Adult Guitar Lessons

10 Steps to Successful Songwriting

Once you have learned some chords and are getting comfortable on the guitar, it's quite natural to get the urge to start writing your own songs. Here are some pointers to get you started in the right direction.


1. Start with the Hook

The "hook" of the song is what the song is all about. It is usually the title, but not always. This is the the "meat" of the song so you may not want to invest a lot of time writing until you have a good solid hook to write about.


2. Check the Hook for Uniqueness

With all the songs that have been written over time it can be a challenge to come up with something new in the way of a hook. How many times has, "I Love You", or "I miss You" or "I'm Lonely" been said? These are all emotions that are still popular topics of songs, but the key is to say it in a new way that will get the listeners attention. One thing I do when I think I've come up with a fresh hook is to check it against the PRO's (Performance Rights Organizations) database and see how many titles there are by the same name. I usually check with BMI and ASCAP, and that gives me a pretty good idea if I've really come up with a good idea!


3. Write the Chorus First

The chorus is the part of the song that people will remember most. It is where the "hook" or title usually repeats and is usually the "big" part of the song. Starting with writing the chorus will give you a solid foundation for building the rest of the song.


4. Check Your Melody

In most cases with hit songs, the melody for the chorus will stand out and "soar" above the melody for the verses. The chorus is what stays with a listener initially so it's good to keep it "sticky" by have it stand out. Ther verse melody is usually lower in range and serves as a set up for the big payoff in the chorus. Writing "fresh" melodies can be as challenging as finding a "fresh" hook.


5. Focus the Lyrics

Most songs tell some sort of a story or depict a situation. Country music is very lyric driven, often focusing on "real life" situations about real life people. Rock and pop music tends to be more melody driven and there is not as big an emphasis placed on the lyrics. They do, however, usually convey a consistent message.


6. Know Your Song Structure

A solid knowledge of song structure will help your writing immensely. Many rock, pop and country songs use the VERSE - CHORUS - VERSE - CHORUS - BRIDGE - CHORUS  formula, or a similar variation - but there are a number of other important song structures to be aware of. You can get a good feel for song structure by simply listening to the radio and noting how your favorite songs are put together.


7. Write the Verses

Once you have the chorus written then it's time to work on the verses. Lyrically, the verses will usually "tell the story", while the chorus "surmises" the overall emotion or idea. Melodically the verses should take a bit of a "back seat" to the chorus, and set it up smoothly.


8. Add a Bridge

A bridge is the section of the song where things change. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtlety. The bridge, melodically, serves to break up the pattern of the rest of the song thereby giving the listeners ears a break, which has the effect of adding some freshness to the final chorus. A bridge can often go someplace completely different musically and rhythmically, but usually transitions smoothly into the final chorus.


9. Add a Pre-Chorus

A pre-chorus is a short section immediately after the verse that changes musically to lead into the chorus. A pre-chorus is also known as a "lift" because it lifts the song from the verse to the chorus. These can be a very effective way of transitioning into the chorus and are used quite often. Play around with some ideas and see if your song could benefit by adding a pre-chorus.


10. Write to the Hook

Writing to the hook is a way of maintaining a continuity of message throughout the song. Making sure the lyrics in the verses support the message or emotion of the chorus, and, that the story stays on focus from beginning to end. One trick that songwriters use a lot is to "bounce" each line of lyric against the hook or title. In other words, say a line of lyric, then say the hook or title. Does every line of lyric "connect" with the hook? If not, it may not make sense to the listener as well.


11. Check Your Time

If you are writing for a commercial market, or just to play your songs in a band in front of an audience - you may want to pay attention to how long the song is running. Most commercial songs will not exceed 3 1/2 minutes. You could stretch it to 4 minutes, but much longer than that and you risk losing the listener.


12. Check for "Freshness"

It is inevitable that one song will sound like another. We are all a musical product of the music we have listened to and it is natural to write a song that "sounds" familiar. Sounding familiar can be a good thing but it is a good idea to check your song and make sure you have not written a melody that is "on top" of something else you have heard before. We have all done it before and it can be a challenge to write something that is totally "fresh".


13. Get Some Feedback

Play the song for "fresh ears" and get some opinions. While it's true that our friends and family will not always give us a "brutally" honest opinion, it's good to see their reaction and sometimes just playing it for someone else will help us hear our songs from a different perspective. If you have access to other musicians or band mates, let them hear it and get some solid feedback.


14. Try it Out

If you play in a band or are a solo artist, play your songs for an audience and watch for a reaction. You can't always go by the first time you play it so give it a few tries and see if you can get a feel for how it's going over. You might have a hit on your hands and don't even realize it!


15. Get Some Education

There are some fantastic resources out there for songwriters. Volumes of books have been written on the subject and it would behoove you to study up on the "craft" of songwriting. In addition there are a number of organizations that support songwriters with education, critiquing and pitching opportunities. Some really good ones that I have been involved in are, NSAI and TAXI.


