Need Songwriting Tips? Steal!

stop-stealing

This article originally appeared on Gain!

One of my first department meetings at my old job began with the boss asking everyone to tell the secret to their success.  Yeah, dorky work stuff.  Nevertheless, the entire marketing department commenced giving their ideas.  Lots of things like “being a team player” and “working hard” and even “thinking outside the box.”  When it came my turn, only one thing came to mind.

Stealing.

No, I’m not kidding.  But before anyone gets carried away, I want to put out a disclaimer and give a little background.  First off, I’m not advocating anyone break the law or take after Jimmy Page.  I’m talking about searching for inspiration in things that already exist.

How is this anything new?

Yes, looking for inspiration in your favorite songs is nothing new.  But I don’t think I’ve read any guitar resources that get specific enough with that concept to really help anyone.  So here’s an example.

Let’s look at a song everyone knows, A Hard Day’s Night from the Beatles.  The verse goes:

G-C9-G-F-G

Play it a few times, get the strumming pattern down, then start to experiment a bit.  What if you just swap the C & G chords?

C9-G-C9-F-C9

Keep the tempo the same and everything, but it sounds like a whole new song.  What if we change the order up again.  Take that same variation we just made, but swap the F and C chords.

F-G-F-C9-F

Again, whole new song, and we’re now getting even further from the original.  Haven’t even thought about changing to new chords yet.  With that in mind, try this:

G-C9-G-Am-G

Adding in the VI again makes for an entirely different song.

And we’re not even talking about changing anything relating to tempo.  There’s so many songs that use the same chord progressions but vary up strumming patterns or something else to make them unique.  Think about how far the little exercise in swapping or rearranging chords could be taken.  Think of how much further it could go when you vary up the picking hand.

Wait, this is way too simple

Exactly!  It’s stupidly simple.  But yet, things like this don’t get brought up enough.  Too often people will tell you the answer is in theory, maybe you need to stick to ii-v-i patterns or something like that.  But that leaves you with too much of a blank slate.  You’re left with so many keys, so many rhythms, endless possibilities from ii-v-i that it probably will make your writers block even worse.

But by staying simple and just taking from what you already know and already like, you’re left with a clear starting point and are challenged to make it your own.  And the fun part is, you’ll naturally not want your song to sound like whatever you’re stealing from, so you will often end up changing things so much that it really is an original idea when you’re done.

Even this blog post is stolen

I must confess, I got this whole “stealing” idea from another writer.  Some of you may have heard of the book Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.  Well, it’s been hugely inspirational to me and this is my way of passing on the idea.  And as I’ve hopefully explained, it’s not about ripping people off.  It’s about paying more attention to the things you love and finding ways to integrate them into what you’re creating.

Think of all the times your favorite guitarists talk about the musicians who influenced them.  Can you find places where they did this same thing in their own songs?

 

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