I don’t have any set way of approaching songwriting. I’ll never be referred to as “prolific”, that’s for sure. Because of that, I am always searching for inspiration from any source that comes my way. I write tons of riffs and chord progressions, but 95% of them end up on the scrap heap. That brings me to my first tip:
1. BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF: I kind of run through a mental checklist with any riff or part I’m working on. I ask myself hard questions. Is this fun to play? If I wasn’t the one playing it, would I really enjoy listening to it? Can I imagine a room full of people rocking out to this? Am I unconsciously ripping off another song? Is there anything “special” about what I’m playing? If I answer all these questions truthfully, I scrap what I’m working on the vast majority of the time. On the rare occasion something passes the test, it goes in the mental “riff bank.” Once a new riff is in the riff bank, I scroll through my other “keeper” riffs in the riff bank and see if anything else I’ve got will work with the new riff. If not, it will sit in the riff bank (sometimes for YEARS) until I find a use for it. If a couple of parts happen to mesh nicely, then I keep on polishing until the skeleton of a song starts to emerge. Only at this point do I present what I’ve got to the band.
2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE YOU TRUST: “All killer, no filler” has always been my approach to songwriting. No matter how sharp my self-editing filter is, some less than perfect stuff always creeps in. I depend on my bandmates as a vital sounding board. If I am sure that the people I’m playing with are talented and have good taste, I know I can trust their opinions on whatever I happen to bring to the table. If everybody in the band immediately starts picking up on what I’m playing, I can be pretty sure that we’re on to something. Then I listen to everyone’s input, and the song will start taking on a life of it’s own. Things start to naturally fall into place, then the song gets finished. YAY!!!
Conversely, I’ve gone to practice with something I was CONVINCED was the next rock’n’roll classic, only to have the band stinky-face it. You’ve got to let it go. If you trust them to tell you when something is good, you also have to trust them when they tell you something is not so good. If a riff/song gets rejected, I still keep it in the riff bank, but in a special section for riffs that need to be re-worked. I’ll change the key, play it in a different tuning, speed it up, slow it down, change the time signature or rhythmic feel, or anything else I can think of to change it up until I think it is worthy of re-submission to the band. Brutal honesty is an absolute necessity if you want to write awesome music in a band context. You need to be prepared to accept constructive criticism, and you can’t be afraid to give it, either.
3. THINK LIKE A COMPOSER: When I’m writing guitar parts, I try to imagine a general outline of what the whole band will play. I keep this fairly vague, ‘cuz things are always more interesting when every band member puts their own spin on their own part. I might give really general instructions, like ‘this part needs a Keith Moon fill”, or “play harder towards the end of this part”. When I say “think like a composer”, I’m referring to the use of texture and dynamics to make a song interesting. This is the “craft” part in the art of songcraft. Experiment with everything at your disposal, within the structure of a rock band. The goal is to keep the listener (not to mention the players) interested in the song on a moment-by-moment basis. A song can start with one instrument, then gradually build until the whole band is playing. Or, it can just blast off at full tilt. Experiment with half time and/or double time at different parts of the song. Put in dead stops, leave holes and space so the song can breathe, have certain instruments drop out, change guitar tones, go quiet/loud, go loud /quiet, change keys, whatever you have to do make a song MOVE. Analyze the arrangements in songs you love, and really dissect them. Notice the neat things that catch your attention, and try your own variation of the same technique. Experiment, experiment, experiment.
4. PICK UP ANOTHER INSTRUMENT: When I play guitar too much, I tend to fall into certain patterns and keys that I’ve already beaten into the ground, simply because they fall comfortably under my fingers. Y’know, kinda thinking with my hands instead of my brain. When this happens, I pick up a bass, or sit down behind the drums, or plink out a melody on a piano. This forces me to actually think about what I’m playing, ‘cuz I’m out of my comfort zone. I’ve written melodies I really like on the keyboard that I never would have found on the guitar, just because they were too easy. Music doesn’t have to be difficult to be good, and I tend to lose sight of that because of the years and years I’ve worked on my skill as a guitarist. This is one of the pitfalls that all instrumentalists need to be conscious of once they achieve a high degree of skill and technique. I’m a really mediocre drummer, but sometimes I’ll settle on a beat or groove that will kick off a riff in my head. I play bass WAY differently than I play guitar, so that can spark ideas as well. Once I step out of the box and come up with something that catches my ear, I can pick up my guitar and approach it in a fresh way. Always remember that you’re not just playing your instrument, you’re playing MUSIC.
5. LESS IS MORE: It’s a cliché, but it’s true. This isn’t to say that music has to be simple to be good. What I mean is that every note should be absolutely necessary. To me, a song is only done when it falls apart if you add or take away anything at all. It’s OK to write an epic, as long as it is as streamlined and sleek as it can possibly be. Todd Rundgren once said, “It’s better to write a 3 minute song that people wish was 10 minutes than to write a 10 minute song people wish was 3 minutes”. Sage advice from a great songwriter!