Avoiding Common Pitfalls of Songwriting

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"Teenaged angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old"

Why are some bands simply one hit wonders, simply never to be heard from again? Why do some bands release one album that is amazing, and all there following efforts are simply lackluster?

The former may just be the result of getting lucky. The latter occurrence is probably the fact that you have your entire life to create your first album, but only about a year to come up with your second one. The band Tool taking ten years between albums is a bit of an anomaly.

Ricers Cuomo

I'm not a fan of Weezer. At all. One of my top ten least favorite bands of all time. Though, being guitar based rock band in a world of pop singers, I've had to learn many of their songs for students of mine who are fans. They've consistently told me that Rivers Cuomo had some of his best work while he was unhappy about life, and once he found himself in a healthy, fulfilling relationship his songwriting went into the toilet. David Byrne, however, continues to come up with creative, cutting edge material, for example, while he collaborated with St. Vincent. Peter Frampton said that the pressure of coming up with some sort of follow up to "Frampton Comes Alive" was too much for him to bear, and stopped writing altogether.

How can you avoid winding up a one hit wonder, or arguably worse, having the quality of your art decline? I have a few theories.

1.) Stop writing love songs.

Just stop. It has been established that people whining about their unrequited love is something people can relate to. But if that's all you know how to write about, it gets old. Fast.

As you approach your 30s, you may encounter friends who still haven't gotten their act together in any number of ways. People get sick of their friends complaining over and over about the same issues, again, just with a different person. It's like that article from The Onion saying that maybe Taylor Swift should try writing a song about how it might be her who's the problem.

The greatest songwriters do not limit themselves to just one subject matter for their lyrics. They tell stories. They talk about interesting things that have happened to them, and can even make uninteresting subjects palatable.

2.) Analyze what it is that inspires you

Maybe some relationship not working out is what makes you put pen to paper, but all in all, that's a feeling from within. Surely you must feel other things. What are they? Frustration with some other interpersonal relationship that is platonic? An insatiable craving for chimichangas but the Mexican restaurant is closed? An inability to sleep despite feeling exhausted? Flush out some ideas. Do it with pencil in hand.

3.) Write from an angle you don't normally seek inspiration from

A broken heart, insomnia, a love of Mexican food with no way to get it; these are all things that go on inside your head. What are you observing that inspires you? Things outside of your head. A drastic change in weather? A clear night and an adventure with friends? A place you go to clear your head? Write stories about them.

4.) Change the way you write music

Guitar players typically come up with a chord progression first. Nature of the beast. So that's the harmony. Don't neglect melody or rhythm either. Start with writing a melody, and build the chord progression around that. Start with playing a rhythm on the muted strings, and build the melody or chord progressions from that.

In short, try figuring out what your typical approach is, and try the opposite.

Furthermore, if you typically structure your songs around the lyrics, try writing to the aforementioned melody or rhythm. If you plug in lyrics onto your chord progressions, try writing the chords around your lyrics.

What it boils down to is if you can figure out and subsequently analyze what your typical method of songwriting is, you can find other ways to approach the same thing (i.e., writing a song). By not limiting yourself to one method of songwriting, you'll be far less likely to experience stagnation and falling into the traps of mediocrity.

And for the love of god, stop writing love songs.

Adam Douglass has been playing guitar for 25 years and teaching for a good 20. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he is an instructor; and plays with his band doing his original music, jazz standards, or whatever other gigs might come his way. His guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster, though if money were no object he'd have 3 or 4 of everything. He prefers tube screamer-like overdrives and clean boosts, with touch of analog delay. Hit him up at info@adamdouglass.com, as he is always happy to discuss interesting topics.

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