Monday, December 14, 2009

Crafting a Melody

The marriage between a set of lyrics and the perfect melody is an often overlooked prerequisite in the art of songwriting. So much of the music we hear today has a melody that was poorly crafted without thought to creating an interesting and engaging as well as long lasting effect on the listener. This wasn't always the case; the "pop" songwriters of the 1930's and 1940's focused greatly on writing melodies. In many cases the melody was the basis for a song, with lyrics and chords added later. Currently in pop/rock music, so much of the song is written based on a groove or guitar riff. The chorus of the song will be added after the fact and almost all of the song is pieced together after the instrumental aspect of the track is done. This leads to melodies being an afterthought that most people tire of quickly.

When you are walking through a department store and you hear the instrumental versions of songs without lyrics, they are immediately familiar based on the melody. When you hear someone whistling part of a song, it is the catchy vocal melody that they are whistling. Some of the most timeless songs are written while keeping the melody in mind just as much as the arrangement, chord progressions, and lyrics.

When putting a melody to a set of lyrics you have already completed, you need to consider the natural rhythm of each stanza of your song. Read them aloud a couple times before you pick up your guitar or begin to play your keyboard. You are naturally going to be limited by your instrument and your most familiar chord progressions; without playing music behind your lyrics immediately, your options for your melody are endless. Reading it like a poem, does it naturally have a certain tempo? Does it have a 4/4 feel or a 6/8 feel? Are certain words longing to be held out longer than others? Reading your words aloud will help you orient yourself with what the song is naturally wanting to do. When Travis and I were writing lyrics, we would often stop after writing a verse and chorus to start working on the melody. I read our lyrics dozens of times, and melodies often came from the meter, tempo, and fluid patterns of the spoken lyrics. Don't fight it or put a terribly awkward.....................pause or trying to jameverythingintooneline. It straight up doesn't work. Use the natural rhythm that is embedded in the spoken words of your lyric.

After you have a feel for the natural rhythm of your set of lyrics, you need to start playing around with different options of melodies. I like to start on the chorus of the song. If your song is a road map, the chorus is the amazing gas station you stop at along the way a couple times to refuel your listener's cars. It drives the point of the song home and needs to be catchy and infectious. There are a couple of different exercises you can do to get better at writing catchy hooks.

1) Start breaking down the melodies of songs with great melodic hooks. Figure out where each note that is sung sits within the underlying chord. This is super easy considering every song ever has a chord chart online. Analyze how your favorite songwriters craft their melodies. Travis and I did this for one of our songs, I'm not telling which one, and it really got us out of our melody comfort zone.

2) Write down a bunch of notes within the key you want to work with and draw them out of a hat. This can create some absolute failures for melodies, but it will help you hear your song as if someone else were writing the melody. For example, if I had the line, "May I pour out my life for the will of my Father, never counting it a loss", I would pick a note out of the hat for every word in the line. This opened up my eyes to a world of new melodic intervals that I would have never considered because I naturally am a descending note melody writer. You may tend to write ascending melodies or repeat a few notes or always start on the third of the chord. Whatever the case, this breaks down those walls and is super fun.

3) Try taking the notes that you would naturally sing (you know, the ones that make all of your songs sound the same) and reverse them. If they start low and ascend upward, reverse it. Know what your tendencies are as a songwriter so you can work to include some variety in your melodies. I can't stand buying a CD where every song sounds remarkably similar to the last.

4) Get creative with your intervals. If you think you can only sing C-E-G when you are playing a C chord, think again. Try starting on C and jumping to F. Don't be afraid of big jumps. The songs that stay within the same 6 notes get so incredibly boring. Liven things up!

After creating a great hook for your chorus that is comfortable yet unpredictable, put it in a key that will allow you to sing the verses lower than the main register of the chorus. This is a generality for the sake of writing an accessible and catchy song. You don't have to do this, but listen to the radio - catchy songs have higher choruses. People get tired of someone singing in the same register for 4 minutes. Once you have placed chords under your chorus, which is a whole other topic entirely, start to consider the feel of your verses. These were always the hardest for us to write melodies to. I have to imagine this is true for many people based on the amount of incredible chorus hooks paired up with lousy verse hooks. The verses need to be catchy, too! Otherwise, you are going to lose people after that first chorus and they may never come back to hear your awesome bridge.

