Teach Yourself Guitar. Part Seven - Creation And Composition

It's time to look into the uses of writing music for your own practise and technical advancement.

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Welcome, fellow musicians, to Teach Yourself Guitar part seven. If you haven't read my blog file yet then you won't know that there's been a change of plan. As such, it falls on me to tell you now. There's been a change of plan. This installment, the seventh of eight, was originally going to be focused on finding a balance between your own abilities as a musician and a guitarist. However, having now done all of the previous articles, the ability to look back on them has shown me that I have covered substantial ground on that topic already, so I have decided to alter the major point this time around. This time, we're going to be looking at creation and composition. We'll be taking a look at writing music. I will not be going into detail concerning how to write riffs, chord progressions and solos; other articles will be covering those areas. Instead, I will be looking at using your current skills well, ordering songs and how songs you've written long ago can still prove useful. That will be on the composition side. The creation side will be more concerning improvisation, both over already existing music and utilising backing tracks. Overall, balance will still be a subject, as we're looking at composing in order to identify problem areas, as well as particular strengths. We will then use this knowledge in our compositions in order to practise it. While learning songs by other artists is a brilliant way forwards, especially at the beginner level, your own work is tailor-made to your own specifications. This means that, if you're having difficulties with legato, you can write a piece containing a ton of hammer-ons, practise it slowly, and eventually master it. This will improve your overall technique, while also increasing your ability to write music. Another benefit of writing music is that you will learn, through trial and error, what works and what doesn't. This means you can put your theory into practice. So let's get going and find out what works for you. You can work on your weaknesses, develop your style and advance as a guitarist all at the same time. Let's get to it.

Teach Yourself Guitar by Tom Colohue

Part Seven: Creation And Composition Working With Other Songs There are a few things you need to know about the song before you can start improvising over them. These can be worked out by analysing them, as we looked at in the previous article. First, we need to know the root note. Then, we need to know the scale it was written in. This tells you exactly what notes will work with the piece, as well as what chords you could use. You also need to know the rhythm of the song. This tends to be the easiest thing, as listening to the song is usually enough. However, some music contains different time signatures, which can easily catch you off guard, so watch out for them. At the beginning it's best to choose a simple song. Choose one you've heard a thousand times before, and see what you can do with it. So go ahead, put a song on repeat in the background and let's see what we can do with it. i. Improvising Chord Progressions First off, you need to learn what chords work in what scales/keys. To do that, I'm going to guide you towards this article First off, you'll want to look at the notes and listen as they're played. If, for example, the lead line of the piece utilises the notes E, D and F#, using a D major would likely work well as D major contains D, F# and A. As a beginner to this, you'll want to play chords as safely as possible, meaning that if the song has a constant gallop of the low E, play an E chord that fits in the key or scale. As you progress you'll want to be experimenting more. This means that you'll be playing chords that match the notes less, but the progression develops towards a different feeling. Let's try an example, shall we?
e|-----------------|
B|-----3p0---------|
G|-2p0-------------|
D|-----------2p0---|
A|-----------------|
E|-----------------|
Let's take this as the lead line in a piece of music. If we examine the notes, as they are played, we come up with the following:
A, G, D, B, E, D
Now, let's rearrange them in order so that we can examine them in relation to scales and chords:
A, B, D, D, E, G
These notes all fall quite nicely into the E minor pentatonic scale, with A as the first note. If we've examined the piece to find it in E minor, then we'll use E as the root note. If we consider the chords we can play, we get quite a few options, and we'll look at E minor rather than E minor pentatonic in order to extend those options a little. The first note is A, and there is an E present, which is the fifth of A. A minor can be played within E minor, so we could try that. The multiple D notes, as well as the presence of D's fifth, which is A, could lend itself to D major, which can also be played in E minor. The presence of the root note itself, E, could lead you to play an E minor chord. Since G and B and also present, both the third and the fifth, E minor may well be the strongest chord to play here. It's worth trying them all, just to see what difference is made. If the lead line is repeated, try changing between all three potential chords each bar. Try it a lot of alternate ways and you'll come up with very different things. If you're not sated with only the seven simplest in-key chords, there are a multitude of