How to Overcome Writer's Block

A personal look at how I have successfully dealed with and overcome writer's block by listening to advice from other guitar players and my favourite author. These four pieces of advice may help you progress your songwriting and let your creativity flow!

Ultimate Guitar
Many moons ago I picked up a guitar for the first time and decided to start writing my own music. I was inspired, I was eager and I was ready to make sacrifices in my daily routine to accomplish the task I set myself - to write my own album. I started writing songs, but after two or three subsequent riffs I hit a wall, could not found a "worthy" continuation and went on to write another song. After having 20 unfinished songs or so I thought to myself that if I could only finish all those songs I'd have two finished full length albums already, but because I could not even finish one I was far from even being ready to release a single. Sounds familiar? No worries, most guitar players I've talked to have not only been there, they ARE there most of the time.

It was really frustrating not to be able to finish my songs. I asked myself how all my heroes seemed to be able to never run out of ideas. After all many of them had been at writing music for 30 years, and I was eight months into my guitar playing, so I couldn't be out of ideas yet! I was obviously missing something, so I started to look for advice on the internet. Initially all the advice I found was incredibly unhelpful to a novice. Most guitarists told me to analyze the writing of my favourite musicians and try to think about what they would do, which is easier said and done when you don't know much music theory and aspire to write 20 minute progressive metal epics - music so complicated I eight years later still don't deem myself competent enough to properly analyze it with the attention to detail it deserves. That said I persevered and found some really helpful advice that does not require several hundred hours of training, and I am writing this to pass the information on in the hopes that it will help you as well.

1. The first helpful advice comes from guitarist Lori Linstruth, who means to say that we get so mixed up in trying to write the next epic, perfect song that we overlook the potential of writing a bad riff. When I first read this I thought it wasn't very helpful advice, but the years have proven her right. We sometimes seem to think that John Petrucci can write a piece like "The Count of Tuscany" in his sleep and bring it to the rehearsal the next day. Obviously this is not the case. Most great songs are etched from core ideas, reworked and refined several times before being presented to an audience, and for each idea that gets presented there are plenty of bad ones which do not get to go on display. Since we do not see this multitude of bad ideas we get a weird perspective on writing music and feel much worse at it than we actually are. The best way to overcome writer's block is to allow yourself to write bad riffs. Not only will it be better to practice a bad riff than to practice nothing at all - continuing the song with a bad riff may lead to a following idea that is really good. I tried out this advice and though most of the riffs were either boring, unfitting for the song or too similar to other songs, I found myself writing more good riffs as well, just by letting the creativity flow and allowing myself to write bad parts as well. 

2. I ended up with 15 songs which were now finished, but full of "filler" quality material, but that's no good if you want to make a good record. I looked a bit more and stumbled upon an interview by Jeff Waters of Annihilator in which he described how he went about writing songs. As it turns out every time he goes on tour he finds time to write new material. He saves everything he writes and brings it back home. After the tour, when it's time to start work on the next record, Jeff looks at all the riffs he's written and categorizes all of them. Many bands, including aforementioned(-ish) Dream Theater, are known to do the same. If you want to try this, the concept is easy enough. First decide what to keep and what to throw away. Then try to define each riffs place in a song structure, such as "verse" or "bridge." You should now end up with a clearer image of where each riff could fit. Now the tricky part - try to glue the different parts together into finished songs. This is basically a process of trial and error, but it can prove to be very worth while. Personally I ended up with three finished songs out of my first 15 songs, and I still had roughly a dozen great riffs I had categorized and ready for another future project. 

I feel I need to quickly deal with some criticisms of this technique of writing songs. Some naysayers and perfectionists will say that gluing music together from individual parts is not "true music" or "from the heart." Now, either these people must be so immensely talented that they never run into writer's block, or they must not get very much done. Either way, I find as little shame in writing good, likable songs that are supposedly not "from the heart" as I do in listening to and enjoying them, and I think there's nothing to gain (especially for a beginner) from an elitist approach to writing songs. Let's be practical. 

