Friday, December 29, 2006

Six key songwriting tips

Happy New Year! In keeping with the New Year tradition, I reviewed my blog for 2006 and posted a summary on my website, "Top songwriting tips from 2006."

My favorite six tips are given below:

1. Keep your songs short (3-4 minutes). Most songs you hear at an open stage are too long!

2. Focus on the groove (the pulse of the song). This separates musicians. If my foot is not moving in time, then the groove is missing.

3. Make sure there’s variety. Variety is the spice of life. If the same sound happens for too long, I’m asleep.

4. Make your songs memorable (melodic or lyrical hook). Success is when a line from a song gets stuck in your head.

5. Have daily songwriting practices. Daily practices are essential into getting into the flow of the muse.

6. Always be a student. The more you know, the easier it is to express yourself. Write a song with each new tip you learn. If you’re not learning, you will be writing the same song over and over.

Check out my other tips.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The power of a good hook

I've been walking around singing two lines from a Marty Jones song,

"You kissed me on the lips,
and I've been sick ever since."

I heard this on Satuday night (now it's Thursday). That's the power of a good hook (both lyrically and melodically), it sticks in your brain.

As a songwriter, I want to develop hooks that work like this one.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

The listening room - great for songwriters

On Saturday night we went to "The Listening Room" at Cafe Cero in Denver. The listening room is a concept hatched by Rop Roper to have place where you can listen to the lyrics and have a drink. Unlike a rowdy bar, the concept is to really relax and listen.

This month's show was excellent with three local songwriters Jenn Cleary, Marty Jones and the man, Rob Roper himself. Each of the performers had distinctive styles, and that alone added a lot of variety to the evening.

Jenn has an exceptional voice and great stage presence. In many of her songs, she repeated a single word over and over. Because she was able to change things up with her voice, it continue to sound good, not overly repetitive. It made the songs memorable. The point for songwriters, is use the repetition technique if you can change it up with your voice or melody.

I was very impressed with Marty Jones's songwriting. He's an excellent lyricist and had exceptional hooks like "next time you see me, I'll be dead," "I got over you, when you got under him." and "now we barely pass for a couple." You could really see his personality in the songs and his witty way of looking at life. I'm going to study Marty's lyrics, there's a good lesson there.

Rob played last and because of know him, I knew his songs. Rob had the most interesting guitar of the evening. Also, in the selection of his own songs and covers, you could really see his philosophy. A dry wit and social commentary.

A few points of the evening:

1) All performers performed a few covers. A few comments I noticed about covers:
- The crowd was much more likely to sing along.
- I relaxed more, because I didn't have to concentrate on the lyrics. It was more like and old friend coming into the room.
- When performing covers, nail them! There's more expectations with covers.
- Select cover that fit you're personality or what you're trying to say. Rob did "A Two Paper Town," from Steve Seskin. It was a song that I could see Rob writing.

2) Jenn and Marty used basically three or four chords in almost all their songs, yet I was not bored. It's more about the songs and performance that how difficult a guitar you play.

3) Keep it simple on stage, even if you're setting up the stage. For a few songs, Rob switched over to the piano and had a guitarist join him. They struggled with mixing the instruments, so it hurt the performance of that song. It also took him a while to regain his momentum, after the change over.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Successful melodies

Today I worked with Ben Senterfit on melodies. Ben described successful melodies as:
  • Hear it once and then remember it
  • Should be hum-able.
  • Don't need the lyrics to remember it (for example, the melody of Satisfaction)
Ben described two melody strategies:
  1. A lot of chord changes, with a simple melody (example, Georgia on my Mind).
  2. Simple chord changes, complex melody (example, bluegrass music)

To work on melodies, I recorded a song and then played a simple lead. I then tried to follow the lead with my voice. Ben pointed out that I was using the pentatonic scale for my lead and that most successful melodies are based on the pentatonic scale.

In our discussion, it became readily apparent that in my songwriting, I've focused on strong chords and lyrics. Most of my melodies, however, have been very limited, staying in the comfort zone of my voice. To expand my melodies, I will be practicing singing to various arrangements of the pentatonic scale (for example, I,II, III, V, or I, V, III). Each variation is in itself a new melody line.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hooks - making your song memorable

Hooks are for catching your listerner's attention (and fish) and to help them remember your song. In a class that I just took on SongU , they described four types of hooks. These are:

1) Lyrical hooks - That one line of verse that you remember from a song. From last year's Song School, I still remember the hook from one artist, "she only loves me when she's drunk." Unfortunately, I don't remember his name.

2) Rhythmic hook - That groove that has you keeping time all the way home (i.e. "We will Rock You.")

3) Melodic hook - The line you're always humming. Often paired with the lyrical hook.

4) Musical/instrumental break - Typically an intro, outro or break in a song. For example, the first lines of Stairway to Heaven (mandatory for all guitarists). Great for that game, I can name that song in -- notes...

