Writing a Song: The Art of Invention

Guest Post by Max Pheiffer

Every band must eventually reach this point, and hopefully it comes faster than most of them expect: writing. Music, as is true with all creative businesses, must be original if your band wants to take it to the next level. Sure, sometimes just hanging around and playing some half-baked covers with your buddies is a pretty fun way to spend an afternoon, but I’m talking about the serious musicians: the “no-doubt-in-my-mind-that-I’m-going-to-make-it-even-though-I-work-at-McDonalds” kind of people. And every one of those people, in one of those bands of equally dedicated minimum wage slaves, must learn the art of writing.

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Photo by neogeoriffic

So you’ve got a few covers down, and you have the fateful conversation about starting to write, Everyone expresses excitement, and then someone says, “What do ya got?” (Side note: sharing “what you got” is the musical equivalent of going all the way, or asking someone to help you move, which is why your band should be tight before beginning this conversation.) Anyway, so you turn up really loud, tune your instrument, and give the necessary “I wrote it in like five minutes” speech. It’s not bad, everybody likes it, and the tension ceases. However, while your three-chord rhythm may be pretty cool, it’s not exactly inventive. This is where the real challenge comes in.

There’s a reason that the best albums of all time are always from a band that changed the status quo: invention. Once a genre of music has been around for a while, and the same riffs have been played on the radio enough times to make you sick, people want something different. This is not news to you. The hard part is figuring out what toes the very thin line between “lyrical and musical genius” and “a-melodic whining”. Luckily for us, the guitar part of any song has the potential to bring a new sound in.

A great way to try out new ideas, or to discover new ones, is to experiment with some open tunings. And don’t stick with the same-old open E; try something different. Look on the Internet if you’re a musical dimwit such as myself and find some tunings that sound new and interesting. Then plug in and play. You’ll quickly find that your home-base scale and “signature” licks aren’t so catchy anymore, and you’ll be forced to not only figure out some new stuff, but you’ll learn a lot about the instrument in the process.

Open tuning not for you? Not to worry. Yes, you can experiment with some different effects, but don’t rely on them for invention; rely on yourself. Don’t be fooled, a Wah pedal is a cruel mistress. Still, there are other ways to break out of your rut. Try new keys to play in, or new scales. Make your drummer give you 3/8 timing, or even just 2/4. Buy a capo and play something one step too high and see where it takes you. Of course, the most important thing is to not forget about the rest of the band. Harmonize with the keyboardist or bassist or singer to get some completely new ideas coming. Basically, try something you’ve never tried before.

Don’t get bogged down with the pressure of thinking you have to change every little thing with music. Just pick up your guitar, do a little experimenting, and jam with your band. Something great will come out of it; it always does. Just remember, push your own boundaries of invention and it will change guitar as you know it.

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