Songwriting for Guitarists

16x9-1992There was a lot of media coverage of the “Blurred Lines” controversy in late 2014. A jury found that the song was rhythmically similar to the Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give it Up.” The problem was caused when the “Blurred Lines” songwriters Williams, and Thicke referenced the “Marvin Gaye vibe” during interviews. The moral of the story is, if you’re going to steal don’t admit the theft.

Actually, the biggest problem was that “Blurred Lines” reached the pinnacle of the charts in 2013. Where there are deep pockets there are those that want to take what was not earned.

The songwriting session for “Blurred Lines” lasted about an hour according to Ferrell Williams. Robin Thicke testified that the song was almost completed before he stepped into the studio. Thicke made 5.6 million dollars for his “efforts” and Williams earned 5.1 million. Even after the lawsuit they still made a few million dollars.

I posted a couple of really good newspaper articles about the songwriting dilemma on the Metal Method Forum. Be sure to check them out. They will provide much insight into the true nature of songwriting. Read these articles here: Metal Method Forum

Songwriting for Guitarists

In my Songwriting Program I explain how to model an original song based on an existing work. I used “Stormbringer” by Deep Purple as my model. I primarily used the arrangement but created different chord progressions, melody and lyrics. The song that I wrote for the lesson was quite different sounding than the original yet it did capture a similar feel and vibe. I’m not here to sell my Songwriting Program. It was written in 1995 and much of the technology mentioned in the lesson seems quite ancient by today’s standards. Still, the modeling aspect of songwriting hasn’t changed and the lesson does teach the technique. Plus, it was pretty cool to have my friends Lonnie Vincent (Bullet Boys) and Jim Gillette (Nitro) record the final version of the song with me.

Stealing or creating…. is there a difference?

Truth is, if you’re going to write a hit song it must have a familiar feel. The listener must be able to relate to a favorite style, vibe, rhythm, and even chord progression. As a songwriter you have two choices – either model your song after a favorite, familiar tune or write an “original” composition. If you choose the second you may be walking down the street one day and realize, “Oh yeah, that’s where that melody came from.”

Here’s the deal, my friend; when you’re writing popular music you have no more than seven chords to choose from. A typical song might only use three or four of those seven chords. Do you actually think that it’s possible to write a melody over those chords that hasn’t been written before? Hardly, unless you completely destroy the melody.

If you try to write something truly original the song will probably have a fan base of one- you. Many years ago I learned that lesson. The band I was in at the time had just lost our lead singer. We were rehearsing without a vocalist so I decided it would be the perfect time to write a song without any singer interference. Even so, I modeled the arrangement on something that I thought “sounded like Kansas.” It did have a Kansas feel but wasn’t copied from any particular song. I just attempted to capture the vibe. When we found a lead singer it was time for him to invent a melody over my creation. The first thing he said to me was, “There’s no room for a vocal line.” Oops. So much for my entirely original piece of music.

True Confession Time

Aside from when I wrote my Songwriting Program I can only think of one other time that I used another song as a model. I “borrowed” some arrangement elements and tried to capture the overall feel of the song. Still, I’m sure that you can take any song that I’ve ever written and find the same melodies used in other popular songs. Perhaps if I had modeled my work closely to hit records I would be on an island right now drinking a Pina Colada instead of being here punching this keyboard. Not complaining, but who knows?

Music has always been derivative. The current generation has built on the previous generations art. It’s not stealing, it’s moving forward. Much of today’s rock music is blues based and the rest is derivative of traditional folk music or music from the church. One of my favorite Sirius radio channels is BB King’s Bluesville. There is very little original about the songs I hear other than the lyrics. The musicians don’t even bother to change the melody line or guitar riffs. Is that what original sounds like?

So next time you write a song don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, build on the music that went before you. Just don’t admit your influences. It’s entirely possible that you and your songwriting partner will score an $11 million dollar payday. Even after someone figures out a way to sue you for seven million dollars you’ll still have four million left over to split. Not bad for an hour’s work.

I remember many years ago when John Lennon heard that George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” had been plagiarized From “She’s So Fine” he said, “That didn’t need to happen.” I wondered, “What was he talking about?” I believe that I now know the answer. If you write a song with a simple melody it’s important to be able to reference something in the public domain with a similar melody line. If you can show that your melody is 200 years old you’re probably safe. Even Bob Dylan in his autobiography alluded to the same method. His “original” music was firmly grounded in traditional folk music.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a newspaper article that I posted to my Facebook Page:

Singer-songwriter John Hiatt was onstage several years ago at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica when he paused to introduce a new song to the audience. “The trick with a new song,” said Hiatt, a songwriting veteran whose work has been recorded by Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop and many others, “is that even when you’re playing it for the first time, people feel like it sounds familiar.”

He waited a beat, then added, “but not so familiar you wind up in court.”

This newsletter was written by Doug Marks- aside from the closing quote which he “borrowed” from an article by Randy Lewis, a writer for The Los Angeles Times. The complete newspaper article can be found here: Metal Method Forum