Alternate Writing Styles

Gibson Guitar

Lots of fun this week – a neat way of using alternate tunings, a really, really cool alternate tuning to use, the surprising return of the C major scale and an original song! And, to lead things off, a new “official disclaimer,” tailor-made for this occasion:

This file is the author’s own work. It is his song – lyrics, music and all. It is copyrighted and intended for private study, scholarship or research. It is also meant to be played, so please feel free to do so. Play it for your friends, family, kids, loved ones, pets, plants or perfect strangers. Just one favor – give credit where credit is due. If someone asks, “Hey! Who wrote that?” please don’t refer to me as “I dunno, some guy who writes on the internet.” Be polite and tell them “Mr. I dunno, some guy who writes on the internet.”

Okay, let’s get a tad more serious. Can you remember the very first column I wrote, way back when? (Breaking Out of the Box – November 12, 1999) It really does seem like centuries ago, instead of just a few years, doesn’t it? We we’re discussing ways of revitalizing your music-mindset. Everybody gets stuck in a rut at some point but, for whatever reasons, writers seem to make the biggest deal about it. You never hear of a guitarist suffering from “strummer’s amnesia” or of a bassist under the spell of the “bottom end blahs.” Do you? But everyone knows about “writer’s block,” don’t they? Do you know why? Because writers think the world revolves around them and when the world stops they want everyone to know about it. They’ll even write crazy disclaimers in an effort to make you notice how clever they think they are.

Okay, let’s get a wee bit more serious. Songwriters fall prey to writer’s block quite easily. It’s the nature of the beast. As you’re already well aware, there are only so many chords and notes out there with which to work. But as bad as writer’s block may be, it is much, much worse to be suffering from what I call “song sameness.” This is when a writer just keeps rewriting the same song over and over and over and over and over again. The same chord progression, same tempo, same stylistic touches, the whole works. Even when (especially when) it’s an obvious attempt to recapture an earlier sound (“ka-CHING”), it’s truly sad to listen to.

Alternate tunings can be used both as a writing tool and as a method to combat writing problems. What we’re going to do today is walk through what (for me) is a typical writing process, magically condensed into the space of a single column (kind of like time lapse photography). Not surprisingly, this will involve touching upon quite a number of subjects that we’ve covered in the past five months (as well as some we have not), so do feel free to wander all around and about.

Painting A Picture Puzzle

Having read A-J Charron’s articles on song writing and inspiration, or just from writing yourself, you know that different people write in different ways (heck, often one person will write in different ways). As a rule, I usually fall into that group of songwriters that finishes the music first. At any given time I may have up to five or more music arrangements that I like a lot and for which I fully intend to (some day…) write appropriate lyrics. Part of the reason that I write this way is due to my relationship with words. I tend to over-edit things (to put it mildly…).

But part of the reason I write this way is because of my relationship with music. It’s rare for me to learn a new riff or hear an interesting chord progression and not think “There’s a song in there someplace.” Not necessarily a whole song, usually just a part of one. A puzzle piece, if you will. Often putting together a song resembles nothing as much as assembling a picture puzzle. Some things fit perfectly, somethings need to be set aside and used later. You might swear that you’ve got a matching piece until you do find that one that connects in the exact way.

When I wrote with a band in mind, it often started as “we could use a song that sounds like…” So you’d come up with your “Beatles'” pop song, your “Psychedelic Furs'” rock song and so on. Usually after you got the rough draft down, the song would start to take a life of its own as each band member added a special touch. This is a naturally occurring evolution in the life of songs (and songwriters).

But on occasion, as I’ve noted, things dry up. Progressions sound tired. Or you get tired of shifting through the same patterns. One time when I has having a bad spell, I happened to read an interview with Adrian Belew in, I believe (it was a loooooong time ago), Musician Magazine. If you don’t the name, that’s okay. Mr. Belew has made quite a livelihood hanging out in the shadows. He’s played back up for Zappa, Bowie and Talking Heads (circa 1980). He was in the 80’s and 90’s line-ups of King Crimson and he’s done a lot of solo stuff. If you want to hear an “inventive” guitarist, he’s a good, unassuming player to start with. Anyway, in the interview I read, he was asked how he battled writer’s block and he answered that he’d often retune one string of his guitar to a different note. This would require him to reexamine how to make chords and to listen to how the differently voiced chords would flow into each other and basically start from square one as a player and as a writer.

That advice has stuck with me a long time. Nowadays when I learn a new tuning I make it a point to come up with at least two different songs of my own for that tuning. To me, it’s a logical thing to do because I now have two more reasons to practice a particular tuning. And if the songs turn out well, then, when I perform, I can play three or four songs (in a different tuning) in a row without having to stop to retune my guitar (or switch guitars). Another thing I do on occasion it to end a set with a couple of alternately tuned songs and then begin the next set with a few more songs in the same tuning. It’s just a matter of planning ahead.

