How to write a song – a personal view


Writing a song

I grew up around music, and people who could really play. I never excelled at any individual instrument but after I got my first guitar I did plug-in a microphone and record myself singing and playing almost straight away. I guess in an effort to make these recordings more interesting to my imagined listenership I wrote some words. At some point I must have realised that I might need to theme the ‘song’ or somehow tell a story, or make it about something, people might get bored if I didn’t. I think this is pretty much how I’ve continued with song-writing; the rest is just adding a shine or emoting more effectively in my opinion. The core to writing a decent song is storytelling, but using the extra power of music to support the words you want to deliver. You can get all fancy about it, use the music to express a subtext, play with the form in some self-conscious way, but in the end it’s about packaging up and sending off as much connection and emotion with the song as you can.

During the process of writing connecting one’s heart and soul to the words, the music and to the playing of your song are for me all essential elements of successful song-writing. I feel that this is the key to creating something with longevity, a song which will speak both privately and in a wider sense to your listeners. I always hope that the resultant song, even though it is only words on a piece of paper will have a hint of the spirit and magic of your emotional connection with it, somehow captured in the moment of your writing of it, if you keep live that spirit of emotional engagement present when creating it. Basically I believe this is what separates a good song from a bad one.

Here’s how I try to do it.

There are lots of ways to get to the point of having created a finished song and some work better than others, I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way; there is only your own way to get to that point. A few ways work better for me than others, I’ll list them here.

1.       Starting with the title! – Probably the worst way to begin the process and normally the precursor to a world of pain, struggle and multiple re-writes. However there are times when you just can’t ignore the idea or concept expressed by an imagined title popping into your head. Sometimes the title alone can summarise the concept of the song, and so makes a decent point at which to kick off the process. A good trick is to let this happen, but keep yourself open to letting the concept drift, or to throwing the title out of the mix at some point. I guess the trick here is not to hold on too tightly to your original concept as prescribed by that wonderful title idea you came up with. This is a sort of upside down way to do things, personally, more normally I would write the song and go looking within it for a catchy one liner that echoes the song’s concept, but was arrived at by way of creating the body of the song. I have heard it told that titles are very important to publishers and to anyone touting your tunes, frankly I think you should call it what you want, after all as the writer, you’ve probably got considerably more creative nouse than someone who sits behind a desk.

2.       Rolling with a riff – This approach works well for me as I love to just sit and noodle on my song-writing instrument of choice, the guitar. I’m always on the search for a new set of chords that work nicely together, or create a vibe. Sometimes this atmosphere gives rise to some thoughts and words, a theme and the start of a song. Get it down; keep a scrap of paper, your writing book/pad or a portable recorder with you when you play in case you need to get some ideas down when you hit a creative patch. Often I find this method of playing the guitar and just opening up to saying or singing words a wonderful way to get things flowing, you just never know from one second to the next if you are going to spark the next million seller, or just mumble incoherently for the next half an hour, until you give up and go off do something useful. It’s probably not the sort of advice to give, but I find that a glass or two of red wine in particular just lets me take the edge of self-conscious efforts to verbalise my thoughts. Of course it can lead you up the garden path too, so in moderation and carefully if you want to utilise any stimulants to your writing.

Generally, once I’ve got some of these ideas down, I leave it, pursuing the finished article at this point can cause problems I think. In your enthusiasm to complete your work it’s easy to distort the ideas you’ve got down in that moment of clarity and creation. This sort of energy is worth holding on to and it’s all too easy to iron then out, edit them away as you try to impose ‘the song’ on the nascent ideas you have now committed to paper or tape. So go back to it later, it’s like reviewing a song you’ve recorded, last night after 9 hours of trying to perfect the Bongo take you thought it was utter rubbish. Then the following evening you spark up the mixing desk and play the rough mix, and it sounds great. Song writing is a bit like this too, so going back to review your work at a later date can give you the editorial distance to see things clearly and work towards the finished product. If you like I find it very difficult to see your work from distance and judge it accordingly; this is a worthwhile ‘trick’ to employ.

3.       Write about what you know – This is really simple, no one wants to hear a song written by an eighteen year old about the travails of a long-term relationship breaking up. But they would listen to an eighteen year old telling them about divorce from the perspective of a teen whose parents have split. Authenticity is important. Not to say that I’m not guilty of going against my advice in the pursuit of some goal I feel is worth it, it’s all about balance and you’ll be the one that knows where that balance is struck, listen to your heart, and trust your instincts. For example I’ve written a song about Black Rhythm and Blues performers from 40s and 50s New Orleans, I’m not Black, I’ve never been to New Orleans and the closest I’ll get to a direct experience of this is listening to old 78 records of the original artistes, but the story I want to tell is about how their music and culture was taken and used by later White artistes and the parallels with White abuse of Black people. I decided that this was something I could tell from my perspective, I’m not speaking for anyone, and my general knowledge of the subject is good. It’s personal, writing is, trust your position and know in your heart that you can trust your judgement.

