Spotlight on SSG – January 2011

For the last two years, the Sunday Songwriters’ Group (SSG) has been “mentored” by Vic Lewis, a long time member of the Guitar Noise community, as well as one of the Guitar Noise Forum Moderators. To kick off the New Year, we’re featuring one of Vic’s songs from SSG Year 6, called “Constant Chameleon.”

Guitar Noise: Is there just something about a guitar that brings out the songwriter in a person? How long have you been writing songs? When did you first join the SSG and do you remember the first song you submitted?

Vic: I can’t answer for everyone, but for myself, it seemed a natural progression from learning a few chords and riffs, to wanting to write my own chords and riffs, then writing lyrics. I started playing guitar when I was 17, so I probably started fooling around with chords and lyrics not long after. I joined the SSG back in its second year in June ’04 – I’d gotten to know a few Guitar Noise members (Pet, Marvelous Optimist, Twisted Fingers and Nick) through chatting on MSN, and a couple of them suggested trying the SSG. The first song I wrote was never posted – I’ve still got it somewhere, it was something about “Walkin’ through Chicago with a guitar in my hand” and people pointing at the sky and screaming “They’re Here!” The second song I wrote – the first one I was confident enough to post – was called “Stupid Mistake” and, although there were a couple of decent lines there (and a good old G-Em-C-D chord progression) and I was fairly pleased with it for a first try, it’s not a song I’ve ever played much or even thought about much since.

Guitar Noise: How has the SSG helped your own songwriting, particularly when it comes to writing songs totally outside the SSG assignments?

Vic: I’ve never been a very prolific songwriter – I tend to have bursts of activity when I’ll write a few songs, then nothing for ages. The SSG’s done, for me, exactly what it says on the forum header – made me focus on songwriting at least once a week. It’s also made me think outside the box a lot more, and tackle subjects I’d never have thought about – politics and religion, for example – for songwriting.

All the critiques – constructive critiques – I’ve received over the years have helped in a big way, too – I’ve lost count of the times someone’s pointed out that a line or a phrase, or even a single word, could make a big difference to a song.

It’s also helped when I’ve had to listen to someone else’s song or read their lyrics so I can tell them what I like or don’t like; it’s almost like dissecting something it in a laboratory or breaking it down to its component parts to give you a better understanding of how it works.

Guitar Noise: Have you any special favorite SSG songs – yours or others – that you still remember?

Vic: There’s about 25-30 of my own SSG songs I practise regularly, and about 10 I play at least once a week. Of those, I think “That Old Photograph,” “Blood On Your Hands,” “Masquerade” and “If You Don’t Tell Me” are the songs I play the most. I’ve still got a lot of songs that are yet to be recorded and/or fully worked out yet, though!

As for other people’s songs, there are so many I’ve enjoyed over the last few years I wouldn’t know how to start listing them and I’d hate to offend anyone by leaving them out, but at the same time I’d love to take a moment to thank everyone who’s ever helped me with advice, criticism and encouragement over the years. That’s another long list!

Guitar Noise: Over the past years, you’ve explored a lot of different musical styles, not to mention that you’ve also managed to incorporate very interesting chord choices and even different tunings into your songwriting. How did that come about and how do you choose finding the appropriate music for your songs?

Vic: I think it’s just a natural progression; when I started out, everything was either G/Em/C and D or A D and E – or to put it another way, a three-chord rocker or a finger-picked ballad. Over time, I’ve learned a fair bit about chord theory – because I’m mainly a rhythm guitarist – and I think it’s only natural to want to include what you’ve learned from somewhere else into your own compositions. I’m always looking for different voicings of chords or slightly unusual chord progressions just so that every song doesn’t sound the same, and I do love to experiment! I wrote a short article about this not long ago.

Open tunings I got into when it was pointed out to me that most of Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks was done in open E – I hadn’t realised that you could play chords as well as slide in open E, open D, or open G for that matter. Once I’d found a few tabs for songs in open tunings (“Kashmir” and “Shelter From The Storm” were particularly influential) and realised it was fairly easy to include a melody line alongside a nice droning effect, I began to use them more often, especially in the more folk-influenced songs I’ve written.

As for finding the right music for each song – well, most of the time when I’m writing lyrics I’ll have an idea of melody and rhythm in my head anyway. It’s usually just a case of putting chords to those melodies and rhythms, then wondering whether to use acoustic or electric – or both; working out whether it’ll sound better in an open tuning or standard, and generally just experimenting until I’ve got a sound that goes with the overall mood and feel of the lyrics.

Guitar Noise: We’re featuring your song “Constant Chameleon” on the Guitar Noise blog this month. Can you tell us a little bit about what went into writing and recording it?

Vic: I’ve had a chance to go back through the SSG pages, and the assignment that week – one of Bob’s was inspired by a conversation his partner & his sister had about fake tans! He wanted to use the “fake” metaphor in the sense of a disguise or a cover, so I thought about my very short-lived career as a salesman.

The title came first – the phrase “constant chameleon” came from an Alistair MacLean novel – I forget which one, but it was a description of someone who seemed to take on a new role or persona on a daily basis. Perfect for a salesman, I thought!

The music for the verses was easy enough…D, A, C and G chords: for the chorus, I wanted a descending melody line which started with D, Dmaj7, Bm (nice easy change if you’re playing the Dmaj7 with a mini-barre!) and Asus4/6.

I recorded the acoustic guitar and vocal together, then for the chorus added an extra vocal line using audacity. I’d not been recording very long, this was before the days I found out more about overdubbing – these days I’d probably record the guitar track first then cut-and-paste the vocal track for the chorus with a little delay. If I ever get round to recording this properly, I’ll keep the acoustic track pretty much as it is and add some jangly electric guitar (think “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Ticket to Ride”) to fill out the sound.

Guitar Noise: Having run the SSG, rather successfully I might add, for two years, do you have any advice to the folks who have always thought about trying out their skills writing a song but have yet to finish one?

Vic: Yes. Get writing! It doesn’t matter if everything you write seems the same, or a little clichéd, at first; every song will have some redeeming qualities. It’s just a case of finding out what your strong points are and developing a style of your own, but you’ll never know what those strong points are and you’ll never develop a style of writing until you actually put pen to paper. Once you do start writing songs, keep a notepad handy at all times – write down any interesting words or phrases you may read or hear in conversation.

Also, read other people’s SSG songs and lyrics – as I mentioned earlier, breaking a song down will give you a better understanding of how it’s built. The great thing about the SSG, I’ve always found, is that the criticism is constructive – if someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, they’ll generally tell you why they don’t like it, and offer useful suggestions as to how you can improve your song, and even your writing as a whole.

A couple of Guitar Noise articles I’d recommend to anyone (and have done, frequently, on the Guitar Noise forums) are Nick Torres’ Songwriting For Beginners and Songwriting For Intermediates, both of which were a huge help to me when I first started trying to improve my writing, and both of which I refer to from time to time to refresh my memory. Chock full of good, sound commonsense and practical advice – you could do a lot worse than start right there.