The first few years I was learning guitar, I concentrated so much on technical aspects and mimicking popular shredders that I didn't write very many songs. Later, I had to go through the slow pains of improving my songwriting skills to be more on par with my technique. If I had to do it all over, I would have kept writing songs consistently even as I honed my technique. As I discovered later, the best way to get a new technique down pat is to put it in a song. Now every time you play that song, you will be increasing the muscle memory of that particular technique. You won't need to practice it on its own anymore. Also, practicing songwriting is like a muscle. Meaning that, in general, the more songs you write, the better your ability to write good songs will become. So write as much and as often as you can!
Here are nine songwriting tips I've figured out the hard way or learned from other musicians I've had the privilege to work with over the years.
1) Write a solo, progression, or entire song using Guitar Pro (or similar software that can play back full instrumentation), resisting the urge to pick up your guitar. This will improve your ear (as you try to anticipate where on the fretboard the notes in your head lay), and also allow you to write things you might not normally play. Be careful though, that it's actually possible to play. I've written one extremely creative solo this way that later was named the "impossible solo", and for good reason!
2) Don't worry too much if you notice one of your chord progressions sounds exactly like some other song. It probably actually sounds like dozens of songs, as there are only so many good-sounding chord progressions. The melody that you put over the chord progression - yes, do worry if that sounds like a direct copy of a popular song. Other than that, try adding or changing a chord here and there to get your own version. You can also try making the actual rhythmic feel or accents different, which is sometimes far more effective. This last approach will also help you to write a unique melody too, as it will help get the feel of the "copied song" out of your head.
3) Once you make a nice-sounding chord progression, record it immediately whenever possible in case you forget it the next day. I lost many a great riff before I bought a 4-track recorder. I would remember the chords, but the rhythm wasn't quite right, and the feel was lost.
4) Now that you've recorded your next great riff, try improvising over it, and record each take. If you use a computer program (a.k.a. DAW) for this, you can store a huge amount of takes. I usually do 5-15 takes. Keep the ones that aren't absolutely horrible, and listen to them the next day before passing final judgment. This works equally well for guitar solos and vocals. Also, the fact that you have a recording is to your enormous benefit when writing technically challenging parts. If you don't remember exactly what you played (but darn it, it sure sounded awesome), you can play back your improvisation from the DAW. You can even slow it down if it's too fast to hear.
5) If you're trying to write a vocal part and not coming up with anything good, try to write a vocal melody on the guitar. Then put words to it once you get a usable melody. If you're writing a guitar solo and get stuck, put down the guitar and try to sing a melody until you get a good one. This will also keep you from getting too technical on the guitar solo if that's a trap you tend to fall into. Also, adding a subtle counter-melody or harmony can make a mediocre part sound great. A lot of the best harmonies are not just the main melody up or down a 3rd. Experiment with changing between thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths or whatever else you hear in your head. The Police even have songs that use 7ths for some of the harmony notes.
6) If you get stuck after you've written a good part of the song, and can't seem to come up with any more melodies that don't sound like the ones already written for the other parts - by all means, change keys! It's easiest to change to the key of the IV or V chords, but more extreme modulating can work if the melody "helps" it. In other words, the main melody can change keys just before the rhythm section, or it can play an obviously modulated note just when the key changes. Play around with the melody at that transition a lot, it can make or break it. I've gotten away with some crazy jumps only because the melody did the right thing at the right time.
7) Keep a recording of every "spare riff" you've written that isn't flat-out bad - you know, the ones you weren't able to make a song out of, or took out of a different song because it didn't fit. You may need it later! In fact, in one of my songs, the chorus rhythm we ended up using was yanked out of a different song just a few days before. On the new song we spent hours trying to use different chorus rhythms and trying to come up with a good melody. No dice. Then we tried the "spare chorus" from the other song, and finished the song in less than 5 minutes! And it wasn't even in the same key as the rest of the song! But it sure fit. It turned out to be the best part of the song and the best chorus I ever helped write.
8) If you're trying to write a new song, and can't even get started (nothing good coming out of the amp), try to write a chord progression and melody at the same time. Grab your guitar and come up with a very simple chord progression. Don't even worry if it sounds good or not by itself, just try singing things over it. You might surprise yourself at how much a strong melody can transform a generic riff into a great song.
9) Once you've got a solid melody for your song and it sounds like it's a "complete song", don't stop there! Some little things might make it even better. Go back and try making little changes, especially to the rhythm section.
a. Instead of playing the exact same verse chords four times for each verse, try changing a chord here and there on some of them and see how it sounds against the melody. It may be even better!
b.Scrap the rhythms altogether and try playing rhythms to best support the melody. It may or may not be an improvement. This process will also help you to be able to write instrumentation to an existing melody, which is a valuable skill and another great songwriting approach for those times you come up with a melody on its own.
c. Add some unexpected things to create dynamics like a crescendo with all the instruments, or even a bar of nothing but the main melody.
d. Add some rhythmic variations to the rhythm section to specifically go with what the melody is doing at that instant. Then fall back to the original rhythm. Little things can be huge!
Until next time, play hard!
Brian "Singe" Hunsaker is a guitarist specializing in great instrumental rock guitar songs. He performed in a popular Ronnie James Dio tribute band called Stand Up & Shout during 2007-2009, doing a 3-hour set of Dio, Black Sabbath and Rainbow hits. Brian has been a featured song contributor of the Northwest ShredFest CD.
His biggest influences include Joe Satriani, Vivian Campbell, Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine and George Lynch.
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