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10 Tips for Writing Better Tunes

August 16, 2013

By PGS Fitz

We tend to focus a lot on actually playing guitar over here at PGS, but what is all guitar-playing basically in service to? SONGS. Most of aren’t just players, we’re writers, too. In fact, I’ll just come out and confess it: I’m not even a guitar player, really, just a writer-- I only play guitar well enough to be able to write songs and parts for those songs. This week, we’re offering up a few tips for guitarists who write songs. In an effort to help you guys break out of whatever patterns are holding you in or holding you back, here are ten tips to help you write better songs.

 

1 -BACK TO BASICS

Make sure you have a vocabulary for songwriting—do you know which part is a chorus and which part is the bridge?! It helps to have a modicum (if not mastery!) of music theory- a book or class can get you up to speed on things like the circle of fifths, etc. Don’t be afraid to look at songwriting as something of a science—study your favorite songwriters and try to unlock how they’ve constructed their songs. You’d also learn a thing or two by studying the legends, even if you’re not necessarily a huge fan: Dylan, Lennon&McCartney, Bacharach—the list is practically endless. Pick a couple folks and pick their songs apart to see what’s inside; it will help you when you put your songs together.

 

2-PLACE

Create a dedicated space where you can work with no distractions. Identify what you need to have on hand in order to work—your instrument, maybe a notepad and pen or a laptop—and keep this space as a quiet place where you can always go to get work done. Alternately, it can be immensely beneficial to break out of your normal patterns, so don’t be afraid to change it up from time to time and find an unfamiliar place to crank out some tunes.

 

3-USE TECHNOLOGY

Many of us have smartphones that feature audio recording capabilities. I use mine all the time to capture ideas whether they are tiny vocal melodies, riff ideas, or whole verses or choruses of songs I write while driving or walking around town. You never know when inspiration is going to hit. If you don’t have a phone that records audio, you can very cheaply acquire a small digital voice recorder that will accomplish the same thing. However, let’s be honest—if the idea is good enough, you ought to be able to remember it for later! Tablets and laptops all have various apps for multitracking-- you can practically track and produce a song AS you're writing it. The technology exists; find out how to maximize it for your benefit.

 

4-WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

This is advice is given to every writer—poets, novelists, screenwriters, songwriters—and it’s given for a reason. Authenticity, though not scientifically identifiable, is obvious to listeners; a lack of sincerity and authenticity can kill a song. Don’t be afraid to dig deep to mine material for your tunes—and of course, always put the song first. Not saying that pinch harmonic Floyd Rose dive bomb won’t fit, but only play it if it actually adds to the song!

 

5-FX/NOFX

When you’re looking for sonic inspiration, throwing some effects onto your guitar can open up creativity and spark some incredible guitar parts. Maybe put your guitar through a super choppy tremolo pedal or a reverse delay and force yourself to find parts and progressions that you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. Conversely, if you’re writing on an electric, put it down and make sure the song still sounds good on an acoustic guitar. Some of the hardest hard rock songs were written on acoustic guitar—making sure your song works acoustically is a great litmus test for greatness.

 

6-COLLABORATE

Thanks to the internet, you can collaborate with people all over the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with collaborating in the same room as your collaborators—just saying that if you don’t have anyone you want to work with locally, look further! Collaborating not only forces you to make compromises in service to the song but you also get to learn things from your collaborators. If you play in a band, make sure the whole band has chances to write together even if you are the primary songwriter. Adding diversity to the writing process helps the songs get stronger.

 

7-PERFORM YOUR SONGS LIVE

Audience reaction can have a huge impact on your songs. You might think you’ve nailed the perfect arrangement but when you play it live, realize that it’s a snoozer! Alternately, an audience can validate a good song and let you know when you’ve nailed it.

 

8-DON’T FEAR CHANGE

Arguably the hardest part of writing is (IMHO) : rewriting. Once you’ve written something, it’s easy for it to feel set in stone. Don’t fall for this! You should be as flexible as possible while writing and arranging, don’t be scared to completely change what you’ve already done. Remember, the song comes first, not your ego. Save the parts that you strike from songs, because they can come in handy for later compositions. Combine parts that create the strongest, hookiest, most memorable tunes and don’t be afraid to cut a song in half if it needs it. On the flip side, it’s possible to have an amazing 5-7 minute song if all the parts are right- my pals in Menomena regularly churn out five minute songs that almost feel too short. (they’re also a band with a history of really unique songwriting processes, check them out as a case study!)

