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Songwriting: On the use of early fragments

I’ve writ elsewhere (all over the world wide web) that I picked up the guitar at an age too early to learn anything proper like an extant piece of music. I was simply interested in making twanging and snapping sounds. I had no loftier ambition than to disturb the peace in our home. It’s true that I had some competition from my mother screaming at my father and slamming doors while they raced from room to room hell-bent on redefining the meaning of dysfuntionality. Nevertheless, I could punctuate brief times of truce with my brother’s guitar. I was a contended little lad.

When this random noise migrated into something more harmonious, I can’t really recall; but I do remember having the guitar placed across my lap and discovering the root position E minor chord and it’s adjacent neighbour on the fingerboard (which I suppose is an A minor ninth chord). So I would alternate these two chords in a strict 4/4 for hours, until my mother couldn’t stand it any more banged me across the head with her hand.

I think the neighbourhood in general was pleased when my brother showed me a few more chords. I wonder if he thought that the fact that these new ones needed more than two fingers to execute would act as some sort of deterrence because, if so, he was bitterly disappointed. Anyway, I plowed on regardless.

The development of any sort of musical profiency was a random affair and was punctuated by my need to use the guitar as a means of defence from time to time when my brother would, for reasons I still cannot fathom, chase me around the house promising murder and mayhem. The “boing” as the guitar bounced off his nut at the conclusion of the chase had a very satisfactory sonic stamp to it which these days I would ascribe to a guitar with mahogony back and sides, an ebony bridge, and scalloped bracing. But, back then luthiery was not my main concern. Escape was.

No sounds I made in these times evolved into any approaching a cogent piece of music, but the seeds were scattered in my soul. I did begin to learn some American folk songs from a chord book my brother had lying around and I had a couple of friends at school with whom I practiced some Beatles’ songs. But it was Bob Dylan who pointed out the obvious solution for a boy with an acoustic guitar. All I needed was a few square feet in the corner of a room, to be left alone, and be fed once in a while.

I never suffered from acne or any of the other hormonal complaints of adolescence. I put this down to the musical venting and pouting I was able to indulge in, thereby providing an alternative outlet for these irritants. Indeed, some early habits still linger. I used the guitar to complain about my luck with early girlfriends and songs of unrequited lust have been the soundtrack to my life ever since. Indeed, I became so adept at these songs that I would deliberately screw up in the romantic department so I could go home and bleat about it in a song on the grounds that girls come and go but songs are eternal. Or some such rubbish. Anyway, all of these songs should have been consigned to the flames. That I had the temerity to think that any of my output during these years had legs is evidence both of the supreme confidence of the true artist and the self-delusion of dilettante.

So today, when the muse is silent, I entertain myself by revisiting some old fragments that remain from these youthful outpourings. Very occasionally I happen across something that I think has the spark of invention or hints at musical possibilities and I noodle around with it to see if it has any legs. Perhaps more often than I think is decent I slip some forty-five year old chord sequence and melodic phrase into a new song. I could claim that that this helps give my musical life a sort of unity. But I won’t. It’s just my little joke with myself.

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Chord voicings and “broken” chords

For a couple of months, I will mostly be learning and figuring out chord voicings. It strikes me as dumb and lazy to imprison myself with the root-at-the-bottom cliches that seem to be the foundation of the vast majority of my songs. Certainly, when I have used alternaltive voicing in the past it has been the result of serendipity-like accidents during the course of absent-minded noodling or commonly used inversions. Chord voicings and voice leading is opening up seemingly limitless opportunities for harmonic development for me. All basic stuff for jazz guitar players, no doubt, but that’s not my”¦ erm”¦ pedigree.

Having only four usable digits to finger five – or more – note chords means that all chords of that type will be “broken”, ie., have notes missing. That’s all right apart from the confusion that arises (in my little brain) when many chords with missing notes can be interpreted as voicings of entirely different chords – with missing notes. I’ve known this for years (oh, yes I have!) but it’s only an inconvenience presently since I’m trying to commit these voicings to memory by it’s name based on the supposed root – which in itself is interesting when oft times the root is also missing! Piano players, with ten fingers at their disposal, will play broken chords through choice based on a desired sonority – but us guitar players often play them out of necessity.