3.The third piece of helpful advice I found was from Amos Oz, one of my very favourite authors and one very worth while reading if one has time between guitar sessions! Oz had himself encountered massive writer's block, and claimed that some days he could write entire chapters and come up with the most brilliant ideas. Other days he would put two words next to one another and stare at the paper with indifference until his eight hours were up. He would then rise from his chair, tear the paper apart and throw it in the bin before going out to enjoy his free time. The most important lesson to take with one, he said, is that although it may seem pointless at times, it is important to put in the hours (how many that may be) every day, even the ones when you don't feel particularly inspired. If you don't put in the time you will not even have the chance of success, and the chance of success, rather than success itself, is all you can aim and work for. The rest is mostly out of our control. 

4. Lastly, some small final advice I have discovered for myself: get to know how you work under different conditions. With experience I have found that I am always at my most creative when I am excluded from the outside world. Sitting in privacy, alone and without distractions I always get much more done than when I'm in a group or when I'm surfing the web while strumming on my guitar. Others feel most creative when they are in a band setting, and hearing their riffs develop across all instruments helps them be creative. What works for you is up to you to discover with time, but if you can you should strive to set up a time and place which works to your advantage rather than against you when you try to be productive.

I hope you found this advice helpful, and the best of luck to all of you who have writer's block standing in your way of making great songs!

