10 Exercises that Turn Guitarists into Songwriters
Sure, y’all can play songs, but can you write one? Here in Nashville writing songs is like breathing — it’s a requirement for musical life. And those who can pen a tune with lyrics have an entire host of opportunities for income, performing and creative satisfaction that those who can’t do not.
If you’re daunted by the notion of songwriting, don’t be. It’s like walking. Once you start, it becomes something you hardly think about.
Here are 10 creative suggestions to help put you on the path to becoming a songwriter:
• Listen to great songwriters: Dig out some of your favorite albums and listen to songs that you love. Think about things those songs do or say that makes them connect with you. Those are the qualities you should concentrate on developing in your own writing. If something connects with you, it will connect with others as well. And good songwriting is all about connection.
• Write a short story: Great songwriting is about storytelling. Write a very short story — maybe just a few hundred words — describing an experience you’ve had that you think might make a good song. Put the story aside for a day, and then read it with fresh eyes. Look for the key words and sentences that get across the tale’s essential elements and ideas. Those are the makings of your song’s lyrics. Write them on a separate piece of paper and begin filling in the details in lyric form.
• Play rhyming games: Free associate with words, and try to get away from too-easy June/moon rhyming. If you’re driving, just toss out the first word that comes to mind and start finding word that rhyme. Get the easy ones out of the way first and then push yourself. If you get to a point where orange and porridge and Torrance all start sounding like they rhyme, you’re on the right path. And say the words aloud. Hearing words come out of your own mouth helps develop a better grasp of how vowel and consonant sounds mesh.
• Read poetry: Great poets can express a universe of emotions, actions and thoughts in very spare language. Reflecting on good poetry allows you to observe how effectively a few well-chosen words can tell a story or express an idea. Like great poets, great songwriters do not waste words.
• Think about vocal phrasing: This correlates to the above. If you’re writing a song, you need to be able to sing it, which means you must be able to breathe — especially if you’re going to deliver your lyrics set to a melody, which is ideal. Breathing and melodic phrasing are inseparable. The modern roots songwriter Otis Taylor is a genius at this. He can tell a deep tale in just a few terse sentences, and Taylor uses repetition as a device to reinforce his ideas in the way more conventional songwriters use choruses. With few words, his breathing in uninhibited, which transforms his voice into a powerful instrument. James Brown, Bobby Bland and a host of other great soul singers also knew how to make terse lines speak with eloquence. Listen to artists who do this, both classic and contemporary.
• Listen to Bob Dylan: Dylan is acknowledged as the greatest songwriter of the rock ‘n’ roll era because that’s what he is — period. But he is a textbook unto himself. Dylan violates rules about storylines with his blends of fact and fiction and free association, and he sometimes crowds his lyrics with so many words that a lesser performer would be tongue-tied. The lesson to be learned from Dylan is that there are ultimately very few limitations on where a song can go and how it gets there. But take heed: it is best to learn at least some of the rules before breaking them.
• Study rhyme schemes: Listening to artists at the height of their craft — like Dylan, Otis Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits — one hears a variety of rhyme schemes that are all highly effective. The last word of every line does not have to rhyme. It can, but that can lead to overly simplistic craft. Rhyming every second line, using rhythms within lines (internal rhyme) and not rhyming at all are part of the songwriter’s tool kit.
• Try alternate tunings: A piece of cake with Gibson Min-ETune™, some of the coolest rock songs of all time have been written in open tunings. “Proud Mary,” for example, is in open D. “Kashmir” and “Going To California” are in D-A-D-G-A-D. And everything by Sonic Youth is in some kind of idiosyncratic stringing. If the blood’s not flowing in standard tuning, change things up and see what ideas these bold new flavors may conjure.
• Challenge yourself: Recently I was flying from Nashville to Baltimore and arbitrarily decided to try to write five songs on the flight, which is less than two hours. I penned two-and-a-half, and I’m still happy with the two completed numbers several weeks later. Don’t be afraid to set goals. For beginners, consider writing and demoing one song a week for a month. And crank those up as you feel more confident and practiced. Sometimes when you force yourself to say something, you find that you have something really good to say.
• Be reckless and confident: Just go for it, make mistakes and don’t judge or question yourself as you write. The more you write, the better you write, and there’s no law that says you have to perform or demo any songs you write that you don’t love. And writing often will help you create more songs that you do.