different voicings, inversions, suspensions and additions you could learn. If you're looking to learn as much as you can about chords, try this article. i. Improvising Solos Solos take a lot of practise, especially when you're trying too hard with them. Pushing yourself is useful, but trying to perform at a speed you're not comfortable with is more bad than it is good. Solos don't have to be fast, and, when you're just starting out, they shouldn't be. Nevertheless, solos are the section of a song where you can stand out as a guitarist, to make your instrument the centre of attention. They're also useful for discovering gaps and weaknesses. Now, we're going to be improvising some solos over songs you know. You'll need the same information that you needed for chord progressions. You need the root note, the scale and you'll also need to know what's going on during the solo that isn't the solo itself. You need to know what the rhythm guitar and bass guitar are doing. This is important, because they can quite easily make your solo sound pathetic. Look at the notes they're playing, identify important ones. Keep certain notes, preferably the root and the fifth, as safe notes that you can play without any worry of sounding wrong or dissonant. Then, experiment. If there are changes in the song during the solo, you need to know about it also. This doesn't mean changes in the solo that you'll be working with. Ultimately, you're going to be improvising a solo, while the song itself plays its own. This can be somewhat challenging, but at the same time it can be a great help. Try to work with the current solo - try to complement it. It's all trial and error ultimately, so give a few different things a try. If you know the notes, you could try harmonising with the solo, either for it's entirety or just in small sections. Let's give you an example to show you what I mean:
e|-----------3h5p3-----|
B|-3h5-6v--5-------5-3-|
G|---------------------|
D|---------------------|
A|---------------------|
E|---------------------|
If you have this as your lead line, and you're aware of the notes, you can match the motion. Here the notes, in order, are:
D, E, F, E, G, A, G, E, D
If we knock these notes down a perfect fourth, which is five frets of distance, we could to these notes:
A, B, C, B, D, E, D, B, A
Downwards it's a perfect fourth, but the relation from these notes to the higher ones is a perfect fifth. As such, we are harmonising in perfect fifths. We can play these notes, while following the motion of the previous piece, like so:
e|---------------------|
B|---------------------|
G|---------------------|
D|-----------0h2p0-----|
A|-0h2-3v--2-------2-0-|
E|---------------------|
When played at the same time, this is harmonisation. Composing I. Where To Begin My first series of articles were aimed at giving a few tips for ideas when writing songs. As such, they're a decent place to start. They are available here, under Writing Tips one, two and three. There is also an entire section dedicated to songwriting and lyrics in the UG lesson section, available here. I can't really tell you how to write music, as it's your music for your own style of play. There are many lessons, columns and guides that can help you, but nobody can tell you exactly how to do things. Do it your own way. At first you're likely to only be able to write or play simple songs. That's alright. You will build up your abilities through experience, so by all means make simple music for a while. In the end, they will develop you much more than trying to write ten minute long songs when you don't really know enough to keep things entertaining. Entertaining is the golden point. You want your song to be capable of entertaining people, yourself at least. If you don't enjoy listening to your own music then why are you writing it? Keep things interesting, keep things variant. If you want some examples, UG is loaded with user-made content which you can listen to for free. So go ahead, listen to some music, work out what you want to play, then pick up your guitar and get writing. II. Assessing Yourself Making your own songs is a marvellous method of working on your weaknesses. Look closely at your own playing ability, or better yet, ask a friend to listen to you and give you a clue as to what sounds good and what doesn't. If your bends need work, write music which features a good few bends. Practise slowly and, with time, you'll begin to show improvement. At the same time, it feels very worthwhile to write a piece of music that you can fly through effortlessly, making your friends feel very impressed. At first, at least for yourself, you want to resist that urge. What's more impressive, a song that focuses on one technique and gets it spot on, or a song that shows clear technical mastery? You also need to be able to assess how fast you can play. Now, speed is a by-product of accuracy, as the Musician Talk forum has taught me. It is a waste of time simply training your speed when you could be training your technique, which trains your speed with it. If you can play something perfectly, then you can play it quickly. If you can't play something perfectly, then there's no point in playing it quickly, as it will just sound like a complete mess. So write music at a speed that you're comfortable playing at. The more times you run through the song perfectly, the faster you will become at both the song and your own playing. However, run through the song too quickly and you may begin to mess up. Take things slowly until you can do it