In 1961 when John Lennon was asked where the band name came from he famously replied “It came in a vision - a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, 'From this day forward you are Beatles with an A.' Thank you Mister Man, they said, thanking him.”
That’s about as good a description of inspiration as you’re going to get. Sometimes the best and the simplest ideas just fall from the sky and into your consciousness. And so it is with songwriting. Very occasionally a tune is in the ether, waiting to be born, and you are the lucky person the universe has chosen to receive it.
Some of our most important musical works fall into this category of ‘pure art’. Those are the songs that tend to move us the most and stay with us for a lifetime.
Trouble is, it’s not a dependable source of material. Inspiration like that has never happened to me in a lifetime of waiting and willing it to happen. Surely there are ways to kickstart the creative process, prevent writers block and get some songs happening?
Well... there is. A good place to start is outlining some of the tricks used by the top pop and rock writers. This is craft rather than art I admit, but so often putting the time and graft in will pave the way for inspiration to follow. The processes I describe here were picked up during co-writing sessions organised by our publisher in the somewhat desperate pursuit of a ‘hit record’. Although a bit formulaic, it worked. And the old band secured several Top 40 hits along the way - a few created in the ways as I describe in this blog.
Of course, no one’s interested in a ‘hit record’ anymore, it’s a meaningless and antique term. But what we are looking for is that song that will separate your band from the hundreds of thousands of other acts all screaming for attention in the same space.
Good bands and good music are painfully commonplace. Great songwriting is still super rare. Songs still matter and can still change lives and start careers.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s begin our step by step journey to writing your best song yet.
We will start with titles and subject matter. When a band writes to a backing track it often produces less coherent writing. So just for once let’s not think about the music until we have written down 50 great titles, each with a strong concept behind it.
See what’s happening? We’ve already created a tension with songs crying out to be written, if the titles are interesting and engaging, and we’re inspired to want to tell the full story.
Write those titles on a large piece of paper or white board and stick them on the wall so they are staring you in the face.
Stop and think about tempos. If we don’t, most writers end up defaulting to slower tempos. I think it might be just because it’s easier to write slower tunes. But most commercial hits and show-stopping gig tunes are faster than 120 BPM and often 130 BPM+.
There is a massive mismatch in average tempo of songs written by your average writer, and songs actually consumed and listened to. Stick the radio on and check the BPMs on the playlist. Play a few classic albums and work out how the thing hangs together tempo wise.
Watching the crowd at a big gig will tell you everything you need to know about which tempo and feel holds a crowd and makes them move. Watch the support acts to see what sends people to the bar. Radio programmers are very sensitive to this and they don’t want anyone switching the dial because they are bored by a dirge of a tune.
You might want to use a drum machine or loops to collect a batch of drum feels to use as the basis for the writing session. We have 50 titles there, so let’s have a wide selection, maybe include a shuffle or two and some different time signatures. You can afford to experiment with quirky drum sounds and samples at this stage as we are building the vibe as we write.
Pace is really important in writing. Nothing kills the buzz more than trying to make the first line a masterpiece. Try not to censor yourself and just allow the songs to write themselves. Let’s knock out some tunes quick and come back and re-look at them in a week. You might not be able to be objective on the same day you’ve written a song - don’t be in a hurry to scrap anything.
Now take a title and see if it sits well with one of the drum grooves, try singing the top line lyric over the drums, jam around with it, and maybe try and get a main chorus hook out there first. Find the hook first and then write backwards. Hopefully two or three lines will leap out from your list of titles and pair up nicely with one of the drum loops.
When it starts to click together, try and bash out a song fast, without thinking too hard. Trust your subconscious and the most obvious first choice of lyric or melody may well be the one.
Keep it loose, enjoyable and pacey. Aim for half a dozen completed but rough tunes in a day and record them, label them carefully and come back to the file later.
