Posts Tagged ‘Songwriting’

An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory

Yeah, I know. This would carry more weight if I were better known, but I’m not. I think this is good advice, anyway.

Here are a few samples of my songs for you to pick apart. (A note on the first song: I am a former postal worker.)

Hemingway once said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” That’s great advice for writing fiction and for writing songs (not so much for writing nonfiction). The takeaway is not to self-censor: knock the “what are you doing!? that’s awful” devil off your shoulder and just have fun. Who knows what you’ll come up with?

Of course, most of what you come up with won’t be good. So what? If even 5% of what you write is decent, let alone good, you’ll be ahead — you’ll have written something you wouldn’t have written if you’d self-censored. (The self-damning, self-censoring devil is far from infallible.)

Beyond that, here are a couple of other ideas:

  • Record every session where you’re trying to come up with songs
  • If you can’t record yourself and come up with something you like, play it over and over again, at least a dozen times: that way, there’s a decent chance you’ll remember it.

And another:Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second Edition

  • Either have a lot of beats down in your head (e.g., standard shuffle, 12/8, standard rock beat, polka, samba, standard swing beat, 3-2 clave, soca, waltz) when you write songs, or listen to rhythm tracks with the various beats. (Self-advertisement: About 20 years See Sharp Press published a still-unmatched encyclopedia of beats with close to 200 of ’em on CDs, The Drummer’s Bible).

That’s it. Some people claim to come up with good songs by writing something everyday, which is plausible — and will mostly result in crap; but again, that 5% that might be good . . . — but the best ones just seem to come to you whole. They usually take no more than a half-hour to write. The two examples above being Postal and Abductee Blues.

Don’t self-censor and have fun.



An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz and Blues Musicians.

Over the years, I’ve been collecting bits of advice on songwriting, some of which I follow, some of which I don’t. A few of the following suggestions are from yours truly; most of them are from others, and their origins are lost in the mist of time.

Here’s the advice, with that on lyrics first, which seems the area of greatest need.


1. Just rhyming isn’t good enough. listen to any type of popular music from blues to rock to country to corridos and you’ll see (well, hear) what I mean:: the lyrics are cliched or nonsensical in easily 90% of the songs. All their authors were concerned with was rhyming (and, often, being inoffensive), so they reached for the first handy cliches and words that even vaguely rhyme, and produced junk.

2. Speaking of cliches, avoid them; and if you use them, use them in a way that mocks them or is otherwise funny.

3. Say something. Make people think, feel, or both. Make a point (political, social, or personal), express genuine emotion, and/or be amusing. One of these three things is usually adequate, and if you write a song that incorporates two of the three, you should have a winner.

4. Humorous self-mockery often makes for great lyrics.

5. Avoid earnestness (humorlessness, taking things, especially oneself, too seriously). While seriousness can be fine, earnestness never is.

6. Try to use real rhymes rather than false rhymes. As an example, a real rhyme for “bone” is “stone,” and a false rhyme would be “home.” False rhymes are very common in song lyrics, and they’re not the worst thing in the world, but it’s better to use real rhymes if you can, as long as they don’t detract from the lyrical content — if they do detract, it’s generally better to use a false rhyme that better expresses the meaning.


1. Record what you play while you’re practicing or rehearsing. You never know when you’ll come up with a good song idea, and if you record it you can go back to it. (I’m far from alone in losing song ideas [progressions, melodies, comping patterns] I didn’t record but was sure I’d remember.)

2. If you can’t record a song idea (or a complete song — sometimes they just come to you), play it at least a dozen times to get it in your head. This isn’t as good as recording it, but it increases the chances that you’ll remember it.

3. If you’re playing with others, take at least a few minutes at every rehearsal to improvise and see what you come up with.

4. Experiment with different rhythmic patterns. It’s very easy to get stuck in familiar rhythmic ruts; make an effort to get out of them. How? One way is to check out drummers playing different beats on Youtube. A more efficient way is to use a rhythmic reference book such as The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, which includes CDs with close to 200 different beats. In either case, using Youtube videos or a reference book with CDs or DVDs, put on a track with a rhythm you’re not familiar with, and see what you can come up with.

5. It’s also not a bad idea to experiment with using two different beat patterns in a song, one for the verses and the other for the bridge. Robert Cray’s “That’s What I’ll Do” is a good example: for the verses, it uses a standard jazz pattern (swung, but shuffling only on the 2 & 4) and for the bridge it uses a backdoor shuffle (shuffling on all 4 beats, but with the emphasis on the final triplet of every beat).