 

9-MAKE CHANGES TO YOUR WRITING INSTRUMENT

Odds are that you’re writing on a six-string guitar tuned to E with no capo. Change that up from time to time, will ya? Write using an open- or alternate- tuning. Put a capo on your guitar to change keys. Take that song you’ve been writing on your acoustic guitar and go play it on a piano. At the very least, if you always write on your ’65 Strat, try writing on your ’52 Tele sometimes. Varying your instrument’s tonality or swapping instruments entirely helps keep you out of a rut and also helps you test the validity of your songwriting structure. If you can play it on another instrument entirely and it still is a great song, you’ve hit the jackpot.

 

10-DON’T GIVE UP

Writing can be difficult, frustrating, impossible at times. When you hit your wall, try to push through and finish what you started. No one wants a back catalog of 200 almost-finished songs. As per #8, you can always go back and change or fix things later. The important thing is to see the song through.

 

Writers! What tips do you have for one another?!!! Lay it out in the comments. Thanks for reading—now go write a tune or two!

Comments

  1. Marko says:

    I agree all tips. Also, I would courage to try riffs and melodies in different rhythms. Many times chords themselves can be quite simple, but it is the rhythm which makes difference. Different speed and maybe try to play it as reggae or flamenco style…it might give you new inspiration to original riff. I think I read somewhere that Rolling Stones “start me up” was originally played as reggae or something in their demo.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:16 am
  2. Jeff Hall says:

    I write professionally including a fair number of jingles. Hence my essential subject matter can sometimes be a bit mundane for lyrics.  A nice way to force creativity is to use a liberal amount of multisyllabic words which will then force more unique mental pictures and a greater variety of vocabulary,  That all adds up to make the piece more memorable.  A thesaurus is my best friend when writing lyrics.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:18 am
  3. like and reply says:

    Can we get a reply and “like” function for others’ comments PGS?

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:41 am
  4. JAMES DONOVAN says:

    OR JUST STUDY JOHN HIATT FOR THE LAST 20 YRS

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:55 am
  5. Robert says:

    Good tips! Also, re: Marko’s comment, spot-on. A good song can be played in pretty much any genre you care to name, and still be a good song. Dylan gets covered everywhere in every style, for example. Or Radiohead: check out Sarah Jarosz’s cover of “The Tourist,” or Gillian Welch’s “Black Star.” If your tune can sound believable as a reggae number, you’re off to a great start.
    Finding good collaborators can’t be overstated, either. As someone who wrote alone for years, I can say my work improved immeasurably when I found someone to bounce stuff off of, or hand things over to. It takes an ego-check, and a leap of faith, but it’s worth it.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:58 am
  6. Michael says:

    Great tips! Thanks. I’ve had a few songs that were just missing something, so I played them backwards - reversed the progression - “ding!” Also remember that silence is a strong note too. And Tip # 11: Have fun!

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 7:02 am
  7. Matt Moorman says:

    Only make art when you’re inspired. Seek it if it’s not present. If you’re not inspired, don’t fool yourself, you’re better off doing formal exercises…or simply something else.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 7:42 am
  8. John Hunter says:

    These are good tips. My suggestion, however, is to simply write the song—-as it comes—-and let the listening audience decide whether they like your tune or tunes.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 8:11 am
  9. Julius Gabbitas says:

    get stuck on vocal melodies? record the first thing that comes to mind as soon as you wake up, you’ll be impressed.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 8:15 am
  10. Stan Sikorski says:

    Don’t be afraid to buck convention and trend. They don’t call it “original music” for nothing. Think of what Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols and The Clash or Nirvana and Soundgarden did to change music in major ways. That is unless you’re just looking for the fast track to be a one hit wonder or like moldy old same old (in it for the money and quick fame [Beiber], not lasting generational impact).

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 10:00 am
  11. Luis says:

    I can´t belive it!!!.
    No licks, no riffs, no leads….....songs!!!!!!
    Congratulations PGS!!!!

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 11:22 am
  12. Fletch says:

    Write. Just write. Don’t worry about style, that it isn’t “you”. The object is to write. Learn notation, at least what a quarter, eighth and sixteenth note is. This way you can write it down and you don’t need a recorder - because you won’t always have technology conveniently available. Just last week I was away from all technology, and wrote down three song ideas this way. I didn’t lose them - and that’s the point.

