I believe "Self Expression" is the pinnacle of all art. Anything less, "is less" in my opinion. I'm not going to debate that view or try to persuade any of you to also believe it. Instead I am going to assume you already hold that view and discuss ways in which I may be able to offer you both philosophical and practical advice.
If self expression is the pinnacle of art (or if you at least agree it is very important) and if you desire (and attempt) to express yourself in art (music), you are an artist. In the past, I would not have used the label "Artist" to describe anyone that was not already great at creating genuine art. I typically reserved the words, art, artist and musician for only the highest levels of excellence. But as a teacher of music composition, songwriting, and self expression I have changed my use of these terms for the benefit of all students. So...
The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as merely a guitarist. I'll take this one step further and recommend against thinking of yourself as a musician! You are, or are at least learning to become, an artist. Music just happens to be your medium and guitar just happens to be your instrument, but YOU are the artist. From this day forward when someone asks you what you do or who you are, don't reply by saying you are a guitarist or musician. Tell them (in a non-arrogant way) you are an artist. If they want more details than that, go ahead and tell them music is your medium and guitar is your instrument. I guarantee you will put an entirely different impression in other people's minds than if you were to say, "Yeah, I play guitar". But beyond the impressions of others, you will begin to put stronger impressions in your own mind that you are in fact an artist (even if you are still in the learning stage of fully becoming one). The way you view yourself (as an artist and not merely someone who owns a guitar and plays it sometimes) is very important to the way you will think about what you are doing musically. The way you see yourself will also effect the results you will get as you are expressing yourself.
OK, so now you are an artist. Think in the way artists traditionally do. If we could watch a sculptor work on a new sculpture carved from marble, stone or wood, what do you think we would see? (Think about the last sentence before reading any further - its important.) The sculptor visualizes what he/she wants to create. The act of carving away at the raw material is a form of "destructive creation". In the beginning there is only a block of marble, stone or wood. The sculptor must remove all the material that is not needed so that only the finished sculpture remains!
Now think about the way most guitarists write songs. Here is what usually happens with most players, A player will pick up his/her guitar, begins aimlessly improvising with chords, melodies or riffs. This may go on for hours all in the hope to stumble (by accident) onto something that sounds good. If you have tried this, you know that it can take a long time to find something you like and many times you don't like anything you try that day.
The real problem comes after a part (say a verse or a chorus for a song) is created and now he/she will try to connect other (usually unrelated) ideas and make them fit together. Did painters (such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Delacroix), paint in this way when they wanted to express themselves (or anything else)? Did they paint something on one side of the canvas of some arbitrary lines or shapes and then paint some other unrelated lines? Modern art sometimes does do this, but we aren't using them as an example here because you can probably write vague music. It is in the fine details and specific descriptions that most musicians need help with.
Of course I do believe virtually any process you use to create music is valid. However the typical way in which guitarists try to create is very limiting and, even worse, tends not to work well for descriptive self expressive purposes.
This paragraph shouldn't be here really since this is just plain common sense for everyone. It is because this idea is so simple that many people completely overlook it. - To be truly self expressive one must actually know what one is trying to express! (sorry for the necessary redundancy that follows here). It is not enough to pick up your guitar. Begin improvising with some riffs, melodies or chord progressions. Then stumble upon some ideas that sound good and assemble those parts into some form of song and say, "I am expressing myself with this music." Yes, of course it was you who wrote the music, but what did you express really? Nothing very specific. Even when you write lyrics for your song, if the music came first, the meaning of the words were not taken into account prior to writing, so the music doesn't really express what the lyrics do. There is nothing wrong with writing music before the lyrics as long as you ask yourself, at all stages during the writing process, "what am I trying to express? What feelings, thoughts, events, etc.?
Those of you who write vocal music should pay particular attention to this next point. Many vocal songs that have good lyrics often times have mediocre music behind the words. In my opinion, Bob Dylan is a classic example of this (I'm not trying to pick on Bob Dylan, I'm only using an well known example here based on my own observations and opinions of his music.). Listen to the song "Knocking on Heaven's Door". It's a nice song with some decent lyrics. What would happen if you removed the singing/lyrics and only heard the music? Its pretty boring partly because the chord progression goes on and on and on, and because the chords are the same simple voicings, with a simple rhythm that never really goes anywhere musically.
Listen next to "Stairway to Heaven". The lyrics are equally as good as the Dylan song (maybe better for all you Led Zep fans). What happens if you remove the singing/lyrics from this song? We can still listen to and enjoy some really good songwriting. It doesn't get boring, its not as repetitive as the Dylan tune, there are more chords with a lot more color to the voicings (notice the cool descending chromatic bass line in the verse (A, G#, G, F#, F) , the texture is more diverse, the articulation (picking and strumming patterns)of the chords is more interesting. There is a great guitar solo. Lots of dynamic contrast and interest. And most importantly the music is much more expressive on its own than the music of the Dylan song when we remove the vocals from each song.
The next time you begin writing a song, try these steps:
1. Choose a topic to write a song about.
2. Write lyrics for the new song (even if you don't like writing lyrics, try it anyway.)
3. Plan out, before you attempt writing actual music, how you will divide the lyrics into sections (verse, chorus, etc.)
4. Consider what types of keys, scales, chords, etc. would best fit the feeling of your lyrics.
5. Keeping all of the above in mind (actually it is best to have all of this written down on paper and keep it in front of you while writing) begin writing (in any method you want).
6. After you have created some possible ideas for your song, ask yourself if these musical parts tend to express what the music is about without the lyrics. In other words, does an instrumental version of your song still express the feel and mood of your topic/lyrics? If it does, that's great! But if not, ask yourself in what ways could you modify your music to make it more descriptive? Try your ideas with a different rhythm, in another key, changing some of the chords, at different dynamic levels, with a thick or thinner texture and density, at different tempos, etc.
What else can you do to improve your self expressive songwriting skills? Many things are possible, at the top of my list of recommendations are the following:
1. Take lessons from someone who teaches songwriting / composition. Of course it is usually best if this teacher is familiar with the your musical style. (check out my previous article on Choosing a Teacher.) There is no substitute for learning from someone who has many years of experience and education on the subject!
2. Team up with other songwriters and write some music together using the ideas already discussed above. Working with another writer can be very valuable because you can learn how he/she approaches the same musical situations differently than you do. Other writers often have different ways of finding solutions to compositional problems. By observing and learning from these differences you both can grow.
3. Write music everyday! When I was a music composition student at Roosevelt University, my professors always pushed us composition majors to write something everyday. Mastering writing is the same as mastering anything else, it takes frequent practice to gain the experience. Its strange to me how many players will practice their instrument everyday, but not practice the art and science of creating (writing) their own music.
4. Don't wait until your physical guitar skills, knowledge of theory, aural skills, etc. is better before writing music. As I just stated above, you must practice writing, just as you would practice anything else in order to improve. You probably know some really good musicians that can play very challenging things on their instrument, but can't write a song.
No matter what styles of music you like, understand and remember that your guitar, and all the musical knowledge you have now (and ever will have) are only tools. You are the composer. You are the artist. Learn to use your skills, knowledge and talent because simply acquiring them is not enough.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.