In truth, a bunch of notes can be called as many names as there are notes in the bunch – although it gets nonsensical and unhelpful after a point. In the end, chord nomenclature is only a means to an end and the fact that broken chords can be so easily interpreted as belonging to different tonalities provides an ambiguity that can be entertainingly exploited!

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Those two weeks away from the guitar”¦

“¦when I was in Italy have not done my chops any good. Indeed, picking up my (new) guitar again after returning made me wonder at how easily and quickly technique can fall off. I recall reading somewhere that Segovia opined that technique never stands still; it either improves or deteriorates. I dunno, I normally do a lot of practicing just to keep mine where it is”¦ Anyway, I believe it was Segovia who took guitar neck shaped plank of wood with him so he could exercise his fingers when he was in the trenches during some war, or other (Spanish civil?). I missed my guitar when in Italy and looked forward to playing it again, but when it was actually on my lap I couldn’t really get engaged with it. The guitar sounded great, of course, but I could only pick at it in a rather half-hearted fashion. At the time, I put it down to tiredness. After a minute or two I put the guitar down and went off to get some sleep. I felt a little uneasy, though, since I had assumed that all my creative juices had been building up just waiting to be released in a torrent of wild picking and couldn’t entirely figure out why it didn’t. The possibility that there were no creative juiced to torrent, I summarily dismissed out of hand as being absurd. Surely.

Anyway, the day following these desultory efforts, I resolved to open one of the bottles of Chianti we had brought back from our vacation and sip a few glasses while just noodling to try and reignite the spark. I also decided to change the strings (which incidentally would be this guitar’s first string change). The renewed growl and sparkle this lent the guitar caused a little thrill to run up the spine, for sure, and caused me to turn it around in my hands and admire it again as an object. This guitar is a splendid thing to behold. Then, I spent the next few hours sipping away and working out the middle bit to the song whose lyrics I’d done while on vacation. I think I got somewhere with this but I realised I would have to belt out a few songs for real to get back into the swing of things. Maybe this weekend…

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Songwriting – Stirring the muse

Sometimes I’m asked…

Most of the time I stumble across something when I’m working on some experimentation with harmony and finding different ways to change key, or trying to get some weird scale under my fingers. An idea will pop up which I’ll mess around with to see if it’s got any legs. Thoughts of form and structure come a bit later. Thoughts on lyrics come a lot later after I’ve worked out most of the guitar part and often will arise seemingly unbid from the rhythm and mood of the music. I’ll often mumble some “scat” while I’m finding a song melody over the guitar part. I never “hear” a tune in my head – I envy those who do.

Some way along the line I’ll begin to sense if the thing needs a guitar intro and break in the middle, in which case I’ll improvise up something. I’ve got a bad habit of making things up for breaks that are beyond my technical ability to play at tempo which inevitably involves me in lot of practice before I’m comfortable playing it in public or recording the piece. Even then, I’ll sometimes make a hash of it.

If it needs a coda, I’ll make it up at the end. Suprisingly.

I guess all that falls under the heading of “noodling” during which a bottle of Chianti to accompany these processes is always optional. Preferred, but optional.

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Songwriting – a fact of imbalance

Proportionality is a lost cause. I have the curious knack of making my major key output sound more minor than most peoples’ minor key output! It might tell of a deeply troubled nature. I would, there is no doubt at all in my mind, be a deeply troubled individual did I not have the therapy – catharsis, even – of writing songs. I guess it gets it all “out of my system”. If that’s the only point to all these songs, then that’s point enough. Who knows what I would have got up to had I not been “locked away” safely with a guitar.

The truth be told, I’m always too quick to see the down side of a situation and the risks (and not the rewards) associated with a course of action. The sunset moves me more than the sunrise (which I’m rarely ever up and about to see, anyway) and my glass is often half-empty.