Generating good hooks are some things that I need to work on. In writing songs, I tend to focus on getting the story down or cool guitar parts, not helping the listerner remember my song.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Looking for inspiration - try a different guitar

We were talking about guitars during songwriter's group. Someone asked Eddie if he liked his Taylor. He said that it sounds great on stage and in a room, but the studio performance leaves something to be desired. Ken another member used two different guitars for different tunings. Rob has a whole collection of guitars and still swears by Martin.

I've got four acoutic guitars. The one I play the most is a Louden. It has a great sound and works well for songs where the guitar needs to be clear. My songwriting took off after I started playing it. However, in my search for the groove, I found that my old cheapy (a 20+ year old Atlas) sounds better for hard driving rhythms. I have two 12 strings, a Breedlove and an old Fender. There voices are as different as can be.

Looking for inspiration, try a new guitar. Each time I pick up a new guitar I write a new song.
The different voices, lead to different styles and moods. Having two guitars around in different tunings (i.e. one in standard, the other in an open tuning) makes it easier to practice.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

One song - multiple versions

Another idea that emerged at our songwriting group - preparing different versions of a song for different purposes, i.e. on stage solo, on stage with accompaniment, and for CD. There are a few artists that I hear play live and then don't like their CDs. Others I only love their CD’s.

A few ideas on this are:

Song length – The songs should be shortest when playing solo. If you think in terms of variety, one person can only do so much. Adding another person gives more options for variety (i.e. a lead break, harmony, or just more movement).

Space between lyrics and chord changes – The gaps between lyrics or chord changes should be the shortest when playing solo. I’m not saying to play faster. What I’m saying is don’t hang out on one chord too long. A lead guitarist could fill that gap, but if nothing other than one chord is happening, you might lose your audience. The concept is to always have some movement.

Hearing once or multiple times - For an audience, you have one shot to make your point. On CD, you hope they listen multiple times.

Level of difficulty - In a studio, you have an opportunity to make mistakes. On stage, you may want an easier version.

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Rewriting a song – “Rob perfect”

Last night at our songwriting group, Rob Roper played a song that he has been working on for some time. He has a final version for the studio, but is developing a solo acoustic version. Last night he played three different versions of the song. All sounded great. What amazed me was that he was able to come up with three different versions. Knowing Rob, he probably tried and discarded another 10 or 20 versions before he presented this to us.

Rob’s finished songs are great, up there with anyone you’d paid to listen to. He exemplifies the concept of rewriting (i.e. “doing the work”). Not only does he change the lyrics and move sections around, he significantly changes the musical style. Songs for him evolve and it may take him a year or longer to complete a song. His songs are worth waiting for! I can’t help but marvel at his discipline and ability to make such major changes.

For me, I consider a song “finished” after I have a set of verses and chords. Occasionally, I go back add a bridge, make minor wording changes or move sections around. Once I play the “finished song,” it gets locked into my brain and that’s the only way I can hear it. I flat stink at rewriting.

I’m challenging myself to rewrite one song, until it is “Rob perfect.” I have a song in mind and will post it once completed. Don’t hold your breath!

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Acoustic Eidolon - variety is the key

We had the pleasure of seeing Acoustic Eidolon in concert over the weekend. This husband and wife team played mainly instrumental music, with Joe on the guitar and Hannah the Cello. Both are incredibly talented and they have excellent rapport between them in both music and on stage. Their performance was very entertaining and at the end I still wanted more (that doesn't happen often).

In thinking about why their show was so successful, I can first point to their variety. The ways they introduced variety were:
- Mixing musical styles - Changed musical styles with each song. For example, a blues song, was followed by a classical number, then followed by an Irish reel.
- Use of special guests - They were joined on a few songs by a harp and fiddle player. I didn't keep track, but I believe they came on and left the stage three different times (in other words added a lot but didn't overstay their welcome)
- Use of different guitars - A traditional six string, a classical guitar, and two special two-neck guitars that Joe designed himself. These last two alone kept myself and a friend (who's also a guitarist) captivated trying to figure out how he played them. Hannah only used one cello, but played so many different styles that it was always interesting. I could listen to a cello all day!

They also had a great stage presence. A few things I noticed:
- Great rapport between the two of them and always upbeat.
- Kept their song introductions short and interesting. I learned something in each intro either about them or their music.
- Both had something to say in each intro.
- Gave their guests a chance to introduce their songs. They also kept their introductions short.
- Minimal movement on stage. While I'd typically say this was not a good thing, in their case it kept the focus on the instruments and they're mastering of them. If they were dancing around it would be distracting.

In keeping my attention on the groove there were numerous times that I couldn't help but tap my foot. Joe did use the same groove on a number of songs, but I only noticed, because I was keying into it.

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