Group Therapy – (Assembling a Piece for the Ensemble)

“…but you know gray is my favorite color…” – Adam Duritz (Mister Jones)

People get into songwriting for all sorts of reasons.

I wrote my first song in December of 1974. It was, of course, a love song for the girl I was seeing at that time in my life. She was, of course, the first real serious girlfriend I’d had. We, of course, broke up as a matter of course (the following spring). She moved away, moved back, moved away, married, had kids and (except for a phenomenally bizarre period of my life in the early nineties) I really haven’t thought all that much about her. Or us, for that matter. This, of course, is how life works, and I have no complaints about this.

But someone recently asked me if I could remember the first song that I had ever written. I didn’t even have to think about it; I just started to play it and let the time warp happen. With just the strum of a simple C (add 9) arpeggio I was seventeen again, ready to take the world by storm with my utterly incredible (yet lovably humble) songwriting skills. And if the world wasn’t quite ready for me just yet, at least I might have better luck with young lady for whom I had written the song. Like every writer before me (and each and every one since), I was without peer.

And, as I played my first song, I was not in the least amazed at my feeling this way. It truly happens each time I perform one of my own pieces.

Songs hold strong sentimental power over most of us. I say “songs,” as opposed to “music,” because I believe that we ingest most of our music through song. We are more apt to remember a song than a bit of background in a movie (unless it’s something like the music in Psycho or Jaws). The songwriter is part sorcerer – weaving spells that enchant, amuse, delight or haunt us throughout our daily routines.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that one’s playing abilities have absolutely no bearing on one’s songwriting talents. I know people who are great writers and average players as well as people who are virtuoso players but have little or no writing skills. I know people who are great players and have great writing skills but have no interest whatsoever in writing.

Just like the guitarist, the songwriter has to begin somewhere. And the best place to begin is someplace where you feel comfortable. Do something (relatively) easy and then set out to branch out and grow. Also, again like the guitarist, a songwriter has to have a motive. Why am I writing this song? Do I have something to say? Something to share? Money to make?

And, keeping the last point in mind, here is the first of this column’s official disclaimers:

Nothing I write is going to make you money. It may help you develop your skills as a guitarist and/or a songwriter; it may even enrich you as a person. But when it comes to making money in the music business (and I should probably say “BIG money,” because anyone who is in it for the money is never in it to just get by) there are many more factors involved, luck and contacts being in the forefront.

I started writing because I wanted to be known as a great songwriter. I continue writing because it helps me to make sense of things. To be able to take all the happy sad crazy beautiful ugly silly random fated senseless big little loud quiet bits of life and give them some structure, give them a place where I can reflect on them in a setting of my choosing. This gives me a way to deal with day to day existence, little pieces of the big picture upon which to reflect. And it allows me to reflect myself back onto life as well.

On The Theory Of Evolution

One of the interesting things about looking back through twenty-five years’ worth of songs is to be able to tell you my musical frame of mind from listening to any given song. Musically, my first efforts were understandably simple but quickly they became more complex, almost as if I was trying to show off, to get noticed. If I’d just learned a new chord or figured out a cool riff, I’d stick it in there someplace. Okay, everyplace. This also is part of the normal life cycle of the songwriter. One of my friends in college wrote one song a day when he was just starting to write. I tried for five a month but was happy with two or three.

But there came a point when I was more concerned about sharing my songs rather than just performing them. And by “sharing,” I mean playing them with other people instead of playing them for other people. Now this may seem like such a little thing, but it is a huge, huge step in the development of a songwriter. All of a sudden, it’s not just about the song (personal) but also about the touches that other people (universal) are now able to bring to the table. When you get to this stage, you end up creating a band, as opposed to a dictatorship.

When I first joined a band, the songs stayed simple. I wanted to get my songs played so I tried to make them as easy to learn as possible. Another thing we tended to do as a band was to write songs that sounded “familiar.” When you play in bars, people tend to not listen to you if they don’t know the music. So you’d play a Neil Young song and follow it up with your “Neil Young song.” Then a couple of sixties covers and then your “Grateful Dead song.” You get the drift.

But it was always a group effort. I might have a specific idea for what the bass (or drums, keyboards, whatever) should do; fortunately, the band member in question not only could perform what I’d envisioned but usually could also improved upon it greatly.

When I was comfortable in a band (and the band was comfortable with itself), I would get ambitious and experimental. The songs themselves might still be relatively simple but the arrangements could get complicated. And, ultimately, the songs became as simple or complex as the situation warranted.

Writing and recording on my own again, I’m finding that the songs themselves tend to dictate what is going on. A song meant to evoke a Motown feel may sound simple, but it’s bound to have a number of diminished chords lurking about. A song dealing with talking with God will be full of vague chords, chords that refuse to declare themselves as major or minor and simply flow one to another. Much the way my conversations with and/or about any cosmic deity tend to happen in real life.