To cure our melody writing block in the verses, Travis and I used fun rhythms. Now that you have your chorus hook written, you should probably avoid making the verses feel the same as the chorus. If your chorus started the second beat of the measure, try starting your verse on beat one or even beat three of the previous measure. Also, a tip for your verse that comes right after your first chorus (verse 2): mix up the melody a little bit. That will breathe some life into a melody that people have already heard. It needs to be familiar still, while making the melody appear to be completely new.

At this point, you are nearly done. My only real suggestion for the bridge is to make them sound different than the chorus and the verses. Seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many songs have bridges that seem to pass by unnoticed. You can either amp up your bridge by making it powerful and drawn out, or make people refocus by bringing the melody to a lower register. Lots of great options.

These are merely suggestions based on our writing experiences. If you write melodies first and add lyrics later, you may have more of a struggle writing meaningful lyrics while your melodies are incredible. Know what works for you and discover your weaknesses and strengths as a writer. Crafting melodies takes lots of practice. You will know when you have a good one and when you do not. Never settle if the melody doesn't fit the lyrics like a glove. I think every songwriter knows that unsettling feeling in their gut when they lose passion for a song that they are working on simply because they don't have a great melody, they may just have a good one. Rework it until it is perfect. The art of writing is in the rewriting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Guitar Tone

I’m going to start with one word. Simplify!

The main thing to remember in both live and recording applications is that whatever you send into the mix is what will come out on the other end – no amount of processing can fix bad tone. Take everything back to the signal source – your guitar.

Turn off your effects - the distortion, the delay, the flange, the compressor, set the EQ on your amp flat, and plug a great guitar into your amp. Yes, all by itself – then turn your amp up! Learn what each pickup selection option sounds like, mess with the tone knobs in all possible combinations. Let your guitar sound like itself – just like there’s no way to make me sound like Todd Agnew when I sing, no amount of effects will make a Les Paul sound like a Stratocaster, and vice versa.

Play like this until you have the defining moment every guitar player should have: learning to play clean exposes all the nuances of your playing – and given time can sound bigger and better than you sounded with all your pedals. Don’t throw the pedals away though – just use them with discretion, LATER. I love practicing with my Strat plugged straight into a PA via a DI box – it’s so much easier to hear my playing deficiencies.

Next, get a good equalizer. My signal chain starts with a 30-band rack mount Rane EQ with a sweepable high and low cut. I know it’s overkill, but it was just sitting around after upgrading our main PA to a digital eq/crossover unit, and I’ve found it extremely useful in my guitar rig. I’ve found that basic 7-band EQ pedals don’t have enough bandwidth to really be effective – though they help! Something with 10 or more bands or even parametric capabilities will give you more options.

Here are some general EQ guidelines I’ve figured out over the years:

Roll off everything below 80hz (In live situations, the 100hz cut on most soundboards will suffice).

100Hz can bump up low end nicely if you’re palm muting, but watch out for it interfering with the bass guitar.

200 – 250Hz adds punch and fullness.

250 – 800Hz is the “mud” zone. Roll off here if your sound is muddy.

600 – 650Hz boosted can REALLY warm up a lead tone.

2.5kHz – 5kHz adds edge and bite.

5kHz – 8kHz adds clarity.

8kHz – 12kHz adds “shimmer.”

Once you have your guitar sounding the way you want it, add effects back in one at a time, dialing each until you LOVE the tone.

For “The World Will See” my signal chain typically looked like this: Guitar (Gibson Les Paul, or Fender Stratocaster) -> EQ -> Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer -> BBE Sonic Stomp -> Peavey Classic 50/50 Tube Amp at full volume -> 1x12” Cabinet in another (padded with foam!) room -> Sennheiser e906 mic about 2 inches from the speaker -> Protools.