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:19 pm
  13. Hans says:

    As Picasso said, Art is 10% inspiration and 90% transpiration. As I say, Let inspiration reach you working. Write, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite again. All tips metioned above are wonderful. Anyway, in the beginning there is always a phrase, lyric or musical. Only one, that la-la-la or that sentence. Don’t plan enormous structures: just find the phrase, that simple phrase. Look for it. Afterwards everything will be easier. At least that is the way it is for me :)

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm
  14. clueless says:

    “... study your favorite songwriters and try to unlock how they’ve constructed their songs. You’d also learn a thing or two by studying the legends, even if you’re not necessarily a huge fan: Dylan, Lennon&McCartney;, Bacharach—the list is practically endless. Pick a couple folks and pick their songs apart to see what’s inside; it will help you when you put your songs together.”

    The problem is ... nobody ever explains HOW to do it. A vague reference is made to do something (write a song, practice magic, cooking, basket-weaving, whatever…), and then the n00b is expected to know what to do with that vague assertion. PIck what apart? Unlock what, how? Study what? Oh, it’s an AABA structure – so what!?! Lots of songs are, but they’re not all hits, or even good songs that still weren’t hits. Lots of dreadful songs are AABA, or ABAB etc…

    posted on August 16, 2013 at 8:10 pm
  15. Brian Gardner says:

    I find that the more simple a song is, the more people can understand the story you are trying to tell and it may encourage them to sing along or remember your song as well.  Also, I believe that musicians have a responsibility to comment upon the issues of the day, in songs or when being interviewed.  Not so much ranting about a particular party one supports because one never knows who might be in the audience, but issues, that can also be put into songs, issues that include everyone.  Also don’t get the “microscope” so close down on your songwriting that it comes out flat or too contrived.

    Here’s an example of a song I wrote about what I feel has been hapenning in society since the Vietnam War, it’s titled “They”:

    They
    Words by Brian Gardner ~ © 1979 Copperfield Music

    When I was young, I never worried,
    I always thought the world would get by.
    Then they got us involved, in a war in Asia,
    the reason they did, was not for our eyes.

    Oh the youth, they rose in rebellion,
    taking to the streets, exposing the lies.
    Youth had to be stopped, they were exposing too much,
    so drugs were introduced, to silence the cries.

    Oh didn’t they kill, all our heroes,
    the ones who would have really, made some change.
    One by one, they silenced these voices,
    ‘till all the politicians, sounded the same.

    A new battle cry, “the environment”,
    marches and speeches, to save the earth.
    New technology, would be the solution,
    oil and gas, no longer first.

    Oh that rocked a couple fellers at the Foundation,
    do you know what I mean?
    What if Fusion could be realized.
    They said, “Let’s make technology a bad word”.
    So the greenhouse effect was devised.

    Now a financial crisis, the world over.
    I wonder if someone has committed crimes?
    The Federal Reserve that prints all our money,
    seems to gain a lot of interest, at these times.

    When I was young, I never worried,
    I always thought the world would get by…

    Our next evolutionary step for survival is Ethics…

    And here’s one about the responsibility we all share for the betterment of this world and how powerful each of us is, titled, “Do Your Part”:

    Do Your Part
    By Brian Lee Gardner -  © 2009 Copperfield Music

    When it rains, watch the raindrops fall,
    down into a creek.
    Makes a stream, then a river wide,
    then a raging waterfall.
    ~  ~  ~
    Do you feel you’d be ineffective,
    (just one raindrop falling)
    in a world so amiss.
    (they tell you it’s all useless)
    That’s a lie they told you.
    (now they’ve made you wonder)
    Still, what can just one do?
                ~  ~  ~
    Take a stand for something right,
    (stand up make a difference)
    build a raging waterfall.
    (don’t you ever give up)
    As an individual you’re powerful,
    Yes, you can change the world…
        YES – YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD!

    I also started two campaigns - one - The 1 Hour a Week campaign is designed to encourage everyone to do at least 1-hour a week of some kind of community service and with over 200 million in this country just imagine the positive results from this campaign.

    The other one is M.U.S.I.C. - Musicians Understanding the Social Impact of Contribution, which is where I encourage, support and assist musicians and other artists in successfully speaking out on issues which are important to them through my expertise in marketing, press release writing and media relations.  If you need any assistance getting more exposure for the cause you believe in contact me - always free of charge!