perfectly, then gradually speed up. It is also important that you push yourself, just not too hard. For example, if you're writing music purely for the sake of self-improvement, then there's no point going from a fast song to a similar slow song. If the second song works on some other technique then that's fine. However, if you're good at a technique, then it's more important to practise techniques you're not so good at first. When it comes to writing music to perform, write whatever music you like. I enjoy slow songs as much as I enjoy fast ones myself; just make sure that you're getting the most out of songs you write for advancement. III. Musical Juxtaposition Musical juxtaposition is the ordering of your song. This means that, if you're doing a song with lyrics, do you want two verses before the first chorus, or perhaps a chorus, then two verses and another chorus? This is another point where, at first, you're likely to stick to simple rules. The typical song structure comes out something like this:
Intro
Verse
Chorus
Verse 
Chorus
Bridge/Solo
Chorus
Outro
Beginner songwriters tend to gravitate towards this juxtaposition. It's popular in songs from modern day back to classic rock, and likely beyond. You will have heard this order in many pieces of music, so it's only natural that it might influence your own. This order is useful for your typical three or four minute song. As you advance, you may wish to try different orders, as this is another way of making your music sound unique. Consider, for instance, this order:
Intro
Chorus
Bridge
Verse
Chorus
Verse
Bridge
Verse
Chorus
Solo
It's certainly different from the one above. It's important that you give many different ways of writing songs a try. There's nothing wrong with writing many pieces of music that are only for your own practise. All you need is a root, a scale and an order. Then play your guitar and see what comes out. If you're having trouble, steal a riff from another song and base yours around it. If it's just for you, no harm can come from that. Perhaps a chord progression that worked well over another song could work well for you now? Give everything a try. IV. Cannibalism This is the act of taking sections from one song for use in another. Say you write a song and several months pass. Your vibrato has improved and you're working on your slides. If you think back, you might remember a song that you don't really play anymore with a good slide section. That's good. Steal it. Adapt it to the current root and scale, then stick it in a new song. Not only will you be able to look back and see how much you've developed, but you're also using pieces from as far back as the first times you were playing guitar. If you're playing a song and you don't think the song sounds quite right, you can swipe the feeling you received from certain chords in another piece of work. Do you have a section in one song that you really liked, but the rest is forgettable? Bring it forwards. Write a new song around it. With more experience comes more ability to find music that fits the mood. The more songs you write the better. If you can have a list of your own music to practise, choosing which song based on the techniques it covers, you can easily set yourself up for hours of play. Take your time working up to perfect accuracy, then simply go through them all. This will also give you a clue as to how the end of one song might work well when followed by another, or perhaps two songs that sound similar could move together and become one. V. Writing For Other Instruments It is an often overlooked section of songwriting, but using programs such as powertab and guitar pro can help you when it comes to writing for other instruments. This can serve several strong purposes. If you wish to perform any of these songs at any point, you can provide music for potential band members. It also means that you can hear how, for example, a bass guitar would work alongside you for a song you've written. Other instruments can create difficulties, but a song can sound very different when other instruments are involved. When it comes to playing with other musicians, your sense of rhythm is important. Up on a stage, you have to have the same rhythm as the rest of your band. At home, with just yourself, you only need to stay in rhythm with yourself. It's a very different thing. This is why working with other songs and writing for other instruments is helpful. Perhaps you could organise a few jam sessions with your friends to help you? It's a good idea to try. Also, if you know the relevant theory, writing for other instruments can greatly help should you wish to learn any other instruments. For instance, many guitarists seem to favour learning the piano as their second instrument. The theory is the same for all of them, so sometimes it's worth learning how another instrument works as well. That's it for this week's installment. Next week will be the final part of Teach Yourself Guitar. It will be written looking at playing with other people. This means other instruments, other musicians, other guitarists and other people who think they can play, but have no idea what a scale is. I hope this article has been useful to you and I look forward to hearing from you should you have any questions. Thank you for reading. Tom Colohue Ultimate-Guitar.com 2009

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    turtlewax
    so basically have to change your solos notes constantly to the backing? You can't just blast a pentatonic position over them?