16. Know the Most Important Rule

The most important rule in songwriting, as with all music - is that there "are no rules"! There are, however, many guidelines and benchmarks that we can use to help steer us. Hit songs historically follow certain "patterns" and formulas that have been proven to work time and time again. The trick is to recognize them for what they are, while remaining true to ourselves. At the end of the day, your songs are your songs, and you can do what you like with them. Most hit writers will tell you that "writing from the heart" took them further than anything. Stay true to yourself!


As you can imagine, this is a short list that just briefly touches on a few important songwriting topics. You could spend years discussing each item on this list and more so we would highly recommend that you take some time to study the craft of songwriting if you aspire to pen your own music. It will be well worth the investment.


Good Luck with Your Writing!

Keith Dean

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21 Things You Need To Know About Playing in a Band


You've spent countless hours practicing, and now you've got the chops and you're ready to take it to the stage. Whether you're forming a new band, or joining an existing one, here are some things to be aware of in the beginning.


1. Be Prepared for a Change

If you've been holed up in your practice room up to this point, get ready for a new experience when you start playing music with other musicians. The dynamic of multiple personalities, egos and talent levels can be a shocker in the beginning. Going from playing only for yourself, to having every note you play scrutinized by other people can be frustrating and humbling at the same time. It can also be extremely rewarding with the right group of musicians.


2. Start Slow - Start Small

Ease into a band situation by testing the water a little first. Find a friend that plays music and try to arrange some informal get together's to jam and exchange musical ideas. This will not only give you a good feel for playing with another musician - it may also foster a new relationship with a future band mate.


3. Choose Your Direction

Most bands fall loosely into one of two categories. Try to know what direction you are headed in before you jump out there.


4.  Cover Bands

For the most part, cover bands will predominately play other artist's material, and maybe mix in a few originals. Cover bands can often be classified by the genre of music they play and audiences expect to hear songs they are familiar with. You can make a little more money in a cover band, but you trade off the "artistic integrity" of performing your own material.


5. Original Bands

Original bands typically play their own music and stay true to their own style and genre. It can be a lonely proposition sometimes because the gigs that cater to strictly original material can be few and far between.


6. Making Money

One of the perks of playing music in a band is that there is often the opportunity to make a pay check. It can range from a few dollars in the tip jar, to several hundred dollars in your pocket for playing a wedding or corporate party. Sometimes the pay is in the form of cash ("under the table"), but with stricter tax laws, you may be faced with a 1099 at the end of the year. Be prepared to pay taxes on your income and be sure to consult your accountant for legal deductions against your income.


7. Know Your Equipment

Make sure you have the right "rig for the gig". If you are playing with a laid back wedding band then you probably don't want to go in with a Marshall 100 watt stack! It is important that you have a guitar and amp combination that will allow you to play the style of music that the band is playing, that you have enough "head room" for leads, but that you also are not going to "over power" everyone.


8. Maintain Your Equipment

There is no worse feeling in the world than cranking out a hot lead to a packed house... and suddenly your rig goes down. Like cars, houses, and anything else mechanical - guitars and amps must be serviced and maintained on a regular basis. Guitars should be adjusted for intonation and action, and amps, especially tube amps, need constant TLC to stay on top of the game.


9. Have a "Survival Kit"

Be prepared for the aforementioned rig taking a dump on you. It will happen. It might be a broken string, shorted cable, dead pre-amp tube - or any number of things. Murphy's Law is always fully in force and, if you are going to have a problem, it will happen in the heat of the show! I've been there many times. Put together a survival kit with spare strings, cables, tubes, picks, batteries etc., and always take it to the gig. You'll be glad you did.


10. Buy a Watch

Musicians are notorius for running late. As a coreutesy to the audience - and those that hired you - start on time. If the gig starts at 9:00, start at 9:00!


11. Set Up Early

Always try to gain access to the venue well in advance of show time to get the equipment set up. Trying to set up right before the gig can be a drain on your energy level for the show, and you will want to know if something is not working and needs to be repaired or replaced long before showtime.


12. Always Sound Check

Take a few minutes to put the PA system, lighting system, and your rig; through the paces to get your volume and EQ levels set before the show.


13. Sound Check Early

Try to do the sound check well in advance of the show. Preferably early in the day when setting up. This is usually the "quiet" time for the venue and you will not disturb the audience. This will also give you a chance to see if there are any problems with the equipment.


14. Dress the Part

If you're playing a biker bar then jeans and T-shirts might be acceptable. But if you're playing a wedding or corporate party you may have to step it up a notch. You don't necessarily have to run out and but a tux, but be aware of what is expected of you by the people who hired you. When in a bind, wearing all black will usually get you through.


15. Cut Down on "Down" Time

Silence on stage can be a curse. Nothing worse than the band standing there in between songs, scratching their heads trying to decide what to play next. Sometimes writing a set list in advance will help, but at least try to have in mind the next song you are going to play before the previous one ends.


