That songwriting thing

You know what’s hard about writing songs? The music. I have lyrics aplenty, and tons of ideas for stories and scenarios I want to tell in songs. And thankfully, none of them are “baby I love you, baby I miss you, baby baby baby” things. I think the world is overstocked on them. But chord progressions that sound special? Kinda lacking those.

One of the things I’ve learned to do as a writer is self-edit. You write something, you recognize it’s not up to snuff, but you say, okay, that’s placeholder, and you polish it shortly thereafter. I’m self-editing a little too much, like, playing something, saying “ooh, I like that,” then realizing it’s the same chord progression as someone else’s song, and I throw the whole thing out.

Now, this is the Western scale; everybody’s working with the same 12 notes, and the chords naturally go together in pleasant ways that people like to hear, myself included. I think I have been too focused on being original than being good. As a friend said, he gave up trying to be unique, but a good riff that works on its own merits, even if it recalls the style or chord breakdown of one of his influences, gets chalked up as a win.

I have saved a copy of Guitar Player magazine from 1994 for years, because it had a cover story on songwriting and a feature on John Lennon’s songwriting in particular. Re-reading it was very interesting, because it turns out John thought a lot of what he wrote during the Beatles days was just throwaway shit, and he was just emulating his heroes for the first three or four albums anyway. Even some of the stuff I like the most, from Rubber Soul and Help!, was him trying to be Bob Dylan. All told, he had four Beatles songs that he really proud to call his own. Four.

I’ve also started to re-read my favorite guitar book again, Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Guitar. If you follow that link to Amazon, you’ll see my user review of it, and why I think it’s a special book. But I am well aware of my technical limitations as a guitar player; I have short fingers that are great for typing but lousy for intricate chord shapes or fast fretboard work. I hear Jonathan Coulton and know I can’t fingerpick like that. I hear Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton and know I can’t solo like that. The book points out that you should always be pushing your limitations, striving to improve — but also know your boundaries and accept them. Working within those limitations can create new ideas. (A cynic would say my inability can be polished so it looks like talent.)

Lennon knew this. When Jann Wenner asked him how he would rate himself as a guitarist, John said, “I’m okay. I’m not very good technically, but I can make it fuckin’ howl and move.”

So I’m shifting gears and lowering my standards. I’ve realized that I’m only going to sound like me anyway, so it’s pointless to do anything else. I’m not going to find a unique or novel way to put D, A, and G chords together, but I do have a good right hand for strumming. I’m finding that I like playing guitar with economy — like, how many different chords can I make without moving my hands around a lot, but still have it sound interesting? — so I think there will be some songs built around that. I have snippets of weird chord progressions that I’ve been writing down for years on scraps of paper; I’m going to see which of those fit together. I have a sad minor-key thing with black humor lyrics, and I have another song that I wrote a few years ago and put down in demo form; it is a boogie rocker with vulgar punny lyrics and it fuckin’ howls and moves.

We’ll see where it goes.

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