Ah yes you can get the guitar out now. Add licks, keys, bass – knock yourself out. You’ve been pretty disciplined so far, so now you can riff, be loose and find a flow. Try different keys, major, minor and add the underpinning chords to the melody. If you get stuck for harmonic ideas, go back to the greats - Kinks, Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys will get you out of a rut. But you’ll also have your own references of course.
If you’re on a roll, keep going and you may be doing this for days or even weeks before you come back and sort thought the ideas.
Now the work begins. Sort the songs into piles. A, B and C lists might be a good place to start. In the 80s, most major label acts would have 50 or 60 tunes to pick through before they whittled the section down to an album. These days you may even be looking at releasing just one tune at a time. Let’s make it count.
So after picking our favourite tunes, we now need to refine them into a finished form or maybe even a recorded master.
Looking at how much care a band takes over lyric writing tells you much about their level of respect for their audience and their overall musical standards. Lyrics are everything. Although it is fine to write instrumentals too and that would be infinitely preferable to weak ass lyrics. Of course, this is subjective and sometimes ‘dumb’ is great, sometimes inaccurate grammar works. It’s all about the context and we know substance and meaning when we hear it. That’s probably what will link you to your audience more than anything else.
Having a great title and a strong subject will make completing the lyrics much easier as the song will want to write itself.
Don’t be afraid to take away rather than add. You could also consider setting some kind of sonic direction with your choice of sounds and instrumentation. Keep it bare and leave space as it’s just a sketch at this stage.
Well, yes and no! If you have taken a song as far as you can, and you’re digging the result, you now have the option of rehearsing it up and sticking it in the set. Or you can bring in other people to see how much further you can go with this thing. Maybe consider co-writing with an experienced commercial writer who could pull out another hook or two and refine the lyrics, and then the right producer could help you fine tune the arrangement, and a decent engineer can help you realise an ambitious sonic vision.
These days it’s easy to find and work with top professionals. Sometimes it costs a little bit but often it’s much cheaper than you would expect, and you’ll be surprised at what you learn by hanging with experienced pros.
I come back to my earlier point - great songs are rare. They change the world, they change lives and they start careers. That has got to be worth that little bit more effort hasn’t it?
If songwriting is an important part of your life, remember you can study a flexible BA (Hons) or Master's Degree course with a focus on composition and production at WaterBear the College of Music, Brighton.
Reading this blog will ensure you conduct rehearsals like a professional. I’ll tell you the techniques used by the best that deliver the gigs that blow peoples minds. I’m sure you have experienced this, however, you may have seen bands that have not delivered, and consequently have given an average performance. I’m sure you want to do better and achieve greatness!
So, how do we achieve greatness? Simple, we prepare for it! You need to plan for it and make the magic happen. This all starts in the rehearsal room and I have prepared three tips for you to act on immediately and ensure you up your game in no time!
Pre-production is about nailing down individual parts for recording in the studio, however, the live show rehearsal is different. This is due to live arrangements being unique to the studio and recording arrangements, to be effective live we need to think about what will work best on the stage!
Practically it means we have two different types of rehearsals, dependant on where you are at with your campaign. Pre-production encompasses activities like writing songs, arranging and getting ready to record an EP, Single or Album. There will be lots of focus on individual parts, trying out things like new drum parts, instrument tones and really nailing down the essential components of a great record.
Now, all the pre-production should have been completed before preparing to play live and consequently you wouldn't expect a professional band to need a lot of rehearsal time. Live rehearsal is not the time to be learning your individual parts, it’s the time where you need to be putting a set together. Everybody needs to come in super prepared and analyse the set holistically.
Lets take a hypothetical situation; a band that has just finished their first album and is preparing for a support tour. Earlier in a bands career, they will need more rehearsal, later on experience will fast track the process. If you are serious about being a great band, you may need to rehearse prolifically, and perhaps you’ll need to take a solid week out to nail this down. A lot of detail goes into a great live show.