For most parts, this was it – if I wanted something to sound a little thicker, I just recorded the same part several times, sometimes with both guitars. For reverb I mostly just used Protools plugins after laying a part down dry. In “Almighty” and “For The Joy” I used a dot-eight delay from the digital effects section of my Digitech GSP2101. Several other songs have a quarter note delay, also from the GSP2101. Delay doesn’t really change tone – it just duplicates whatever you’re playing at a certain time interval.

Just a quick word on recording your amp with a microphone – have someone else move the mic around in the isolation room while you play and listen in the control room with headphones. An inch can make a huge difference! The center of the speaker is going to sound a little brighter, and the edge will sound much darker. People have come up with tons of rules on proper mic technique, but the only rule I really abide by is if it sounds good in your headphones in the control room, the mic placement is correct.

By the way, I highly recommend the BBE Sonic Stomp for any guitarist or bassist – it simply corrects a time-delay issue that is created in the higher frequencies of amplified sound – something called “envelope distortion.” Basically this means the lower frequencies will reach the listener’s ear before the higher ones, causing a “muddy” perception. The Sonic Stomp corrects this.

While recording our album I started using my simplified setup regularly for live performances – a little extra reverb, compression and overdrive can definitely help fill the sound out with a band, but I don’t change much for either live or recording applications. Great tone is great tone, whether live or in the studio – and it all starts in your fingers on your guitar.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009


There are a lot of fundamentals behind good song writing: rhythm, rhyming, verse-chorus-bridge flows. However, I don't really want to touch on those much - they can be learned, go get a book about songwriting. I'm going to instead touch a little on my own experiences in co-writing. There are a lot of thoughts out there about writing and productivity, but what finally worked the best for me was having someone else with me that could handle the pen and paper the entire time. Every time I sit down with the pen, my brain switches modes to a very non-creative space and just starts processing the physical act of pushing a pen and making letters with it. Melodies and lyrics pop into my head much faster when I'm doing the "walk around the room playing my guitar singing random stuff" thing.

The process isn't all random inspiration though. The song has to start with a good concept. "Only By Your Grace" was written specifically at a time when our church was re-orienting philosophies of how to do ministry, specifically in the seeker sensitive/vs. deep "centered" teaching. Anytime the church takes a step back to evaluate their effectiveness, the repercussions spread throughout the rest of the body, sometimes in the case of the music. We had been focusing on the cool factor, being relevant to the world, and even using a bunch of songs off the radio to make them feel comfortable. Not that there's anything wrong with this approach, but at the time we felt we needed to back off a little and let the aroma of the Gospel speak for itself. So when Katrina and I sat down to write the song, it was natural to use a topic the church was currently going through, coming back to the basics - God is the one that allows our next breath, and we are entirely reliant on him for anything good.

I had a chord progression I had been dinking around with, Katrina adapted it to the keyboard. We switched keys a few times and couldn't come up with lyrics, so we put away the instruments and dove into the Bible, looking through concepts about finding our satisfaction in God. The Bible is FULL of material for songwriters writing songs for the church - USE IT! Once the lyrics started coming, I wandered around with my guitar singing a few lines we had come up with, while Katrina "scribed," and came up with more on her own.

When you're co-writing, there's a self-conscious temptation to try to have a finished concept or line in place before you speak or sing it. Don't worry about that - in fact, you've got to let go completely and allow for the silly, the mundane, the cliché to come out - somewhere in all of it is the meat of what you're looking for. Write it ALL down and then come back, read through it, sing through it, and see what pops out. This is the hardest point, where most people give up and move on, settle for mediocrity, or just switch into a big jam session and accomplish nothing. Push through because this is the brainstorm stage, the draft stage - 90% of the work is at this point. Be willing to throw things out like chords, melodies, lyrics - really you'll only use about 10% of what you come up with in the end, but it'll be GOOD! Don't actually throw the non-used material away - whole songs might grow out of these pieces!

