Songwriting in Bands – How it Really Works

by | Mar 22, 2014 | Band Life, Guitar Store Gospel, Passion & Self Hate | 1 comment

Not too long ago, my musical compadre made the acquaintance of a drummer and bassist that were seeking a complete band.  This was a perfect scenario as we were after their services as well and they seemed to be realistic and open-minded fellows.  (not once did they talk about being pros, or touring, or making it, or a huge recording deal).

But before we could even plug in our amps, it all fell apart.  Why?  Because they didn’t know their place in the band.

You see, neither of them could play another instrument.  Neither could/would write melodies.  Neither could/would write lyrics.  Yet they wanted us to play their songs.

What songs could they possible have?  Great question!  None, in our mind.  But they had a collection of recordings where they played drums and bass together, and the bass went through some note changes that could maybe line up with a chord progression.

They did not want to play some cover songs while we got to know each other better.  They did not want to write drum/bass lines to any songs we have written.  They wanted us to write two guitar parts, a vocal melody and lyrics to their songs.  As well as structure them so they follow a more familiar pattern.

Another case of ego superseding reality among musicians.  We were not able to make it work with these guys.

I write this, because even though it’s a more extreme example, it’s a familiar theme for probably everyone who has tried to be in a band playing original music.

Know your role

So often, musicians have really warped ideas of how bands work.  It’s bad enough that so many people think you can just all get in the same room and jam until you come up with the next “Free Bid” but it’s much worse when people don’t know their role in a band.

In any successful band, there has to be somewhat clear responsibilities.  A lot of bands survive with one songwriter, and then a supporting cast.  You can certainly have two people carrying the bulk of the load, but they need a system in order to work with each other.  The Beatles basically had two solo songwriters.  They didn’t really collaborate, it was more “John wrote this song, Paul wrote this song.”  The Stones would divide the work – Keith would write the melody, riff and hook – Mick would do the lyrics.  Neither scenario is the correct one, but they’re both examples of what can work.

What doesn’t work, is thinking everyone has an equal voice.  In that scenario, everyone is running the show, and thus nobody runs the show.  That’s anarchy.  Virtually no bands work this way.  This is why super groups usually die after one album.  They are all used to being the one wearing the pants, and they can’t tolerate each other.

The Important Part of a Song

Every contribution to a song ends up being important, but that’s not how it works in the beginning.  The memorable songs start with a melody.  That can come out of vocals, a keyboard, guitar, whatever – but it’s essential.  Fans sing along to hooks, they dance to beats, but they are pulled in by melodies.

If you can’t present some sort of framework of a song that includes that essential aspect, you’re fucked before you even get started.  You’re asking the rest of the group to pull way too much weight.  Or, if you’re not the head songwriter in your band, you’re forcing that person to work with something that conceptually doesn’t make sense.  Like going to an architect and saying to build you a house, and design it out of your great idea for textured paint.

This is why songwriters can play solo, with just an acoustic guitar, but not drums.  Sorry drummers and bass players – if you want to lead the songwriting process, you’ve gotta be able to build a framework that makes sense in the context of a complete song – not a bunch of notes or beats repeating.

This is why guitarists are so important in the rock/pop songwriting process.  The range of the instrument allows for melody, rhythm and structure to be conveyed all at once.  You can do this on a bass to an extent, but most bass players don’t have the talent to move away from riding root notes.  Drummers are completely out of luck.  Singers can make it happen, but they need to put melody behind their lyrics, not hand in words on paper.

What can you do?

You’ve gotta understand those last two sections if you want to make it in any band.  Even a mediocre one that plays in a basement.  If you’re not the type of person who can take the lead and deliver a song that is 80% complete to the group, that’s cool.  Most people can’t do this.  But you need to know how you can contribute without creating headaches for everyone else.

If the band leader has a new song, you obviously can write the part for your instrument.  But you can also help organize the structure of the song – suggest where to throw in a bridge or something.  Or help with some changes in lyrics.

You’re going to have your own strengths for improving a song, figure out what they are, put it to use. Help the band, don’t try to take it over.  That’s how songwriting works.