Hey, guys! Kevin Goetz here again with another free lesson. This is the beginning of a series that will focus on learning to write your own progressive metal music. The first step to doing that, is a trick called reverse engineering. Note that once you've learned this method, you can apply it to any genre, not just prog, and especially not just metal.
Reverse engineering is something of a primitive way to refer to the process of learning how songs are put together, by taking a pre-existing song and dissecting it. It's a process of discovery no different in principle to medical science being advanced by autopsy, witnessing how the parts and pieces affect and assemble the whole. This is, in my opinion, the fastest and most effective way to learn how to write your own music. The sci-fi nerd in me likes to think of it as the ability to assimilate the compositional style of a song, adding it to my own repertoire, by breaking it down to its fundamental level and understanding it on that most basic level.
As a self-taught guitarist and a self-taught songwriter, I ended up testing out a number of different methods when I was really trying to get good at songwriting; studying each and every aspect of music theory I could wrap my head around, loosely improvising into Audacity through a USB mic, having jam sessions with my band and trying to pick out parts that sounded good, but in the end, I made the most progress in the shortest amount of time when I finally just downloaded a tablature editor and decided to write out each instrument, piece by piece, riff by riff, song by song, and I learned how to do this by observing those who did it before me.
I started by transcribing, as best I could, a song that I'd had stuck in my head for a while at the time. It was the theme song to a '90s cartoon called "The New Adventures of Speed Racer." There were no particular criteria I used to make this choice, but looking back, I firmly recommend starting with something fairly simple and easy to transcribe. This is hard enough to do without complexity slowing you down.
The first instrument transcribed was the drums. This established a framework for identifying the tempo and rhythmic syncopation of the rest of the instruments. I used the same scale and melodic intent as the original song, as well, but from here, I was able to begin to experiment.
The guitars in the original song weren't doing anything particularly interesting, so I simply messed around with converting what I believe were half-note power chords into sixteenth-note notation, adding rests and single-note flourishes. I had to go back and add in more hits on the kick drum to sync up with this new riff better, but it was a huge improvement.
I let the bass guitar sync up with this riff, and then added some kind of background padding synth; I think it was probably a choir, if I remember correctly. I believe I just set the synth up playing long, sustained triads with the same root as the emphasized notes of the guitar riff. So for instance, if those emphasized power chords were F5, G5 and A5, the choir would play F, G, and Am.
The vocal melody actually took me the most work; I had to do some Googling to find out what notes and octaves were most favored by singers for different scenarios and sounds, e.g. Male "shriek" notes typically fall in the fifth octave, while the fourth octave tends to be more solid. Once I had that sorted out, it was just a matter of playing around with the chosen scale, matching notes up with the rhythm of the guitar riffs and the power and volume required to sing each note, and then matching lyrics to the end result.
Over time, by "re-writing" more and more songs and assimilating more and more melodies and construction types, I assembled a songwriting library of sorts. You don't have to rip off songs in order to do this; it simply helps to understand how the song's original style was composed. And once you know that, it's yours. Want to learn how to write a neoclassical shred piece? Transcribe a few and modify them to your tastes. Chances are, you'll come away from that with a healthy grasp of harmonic minor runs, sweep picking, and diminished substitutions. Transcribe and modify a few jazz pieces and you'll come away a master of the ii-V-I. Understand what gives a catchy hook its catchiness by transcribing and modifying that pop song you can't get out of your head.
So, download your tab editor (I'm partial to Tuxguitar since I've never wanted to pay for Guitar Pro), pick a song, ideally an easy one, and start learning how to compose like the pros! Leave a note in the comments if there's anything you'd like me to clarify.
Note that this series' companion video playlist is updated almost three times as frequently, so if you get impatient, head on over here: