I have always tried to make music that comes from the heart. Otherwise there is no point in it at all. (…) The success and fame have been exciting and wonderful, but they are no match for the feeling you get when you finish recording what you know is a great record. That, more than anything, has been my single greatest motivation to carry on in this business.” -Greg Lake, “The Greg Lake Retrospective”
Of course a great record starts with great songs. In 1969, King Crimson, featuring Greg Lake on bass and vocals, came out with their first album In the Court of the Crimson King. If you’ve never heard this album, there is nothing commercial on it. These guys were doing something they enjoyed. The album made the top 40 in the U.S. and the top 5 in the U.K. Without a single hit song. It also influenced everything that has been made since then.
So there’s a concrete example of what spilling your guts can accomplish. Although the recording industry has changed since then, there are still a lot of artists out there who are making music without compromise. These are the ones who will be remembered 50 years down the road.
Now that my little expos is done with… You’ll need a pen and paper for this article.
By learning theory, or through experience, you will learn that many chords just seem to work well together. A and D (Springsteen, Dylan, Petty, etc use these chords a lot: (A)Born in the (D)U.S.(A)A). Add a G to the mixture and you have about 75% of pop rock and folk hits! Don’t believe me? Try it! Other combinations work just as well. Myself, I’ve used and abused the Am- G or A-G combination over the years. Don’t ask me for the theory behind this, that’s not my area of expertise. Read David Hodge’s excellent column: “A” Before “E” (Except After “C”). David will explain the whole reasoning behind this.
Play around with the main chords (A-B-C-D-E-F-G, without minors, suspended, augmented, diminished, etc) and “feel” them. Open chords have a very different feeling than minors. Minors tend to be more melancholic in feel. They’ve seen more than their fair share of bad love stories! Play the minors now. Feel the difference? Now play an A, then an A minor and notice the difference. Now play an A minor followed by a G. Play it in varying ways. Strum a loose, long pattern, then try a tight quick one. Make the A minor last twice the length of the G, then make the G last twice the length of the A minor. See how many patterns you can make with only two chords. Each of those patterns can become a song.
Now that you’ve played around with your patterns, stop on the one you like the most and play it a few times. Now take your pen and paper and write down a sentence. Don’t try to outdo yourself, just write whatever happens to be hovering in your mind. The subconscious mind being what it is, odds are that sentence will have the same general feeling as your chord pattern.
Next you play your pattern over and over, and when you feel comfortable enough with it, sing that sentence. Yes, everybody can sing. Not everybody can sing well, but that doesn’t matter. If your sentence has an extra syllable or two, you’ll have to adjust the pattern by making it last an extra time or two. Or you can take a word out of the sentence, or replace a long word with a short one. (There are many other things you could do, but we’ll stay simple with this one). If your sentence is missing a syllable, then just drag one of the words for an extra beat.
Now write down another sentence. Although it doesn’t need to relate to the first, it probably will. If it doesn’t, then you’ll have the extra work of making them fit together at some point. What you have to remember is that it has to fit, in amount of syllables within the musical pattern (there’s actually more to it than that, but for the moment… stay simple). Again, don’t rake your brains, just let it come to you. If you have no idea what to write, think of something that will add to the first sentence.
Now play both lines together. I want you to add two more lines. Come back when you’re done. All right, so now you have four lines in a simple A minor-G pattern. That’s a verse! Let’s try another one. Four lines again. Come back after.
How does it sound? Probably something missing between the two. Add a D in between both verses and make it last throughout the pattern. Now play your verses again this way. All right, let’s write the chorus. Here we will try a pattern of C-G. Change your original strumming pattern slightly. As this is a chorus, you’ll want to place the main “action” here. What caused whatever is happening in your first two verses? Or, how is it making you feel? Live those two verses! Have you ever been through this situation? What’s your opinion on the matter? Write that first line! Ready for the second? Try it with F-G instead. For the third line, go back to C-G. Now the fourth line will be important. If you don’t make a change here, you can just go on playing the chorus for ever. All it will accomplish will be to put your audience asleep. Do it again in F-G, but just strum the G once and let it hang there. As for your lyrics, write something that will end with that G strummed once. In other words, let the whole song hang there.
At this point you can actually put the guitar down. But don’t if you’re not feeling comfortable enough. Write another verse. Now place everything in the following order: verse 1, verse 2, chorus, verse 3, chorus. Now play the whole thing. VoilÃ you have a song! A simple song, but still, a song. Don’t worry, odds are this is not the best you can do. All you’re missing now is a title. I don’t want you to just take a few words that are already there and make a title out of it, I want you to read the story and find a few words that will sum it up. Use that as your title.
Now follow the advice in my previous article, So you want to be a songwriter?, about copyrights. It doesn’t matter that everyone reading this article will come up with the same structure and chords: I’m willing to bet that no two people will have written the same song. Anyway, it’s a good exercise.
Writing a song can be that easy (it won’t always be…). And, to some extent, it gets easier with time.
Did you really think I would let you off so easy? I want you to look at your song and make changes. They can be of any order, from changing just a few words to rewriting a whole verse. You might want to make some chord changes, take something out, add something in. Just experiment and see what you can come up with. However, don’t take out anything that’s really important and don’t put anything in that doesn’t add to the song.
If you’re having any problems along the way or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email.
Before I finish, I would like to thank David Hodge for his column “A” Before “E” (Except After “C”) which completes this article quite nicely. I would also like to thank everyone who sent me emails about my first article. It’s nice to know that it was helpful. By all means, feel very comfortable with emailing me comments, ideas, etc. Let me know what aspects you’d like me to go over in a future article. And finally, thanks to Paul Hackett for this great site!