16. Treat it Like a Business

When you get on stage and are having fun making great music, it can be easy to forget that you are getting paid to be there. Remember that you are running a business. There are contracts to abide by, and there is money to account for. Even a moderately busy local band can make a decent amount of money in a years time. Keep good books, account for expenses and repairs, and hire an accountant for taxes.


17. Have Agreements with Band Members

By knowing what is expected of everyone up front you can greatly reduce the chances of problems down the road. If the band is going to purchase and maintain the PA system etc. as a group, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of how it will be paid for, and who owns what. Also have an agreement as to how the equity will be divided if the band splits or if someone quits without giving notice. Many bands have written agreements covering these, and other related issues.


18. Rehearsal

When getting a number of musicians together for rehearsal, one of the most frustrating things can be if one band member shows up unprepared. Always try and have your part ready before you walk into the practice room. Standard etiquette also applies - be on time, be nice, and focus on getting the work done. Socialize afterwards.


19. Auditioning

If you are still in "search" mode for a band, chances are you will have to audition. Always go into an audition "overly" prepared by knowing the bands material in advance, their history, and hopefully their names. Do not try to monopolize the audition and "show boat", just show them how well you can fit in by playing their material the way they want it played. "Show out" later> Arrive on time, be courteous, and don't bad mouth the member whose position you are auditioning for. Things like that have a bad way of coming back and biting you on the butt!


20. Listen

A band is a collective unit of musicians making music as a "whole". One of the hardest things to do is to truly "listen" to what's going on around you. By being totally aware of all the other parts that are being played, and working to make your part fit the others, you will ensure a much higher quality of music - and therefore, more gigs. When it's comes time to take your turn at playing a solo, step out there and do it. When you are done, step back and become part of the whole again.


21. Check the Ego at the Door

Musicians, by nature, tend to have a healthy ego. And a healthy ego is a good thing. You have to have a certain amount of self confidence to get on stage and "bare your soul" musically. An out of control ego, however, is a different story. The streets are littered with bands that had all the parts, all the things they needed to "make it" - only to have one or two egos slam the brakes on everything. The truth is, no matter how good any of us thinks we are, there is always someone just around the corner to knock the chip off our shoulder. Better to be a confident member of a successful "group", than a raging ego with no one to play with.


Playing in a band can be fun, exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating and humbling all at the same time! This is just a short list of some of the many different issues you may encounter while playing with a band. And you could literally write a separate book on each one of these.

I have played in bands for over 30 years, had some great times, and some not so great - but never regretted a minute of it! Hope you enjoyed this insight and please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.


Keith Dean

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theory 2 01

Here is a simple chord progression from the Intro to the Allman Brothers classic "Melissa".

It is comprised of only three chords. The E major chord in the open position, a "variation" of an F# minor chord, and a "variation" of a G# minor chord.

It is not important at this stage to know "why" these last two chords are variations, and "what" they are. It is more important to simply know "how" to play them.

I would almost bet that when the "Brothers" sat around the "Big House" on Vineville Avenue here in Macon, GA - that they weren't overly concerned about "what" or "why" these last two chords were "variations" - they just knew that they sounded "cool" when played together!

Take a look at the chord diagram below. If you are unfamiliar with chord diagrams please see "Reading Chord Diagrams".

melissa diagram 01

We are going to assume that you already know how to play an E chord.

Notice that the fingering pattern for the F# minor variation and the G# minor variation are identical.

Once you form the chord shape for the F# minor variation, you only need to slide that formation up two frets to be in position for the G# minor variation.


For further clarification, we have included the TAB below to illustrate the formation of all three chords. If you are unfamiliar with reading TAB please see "How to Read TAB".

melissa diagram w tab 01

Playing this Intro is so simple that we did not need to include a music chart!

Just start with the E chord, then play the F# minor variation, then the G# minor variation, then back to the F# minor variation, then return to the E chord.

The chord progression just repeats after that. Try it out!


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best of my love picThis classic by the Eagles is fairly easy to play. We will assume that you already know how to play the C major chord and F major chord in the open position. If not, we have provided diagrams.

The whole progression for the Intro is comprised of only the C and F chords, and each one has a "lead-in" chord preceding it.


Take a look at the chord diagrams below. If you are unfamiliar with chord diagrams please see "Reading Chord Diagrams".

best of love diagram 01

The two diagrams on the left illustrate the first part of the Intro. It is based on the C chord in the open position.

The chord progression for the intro of this song starts with the chord position on the far left (C "lead-in" chord) and resolves to the C chord. You have probably already noticed that all you have to do to form this first chord is to start with the C chord, and lift your first finger. That's it!

The two chords to the right of the above example illustrate the second part of the Intro. It is based on the F chord in the first position.

This is played in similar fashion to the previous example. The first chord preceding the F chord (F "lead-in" chord) is formed by simply lifting the 1st finger off of an F chord.


Below is the TAB for the intro to "Best of My Love". If you are unfamiliar with TAB please see "How to Read TAB".

best of love tab 01

This TAB illustrates how to play the intro. The first two measures are based on the C chord formation and the last two measures are based on the F chord formation.

Give it a try! Enjoy...

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