Rock music is hard to define. It is a style which, in the beginning, drew mostly from blues and country, and of course gospel influences. What are blues and country but folk music? What is folk music but the music of the people, the stuff you jam out on your front porch with your grandma and your sister, the hound dog and three local kids that hang around so much they may as well be family? As such, it is relatively simple. That is the rhythm is nice and steady allowing children and untrained adults to clap along, dance, or strike various household implements together in time to the music, thus incorporating everyone into the good time.
Back in those days there was no television. People couldn't afford to live far away from their families and people lived in tight-nit communities who did most everything together. They ate together, they went to church together, and they jammed out on the front porch together. That's just what people did, and that's where rock got it's start.
Rock today still maintains that accessibility - it is still the music of the people, that steady rocking rhythm you can clap your hands to, knod your head, and participate even though you do not hold a doctorate from Juliard.
The popularity of rock stems from its accessibility, and when Rock 'n Roll became popular, classical symphonies began to lose their audience. Not that classical is bad, it is just expensive, complex and it requires loads of musicians playing in harmony and on time. Rock music can be played on a single guitar, or even sung a capella without losing a bit of its power.
The reason this genre is so universally effective is because it is founded on simplicity. It's roots, it fundamental theories and the steady rhythm it follows can all be learned in a few short months, leaving us of course with that eternal question; which rocks more, a disciplined and impeccably trained Steve Vai, or a clever and creative Beck? The jury is out.
There is a place in rock for both, and despite the constant debate between the two camps, I think listeners appreciate both. Like opposing sports teams, the hated rivals are as important to the excitement of the sport as the beloved heroes. That amazing solo in Van Halen's "Jump" receives as much appreciation as that quirky, chaotic Bob Dylan chorus "Everybody must get stoned!"
Rock is about encapsulating ideas in time. In fact all music serves this function, but rock especially resonates with the short and the sweet. Even extended works like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" are made of discreet components, repeating melodies lasting a few measures. It can be broken down and digested into segments, bits of music, refined and finally mastered.
When young guitar students are learning songs, they often take the approach of "okay I'll learn a few of the riffs and then the solo!" What results is a vast knowledge of short bits of music and lots and lots of solos. Nothing fits together, and the young learner is left asking "how do I do that?" and "why doesn't my music sound like...?"
The reason is there is no foundation, no support structure for the bits of ideas they are creating. See, in the old days there were normally one or two experienced players on hand - grandpa plays a mean fiddle - and the foundation layed by these players gave the younger lot the opportunity to improvise and join in the fun. So when writing rock, remember to lay a foundation.
Think of your foundation as a string of ideas, like beads on a necklace. When you make a necklace, or any kind of beaded artwork, you are working in one dimension. The necklace might go something like:
GREEN - RED - RED - BLUE - VIOLET - BLUE - RED - RED - GREEN - RED...
It's a pattern. That repeating pattern is the structure of the artwork.
But in music, there are different levels of patterns. Each "bead" of music is a riff, a melody, some musical idea that you have decided 'rocks'. So you have tons of little ideas floating around - most musicians do - but you wonder "how do I make it all work?"
Well maybe you're not thinking enough about the second level, the song structure itself. When I write music, I take ideas I have written and try them next to each other. Riff A into Riff B. Does it work?
Answering that question is tough. Sometimes you want to create tension, so a strange key modulation, odd dissonance or other irregularity will work in the context of what you are creating. Other times you just want to throw out that idea and try another one. More often than not, this is the case. Keep on trying different riffs and see what flows.
In the first article I mentioned the verse and the chorus. If you plan on singing, it's good to listen to your various riffs - play them yourself or if you are lucky enough to have a recording device then play the recordings back - and decide which ones work for each purpose.
Once you have decided on two main riffs, it's time to figure out which additional riffs or ideas will fit in with what you've got. What might work as an intro, for instance, or an interlude section?