    mtl_guitarist
    Turtlewax: in my opinion, soloing is about playing notes that follow the chords in your song (or clash with the chords if you are looking for that sound). Often, you can get away with just playing the pentatonic scale in the key of your song but I find that it gives you a very static sound and the solo seems to stay in the same place. I recommend trying to figure out which scales fit over each chord of your song. Usually a C major scale will fit over a C major chord and a G minor scale will fit over a minor chord. Now here's the tricky part: try to construct a melody that is stepwise and try and time your solo so that it contains important chord notes as the chords of your song are changing. It doesn't have to be complex. Just look at coldplay. Many of his lead riffs are just one repeated note that moves up or down a fret just as the chords change. This kind of approach makes it seem like you know the chords of your song and that you are playing along with them rather than just blasting away in the pentatonic box. Good luck!
    turtlewax
    thanks...sounds hard to do. Surely when improvising you can't just constantly switch between scales? Or say the song is in G, do you just use the different positions of the G major scale along with the chords? EG dorian ETC. Surely you can't think about it that much when improvising? Look at Ritchie Blackmore for example
    Colohue
    The world would be filled with much more awesome music if more people looked at Ritchie Blackmore as an example. You don't need to constantly switch scales. Say your chords are C, F, G. These are in a very typical chord progression known as a I - IV - V progression. These three chords contain the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. These are the notes of the C major scale, so you can easily play C major over it. However, when you play certain notes and the notes you choose to emphasise should be relevant to your backing chords.
    MOOSE_CCR99
    Awsome lesson! I really enjoyed it. You have awsome timing man, Im trying to get a start at writing my own stuff and this is a big help. Im also hoping to jam with people soon so Im deffinatly looking forward to next weeks article. Thanks!
    mtl_guitarist
    Actually you can keep switching scales turtlewax! It's hard at first but you can get the hang of it. If you think of a scale as a bunch of notes that fit over a chord then it makes it easier. Consider the fact that many scales share similar notes. If I'm playing a C scale and I run into a Bb chord, the only notes that really need to change are B to Bb and E to Eb. The more you play these altered notes, the closer you solo will appear to follow the chord structure. At first, you really have to think hard to play like that, but eventually you get it in your fingers.
    tagyoureit
    I always thought of a scale as a bunch of notes that *are* the chord. For example, if my guitarist friend plays a C chord and I play a B note, between the two of us we got ourselves a Cmaj7. If I play an A note, now we together have a C6 and so on.
    Colohue
    That's a good way to do it. What you're doing there is playing your note in relation to your other guitarist, which is most definitely an intelligent way to do it. I'll be looking more into two guitars next time.
    Quicksand15
    people who think they can play, but have no idea what a scale is
    you can be a decent musician without theory, too.
    Colohue
    Quicksand15 wrote: you can be a decent musician without theory, too.
    Indeed you can, as I covered in part five. However, when playing with other people, if two are playing in a certain scale and one is not, you'll notice problems arise.
    Quicksand15
    Colohue wrote: Quicksand15 wrote: you can be a decent musician without theory, too. Indeed you can, as I covered in part five. However, when playing with other people, if two are playing in a certain scale and one is not, you'll notice problems arise.
    i dont know shit about scales, but i have ears. not saying i know that perfectly, but it works.
    Kidzelda
    You can be a fine musician without theory, but theory gives you the ability to easily (or, at least, with consistency) communicate with other musicians, which makes the process easier.
    jean_genie
    mtl_guitarist wrote: Actually you can keep switching scales turtlewax! It's hard at first but you can get the hang of it. If you think of a scale as a bunch of notes that fit over a chord then it makes it easier. Consider the fact that many scales share similar notes. If I'm playing a C scale and I run into a Bb chord, the only notes that really need to change are B to Bb and E to Eb. The more you play these altered notes, the closer you solo will appear to follow the chord structure. At first, you really have to think hard to play like that, but eventually you get it in your fingers.
    Or if you and your band are the 'rehearse everything' type, you could just write your songs so key changes present a relatively minor change the the solo section. Iron Maiden is a good example. Steve Harris' basslines change key noticably midway through a lot of solo breaks, but 80% of the notes the various guitar players use are the same - often just up a step or two - as Steve is changing to a different, but closely related, key.
    Paul Tauterouff
    Great lesson here. It's also cool that you mention accuracy as the path to greater playing speed in the Assessing Yourself. Many people sacrifice clarity in the quest for speed.