I’m bringing all this up simply to show you that there may be things you want to consider as you set out to write. I don’t know any songwriters that live in vacuums. Whether we admit it or not, we write so that someone will hear our music. It’s up to you to come up with any specific “”whys” and “wherefores.”

Knowing The Players

“If you’re writing on guitar, put the guitar on your knee
If you’re writing on piano, don’t do that…”

– Harry Nilsson (“How To Write A Song”)

Today I’m going to walk you through another “step by step” process of a song I wrote back in 1983. It’s called Chan and I guess I’d better throw in the second disclaimer while I’m thinking about it:

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.”

Again, as I pointed out in the first disclaimer, I do this in order to give you an example as to how to develop a songwriting process. In this particular case, it will also show you how to use some of the aspects of music theory that we’ve been discussing this past month or so. And, truth be told, I’m not as concerned that this helps you to write a song as I am that it help you to think and to see how all the pieces fit together. Okay?

First, though, a few things for those of you who are really serious about writing: I am going to go on the assumption that we’re all writing on guitars, this being Guitar Noise and all. It really doesn’t matter what type of guitar it is as long as it is a guitar with which you are comfortable. Another thing you should have handy is either a tape recorder (and it can be an incredibly cheap one) or a pad of paper with a pen (which can also be an incredibly cheap one). You don’t know how many times people tell me about coming up with something really great only to forget how they came up with it in the first place. Stop to write things down. Tell your tape machine exactly how you’re fingering an unusual chord or playing a stunning riff. Don’t take the chance that your brain is going to remember any of what you’re doing.

And, in addition to the “whys” of writing a song, it’s good to worry a little bit about the “who’s.” Not “who inspired you to write” or “who is the song about,” but rather, “who is going to play this song?” Seriously. One of the original charms of MTV’s “Unplugged” program, way back when Jules Shear was hosting it, was the emphasis on the actual songs themselves. Part of this carried over to the “Storyteller” series as well, before both shows became nothing more than “Hey, don’t forget to buy my new album” formats. But that’s neither here nor there. One of the really interesting side bars of examining a song is this fashion never gets talked about and that’s how much of the song was written by the songwriter(s) with their particular band in mind. Think about it. One of the great things about Pete Townshend’s style is how radically different his solo songs are is from the ones performed by the Who. There are huge gaping holes there, specifically to be filled by either Keith Moon, John Entwhistle or himself. These songs were written with the group’s strengths in mind.

If you’re writing a song that only you are going to perform, you almost never give a thought to an arrangement of any sort. But if you’re working on a piece that will involve other musicians (and especially ones whom you know well) you subconsciously tailor the song to their abilities as well as your own.

Chan was one of my first attempts at writing for a band. I should clarify that a bit. It was written with specific band members’ abilities in mind. At the time I was playing keyboards in the group Balance of Power. The band, at that time, consisted of myself, a female lead vocalist, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. Roy and Greg (bass and lead, respectively) are exceptional instrumentalists and any chance we had to show off their skills was to our considerable advantage.

This song was also one of those rare instances (for me, anyway) when music, lyrics and a basic arrangement all seemed to arrive on the same train, so to speak. One Sunday I was reading a piece on the Vietnamese mothers of American “war orphans.” The article opened something like this (after all this time I do not remember the exact wording): “Chan keeps her precious things in a cardboard box by her bed.” For some reason, I was struck by this image, particularly how seemingly universal it was.

I was also listening to Quadrophenia a lot at the time. I wanted to try to write something using a bass drone underneath a changing chord pattern, much like the beginning of I’ve Had Enough. If you listen to that song, you can hear Entwhistle’s bass just hammering away on the D note through numerous chord changes until finally erupting into a flurry of notes on his own.

Playing around with some variations of A, D and G chords and using my open A string to serve as a drone, I came up with the following progression:


Note that this is truly not that unusual. It’s simply a variation on the I – IV – VII – IV progression that is very common in rock, metal and pop music (think That’s What I Like About You). What I envisioned in my head was Jeff (rhythm guitar) chiming out the chords (hitting it once on the downbeat with a lot of ringing sustain) while Roy (bass) droned on the A for three measures and then went wild on a fill on the fourth measure. Then Greg’s lead guitar could come in for a call and response fill while the vocals rested. The first line (and please remember I am really only approximating their parts) would look something like this:

Chan - vocals line 1
Chan - rhythm line 1
Chan - bass line 1
Chan - lead line 1
Chan - vocals line 2
Chan - rhythm line 2
Chan - bass line 2
Chan - lead line 2
Chan - vocals line 3
Chan - rhythm line 3
Chan - bass line 3
Chan - lead line 3
Chan - vocals line 4
Chan - rhythm line 4
Chan - bass line 4
Chan - lead line 4

A quick word about the melody: I do not have (by any means) a great voice. But I can “follow” notes fairly well when I hear them and, consequently, my melodies tend to shadow the voicings of the guitar. This is probably why I spend a lot of time working up different ways to play chords. I also really enjoy singing (or attempting to sing) harmony parts, so the simpler I can keep the melody, the easier it is for me to concentrate on that.