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 12:36 am
  16. Bryan says:

    In response to Clueless’ comment:

    I’m sure there is a ‘‘HOW’’ when it comes to explaining songwriting, but I think explaining how to study a favorite musician’s writing process changes with each one you look at.

    There are books on songwriting and stuff like that for sure, but since everyone is different, it can seem really difficult to pin down yr favorite songwriter’s technique. I, for one, look at a guy like Ariel Pink. His earlier stuff is something I like to listen to and wonder about, or study, or whatever.

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 2:15 am
  17. Troy says:

    Here is one: put the guitar down and go live life for a while,, it will give you more to write about : ]

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 2:24 am
  18. James Domenick says:

    For some reason, inspiration always seems to strike me when I’m either cycling or mowing the lawn.  I think it has something to do with the repetition, endorphins, and in the case of the lawnmower - a machine-based noise that drowns out distractions.  Like PGS is saying above, the important part is to capture your ideas as soon as you can vs. taking a shower first, saying, “ah, I’ll remember it”.  You won’t!

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 2:47 am
  19. JC Lamers says:

    As George Harrison once said, “When you write a song always try to finish it in one sitting. It’s too hard to put it down and come back to it, usually because you are in a different state of mind and that makes it harder to get the same feel of when you originally came up with it”

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 8:09 am
  20. F. Lee Powers says:

    Double down on Marco’s great advice.  The majority of the good songs I’ve written came from microcassette/smartphone recordings where I find a riff and jam on it in every possible permutation of rhythm, accent, rest notes, ornamentations, styles until - and this ALWAYS happens - you find THE arrangement hiding in an otherwise nice but ordinary riff.

    Dump 2 minutes of pure inspiration to your DAW and you’ve got the raw material for something powerful, yet unique and intriguing in a way that is difficult to define.

    Lightning does strike, but for me at least all too infrequently.  This jam approach is a consistent fountain of good themes and ideas to make into songs

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 8:45 am
  21. Jason says:

    Rhyming dictionary and a Thesaurus

    /Done

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 10:46 am
  22. mark says:

    write in the nude for insperation

    posted on August 17, 2013 at 9:46 pm
  23. Ken says:

    Tycoon was a one hit wonder back in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Thier big hit was “Such a Woman”. I loved the song so I bought the album and found the title cut and the second song were pretty good, but not the rest of the album. Recently my friends band was looking for material that was more difficult and wasn’t being played to death by every other band trying to make a buck, so I suggested Such a Woman to him. He didn’t remember the song so I ordered a Cd from Amazon which had their 2nd album on it as well, I listened to the whole thing and except for the two songs I found earlier it SUCKED! ( IMHO ).  The problem I found with these guys is that they concentrated all thier efforts on the intro and the rest of the songs were seriosly lacking. I hope that helps somebody.

    posted on August 18, 2013 at 6:44 am
  24. Ken says:

    Has anybody ever collaborated an entire song over the Internet? I mean like one guy starts writing a song and does guitar rhythm and lead, finds a drummer on line and sends what he has to him. The drummer does his part and so on. Then the whole thing is mastered in a home studio and it never sees the record companies. Maybe for distribution, but it would keep the creativity in the hands of musicians where it belongs.

    posted on August 18, 2013 at 6:52 am
  25. Mojave Johnson says:

    As an engineer and producer, I tend to record most things dry (no effects).  Effects can always be added later, but once they’ve been recorded (I can’t say “on tape” anymore!) they can’t be removed.  Obviously, this won’t apply in all situations or with all musicians (i.e. The Edge), but unless you’ve been in the situation, you can’t imagine how frustrating it is to have to go back and re-record a part that was otherwise perfect, but for the effect.

    That being said, yes, using a new effect (or a new effect setting) can inspire new ideas.  By the same token, picking up a new (or different) guitar, or plugging into a new (or different) amplifier, or even changing the order of your pedals can inspire all sorts of new ideas.

    Remember, there’s no such thing as “right or wrong” in music!!

    posted on August 20, 2013 at 5:30 am
  26. Cosmiccowboy says:

    I think that this is a great list if I had to pitch in my 2 ¢ (which I don’t, but will anyway) The whole; “However, let’s be honest—if the idea is good enough, you ought to be able to remember it for later” IMHO is a fools errand. As the author stated who doesn’t have a cell phone with the capability to record the idea ... follow through on that, don’t kick yourself later.  ;)

    posted on August 31, 2013 at 5:56 am
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    posted on September 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm

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