6. Don’t be oddball just for the sake of being oddball. Unusual rhythmic, metric, or chord changes are fine as long as they work. That is, they should have a musical point. (If your bandmates are enthusiastic about the song the odd changes are in, they probably work; if they don’t like them, or politely say nothing or give tepid praise, they probably don’t.)

General Advice

1. Have a notebook handy so you can write down musical ideas, lyrics, or possible song topics when you can’t record them and especially when you don’t have an instrument handy.

2. Set aside some time every day for a year to write a song, and don’t quit until you’ve come up with one, no matter how poor. Those who’ve done this (I haven’t) say that while over 90% of what they came up with was crap, they also came up with some real gems, and that it’s made songwriting easier for them.

I hope that you find at least some of the above useful.

P.S. Here are mp3s for a few of the songs I’ve written over the years, both music and lyrics. I hope you enjoy them.

And here are a couple for which I wrote the music but not the lyrics:

An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz & Blues Musicians

Last night I went to one of the local dives to check out a band I hadn’t seen before. They did a lot of things right and several things wrong, so here ya go. (And, no, I’m not going to mention the band or the bar.)

Here’s what they did right. Most of these things are key to getting re-booked.

  • They started on time. They were all set up and had done their sound check 15 minutes before they were set to go on. In other words, everybody showed up on time and held up their end of things. (I once played in a band where the bass player couldn’t stand the drummer, and would typically show up at gigs five to ten minutes before we were set to go on, just to avoid him. It was maddening, and made doing the sound check hectic — when we had time to do a sound check.)
  • Their first set lasted over an hour, and they only took a 15-minute break between sets. Longer breaks are rude both to customers and bar owners/managers, and will contribute to your not being re-booked.
  • They didn’t play too loud. (Playing too loud is the most common bar band mistake.) I was able to carry on a conversation with a guy two bar stools away only 30 feet from the stage. The guitar players’ tone was fine despite the low volume.
  • They used monitors and miked everything. This usually results in a better mix (though not in this case — the sound was muddy) than you get if you lazily mike only the vocals for the monitors.
  • They tried to engage the audience with patter between songs. It was almost painful, but it’s a good idea if properly done.
  • They kept the tunes up-tempo and danceable.
  • They played a lot of recognizable tunes. Unfortunately, audiences love this. (Ages ago, I went with my pal Lefty Larry to check out a band we hadn’t seen. They played originals and unrecognizable covers, and got a tepid response, until they played “Hold Your Head Up,” by Argent — a tune that’s almost a dictionary definition of musical mediocrity; of course, the audience loved it.)
  • They dressed slightly better than the audience. Unless you’re playing in a punk band, you’ll want to dress better than your audience. This is more important in some genres than others, but it’s generally a good idea.
  • Their two guitarists had somewhat different tones. (They were both using Fender tube amps, but one was using a Les Paul and the other an ES-335. Neither, to their credit, was using effects.)

Most of the above are major virtues, and will get you asked back. Despite doing all of this right, they did a few things, including two important things (the first two listed), wrong.

  • All of the tunes were at close to the same tempo. This gets monotonous after a few songs. It’s better to vary tempos somewhat and keep it mostly uptempo to very uptempo, but throw in one or two medium-tempo or slow tunes per set.
  • Their volume level was pretty much the same on every song. They made no use whatsoever of dynamics. (This is a very, very common mistake.)
  • They had two pretty decent vocalists (one male, one female), but despite being obviously well rehearsed, they did no backup vocals whatsoever: the vocalists just switched off on the songs. Unless you’re playing punk or metal, backup vocals help.
  • They had two guitar players, but didn’t take advantage of it. They avoided the most common mistake bands with two guitarists make — playing the same chords in the same positions with the same rhythmic patterns while comping — but they did no parallel runs, no oblique runs (with one playing a more or less static pattern), no contrary motion runs. They didn’t even do any comping with interlocking patterns. They’d have been better off with only one guitar player: their mix would have been less muddy.
  • The one original they did was lame, because the chord pattern was deliberately odd — not good, just odd. This is common with bad songwriting — using gimmicky, oddball changes just to sound different.  The Doors were notorious for oddball changes (check out their wonderful “Love Her Madly”), but they mostly made musical sense. Here, the oddball changes didn’t make such sense.

The end result of all this? “Professional” but boring.

Anyway, there ya go. Follow all of the above advice and admonitions, spend several thousand hours practicing and rehearsing, and you too could be pulling in $50 or even $60 a night — per man! (sorry, per person)