Ten tips for the guitar-playing songwriter
Berkleemusic Ambassador James Linderman offers up some advice for those who do the bulk of their songwriting on the guitar
t just about any songwriters’ open mic night, the guitar slingers will outnumber the piano players by a ratio of at least five to one. This would not have been the case pre-Beatles. Before rock & roll, the guitar was certainly popular enough, but nothing compared to the guitar hysteria that ensued. Seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show inspired a generation… today, whether it was Bowie performing Starman on Top Of The Pops or Nirvana on The Word, many songwriters can tell you the moment that changed their lives and inspired them to pick up a guitar.
Since many of us have little to offer the world but a few songs about how love has done us right or wrong (and perhaps a few numbers about how we took revenge), I felt it would be interesting to have a look at how improving on the guitar might make for even better songs. It was also evident that, since I’d spilled a lot of ink writing about the piano-playing songwriter in a previous article, the guitar-playing songwriter deserved equal time and attention! So here are ten tips for the guitar playing songwriter.
1. Hello, my name is Gb but my friends call me F#
Getting to know all the names of the notes on our instrument is fundamental, yet many guitarists think more about the physical shapes of what they are playing (the D chord triangle or the Am blues scale box, etc) than the elements required to create those devices. Guitarists who have a working knowledge of their fingerboard have the opportunity to turn that information into more invention and more precise choices. That means there will be more song ideas… which means more songs. And those songs will express what we want to say more directly and may even offer us the option of having a wider variety of emotions to express.
2. I got rhythm… I get music
Tom Petty’s song Free Falling and the Supertramp hit Give A Little Bit are both three-chord songs using a 1, 4, 5 pattern (D, G and A), but what makes them distinct from one another and from every other song in existence is the harmonic rhythm. In guitar speak that means the strumming pattern. More strum patterns applied to more chord systems instantly translates into more songs. Strum pattern options can be manufactured from rhythms found in Louis Bellson’s Modern Reading Text In 4/4 Time, or from stealing them from other songs. Sorry, did I write stealing? I meant to write borrowing…
3. Take your pick
Crosspicking is the fine art of using a plectrum to emulate fingerpicking. You lose some of the warm tone and multiplicity of finger-style but you get a very usable arpeggiated effect with the advantage of the control the flat pick offers up. Take a chord progression you would usually strum and on each chord, pick three consecutive strings from the bass note “down picked” and then from the bottom string, ascend playing three notes “up picked”. For instance, on a D chord pick down on the fourth, third and second strings and then pick up on the first, second and third strings, then apply to all other chords.
“Fingerpicking offers some great tonal colours and more intricate patterns”
4. Drop your pick
Learn to play finger-style. Sure, unless you get really good at it you may feel like you have less control then playing with a pick, but there are some great tonal colours fingerpicking offers and more intricate patterns since, in essence you are using the finger equivalent of four picks. In standard fingerpicking we use the thumb and all of our fingers but the pinky. To learn traditional finger-style patterns you can pick up a copy of Mauro Guiliani’s 120 Studies For Right Hand Development, which illustrates patterns applied to a C and G7 chord. Note that even during the classical era, Guilliani suggested experimenting by varying the chords to come up with new and interesting options.
5. A+ in chord chemistry
Lots of guitar-playing songwriters will tell you that they are always on the hunt for beautiful (or in guitar language “wicked”) new chords. Getting to know an A+ (A augmented) chord may not deliver an easy harmonic option to add to your next great song but by doing the work of adding some interesting harmony, it may help make your next song great. Look to a book like Mel Bay’s Complete Book Of Guitar Chords, Scales And Arpeggios for a very good selection of altered and extended chord voicing to start to experiment with. Look for new chords that challenge your ear but also challenge your left hand with stretches and shapes that are less familiar and even a little less comfortable, then practice them into comfort and familiarity.
6. Add riffage to your musical diet
There are some iconic guitar riffs that make some of our favourite songs great. If we were to remove the riffs from The Eagles’ Life In The Fast Lane, The Beatles’ Day Tripper or The White Stripes’ 7 Nation Army these songs would be more than slightly compromised. Imagine Clapton’s Layla without the “da da da da da da daaa”. Once again we can look to Mel Bay’s Complete Book Of Guitar Chords, Scales And Arpeggios. By looking for interesting patterns in the scales or arpeggios we can come up with riffs to either add to existing work or to build new work from. Songs constructed on a hooky guitar riff also don’t seem to require intricate chord systems to make them more interesting, since so much of the listener’s attention is focused on our sweet riff.
“The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ is written with a series of compound thirds”
7. Blackbird singing on a compound third
There are as many great songs written on a harmonic pattern as there are great riff songs, and this is also an easy application for guitar players. A song like The Beatles’ Blackbird is written with a series of intervals called compound thirds. The simple interval of a third can be heard by playing a G note and a B note together. What then makes the interval compound is to put a full octave between the two notes. On the guitar this would be the G note on the third fret of the sixth string and the B note open on the second string. If, like Paul McCartney, we were to collect a whole set of compound thirds up the guitar neck, we could determine an original pattern to play them in, that we like.
Music theory offers up thousands of these kinds of options to build new music on and this application of theoretical concept is called “applied theory”. This article, and most of my teaching, is built on the principle of only learning theoretical concepts that can be applied to consumable sounds and then turned into new music.
8. Get out of town… and take that guitar with you
You don’t actually have to physically visit other cultures to derive some influence from them and then apply that influence to your music. I have never traveled to the middle east but because of a university course in the music of that part of the world I took while studying in the US, I’m now possibly the only Dutch-Canadian composer who has written and recorded middle eastern-flavoured music! Well, maybe not the only one… but the point is, I would never have experimented with quarter-tone composition had I not taken that course. During that period I got so obsessed with making my guitar sound like a sitar that the middle eastern influence still comes out in one or two of my songs and makes them sound much more interesting.
9. The loneliness of the sight-reading guitarist
Acquiring and maintaining a fluent sight-reading skill on the guitar is a mandatory requirement of any academic musician but I cannot truthfully claim that it is a small or easy undertaking. It is a skill that requires a lot of alone time for sure. Guitarists are also historically non-conformist, rebellious gypsies who try desperately to not be everything a piano player represents, and to a guitar player the piano is a reading instrument and the guitar is a playing instrument.
Unfortunately, the widespread propensity for guitar players to not learn to sight-read is one of the reasons lots of guitar songs end up sounding the same as one another. A great source for new and interesting song materials can be accessed by sight-reading pieces not available to guitar-playing songwriters who cannot read notation.
“Classical training helped Paul Simon write much of his early catalogue”
10. Go the extra mile for an extra style
Extending the suggestion in tip 9, gaining just a little bit (or a lot) of classical or jazz guitar training has served many pop songwriters very well. Some classical training helped songwriter Paul Simon write much of his early catalogue and a few jazz guitar lessons then served his later solo career equally. Lessons with an experienced (but still enthusiastic) instructor can be very helpful in this pursuit. It is not necessary (or even advisable) to replace your time or passion for writing songs with an eight-hour-a-day guitar practice regimen, but a little bit of a shift in focus to being a slightly better guitarist can go a long way to not only making songs richer and more interesting… but will also enhance your performance of them at the next open mic night no end!
Words: James Linderman
James Linderman teaches and coaches guitar, piano and songwriting at his studio in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada and over Skype to students all over the world. He is a Berkleemusic Ambassador and a music journalist and presenter. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org