Anyway, having one line I then repeated it for good measure (no pun intended) and contemplated my next move. I figured an authentic cadence (E to A) couldn’t hurt and, of course, I repeated that too. But I wanted the end of this “chorus” section to lead right back into the “verse” part, so I took the G to D from the end of the verse and just threw an E at the end. When I eventually played this for the band, Roy suggested putting in a full (quarter note) rest before the E in both the E to A cadences and it was indeed a terrific way to mark the verse/chorus boundary. I also switched back to first position chords in order to get a lot of clean volume from the rhythm guitar:

Chan - chorus line 1
Chan - chorus line 2

Yet Another Bridge To Cross

Okay, one verse/chorus down, repeat as directed. But I wanted a bridge. I had a melody (and lyrics) I’d worked out but no idea of what chords to use:

Chan - bridge line 1
Chan - bridge line 2
Chan - bridge line 3
Chan - bridge line 4

Given what I had (and knowing a bit of theory), I knew that I was going to end on E (and, in all probability, D to E). But I also figured that I could have some fun getting there. Let’s see, C# to start with gave me A, C#m and F#m as the obvious choices. Since my next “resting point” on the melody line was a D note, I decided to try the F#m and to go to D from there (one measure of each). Not too bad. I repeated that for the second phrase (“digging holes and building bridges”) and found that I had finally pushed my luck a bit too far. While the chords did fit in with the notes of the melody, it just didn’t sound right. Try it yourself and see what you think. Finishing out on a solid A seemed much more appropriate, giving a natural pause to the bridge before starting towards the E. Thinking about it a bit I reasoned, “F#m is III if D were I, so how about C#m to A? It’s still III to I, only in the right key in the first place!”

That worked out fine and then I used my head a little more. Without meaning to, I had started a pattern – first chord minor (F#m), down two steps to a major (D), down one step to a minor (C#m) and then down two steps to a major (A). If I continued in this manner my next move would be down one step to G#m and then…down two steps to E! I would have arrived at my destination! But at one chord change per measure, I had two measures left over. Not good. What to do, What to do?

Well, if I close the bridge with a D to E cadence, and assuming that I still start with the G#m, I only have one extra measure to fill. I think that I could go two steps from G# to B and then two more steps up to D. The B major can also serve as “V of V,” which would prepare the ear for the upcoming E. That, of course, would lead me directly back to the final verse.


Or perhaps an instrumental. I could never write a song in order to show off my instrumental abilities. For starters, I’m waaaaayy too conscious of the fact that I’m not really that stellar a player. I’ll take any small part thrown my way, to be sure, but I tend to shy away from being the focal point. It’s just not me. But I love hearing my friends play. So putting in an instrumental verse allows me to sit back and fully enjoy what they are able to bring to my song. And “my” song becomes “our” song. That’s a great feeling.

I throw in a repeat of the bridge, mostly in order to appease my need to play around with the lyrics, but also to give a better lead in for the final verse. And I realize that it’s doomed to be a fade-out ending unless I come up with some sort of final resolution. This, compared to everything that’s gone on before, is a simple problem. I repeat the final chord sequence, only I replace the E with an A, giving me G to D to A. The plagal cadence (D to A) is not as strong as E to A, but it does put things to rest. Roy suggests that we throw in another rest at the start of this progression and that works, too. It’s almost a tease (“Are they going to play another chorus?”).

An interesting postscript to this is that when we performed the song, it was well received and we eventually ended up tacking on a “fade-out ending” of sorts anyway. We would hold the final A chord, get some applause, and then the drummer would count off four beats and we’d launch ourselves back into the A – D – G – D progression of the verses with everyone taking a turn at a lead or two.

And here’s the complete package (and please realize that I use the chord voicings we discussed earlier for the verses) (I just didn’t feel like writing it out over and over again!):

Chan - line 1
Chan - line 2
Chan - line 3
Chan - line 4
Chan - line 5
Chan - line 6
Chan - line 7
Chan - line 8
Chan - line 9
Chan - line 10
Chan - line 11
Chan - line 12
Chan - line 13
Chan - line 14
Chan - line 15
Chan - line 16
Chan - line 17
Chan - line 18
Chan - line 19

As always, please feel free to write me with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered. You can reach me directly at [email protected] or just drop a line in at the Guitar Forums. And speaking of pages, take some time to look at all the work Paul has done redesigning the various pages here at Guitar Noise. It’s amazing how this website continues to grow. Be sure to check out the new stuff by A-J and our new guy, Logan L. Gabriel. Not to mention the continuing contributions of Dan Lasley in the areas of both bass guitar and sound engineering. There’s a lot of great stuff here at your fingertips. Make the most of it!

Until next week!