Over the last several weeks we’ve been exploring the topic of songwriting. We’ve looked at a few tips for improving your skills as a songwriter, getting your songs heard by the right people, how to write music to accompany visual storytelling, and finally, last week, we took a look at a few tips for songwriting with a piano. This week we’re going to continue exploring this expansive topic, but with the aid of a somewhat smaller and more portable instrument than the majestic piano. Indeed, not every aspiring songwriter has access to a piano, so this week we will turn our attention to another faithful companion to the songwriter: the guitar.
For many skilled guitarists, songwriting is the final test of ability. Far more difficult than simply getting up in front of an audience and licking some solos or rhythms someone else wrote, playing your own music for a crowd opens you up to criticisms and can make you feel vulnerable and exposed. But have no fear, here are some suggestions to build up your confidence, and help with your songwriting, regardless of the genre.
Experiment With Chords
At this point, if you’re writing songs with your guitar, it’s probably safe to say that you love your instrument. If this is the case, and you’re like most guitarists, learning the barre and open chords wont be enough for you; even the chords commonly found in blues, rock, and country, like sevenths, aren’t deep enough. If this is true for you, then great! You’re off to a great start. Dive deep into your chords. Think about extended chords, triads, partials, and dissonant notes. Mix it up. Play with the “rules.” Something that may be technically “wrong” can be right if it serves the song and supports a melody.
Consider Alternate Tuning
Standard tuning is a great place to start from, but it is called “standard” for a reason. It’s wonderful for versatility and simple, fun songwriting with “campfire chords,” but considering alternative tuning styles can open a whole new world. Think about some of the big classic rock acts and how their lead guitarists tune their instruments. For example, consider Keith Richards. The rock legend is known for his use of an open G tuning on everything from “Brown Sugar” to “Start Me Up” as well as many of the songs on classic Stones albums. Open chords can give a deeper, darker, and gritter sound.
Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix. What do they all have in common, other than their legendary status? The “circle of fifths” chord progression. Sometimes called “fifths up” progression, this is an easy jumping off point when trying to set narrative lyrics to your music. Basically, it works like this: the movement of chords of the same type repeating in a cycle always sounds nice, and the chords lend themselves to vocals.
Try Writing Lyrics First
It is very common for guitarists to start their writing process with a riff or a chord progression they especially like. Try changing it up and write your lyrics first. Write a poem or a story and read or sing it out loud. You may immediately hear the accompanying guitar part in your head as you look over what you have written. If you can suddenly hear the entire song, great! But even if the only hint you get is a note that feels right, or some chords that seem to work for one line, you’ve got someplace to start. This simple exercise can help get you out of any habitual progressions or other bad songwriting habits you find yourself falling into.
Tension & Release
Building up and releasing plays big in listeners’ ears and is a great way to grab their attention and make sure you hold it throughout the song. Dynamic sounds help make your point. Listen to punk or grunge for examples of the loud/soft dynamic and how it affects listeners. A great popular example is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Quiet verses and loud, intense choruses pull on the emotions of the listener. Imagine the range of emotions between a low, confiding stage whisper and a raw, guttural cry. These extremes have power; use them.
Any songwriter worth his or her pencil knows the importance of a good hook. Hooks can be either vocal or instrumental, but most guitar players/songwriters (rightfully) think of hooks as riffs. A great riff or hook pulls the listener right into their headphones, making them invested in the song. The power of a great riff is undeniable, just take “Walk this Way” by Aerosmith, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes, or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones as evidence. If you’ve got a great hook, put it out there!
For many beginner songwriters the instinct may be to keep the same tempo throughout the songwriting process. Why complicate things? Because it’s interesting, exciting, and challenging, that’s why! Speeding up the song, especially if you change your picking technique at the same time, can be just what your song is lacking. A open, slow, or almost lackadaisically picked verse followed by choruses filled with hammering downbeats can be quite the enticing emotional roller coaster for your listeners.
Force it Until You Feel it
The most helpful tip anyone can offer an aspiring songwriter is to force yourself to write as often as possible, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. Just like picking up your guitar for a short noodling session every day helps create and maintain muscle memory, songwriting every day helps push the practice deep into your brain. Before long you’ll be conjuring up ideas in the shower, in line for coffee, and during your daily commute.
This last suggestion is one I have made before, and I am not afraid to put it out there again. If you don’t feel like you’ve got the skill to tackle the kinds of songs you want to write, team up with someone you think does. Having another musician to bounce ideas off of, or to help expand your ideas and introduce new ones can be just the step up you need to improve your songwriting game. We all have habits we fall into, comfortable routines that keep us from challenging ourselves. Collaborating can help you break out of that rut, and potentially create something new and interesting you wouldn’t have otherwise come up with on your own.