When I was younger, I was lucky. I was a full-time musician and I could take whole days to rehearse. These days that's not always possible, so you need to be organised and do a lot of the preparation before the rehearsal. Make sure that if you only have one or two rehearsals you maximise the time and have done your homework before you get into the rehearsal room.
Personally, I would not be able to work with musicians who turn up late, who have instruments that are not set up and ready to go and do not have a sense of work ethic. Time is important and I’d find it counterproductive to be having a break every twenty minutes. Its work, there is a defined outcome, you have to compete with an international level of amazing bands, and success will not happen by accident.
Your set is not just a bunch of individual songs, it’s about putting a coherent performance together. Not only that, every single second matters, from when you start the intro to when you go off the stage. Rehearse every little detail from changeovers, gaps, think about the tempo, think of the dynamics and the set in its own right.
You need to think about what to do when something goes wrong. Rehearse a routine for technical difficulties, such as when leads and pedals go down. I suggest making a list that details every little aspect of your set: things like guitar changeovers, changing tunings, costumes, unusual instruments or whatever it is. This all needs to be planned and worked out in advance.
If you are using anything technology related: backing tracks, samplers or loops, it’s implementation needs to be super rehearsed. You may only have a fifteen minute change over so you need to be able to just plug in, check the line and be ready to rock. Build this into the formation of the set! You need to practice for when things go wrong, it's a realistic eventuality and this happens to even the biggest bands. You always need something up your sleeve!
Let me tell you a story, I was watching the band Black Stone Cherry headline a festival stage two years ago. I was watching from the front and I wasn’t that familiar with the band but I was really blown away by the set, it was amazing and it they had huge crowd participation. They were one of those bands where I knew all the songs without realising it. During the latter half of their set, I went backstage to watch from a different angle and discovered that there had been an incredible amount of technical problems. They had changed the whole set to have an acoustic section in the middle, whilst the roadies ran around and fixed everything.
They were such professionals that it was invisible from the front of the stage. I just saw an amazing gig. However, when I went backstage and realised they had to contend with hired gear that didn't work in front of the headline audience, I was even more impressed that they had victoriously played a huge gig and none of the mishaps mattered. This is the definition of a rock and roller, and it blew me away.
Unfortunately, someone has to be the MD and this will probably fall to you as you are the person reading this blog. Somebody needs to crack the whip. You do not get a medal for it and often there is a bit of negativity but it has to be done. It injects some pace and energy into a project and ties the goals together.
You are approaching this as a professional. This is professional music so if you have people in your band who want it to be a hobby, that's fine, but they need to be in a hobby band. You need to work with like-minded professional people as it’s the only way to get the job done.
So this question always comes up;
“What do I do with that band member who doesn't get it, they are pretty talented, but they will not treat it seriously and think it will all fall into place?”
It’s not their fault as they may have watched too many rock and roll films where the whole thing is glamorised and they may have fallen for the mirage we put around the industry. Behind the scenes its completely different. Professional music is competitive and we need to treat it like a business. Your band member may be a little naive and not get the realities so you need to spell this out to them three times. If on the third try if they do not get it, it’s ok to go your separate ways. You cannot be carrying people, it’s the difficult part of the job, but those conversations have to happen.
When you walk off stage you may think the gig is over, however it is not!! You have a huge opportunity to walk into the crowd, get on the merch table and shift more product as you are actually there. You’ll meet your fans, sign their stuff and that's when you really consolidate all that great work you have done on stage. It still does not end there, the gig only really finishes when every last comment on all social media has been replied to, dealt with, commented on and shared. Only when this has been is it the end of the gig!
In the rehearsal room, we need to figure out who is going to do what: who will do merch?, who will do socials?, who will take care of the fans who want a long conversation?. Work it out, Plan it, Lead it!
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
No matter how big or small the band is, too many musicians arrive at the studio under-prepared for the physical and psychological gauntlet that they have to endure during the recording process. How many times do we have to be disappointed with the end product to realise that the blame is maybe due to the songwriting, performance or musicianship?. You can avoid the common pitfalls by working out what you are looking to achieve and by having a clear plan.