Write about what you feel – As distinct from the above, writing about something you have an emotional engagement with is important too. Of course if you are going to write professionally day in and day out you may want to ask yourself to write about any old thing, the latest thing or someone else’s perceived ‘thing’. But hell, let’s be honest, what of real worth are you going to create doing this? It won’t mean anything to you, it won’t engage you, and why did you start doing this in the first place? Wasn’t it to express yourself and to give your version of events, your view of the world? Isn’t it a bit of immortality that you are seeking with this something that you may leave behind you when you’re gone? Well what’s the point in spending your hard-earned time and energy on anything but something that is meaningful to you?

4.       If something isn’t right, you’re right, it’s wrong – Basically don’t let your standards slip, if you aren’t happy with an element of what you are doing, then you’re right, it’s not right and your song isn’t finished yet. There is a point though where a balance is struck and you will adjudge it to be ‘good enough’. If you get to this point you might just have a finished song on your hands. You might also get to a point where you keep on polishing but the sheen you’ve created isn’t getting any brighter, the song isn’t improving, in fact it might be getting worse. Careful, you’re probably overworking the tune.

5.       Sometimes fresh is better than perfect – It’s easy to think that everything you write has to be a heavily worked example of song-smithing, the truth is sometimes awkwardness, less than perfect alliteration, poorly chosen rhymes or previously well-trodden themes can all be easily ignored or forgotten in the face of a raw rendition of something emotional played out on paper when you’re writing. Sometimes it just so happens that you’ve got something urgent and real on paper, on your guitar and in your heart and working on it will destroy that reality, urgency and soul. Learn how to recognise this, integrate it into your work and to trust your instincts. You may want to take this energy and refine it somewhat; this I think works very well if done carefully and sensitively. Let it go, let it flow, get it down and then refine it, trim it, compress it. But be careful, again, not to overwork it. It’s a fine balance.

6.       Try different mixes – Play around with what you have, move lines, keep trying new ideas, particularly in the early stages of piecing something together. Just like recording, you can with writing a song keep more than one take, write the song out on another sheet of paper and then go and destroy what you’ve written elsewhere, you can keep going and going until it all just slots into place.

As an aside to this, I find often that my first verse is weaker than subsequent verses. I think this is probably because when you write this first verse it’s the one that establishes your idea for the song as you begin the creative process, it is this verse that is the point where you originally negotiate the idea. Because of this it can be less well-formed or complete than the rest of the subsequent verses. It’s a cheap trick, but you could try moving this verse further down the line. Sometimes it’s not worth keeping at all, so chuck it out and try again, but if you like it, but just not enough for your strong opening verse, as I say, move it on down the line and replace it with a later verse. Only if this works of course, in many cases this won’t work within the structure of your song.

7.       Sing as you write – You won’t thank yourself for making it impossible to breathe when later performing your masterpiece, and if you are lucky enough to find someone who feels like creating their own rendition of your hit song, don’t make it impossible to sing. A good way to create a song that is comfortable to sing is to sing while you create it. This way you won’t create any passages that lack the natural resting places a singer needs to find their breath. This way you will naturally integrate resting places, and doing this may also inform the way the song is written, the structure of it and therefore, sometimes, the very essence of the song.

8.       Write stuff down – Keep a pad, write anything down, if it’s a line, an idea, a title, a rhyme, a concept, whatever, loads of these ideas will never come to anything, but, and this is born of experience, years later you may be looking for that one idea or line to complete your song and fall across the answer you’re desperately looking for in your notes.

9.       Play with your friends – Play with other people’s songs, look for tricks of the trade, ways they get round problems, themes, ideas. Every song that needs to be written, probably has been, in the end the only thing that will help your song to stand head and shoulders above everything else out there is YOU. Your way of doing and seeing things. On the way to finding out how to do this, it’s not bad idea to copy others, play with their ideas, nick them, purloin them, steal them. Don’t feel bad about being a copyist, it’s part of the learning process, and lots of fun. Most people’s songs are copies of other people’s songs, it’s really really hard to come up with something truly fresh and new.

Good Luck

Gretsch G5420T Electromatic, Set Up & Review


The Gretsch Electromatic G5420T an independant review

I’d set my little heart on looking the part, I had the wrap round shades, the 50s style shirts, now all I needed to complete the look was the right guitar..! Well not quite, even if there are some half-truths in there.

