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Four Tips to Fire Up Your Inner Songwriter

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These proven approaches encourage creativity by getting you past writer’s block.

Composing music is a satisfying process in which we build something from the ground up. But that process of starting from nothing can be daunting; one that leaves us feeling blocked. To break through creative gridlock, I often use other songs as the starting point for my own music.

The four concepts I share below are effective both for writing music inspired by other songs but work well without a reference song in mind. Use them alone or in combination to inspire your compositions.

Let’s get started.

Guitar Notes - January 2018

Many times a great guitar like one of these beauties from Fender Custom Shop is enough to inspire a great song. But failing that, there are some sure-fire tricks to fuel the songwriting process.

Determining Your Song's Tempo and Feel

Determining the tempo and feel of your tune is a great first step in composing. Are you writing a slow ballad? Maybe a driving rock tune with a four-on-the-floor drum groove a la Van Halen’s “Panama”? Or maybe something with a Latin feel? Posing these types of questions can kickstart a composition that that ends up seeming to write itself. Try writing a tune with the tempo and feel of a song you like and see what happens. Moving the tempo a few BPM in either direction can have a huge impact in the final feel of your song. Finding the perfect tempo for your composition will help put you on solid creative footing.

Another time-based composition tool is meter. Consider writing something in 3/4, 5/4 or 7/4. I sometimes use meter in the final stages of the writing process, especially when I’m writing jazz tunes. It’s very easy to throw your compositions into new time signatures, giving them new life. Changing the time signature is also a cool way to put your imprint on someone else's song. How about covering “Summertime” in 5/4 or “Footprints” in 4/4? I say yes.

Production

Using production or execution techniques in the studio can be huge. Some of the simplest songs are wonderful because of the way they were produced or performed in the studio. Radiohead immediately comes to mind when I think of bands that do this well. Maybe your song is a drum machine with acoustic guitar, bass and analog synth. Or maybe you’re using two hard-panned rock guitars like Malcolm and Angus Young. It doesn’t have to be complicated to sound distinctive.

Find a song you like and mimic the instrumentation and production to start the writing process. The coolest aspect of these composition tricks is that you’ll most likely not be able to reproduce your inspiration exactly anyway. Somewhere along the way, with some creative contributions on part, your song will spread its wings and diverge from the initial inspiration piece, becoming your own work of art. Just remember not to lose sight of important songwriting elements like song form, melody and harmony.

Determining A Key or Mode For Your Song

Deciding on a key or mode will also help fire up the composition process and set the mood for your new song. Certain keys come alive on guitar. E, A, D and G are not only the four lowest strings on the guitar and the open strings on a bass, they are also go-to notes to use as the tonic or key when writing on guitar. Strum an open E chord or D chord and see where it takes you.

Modes are different scales or or interval relationships. Every note in the major scale has its own mode and each mode has its own tonality or mood. For instance, if you write a song in E major it tends to sound happy while E minor would be dark and maybe even melancholy. Lesser known modes are great for projecting moods. Experiment with the softer minor sound of Dorian, the mysterious Lydian sound or maybe the Spanish sound of the Phrygian mode. Figure out the key and mode of a song you like and try writing your own song using them.

January 18 - Guitar Notes Pedal Board

 The Line 6 DL4, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb or the EVH Phase 90 might generate just the sound you need to write and arrange your next great song.

Tone and Effects

What would surf guitar be without reverb? Rockabilly without slapback? Tone and effects can have a great deal to do with guitars and composition. Even a simple rock sound or fat, mellow jazz tone can be enough to drive a composition. Andy Summers and his big chorus tone shaped the sound of the Police. U2 and its guitarist The Edge have made major use of delay effects to help mold the band’s iconic sound and compositions. Technology is making it easier than ever to get your hands on a ton of different effects. See what kind of inspired music comes out when you take an experimental approach with effects and run with them.

Related: Four T’s for Music - Tone, Time, Theory and Technique

So there you have it: Jump into the compositional process by starting with time and feel. Unique production styles, instrumentation or letting the sound of a specific key or mode move you are all effective ways of moving the process along. Or grab some effects and see what that shakes loose. Just remember that having a clear sense of the song’s structure and a strong melody are cornerstones in creating great music.

Until next time, keep playing!

Read all Guitar Notes posts here.

Visit Private Reserve Guitars or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.

Brian Baggett Private Reserve Bio

Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled "Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard".

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