There are no excuses! We’re happy to spend our hard earned cash (or from the bank of mum and dad) on accessories such as mobile phones, fashion, games console, nights out and holidays but we’re not willing to sacrifice a little and buy ourselves a laptop, interface and a microphone.
In fact, music shops couldn’t make it any easier to give you interest free finance. This is where the fun begins! I would start with a Universal Audio Arrow, Sontronics STC-2 mic and an Apple Macbook Pro. Add a recording software (Digital Audio Workstation), cable and a pair of headphones and you’re on your way. Before you consider going into a studio you should be demoing at home for weeks, if not months, in advance.
So you’ve written your songs, demoed them on your laptop and practiced in rehearsals. Are you ready for the studio? The answer is: Not yet.
I spend a lot of time with bands during this important part of the process looking for ways of improving the song - whether it’s the arrangement, tempo, tone, parts and also feel. Understanding what felt good is crucial so it transfers across into the final version.
Most of the time we work it out in a rehearsal room or we sometimes go back and re-record parts on the demo. Be critically honest to yourself. For example, if you couldn’t perform the song competently from start to finish then you’re not ready. Don’t be afraid to re-build the song again from the ground up. I know it’s arduous, but time in the studio is a luxury.
You know all that lovely gear you have purchased to get you started (see point 1 above)? Well, the technology that is condensed into a tiny box is now at a pro-studio standard. I’m not kidding. I’ve worked on a number of label releases where it’s the same recording chain used at home and we ended up using the vocals or certain elements from the demo because it sounded good. We never felt the sonic quality was tangible enough to retract from the listening experience – what’s more important was the performance captured!.
Back in my own band days I would spend a lot time prepping my song templates before going into the studio. This means, all the tempos are set with all the guide instruments recorded (including vocals) and all we had to do was record a sonically better version of the same parts. This will save you hours and buy you the opportunity to get creative on some ear candy. You know all those romantic stories you’ve read where Producer X forced the drummer to set up a drum kit on the roof to get the perfect sound… The fun part!
We all love larger than life sounding records. It’s part of the reason why we fell in love with music, and you asked yourself how did they do that?. I want to sound that big! But let’s be realistic. Those records take a lot of time, skill and resources to make, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success.
Focus on the writing and nailing the performance. What’s more important is the ability to make your song resonate with the audience. Put your hand on your heart and can you say, “Did I put everything into the song and did my absolute best?” “Is it conveying what I’m trying to say?” A great song is a great song and a great performance will bring it home - no matter how or where it was recorded.
I remember back in the day when I started my band and bought my first humble recording set up. I thought this is it; I can finally make my own record, send it out to labels, upload it online and everyone’s going to love it. Wrong.
I went through the above process and it wasn’t sounding close to a finished product. It had no punch, energy, and the balance was all over the shop. I had a go mixing, but it opened a whole new can of worms. I didn’t know where to start on getting this to sound like the records I grew up with.
It dawned on me that I needed someone with; experience of mixing albums on a daily basis, who understood the dark art and is able to translate what was intended onto a pair of speakers. I got obsessed and started my search for a Mix engineer, listened to albums that were in a similar genre and worked out who was the mixer from reading album liner notes. I contacted a few engineers and attached a link to a couple of songs I had done. Establishing a mutual respect and understanding here is key. If he or she feels excitement in the songs, they will be able to put their heart and soul into it.
There are plenty of mixers out there and don’t dismiss someone who is local and relatively new to the art. Have a conversation and start with a song. If it works, then take it from there. Again, be realistic - a mixer can only work with the material given!. If you’ve done your job as musician, then you’re 75% of the way there.
- ‘Water bear’ is the common name for a Tardigrade.
- Tardigrades are micro creatures, found everywhere on earth.
- They are the most resilient creatures known.
- They can survive and adapt to their surroundings, even in outer space.
- Their resilience and ability to adapt and survive inspires us in everything we do. We love them.