Further (and to metaphorically ram the point home with another metaphor), my prediliction for lifting up a rock in a garden to inspect the bugs underneath has always been a habit, and I’ve only recently learned to wait to do it when no-one’s around to see.

Whence many of the songs’ melancholic substrate, no doubt.

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The act of songwriting…

…has never been a challenge for me. I think it’s because I’ve been doing it so long – since I was so uninhibited as a kid – that it’s a habit that’s simply been ingrained. I’ve never thought about how to go about the task. I did it before I thought about it. Like a very young child “learning” to swim.

Yes, as an adult I have thought about form and content and have tried to be dispassionate and self-critical about the output – and it’s true that some stuff I thought was fine at the time (of writing) I’ve considered juvenile in retrospect. In truth – although I’ve never counted – I must have written about two hundred “songs” before I made up one that in my estimation was worthwhile. And by that I mean fit for playing in public and recording for release on a record. Yes, there were pages upon pages of songs I wrote between the ages of fourteen and seventeen I distinctly remember painstakingly annotating lyrics with chord symbols, as neatly as my left-handed writing could achieve. They’re all gone now apart from a few fragments that I’ve retained since they may still be serviceable in some way.

So, as I recently lurked at a particular songwriting forum reading about the struggles people have with the act of songwriting, I’m at loss as to how I could contribute in any way because, in truth, I’ve either forgotten about how I overcame these issues or I never had them at all. I struggle to empathise. And I’m reluctant to explain so lest I appear arrogant or dismissive.

There are not so many things in life that I find so natural to do as to write a song. I may be limited in terms of the scope or breadth of my writing, but the act provides a constant rhythm to my days.

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One For Julie (My Lucky Stars)

… is the title of the latest consequence of my incessant noodling. It’s a bit schmaltzy and jazz-tinged and is about as romantic as this guy is ever likely to get. Another result, so it is, of noodling with a glass of wine near to hand. I guess the guitar part was done and dusted within a couple of days, another day for the lyrics and there it is. I must say, slowish as it is, it’s fingering and singing-at-the-same-time is taking some practice to get down. It’s not a song that lends itself to careless and loose playing (you can get away with that sometimes): it’s got to be pretty tight. And because it’s not all that fast, sloppy playing will sound, well, sloppy. Sometimes there’s just nowhere to hide.

I think it’s a strong song, though: I’ll try and record it soon, post it around, and see what the world thinks.

Did I say “schmalzy”? Here’s a taste:

I like to be beneath the night sky
Taking for granted she’s nearby
Ooh, by the light of Mercury and Mars
I like to be thanking my lucky stars

Aw, isn’t that sweet…? I wrote it for my wife. She’s no doubt heard the guitar part developing as she’s being going about the house, but she hasn’t heard the song. I hope she likes it when she hears it.

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Yes: “Noodles”. As in noodling on the guitar. I was going to call this section “Songs” but that presupposes a section on finished articles which would be as interesting as stripping paint – to write about, anyway.

So “Noodles”, it is, then.

Most of everything comes from noodles. Not always as haphazard as just moping about the fingerboard though – not always – not even often. Mostly I’m sitting with the guitar with a purpose and a bottle of wine. It could be about trying to get a new and weird scale settled in the muscle memory or finding more shocking ways to move from one key (tonality) to another key (tonality). I keep meaning to write the results of the latter down but rarely can I be bothered to get up and get a pencil and manuscript. But all this is done in a fairly relaxed manner (wine) and I’m happy to venture off if I stumble across something worth exploring. I might find a song, thereby.

The point being that it’s more interesting considering noodles and what comes from them – looking forward – than me writing about, and you reading about, a complete song – looking backwards. I thinks so, anyway. At least, I think I can write here, as I go, about that stuff more easily than the retrospective thing about some song that is more or less done and dusted – or consigned to the trash.

So henceforth I’ll try and be particular and be interesting…