Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 3

The following is excerpted from The Musician’s Guide to Recording, a free PDF full of great practical tips, advice, and wisdom on the recording process. Click HERE to download the complete guide for free.

 

NEIL FINN

“To some extent, a song either has it, or it doesn’t. If I can form an emotional connection with a piece of music, then it has worth and I’ll pursue it. If it just feels slight, or if I can admire it on the surface, but it doesn’t actually make me feel anything, then it’s gone.”

BEN HARPER

“Don’t be discouraged by writer’s block. Writer’s block just means you need to listen to other music. That’s how new ideas come, and how musical inspiration is passed on—through other music and other brilliant artists. You can re-listen to the stuff you love, but that’s not always going to pull you in new directions. With that mental downtime, you can listen to Lee Scratch Perry or Jeff Buckley or the first Pearl Jam record. You can listen to Tim Hardin, Delta blues, country, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Paul Weller, and Run D.M.C. Listen to whatever pulls you in different musical directions so that you don’t start copying yourself.”

RICK NIELSEN

“There’s no real voodoo in writing guitar riffs— you just look for something that catches your ear—but a good lick should be easy to play. If it’s unnatural to play, it should be Mahavishnu Orchestra or something! I mean, listen to Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxy Lady,’ or ‘Last Time’ by the Stones—they sounded neat the first time I heard them, and they still sound good today. I never get tired of hearing those licks. Sometimes it’s the simplicity that makes a lick timeless. Too many guitarists get hung up on not wanting to sound dumb. It’s like when I saw Mike Judge on Late Night with David Letterman, and Dave was giving him a hard time about Beavis and Butthead, saying the show was so stupid that anyone could have done it. And Judge just answered, ‘Yeah, but I did it first!’ So, think about ‘Purple Haze.’ Anybody could have played that lick, too—it’s simple—but nobody did. Not until Hendrix. The bottom line is that there are 12 notes available, and you have to do something with them. Make them work for you, or make them work against you. And remember: Everyone else has those same 12 notes, so it’s always going to be interesting and challenging to come up with a unique signature riff.”

LIZ PHAIR

“I typically write progressions visually on the fretboard—and also tactilely. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh, this is a G, A, D chord progression,’ I’ll look at where my hands physically rest on the neck, and kind of reach my fingers around to find other chords. Otherwise, if I have a chord progression that I like, and I don’t know what to do next, I’ll think, ‘Is this low on the neck? Well, then I’ll jump really high.’ I try to keep the changes real contrast-y. Either that, or I’ll just kind of crawl around like a spider with my fingers on the fretboard. I do conceptual tricks to break formulas and inspire new directions. I’m really brainy about my songwriting on the guitar—but in an ignorant way.”

NEIL FINN

“It’s a bit cruel perhaps, but I think it’s better for writers to get to a point early, rather than later, where they realize that they have some abilities but they don’t have anything that sets them apart. That’s an awkward row to hoe, because you might end up struggling for years— in your mind, putting all the right pieces together and making impressive music—but never produce anything that has an obvious character.

“What’s weird to me is that people continually make the mistake of trying to copy other people’s styles. I mean, I did it to some extent when I started off, as well. But, at some point, you have to realize that the flaws and weak- nesses in your style are exactly the things that give you character. You should allow those flaws to exist, and, in fact, work on them. It’s the funny way that you get from the chorus to the verse—that doesn’t sound like how anybody else would do it—that is actually what will make people notice you. If you spend too much time learning other people’s licks on guitar and also try to sing like somebody else and write songs like somebody else, you run the risk of losing yourself in the process.”

ROBBIE ROBERTSON

“There’s something to be said for experimentation—breaking some of the boundaries and challenging yourself. There’s nothing wrong with sitting at the piano, writing some nice chord changes, putting a melody to those changes, and adding a potent lyric. But there are other means of discovering the song. I don’t know of any right or wrong, or good or bad, in any method. I think whatever inspires you— and provokes you into getting at what is deep down inside you—is the best method.

“Using an unfamiliar method, however, can lead you down a path where you don’t resort to the same type of structure and melodic intent. For some of the songs on Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, I’d make a strange noise on the guitar, then record it and loop it. Or I’d program a drum loop. Often that little noise and that little rhythm would make me want to write a song, so I’d improvise over it until something developed. Now, this is a different writing process from the Cole Porter method of sitting at the piano with a cold martini, but I find it’s very healthy—in a creative sense—to keep yourself slightly off balance.”

RAY DAVIES

“I recommend that writers record all the time. When you’re writing, you’re doing this balancing act between the instinctive thing that leaps right out of you and the refinement of that moment. The first time you sing a line, you might use a weird phrasing, or put a line on the upbeat rather than on the downbeat. Shifts like that will change everything, and you have to document what you did. You see, most writers now aren’t Leonard Bernstein—thank God—who actually notated everything from day one. Most people come into songs by accident—including me. They get an idea, think they’re doing one thing, but they’re actually singing in 3/4 or 6/8 or something. But you can always play the tape and say, ‘Oh, that’s how I did it!’ On the other hand, writing down ideas is such a finite thing, and sometimes you don’t write what you hear in your head. It’s very difficult to come from the dream to the page.”

LIZ PHAIR

“Recording is the weirdest thing about being a songwriter, because it stops the songwriting process. It freezes that version in time. You don’t know what the song could have become if you had kept going, but stopping may be the merciful thing to do.”

RICHIE HAVENS

“I don’t claim to write songs. I write them down, verse by verse, without changing a thing. And I’m often surprised when they turn out to have deeper and higher layers of meaning than I’d first imagined.”

RICHARD THOMPSON

“Someone very wise once said, ‘Copy everyone except yourself.’ Looking at other people’s ideas and twisting them to fit your own style is a good thing. You can also catch yourself traveling down the same road you’ve gone down before, and nip it in the bud right then and there. You can say to yourself, ‘I’ve used the same chord sequence before—how can I twist it slightly to make it into a different chord sequence? Can I do something no one has ever done before?’ It’s important to keep searching, and not go for the obvious idea.”

RAY DAVIES

“Having a band perform your work is critical. That’s what I call dramatizing your music. When I use this word “drama,” I don’t mean it flippantly. If the dramatization doesn’t work— which is you performing the song—you should look at it again.”

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 1

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 2

 

 

 

 

 



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