The greatest difficulty I face in writing is separating the two levels of writing. If I get too focused on playing the riffs right, or am still writing the riffs, I can't clearly see the song structure, that bead-like sequence of ideas that really make the song happen.
When you're writing a song, the beadlike sequence is most important.
A very basic song structure will go Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus
If you were creating a necklace out of beads, you might consider just repeating two colors. This works well, it's very traditional and people generally like it. But what else can you do?
Well, you can add an intro:
You can add an interlude:
There are a ton of things you can do. The important thing is to consider the overall flow of the song. Don't make it longer than necessary simply because you feel it should be longer. Don't avoid a simplistic pattern because you feel it's overused. People eat pizza every day and it's still good. If it works, do it.
Be creative, and remember you are working in one dimension - time. Unless Physicists shatter the laws of physics as we know them in the near future, songwriting will contine to take place in this one dimension. One idea-another idea-another idea and so on. A sequence.
The other side of the coin is developing your ideas. You may have a great song, but there is a blank space between riffs. I have experienced this. I have a song with a riff in Amin and a riff in C#min that sound great together.
Riff A - Riff B
The problem was that Riff B - Riff A sounded like crap. So my song structure looked somewhat like this:
Riff A - Riff B - ????? - Riff A...
To fill in the ???? I went to good old UG and posted a message in the Musician Talk forum. Thanks to the tremendous help from other users, I developed a riff involving Amin, E7 and finally Amin again. Who knew?
But I knew I had a blank spot, so I sought help in filling it. Theoretical help that is (it's still my riff.) See chord progressions are generic. Each has been used hundreds of times, so you can borrow at will. It's how you use a chord progression that counts. I altered the chord voicing and used classical style fingerpicking.
Viola! Hole filled, song written.
Sometimes you have to shift back and forth between the two worlds of writing. You'll write a song but need one more riff to make it perfect. Suddenly you're in the world of notes and music and writing riffs again.
Occassionally, too, you will find yourself saying "I like this riff, but it's not quite there yet." This is where jamming comes in. Jamming is a great writing tool because you have all the freedom in the world. If you play something that's not so great, who cares?
If you have a band, then just start playing your good, but incomplete riff, and record the jam session if possible. Just beat that thing to death!
This is where writing bass and drums comes in. You and your band might have a basic idea of how the riff will go basswise and drumwise, but actually jamming on that riff for twenty minutes or even longer will really solidify what works and what doesn't. You might even discover that what really works best is completely different than what you originally thought. If that's the case, you have made great use of your jam time.
Recording is an indispensable tool in writing. You can obviously write music without recording, but having a machine play back what you've written is invaluable. It lets you experience the music as a listener, not thinking about playing it or what part is coming up next. The better tools you have to record with the better, but obviously money is a limiting factor for just about everyone. So get the best tools you can and learn to use them. Even a simple microphone and a cassette machine will work, though. You're not recording a triple platinum album...yet.
As the song develops, you'll find yourself refining it every time you play it, until one day you will just know it's done. Or you'll get sick and tired of hearing it and just stop.
But if you set out to work on a riff, make sure to concentrate on development of the idea. That's the idea "bead" or segment that fits into the song, and that individual piece of music will get better. If you set out to develop the structure and the flow of the song as a whole, forget perfection and just play the song. If you screw up, keep playing. Let the chords flow into and out of one another a listen to that structure.
Occasionally I will even play the song through without a missing section. If the song is in 4/4 time, I will just click along with my pick during the missing segment: "click click click click." Don't worry about writing that missing section if you're wanting to tweak the structure.
On a computer you will often zoom in and work on something and then zoom out and work on something else. That's essentially what you're doing when you're writing a song. You either zoom in and work on every little nuance of that impossible solo you're determined to nail, or you just loosely comp some filler solo to fill time and concentrate on the flow.
There are probably people out there who can do both at once, but I have never worked with one of them. Massage your song and it will pay off in the end.