How To Write Better Songs


By Jon Chorba

Do you struggle when writing songs? Do you feel that the ideas that you come up with when you pick up your guitar are just OK and not great? Do you get frustrated with the over-analysis that goes on in your head every time you write a guitar riff or chord progression? Do you feel that you have to be a very advanced guitar player or know everything that there is to know about music theory in order to write better songs? Well, you are not alone in thinking those things, but there is hope for you. There is actually one really simple thing that you could do to make your creativity explode and blow the doors off of your songwriting.

After I had been playing guitar for a couple of years, I was introduced to home recording, and the desire to write my own songs became an absolute obsession. At the time though, my guitar playing was just mediocre, and because I was so new to writing songs, everything I created was pretty much terrible. My songwriting process consisted of sitting down with my guitar and trying to come up with something amazing on the spot. I would struggle mightily to create one riff that I liked, and after I came up with something that I deemed worthy, I would immediately begin trying to write a complete song from beginning to end based on that riff. The transitions from riff to riff would often be very clunky.  The finished product was usually extremely lame and not something I would want to listen to, let alone show anybody.

I looked at some of my favorite bands and guitar players and thought, “wow, they are so much better at playing guitar then me…becoming an advanced guitar player must be the secret to writing great songs.” I also thought that some guitar players just have “it”…that super rare songwriting gene that only the great songwriters are born with.

What I have discovered over the past 15 years, as a songwriter and songwriting teacher, is that you don’t need to be incredibly advanced as a player or be born with ‘natural talent’ in order to write great songs. The reason most guitar players don’t improve their songwriting ability is because they focus on the wrong things when trying to write.  They try to do too much all at once, and they don’t have any sort of system or process for writing songs.

There are many things one can do to improve their songwriting skills, such as improving playing technique, ear training, and improving your understanding of music theory. While I totally believe that you have to improve in all of those areas, doing so is a long-term process that will take years for you to see improvement in your songwriting. There is something that you could do right now, however, to improve your songwriting and you’ll be able to see results in just a few months.

One very simple and very easy idea to implement in improving your songwriting is to do something called “writing for the garbage can.” All you have to do is write something new everyday. It could be a guitar riff, a chord progression, a melody, or whatever. The key here is that you write with the intention of never using what you are about to come up with. In other words, you are writing something with the intention of throwing it into the garbage.

You may be thinking, “this is stupid or silly advice…is he actually suggesting that I will improve my songwriting skills by noodling? Didn’t he say before that he used to noodle and that he couldn’t come up with anything worthwhile?”

You have to understand that there is a huge difference between the idea for writing for the garbage can and what I used to do and probably what you are currently doing. I’m willing to bet that when you sit down to write, you are actively TRYING to write something awesome. That’s the gigantic problem that I faced and you may be guilty of it, too. When you sit down and actively try to write something awesome, you begin a frustrating process of over thinking, over analyzing, and you are not tapping into real creativity, that inner beauty of awesomeness and self-expression that I like to call “the source.” You spend your writing sessions trying to figure out if what you wrote was any good. Your brain fills up with doubt and you are left feeling frustrated.

When you write for the garbage can, you become free. You don’t care if it sounds terrible. You don’t care if it’s cool. You don’t plan on ever using it, so your brain immediately stops trying to analyze whether what you are doing is ‘good enough’ and it allows you to relax. When you relax, your creative juices will start flowing very hard and you will begin to tap into some really cool ideas. If you make it a point to write for the garbage can every day, and you record every idea, you will inevitably write something that you love.  You will find transitional pieces to other things that you have written, and your creativity will be operating at a very high capacity.

Here is how to implement the ‘writing for the garbage can’ idea to improve your songwriting skills:

1) Set a goal for yourself that you will write one new thing every day for the next X amount of days. When I am in songwriting mode, I strive to write something new everyday for 90 days, but you could do this in 30 days and still see improvement.

2) Stick to that goal and write something, anything, every day…but most importantly DO NOT JUDGE what you write. Write for the garbage can. Come up with your riff, lick, chord progression, or melody, record it and move on. If you think it sucks, so what. Record it anyway and leave it for another day. This may be hard for some people who are ‘perfectionists’ and want everything to be exactly perfect right away. Trust me. You will gain access to some really awesome ideas by getting rid of the garbage floating around in your head, but you have to actively write and engage your brain everyday in order to flush the nonsense out.

3) It is absolutely crucial that you record everything that you do during this period, as you will review it later. You don’t need a fancy recording rig. Most phones and computers have the ability to record audio, so you could use your cell phone or webcam microphone for this exercise. It’s a good tip to name your file descriptively. I like to put the date in the file name along with a description of what the idea sounds like and/or any song key or tuning instructions. For example some of my idea files are labeled: “02-13-14- Bb Phrygian Stompfest” and “12-09-13-Open D Capo 5 Blues Metal Riff”. That way I know at a glance the first file is a stompy type riff in the key of Bb Phrygian and the second file is played in Open D with a capo at the 5th fret. This will save you loads of time when you are trying to find that golden nugget that you recorded 2 months ago, and it will help you in trying to remember how you played it.

4) At the end of your designated songwriting period you will now have 30-90 ideas to work with! Review each one and take notes. What I like to do here is create 2 folders on my computer, labeled, “Love” and “Hate” and after I listen back to each file, I move it into its appropriate folder. For the ideas that you listen to and love, ask yourself, is this riff a “verse”, a “chorus”, or “something else?” Figuring this particular part out is beyond the scope of this article, but what I can tell you is to trust your gut. Listen to what you did back and pretend someone else wrote it. Where do you hear it in their song? When you have a good idea as to what section your idea may fall in, change the file name to reflect that. So in my case, I changed the file name to “02-13-14- Bb Phrygian Stompfest – Verse.” I now know at a glance, without evening listening to it, that this riff would probably be best suited for a verse section of a song. So now the next time you sit down to write, your writing sessions become more like putting a puzzle together rather than looking for divine inspiration because you will already have awesome ideas to work with.

5) Keep in mind that you will dislike the majority of your ideas, and that is completely OK. We’re not trying to write 90 awesome ideas in 90 days. We’re trying to mine the phenomenal ideas from your brain. I am willing to bet you that you will get at least 10 ideas that are going to be very interesting to you at the end of your writing period. When I did this exercise for the first time, I wrote something new everyday for 90 days and at the end I had about 25 ideas that I liked and 7 that I absolutely LOVED. I was able to take the ones that I loved, developed them more, and they ended up on my first record.

6) Backup and archive all that you have wrote because you will never know when you could use it. Sometimes the ideas that you didn’t like initially could end up being very valuable to you, as you could always refer back to them to see if they fit in to other pieces of music that you write in the future.

So, get to work and have fun mining out the gold mine of ideas that are buried in your brain! If you really want to improve your songwriting, then you should be studying with a teacher who specializes in songwriting.

About the author:

Jon Chorba is a professional musician, guitar teacher, and founder of the website Really Easy Guitar Lessons

Mike Doyle