One day early last fall, I heard a song by Willy Porter called Angry Words. Being unfamiliar with any of his stuff, I looked in the TAB archives to try to find out more about him (occasionally I will find out that an artist has done other songs that I do know – I just don’t know that I know. You know?). The only thing listed for him was a song entitled Trees Have Soul. Well, how can you resist a title like that? So I took a look and found that it was written in an alternate tuning I hadn’t seen before. And of course, that was enough to make me go and change the old six-string around in a heartbeat. Here’s the tuning:

Willy Porter tuning

To get this tuning, it’s best to start by re-tuning the B (2nd) string to C. Simply match the second string to the fifth fret of the G string instead of the fourth like you usually do. Then tune the 1st string to D either by using the open D (4th) string as an octave or by matching to the second fret of the newly tuned 2nd string. Finally get the 5th and 6th strings by matching to the appropriate octave (3rd and 2nd strings respectively). Your three lowest strings should now match by the seventh frets instead of the normal fifth frets.

Now you may not believe that I actually sit down and just explore a tuning but I do. I spent the better part of a weekend toying around with this one. I just loved it. Why? Well, for starters, it’s great for finger picking. There are no intervals of thirds in it so it’s friendly to major and minor chords and the “odd” intervals make for good passing tones. What do I mean by “odd intervals?” If we look at the tuning as the basis of making chords, then we have three choices with which we can start: C, G and D. To make a C major chord, we need a C, an E and a G (I, III, V). We have two of the three.

C major scale

The D is the odd interval here. In the key of C, the D is the second (or the ninth if you prefer) which is a perfect passing tone for motifs. And having the D (on the first string) right on top of the C (the second string) makes for good tension. In fact, simply picking the first three strings (open) makes a pretty good arpeggio in whatever order you decide to play them.

I hadn’t written a song in the key of C for a while I decided to work in that key. The first thing I needed to do was find my C chords. Since I was pretty taken with the G, C and D motif of the open first, second and third strings and since I also found myself enjoying the low C on the sixth string, I really only had to concentrate on the notes found on the fourth and fifth strings. Here’s my first “map” which really does reflect how much those open strings fascinated me:

Fretboard map

It really didn’t take too long to find my C chords (which are actually C (add 9) chords because of my open first string). I’m sure you’ve got them by now, too:

C chords

Continuing with my exploration of this particular alternate tuning, I went on and found other chords that are (traditionally) often used in C major. Some I liked and some I liked a lot. I often think that songwriting is a lot like painting – using various chords and chord voicings as colors that will evoke some kind of emotional response. Finding where the chords are in a new tuning is like opening a huge box of crayons for the first time.

I played around for quite a while in this tuning and I was certain of a few things. First, I was in a bit of a mellow mood and secondly, I was in a mindset to do something fairly straightforward and simple. “Simple” is the wrong word. “Simple sounding” is better. Oh, and one other thing – I’d been finding myself finger picking the strings in a 3 / 4 or 6 / 8 timing. This simple picking pattern seemed to be working well (shown here with one of my C chords):

Picking pattern

I happen to like waltzes, so I had no problem with this. The open strings and the timing give the whole piece a very dreamlike feel and I was more than happy to follow along in its wake.

Keeping “simple” in mind, I tried out a traditional I – IV – V – I progression. And it’s good to point out here that even a “traditional” chord progression, no matter how familiar, is usually transformed into something more mysterious when heard through an alternate tuning. Yet it still has a haunting sense of “home.” It’s comforting and intriguing at the same time.

Progression I

While I tested out chord patterns I also began to hum along, seeking out viable melody lines. Often instead of humming I’d sing nonsense words – la’s and ooh’s and such. Believe it or not, sometimes certain sounds, or even syllables, often become pieces of the puzzle. I had been pretty happy with the C – F – G – C pattern but as a melody emerged, a different problem arose. To contrast the arpeggios, I found that a slower, drawn out melody worked quite well, but now the guitar accompaniment seemed too static. Since I was playing four measures of each chord, I tried to come up with a different voicing for the chord for the third and fourth measures. This improved matters immensely. One attempt at a G7 (using the G string for a change) yielded an interesting guitar line so I threw that in as a “turnaround” between the first two verses.

Progression II

By this time I was pretty enthralled with what I was doing. The tuning, the chords, the picking pattern were all incredibly soothing to me. The music brought peace and relaxation. I thought, “It’s like a lullaby” and that made me laugh because I’d never ever thought of writing a lullaby before. But hey, why not now? So I started to sing a lullaby, using the stalest lines I could think of: “Hush little baby, don’t you cry…” And it just snapped into place. Sometimes the damnedest things just happen. If nothing else, I now had a working title: Lullaby.

So with two verses and the start of some real lyrics, things weren’t going too badly. Since going with traditional progressions was working pretty well, I decided to throw in a bridge and to start it off with a C7 (replacing the turnaround) going into an F. Then, since I’ve always enjoyed throwing in a minor or two, I shifted from F to F minor. Should I mention how much easier it was to play an F minor (or an F minor variation) in this tuning? Or an F, for that matter? I know I’m pounding the point home but it’s important – chords I might have shied away from in standard tuning (usually because of the fingering) became my best friends in this new one. It really can open your eyes to things.