I have a nice 80’s JV series Japanese Telecaster, a 50s repro/re-edition.. whatever, that plays great, but a little too bright and snatchy and without the overtones of a hollow body, no trem, and it’s never going to flat pick or finger pick like an acoustic/6 string.

So I went in search of an affordable, okay build quality, name guitar with the right sound for 40s and 50s R&B and Rock N’ Roll / Rockabilly. On reading a few online reviews (though ones not published by Gretsch are hard to find; actually some of the best are on their own website forum) I came to settle on the G5420T in Aspen Green, a beautiful colour.

next.. price research..

0211I searched hi and lo in the UK and abroad for the best deal and it became quite obvious early on that Gretsch (owned by Fender) fix their prices fairly hard, and balancing the import tax on buying from the States, or the price from Germany (Thomann) or finding one in the UK, an average lower end price of £632 seemed reasonable if you wanted to find somewhere close enough you could return the guitar or walk in with it unhappy (for what reason I don’t know/yet know) at a later date. I came to rest on my local city Brighton’s GAK centre just off the North Laines. I phoned them to get the one Aspen Green G5420T they had out of the warehouse and to the shop and they were most helpful. And I arrived early on a Saturday morning to check it out.

I wanted to try it out with a heavier gauge string set on it, but they come from the factory with 10s on and they don’t re-string. Quite possibly because stringing it for a floating bridge un-initiate is a pain in the arse, but more of that later. Obligingly they provided a Blues Junior for me to play with (that’s the amp I use at home) and off I went noodling. My friend Des Day of Des Day promotional associated plc ltd. arrived to help me sort out the amp sound and give sage advice and off I went. BUT… it was no good, I just didn’t like the guitar, it felt all yuck.. no good at all. I could have wept,,.. oh well.

Classic Orange

Rowan, the very helpful shop assistant with side-show Bob curls and a jaunty salesman’s pitch suggested I tried the Orange version of the model hanging in the store. This was more like it, a joy to play, and someone had done a bit to set it up in store. It needed some work to get it set right but… hmmmm, thinking about it now, starting respond, good, getting in gear.. lovely but… not sure…

Des suggests market research..

With wads of cash burning a hole in my britches Des, and rightly so, decided I needed to try a few alternatives out and we left to check out a couple of second-hand places and other solid bodies. No good, the orange one was a callin’, eventually I went back and purchased.

SET UP

0161On return

Returning home, I decided to change the strings for the heavy gauge I had originally wanted to try the guitar out with, and put a set of 11s on it. If you change the strings be careful, this guitar has a floating bridge and if you remove the foam under it and/or change the strings it comes with, you will need to make sure the bridge goes back to the factory tuned position it came in. As the intonation will be out if you do change the bridge position.

I moved mine slightly while changing the strings (more of that in a bit) and so once tuned to concert pitch I gradually adjusted firstly the main bridge and then the individual adjustable bridge pieces for each string, checking note accuracy with a good quality chromatic tuner as I did so. Once I’d done that I marked the bridge position, something which may have invalidated my warranty, but which makes future string replacement a doddle compared to this occasion.

All you need do is compare accuracy on individual strings with your opened but tuned note, then at the 12th fret position (pinging the harmonic helps this too) and then with a chromatic tuner above that if you feel it neccesary. It follows that a higher pitch than is desired requires you to lengthen (though only minimally) the scale length of the string, or in the opposite case, shorten it.

Once the main bridge is as close as possible to the correct position, you can use the fine bridge adjustment to acheive a really accurate result. I worked this out, and it’s logical, but, if you need, there are step by step guides of how to do this online I’ve since discovered. You can also find some set up guides on You Tube, which are handy.

Advice on string change

Don’t take all the strings off at once!!

This will leave the bridge to urrr… fall off. I did not do this, luckily someone in the store said not to, so I changed each string one by one.

String changing on this type of guitar and with this Tremelo design is a pain in the arse. This is mainly because each string loops round a post on the underside of the tremolo and unless tension is maintained … it pings off. It took a short swearing session to bring about a practical solution. USE YOUR CAPO TO HOLD THE STRING on the fretboard once it’s on the post, this will keep it there while you measure out and clip the string to wind on the tuning head. Wind it on, and once there is enough tension in it, take the Capo off and the string won’t come off the post at the bottom behind the bridge. If you don’t do this, find another way, or you will murder your best friend through frustration. It’s a down side to be honest, surely there’s a little practicle and cheap way to overcome this design flaw?

Just as a heads up Stewart McDonald do a piece of kit called a Vibramate Spoiler that can help you re-string easier. Check out the link. I don’t know if this affects the tone, as the strings don’t on use of it wrap round the tremelo fully, but it’s worth a go if you find it hard to re-string. I for one will stick with my own little workround of the problem for the sake of an entirely imagined tonal benefit.

