My guitar teacher and mentor Tom Hess once said "I will focus on completion, not perfection". Although he was referring to other aspects of professional and music development, I immediately related this statement to my own growth as a songwriter.
As a teenager, I would write riff after riff as I moved from one idea to the other in search of writing the "perfect" song.
The problem was none of these ideas were allowing me to grow or develop, as I was too impatient and critical to give them a chance to become a complete song.
I would be fixated with the idea of writing a song that sounded like one of my favourite bands such as Metallica, Van Halen or Iron Maiden, only to be disappointed when it didn't quite work out how I wanted. And so I would move on to my next riff.
The problem with my original approach to songwriting falls into two categories:
1. You cannot predict how long it will take to write a song. It takes as long as it takes. This could be 30 minutes or it could be 2 years. I was too impatient to give any of my ideas the time they deserved, and so they ended up going nowhere. I wasnt committed to completing any of them.
2. It is great to be influenced by bands and artists you like, but your goal should not be to recreate what they have already done. This was my original mistake as I was striving for something that sounded just like my favourite bands.
Instead of making the above mistakes I made, a much better approach could be:
1. Don't be so critical of your ideas that you throw them away too soon. Don't wait for the perfect song to "come to you" before you have even completed writing one song. You will be waiting forever. Make the best of the ideas you already have. Try to finish a song even if you don't think it is very good. You will learn from the process and it is highly likely that one of your next songs will be better. The mere act of completing your first song, whether you think it is good or not, will alleviate a lot of doubt you may have about whether you even "can write songs". Of course you can. You just have to trust yourself and get it done.
2. Songs come from ideas, thoughts, feelings, experiences and often from musical experimentation. They are personal to those who write them. When you come across something that resonates with you, even if it doesn't sound original or in a style you normally play, just go with it. Even if it doesn't sound anything like any of your favourite bands you would normally listen to, that's fine. It shouldn't because those songs are "theirs". Your songs are "yours" and they should sound like "yours", not just like your favourite bands. It is great to analyse and learn from the music you love listening to, but when you're writing your own song, don't aim for the same thing. You're not trying to express their feelings or experiences, but those of your own. You're trying to express what only "you" know.
Aim for what "you" feel the song needs, whether that means borrowing elements from your favourite style of music or not.
I will be covering many more topics relating to songwriting in future Songwriting Series articles. For now, the ideas covered above should give you something more to think about if you are having difficulty with your approach to songwriting.
About The Author: Chris Ball is a professional guitarist and instructor living in Frankston South, Victoria, Australia. He currently performs around Melbourne as vocalist/guitarist in his band Black Fuel and has over 5 years of teaching, recording and live experience as a solo artist and in various groups. Learn guitar at GuitarAcademy.ChrisBall.net.au.