How to Write Songs on Guitar
My first post in quite some time. The first book in my Backbeat songwriting series has now been published in a new updated and revised, third edition from Rowman & Littlefield. It is a little smaller and lighter than the previous editions – so more convenient to post as a gift for your friends! Two more titles are on the way – Lyrics and Riffs – and hopefully more to come.
Some news after a long, long break from posting here.
Like many, I have switched some of my teaching online via Zoom. Get in touch if you are interested in guitar, bass, songwriting and other music online tutorials. I can also work with people who have copies of my books and would like to discuss and go through them together.
To get in touch, leave a comment at the foot of the page. You can also find me on Facebook.
This year should see the 3rd edition of How To Write Songs On Guitar in its 20th Anniversary year. It has been revised with a little new material, a re-write, a new layout and a general polish. I hope this will be the first of several revised editions of the series.
Four chord songs
Several people have mentioned a youtube clip to me recently involving a comedy act who run through scores of songs which allegedly use the same four chords. As the author of How To Write Songs On Guitar I had to look this up.
The comedy act is the Axis of Awesome. The chords in question are the progression I-V-VI-IV, which in the clip they play in the key of E major: E B C#m A. The joke is the audience’s recognition of the songs being similar, as though they are laughing at discovering the resemblance and the evidence of the proposition at the outset that these are the four chords you need to have a hit. The performance does have a slight cheat element to it, firstly because it puts all the songs in the same key, whereas they would be in a number of different keys; secondly, because it doesn’t distinguish between songs that use those four chords without repeat in a progression, with repeats in a chorus (what I call a turnaround), or possibly for the entire song.
What does this performance demonstrate? Certainly, that this is a very commercial progression and many hits songs have used it (and no doubt more will). It also says something about the formulaic nature of harmony in popular music and its limited grammar (i.e. how the chords are used, not which chords). And underneath this is an interesting unfaced question for popular music’s audience: how many songs do you need or want that have the same harmony? Wouldn’t you rather hear something different? Why did you buy all these songs if you’re laughing at the fact that they sound the same?
Songwriting technique (Isley Brothers)
Every now and then on this blog I’ll post some comments on a song which will be almost like a footnote to one of my songwriting books. Here’s something which came to me recently when I chanced to hear a track on the radio called ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ by Motown act the Isley Brothers (from the mid-60s). The song has an unusual intro and a striking first melodic phrase and it’s clear that something odd is going on in the harmony to create such an arresting start and a curiously unsettling first phrase. I identified the reason for this.
The song is in the key of C major. The intro chords are E-A-C-Bb-G. Momentarily we think we’re in E or A but the C cancels those out. It’s the presence of the E and A which are unexpected. The verse progression is C-D-E-Am-Dm-G7-C-Bb-G. The Bb-G-(C) progression (bVII-V-I) is a classic 1960s change which is not much heard these days (there’s an interesting essay to be written about why certain chord changes are more popular and more used at some times than at others). But it’s the first three chords of the verse which are important. It is unusual to have two ‘reverse polarity’ chords one after the other, especially moving up the sequence of chords I-II-III. C-D-E is I-II^-III^, to use the symbol I chose in How to Write Songs on Guitar. It’s these two chords next to each other, coupled with the melody and the lyric’s title phrase, that gives the opening of the verse such a different flavour.
Reverse polarity chords are ones which have changed from being minor to major, or minor to major, against what they shouild be in a major key. In C major D, E and A (II,III and VI) should be minor chords; II^, III^ and VI^ (D, E, A) have turned into majors.
Try turning the progression C-D-E as I-II-III in C major into C-D7-E7. This gives a common note c to the chords C and D, and then a common note of d to D and E, making the progression smoother. Follow the Am with a Dm7 and you have a common note of c to link those chords, and then Dm7-G7 shares the notes d and f.
Classic Motown of the 1960s is a good quarry for songwriters looking for new ideas in chord progressions. Away from the famous hits you can find some real gems in terms of songwriting technique.