10 Tips for Writing Better Tunes
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!