Ideas.. and set-up

…currently to string up with flatwound heavy gauge strings for that mid rangey plunky and smoother sounds for picking and chording respectively, good for that 40s and 50s R&B and the hick-town chunk that is truest rockabilly guitar.. (*see bottom of article for update)

017Set up

I’ve lowered the action a little more just by lowering the bridge a tickle more and it’s good, rings true and slick, the neck seems to be taking the heavier gauge strings well and there is no need for truss rod shenanigans .. yet.. I’ll keep an eye out to see if there’s any movement over time, but to be honest it shouldn’t move too much as the Rockabilly style of guitar tradition, (as it’s often finger and flat picked in development of a steel strung 6 string acoustic) calls on a heavier gauge and if their axe is designed properly for the purpose it appears to be built for, it shouldn’t ‘mal-function’.

I’ve also raised the front pick up’s ‘pole-pieces’ which sit under the 6th string to hopefully give it some extra ‘twang’ in it’s proximity to the string. As it was slightly lacking in this when playing. I’ve yet to make a decision on shifting any of the other pick up’s set up as the sound so far works well and pleases my ear. I might experiment later.

Strangely I’ve noticed that even with the floating bridge in the correct position the rear pickup does not line up correctly with the strings! This is concerning, but it doesn’t seem to affect the sound of the guitar, so I’m not going to allow myself to fret (gettit!! fret… get it !!??).

Tonal controls

Not being used to this sort of guitar the tonal controls were exciting to me. There are independent volume controls for the two pick ups, one master volume control, and one master tone control. There are three pick up positions, back, middle and front, but with the independent volume controls I know I’m going to have fun when I get to find the time to play about with it, and not just play on it.

Downside

Simple, so far and considering the overall price, market, build quality, niche, and all that ‘jazz’.. the tremolo is disappointing. Not for the sound it makes (for it is that classic 50s tremmie wang not the ear bending Little Stevie Vai variety, but the mellow vibrato of Cochran, or Eddy), but that the Trem takes the guitar way too far out of pitch if anything but the lightest indulgence in ‘Tremming’ features in your playing.

Oddly, the tremolo takes the guitar UP in pitch, not under, the first guitar I have ever experienced doing so. Now this may be because the bridge needs a little polishing by the strings’ movement before it releases a wound string properly (I’d be interested to know if the flatwounds might fare better in this regard), nevertheless, if you end a live tune with more than the lightest tremolo at its ceasing, be prepared to re-tune while you try to keep the audience engaged, and let’s face it talking, cracking a joke and re-tuning all at once is more than most multi-taskers can take alongside performance anxiety!

Advice

If you guitar tuning gets out of shape, and particularly if you notice it’s going up in pitch, then give the offending string a nice mild yank, and this should put it somewhere nearer pitch and in tune with the other strings I have discovered.

Gear

The tuning heads/tuners and gearing could be of a better quality overall, but the guitar holds pitch fairly well, though if you’ve left it 018in case for a couple of days expect to retune. Obviously it’s a less stable guitar overall than a good solid body. The volume knobs/tone controls could be of a better quality, to be fair you’re not sure if they are chromed metal or plastic, I’m still not sure.

The paint finish is good, purfling a little boring but suitable and what grain you can see is also very plain, being ply of some sort no doubt.

The fretboard is well made and adequate and what detailing there is, is simple but neatly done.

I don’t like having a plastic nut, I don’t even know what the material is that they’re using, but it seems less dense than the Ivory or Bone I’m used to, and I can’t help think that it may be dulling the tone somehow, probably not the case at all though, but only Gretsch know.

I also wish that the pick guard / scratch plate was more easily removable so I could adjust the front pick up more easily, though maybe I’ve just missed a trick somewhere..

And that’s about it..

Overall verdict 7.5 out of 10 for impression overall
9 out of 10 for value for money
10 out of 10 for falling in love with my first hollow body

… but watch out for that tremolo, it’s a bit of a problem, though perhaps it’ll settle in.

Update

I finally go round to purchasing that set of flatwounds. These started at a .11 and including a (flat) wound third.

The results are great, easier bass runs and audible results in the ‘sounds like it should’ category. Obviously a lot of those 50s cats were using flatwounds, because it kind of just completes the sound, particularly through a nice valve amp (I set mine literally down the middle on all EQ and don’t put too much gain on the signal either.

 

p.s. Looks like this has become one of the most popular Gretsch setup and floating bridge set up sites on the web! So please post your cures and headaches here, there are hundreds looking at this page every week.