One thing to keep in mind when co-writing is that you must be willing to give. Each of you should have veto power. I suppose this is true in every aspect of life, but in the creative process, you must be willing to totally give up that super cool melody, lyric, or progression you just came up with. Be gracious, but keep your standards high - if you both don't agree at a certain point, it could very well be that something isn't quite right with it, and another solution is better. I've tried writing with many people, and this is usually the downfall point - someone doesn't agree, but the other person won't give up their "pet concept." Frustration is the only result in these impasse situations.

Immediately after writing a song I record it. I've used garageband, protools, and even the voice recorder on my cell phone in a pinch. Write down the lyrics on one page with the chords so you have them later. Otherwise, you'll forget them completely! The recording doesn't have to be perfect - it's just for reference later.

And later . . . find someone you trust and play the song for them. Some people just affirm all the time in the name of being encouraging, which isn't very useful. Find someone that's willing to graciously pick your concept apart as an outside observer. This can be a great filter in the final tweaking process.



I've been told at multiple conferences and by multiple books that writing music with someone else is absolutely the only way to do it. I really hated that idea for a long time. I had the understanding that good songwriters don't need help from another writer, and there are those exceptions out there. From time to time, I can stumble onto something pretty good on my own. But for the most part, I really agree now that joining forces with someone else is critical in the development of a songwriter.

I see songwriters go through stages much like I did, and it goes something like this:

They have a desire to write music.
They can grasp the basic structure of most songs.
They begin to write songs similar to the ones they admire.
They experiment with non traditional structures. (i.e. no choruses, long instrumentals, key changes)
They eventually come back to writing simpler songs.
They begin to understand where their weaknesses are.
They collaborate with someone else.

I realized my weaknesses about 5 years ago. I struggle to write meaningful worship lyrics and my chord progressions were predictable. Travis, being rooted in theology and having a certain mastery of his instrument, was a perfect compliment to my ability to write melodies and arrange and edit songs. I have attempted to co-write with about 16 people to date. It is a very difficult thing to do because there has to be a certain level of trust and humility in both people as well as a lack of any expectation that you will be able to produce anything that day. Travis and I had songwriting sessions that really just ended up with us dialoging about music and not creating a song. We have some half-finished songs that were beginning to feel forced and we couldn't keep going. I think a lot of people get discouraged when they cannot produce a killer song at every session, when really, God may just want you to have to rely on Him more throughout the process. The reason that writing with Travis was such a fruitful endeavor was simply that we had a good understanding of how the other person functions, what our own strengths and weaknesses were, and we weren't afraid to disagree.

Travis and I are VERY different people and we are often on two separate wavelengths when it comes to a certain topic. However, we have an understanding that we both will be open to the other person and not get offended when our ideas get thrown out. We had to stop attaching ourselves to every "brilliant" lyric and hook we suggested. If Travis didn't like my idea, we had to move on to a new one. If I felt like we were settling, we would scrap the line and start over. Not to say we didn't have our share of arguments about theology or melodies or how high the men in the church have to sing, but more often than not, we learned to pick our battles.

In many of my other co-writing sessions, I felt like I was being pushed to settle for the sake of finishing a song. Sometimes I felt like I was running the show or had no creative voice at all. If you are new to co-writing and you are about to sit down and give it a shot, have a conversation with the other person about the realities of who you both are as writers. It is okay to lay all your cards on the table and say, "I can write really great hooks and melodies, but I struggle with lyrics." Very few people are great as both melody writers and lyricists. Obviously you should strive to strengthen that area of weakness by practicing it more often and studying it, but you should have a firm understanding of where God has placed your natural abilities. It has only helped me as a writer to understand that there are some aspects of composing a song that don't come naturally to me. For so long, I would settle for mediocre lyrics as long as I had a great hook. Writing with Travis has made me realize that though it takes more effort and energy and time, crafting a great lyric is worth the struggle and the wait.

Basically, the benefits of co-writing are above and beyond what most writers could imagine. After 5 years of writing with Travis, we are both much stronger at our craft, better versed in worship and what the church needs to sing, and more able to encourage other writers to be excellent and not settle. The experience alone has forced us to let go of our pride, surrender our time, and grow as worshippers.