Continuing with the bridge, I resolved the F minor to C and repeated the cycle. This time, though, I went from the F minor to G in order to bring it back to the final verse. But again, when I began “singing” to what I had, I found that the bridge seemed to float up to the verse, so I modified my final G to a G – Dm7- G in order to build a rising melody line. It’s worth noting that I debated for a while whether to use the Dm7 or a D7 before settling on the former. I again employed the “turnaround” I’d used earlier between the verses to serve as a signal for the start of the final verse. I figured I was home free.

But at the end of the last verse, I wasn’t satisfied. It needed a real ending, not one of these “fade out” sort of deals. So I played around some more and came up with a guitar line fairly similar to the turnaround but based on Fm (my new best friend) instead of G7.

Lullaby Ending Fm
Lullaby Ending C

This definitely worked out well in bringing the song to a satisfying conclusion. Pleased, I stopped tinkering with the music and began to work in earnest on the lyrics. There does come a point when you have to say, “Enough. It’s fine.” Usually when I find myself trying yet another change and then realizing it was better off the way it was to start with I know it’s time to quit.

A Thousand Words

I tend to write lyrics in spurts. Ideas will come at all odd times and I’ll write them down (yes, I carry a small note pad, just like A-J Charron suggests) but it takes time for me to be happy with a lyric. Maybe I’m just too critical; maybe I’m too pretentious.

One noticeable thing about writing in this fashion is that my song lyrics, depending on when they were written, tend to have a lot of recurrent themes. Something mentioned in one song is very likely to pop up for no obvious reason in another. This is neither good nor bad, I simply mention it in passing because at the time I was writing the lyrics for Lullaby I was (and still am) working on a number of songs centered around a trip I took to England a few years back. So some of the images leaked from other songs (and songs in progress) into this one.

I had two lines:

Hush little baby
Don’t you cry

And added:

Sleep sleep sleep

Harmless enough. I was going for as simple a style as possible. After all, I (or whoever I deemed to be my song’s “singer”) was supposedly singing to a baby. I have no children but I have lots of friends that do and I tried to imagine what I might sing to my child. The first thing I did, and don’t laugh, was to change “don’t you cry” to “close your eyes.” I didn’t (and don’t) think I would fare very well with a child that was crying.

From there, a logic of sorts took over the writing process. The second verse reflected a comment from another song that I was working on that eventually became Always. The “singer” (narrator, persona, whatever) of the song was looking at all the promises he’d made in his life, imagining them spread out across the sky like stars. We promise way too many things we can’t possible begin to make good on and I would certainly promise any child of mine the world. I substituted “tomorrows” for “promises” because I felt that the singer felt that tomorrow is often like a promise. It’s not likely to be anything like you think you’re getting:

Hush little baby
Close your eyes
Sleep sleep sleep

Stars like tomorrows
Fill up the sky
To light up your dreams

In the bridge, I again followed the logical lyric progression and tried to think of things that I would encourage a child (my child) to dream of at night. Angels, celestial bodies and flying, cliché as they might be, came to mind first.

You can sing with the angels
You can dance with the moon
You can fly across oceans so wide and deep

So hush little baby
Close your eyes
Sleep sleep sleep

“Flying across oceans” brought me back to my trip and since “deep” rhymes with “sleep” it seemed to flow right back to the first verse. When I looked at it later, though, I changed “wide” to “blue.” “Blue and deep” not only works with oceans, it also works with eyes which made me feel I’d made a much better connection to the repeated first verse. Now the whole thing had a lyrical flow, which had a special meaning for me and still could be understood and appreciated by people who didn’t know me at all.

So anyway, here’s the complete package:

Lullaby line 1
Lullaby line 2
Lullaby line 3
Lullaby line 4
Lullaby line 5
Lullaby line 6
Lullaby line 7
Lullaby line 8
Lullaby line 9
Lullaby line 10
Lullaby line 11
Lullaby line 12
Lullaby line 13
Lullaby line 14
Lullaby line 15
Lullaby line 16
Lullaby line 17
Lullaby line 18
Lullaby line 19
Lullaby line 20
Lullaby line 21
Lullaby line 22
Lullaby line 23
Lullaby line 24
Lullaby line 25
Lullaby line 26
Lullaby line 27
Lullaby line 28
Lullaby line 29
Lullaby line 30
Lullaby line 31
Lullaby line 32
Lullaby line 33
Lullaby line 34

Okay, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into alternate tunings. We’ll be exploring a number of the other things that we’ve touched upon (arrangements and songwriting) in upcoming columns this summer. Please feel free (as always) to email me any questions, comments, concerns, requests and whatever else either directly at [email protected] or via the Guitar Forums. And to all you who’ve written with suggestions of topics for future articles, please keep it up! A special thanks to A-J Charron for his tips and advice (and the Adrian Belew website address! If you’d like to read more about this great guitarist, one of the real unsung heroes of the guitar (and an all around nice guy), just go to and look around. It’s worth the trip).

Until next week.