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Another tip: listen to lots and lots of music, try listening to new music every time you can, listen to different styles, bands you didn't listen to before, even genres that you aren't used to. It really helps in developing inspiration for your own compositions, just taking some influence from different sources and trying to make something of it
    this is true, even megadeth has listened to meryl haggard to find lyrical advice.
    I just realized this recently. I heard a really good cover of Lionel Richie's "Hello" and decided to learn the chords myself. It's not something I'd normally listen to and it's actually a pretty simple song, but I ended up fiddling around with the progression and just sort of fell into my own chord progression I really liked. Voila, a song is born. Or, conceived , I guess. I'm far from a finished song. -_-
    Though I agree, I'd advise to be careful with this one 'cause sometimes it may lead to some confuse and chaotic creations and if you take an elitist approach it can also lead to boredom and soulless creations. I'd say listen to different kinds of music but without getting obsessed with it or listening to something like it's an obligation. I often listen to different kinds of music when I have the chance, but my playlist is basically pretty much everything in the same domain, because that is what really gets my heart.
    I don't say this as to expand your music library or playlist, the idea of this is to get inspiration, that's all Listening to varied types of music (hell, even the kinds of music you don't actually like) -really- helps in inspirating, I've created some of the best compositions I've made (personally) and some of them were actually inspired by the most unusual of sources, sometimes even coming from stuff I don't like that I just happened to stumble upon You don't listen to different styles to forcefully apply them to your music (that way yes, it could end up in soulless creations as you say), you listen to diferent styles to develop inspiration, and inspiration comes on its own, if you are open-minded about what you listen to, it will become more probable for the ideas to come to you, just try it Trying different styles and music you aren't used to can't hurt, nobody is forcing you to like it either, it's just for developing ideas, and in that regard it helps wonderfully
    Thanks man it had been a long since I stop writing. Your article gaveme back the vibe and i could continue some stuff. Thanks a lot to the comment section too, good tips in there. The one i can give is already in the article but i insist : Write down every single piece of music (part of a solo, a riff, a chorus, anything) you think is good or even better! So that when you begin to have lots of stuff you will realise that some of them fit very well together and after that you can write fillers. But i warn you about this. Don't write a filler to fill a song and complete it asap. You must feel it is suits the rest of the song. But if it sounds great but not matching the song, keep it for another one. Another problem i met : Make sure that what you write makes you feel the story you want to tell in the song, that is what slows me down the most when writing, that i am not satisfied with the feeling i want to transmit. Then again, great article and thks again to you all!
    Is it really "filler" the correct term? I don't like referring to a part of a song as "filler", if you feel the need to write fillers for you song, then it's probably flawed Don't put stuff in your compositions just to fill it and "complete" it, create your songs as they come and how you think it sounds good, you don't always have to stick to the conventional structure
    I mean to say the opposite. Complete your song even if it isn't great, then rework the song until you're happy with it. Personally, when I write music this approach helps. If I don't allow a few flawed riffs during the development of a song I hit a wall and I never finish the thing. It can be easier to find a great continuation to a bad riff than to a good riff, and then you'll have two great riffs instead of one. It works wonders for me, but if you find it doesn't work for you: to each ones own.
    I think something important is to sometimes distance yourself from your instrument. In a sense. If you're a guitarist, and that's all you focus on, the result will often be abit of a mess, and far too guitar-focused. To write really great songs, you gotta know when to play a riff, and when to fade into the background and do textures. I mean, apart from other people who are very into guitar, noone wants to listen to songs that are basically riffs-on-riffs-on-riffs-on-riffs. Think more as a musician and less as an instrumentalist, i guess. To help with this, programs like Guitar Pro are great, since you can easily create arrangements without having to have all these different instruments at your disposal.
    Also this, specially the Guitar Pro part, I've been using Guitar Pro for about 3-4 years now, not much time actually, but the software is so easy to use and it has a great deal of instruments to experiment, you can even improvise without having an instrument at hand, and just trying different combinations. You can also store every idea you have that you think it's worth in case you forget it, and you'll have the tab there to play it whenever you want It's the main tool I use for composing, the sounds aren't that good (be it with soundfonts or straight raw midi), but for compositions, it's really really helpful Also you can use the same Guitar Pro to compose in other instruments that aren't necessarily stringed (even drums), once you learn how to use it, it helps incredibly
    Playing in a band with creative minds really help me expand my riffs into songs and help me see things differently.
    That's definitely very good. No need to be in a band, but just having the opportunity to talk and work with different musicians will completely expand your horizons.
    As mentioned above, it is never bad to fully immerse yourself in one style of music for a while (maybe a few days to a few weeks) because you will be surprised on what you pick up on. Being open minded-even to styles you do not particularly like-will open your mind to some great ideas. One thing that helps me sometimes it to take a small break for a while and go do something else. Don't even pick up a guitar for a few days to a week or two. After you have flushed out all thought processes, pick up the guitar with some way to record what you are about to do and just play. I have come up with a few different and unique ideas this way and every time it works it feels really refreshing.
    I think the bad riffs can also be used on a finished work (of course it also depends on how bad it is). Good and bad is a matter of comparison, if you only have perfect mind-blowing riffs they probably won't stand out as much as if you'd have a few mind-blowing and a few not so great riffs mixed in. Also, you gotta give space for the other instruments to shine as well, not only the guitar.
    Totally right. I often write insane guitar riffs, and when I try to put in the lyrics, I can't think of a good melody for the vocals. Sometimes a simpler guitar riff that seems uninteresting with no other instruments around it can sounds awesome with vocals - and the drums can also change A LOT to the sound of the whole song.
    Wow - he's talking of a writer's block if there are 20 unfinished songs? I've got about 300 ones - I think that's not a reason to worry. The only problem I have is that the bands I listen to have changed during the last years, and if I try to continue writing on an older song, I tend to mash my older and newer style - sometimes it fits, sometimes not. I think what helps me the most when I feel uninspired, is listening to awesome songs and trying to improvise to it - it always brings some ideas.
    It was 20 a couple of months after I started playing. Today, eight years later, I seem to have some 1800 riffs in my catalogue.
    Allowing bad ideas in, is essential to the creative process. You have to be able to move between two modes.. creation and judgement, and they cant effectively happen at the same time. So spend a session just creating ideas, then a session working out what to keep and throw. Like if recording a solo, just adlib with 3 takes on 3 tracks.. then go back and dial each track in and out and bounce the best ideas down to a 4th track. The trick is to go for volume and not worry about judging it. The same idea works when you have to create artwork for an animation or video game, you take a 500 sheet ream of paper, divide each page up into 4 quarters front and back so you have 8 sections per page, and then proceed to just try and fill the whole 500 sheets up with sketches and ideas. Then when you have met your quota of either time or sheets of paper, you go back and sort out the keeper ideas from the crap. You will find that bad ideas lead to new ideas that you would never have thought of any other way, many great ideas will surface and eventually something amazing will come out. With a little imagination you can adopt the same idea to your musical creation. Go for quantity not quality, then reverse the switch.