bat.
Choose a movie you like and write a song about it. The title of the movie becomes the title of your song. Because The Misfits were into gloom, death and monsters, all of the movies they alluded to were old, schlocky horror flicks, but you can choose something more appropriate for your band's style. They used movies like Astro Zombies, Teenagers From Mars, I Turned Into A Martian, American Psycho, Night Of The Living Dead, and so on. If your band has, for example, a retro-eighties sound, you could use movies like The Breakfast Club, Dirty Dancing, or Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Hell, just for fun, let's do Ridgemont High.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Today the kids are getting high,
The parents can only wonder why,
But the kids won't let life pass them by,
That's fast times at Ridgemont High,
That's fast times at Ridgemont High!
Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!
Once again, this is pretty easy. You can use books too (if you're a big nerd) or television shows.
Heavy Metal Gimmick
I'll just point out that damn near every metal band uses the same routine (and I'm a metal fan). Choose one of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Before you run to find grandpa's bible, I'll let you know that they are War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Write a song about each one using the Theme and Variation Method described above, and repeat until your album goes platinum. It ain't metal if it don't stink of The Apocalypse.
The KMFDM Gimmick
I realize that many of you might not know who KMFDM is, but that's your loss. I suggest you find some of their tunes. Their gimmick is simple. Establish you band name, and base all of your songs on being that band. Here are some examples of their lyrics (and these are all copyrighted to hell and back):
01. KMFDM, doing it again (Light)
02. Stronger than never ever before, KMFDM is a drug against war (A Drug Against War)
03. A new revolution, the ultimate war, KMFDM is back for more (d.i.y.)
And so it goes. It's repetitive, yes, but so is any gimmick. The key is finding the gimmick that is right for you and milking it for all it's worth. Eminem figured this one out quick.
The Final Word. In all likelihood, whatever illegible gibberish you manage to get down on paper will probably look like rodent droppings smeared over loose-leaf. Don't sweat it. If you take away the devastating riffs, thundering bass and crashing cymbals, most lyrics sound like total crap. So relax and focus on writing more and more songs, because if you do something ten million times, odds are that you might do it very well a few times. Keep trying. Keep thinking about the stage with the million groupies, the piles of cocaine, the money beds and the supermodels. And imagine yourself saying Man, I sure hated writing all those crap songs when I was getting started, but look at me now! And when you make it there, I'll be there too, desperately trying to take the credit for it.
Oh yeah, before I forget: people who only read the first half of articles are jerks.