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Don't forget about songs

What happened to song-writing?!?

I know that it's very exciting when you start working on that cool Morse-solo, or getting that awesome Gilbert-lick down etc. When I started out, I was pretty concerned with getting the pyro-techniques down first, too.

However, there is something wrong if someone manages to play a part like a Petrucci- or Vai-solo, yet shares a song that sounds like it was the very first attempt to write a song (if you've ever tried, you'll probably agree that the first few songs you write are usually not that awesome… )

You might say now "What, Vandenberg… first you write all these articles on killer-chops, and then you suddenly say that song-writing is where it's at… ?"

Well, I never said that anyone should neglect song-writing. Quite the opposite… I have always recommended that you use the chops you're working on in a musical context (by jamming over a song that uses them), and I happen to think that the songs I write myself actually are songs more than some "embellishments for a new killer-lick".

As I said, I know that it's exciting to work on your chops. If you really want to be able to play fast and accurately, you'll need to work really hard at it, and you should. However… songwriting is a skill that also needs to be worked on, and in the end, you wanna (hopefully) use those cool chops in the context of a song.

The song should come first. It is not supposed to be just a container to put your licks into. And just like you need to do those picking exercises over and over, you need to practice song-writing by... well, writing a lot. This is what our heroes did too.

I know that sometimes, it's tough to get going and write your first song. However, to just slap some cool licks together in order to have some kind of a "song" is not what it's about... and if you're at all honest, it's not something you'd enjoy to listen to yourself.

Dream Theater

Dream Theater is one example… a lot of young players (especially the ones who like fast playing) are into that band.

And as I have said, it sure is a chop-buster to learn some of their solos or even full songs. The latter part is especially important. You'll learn a lot about their songwriting and arrangement skills if you tackle some of their songs. However...

I have heard people go "OK, I wrote my first song now, it's very much inspired by DT, check it out".

And usually, the song shows a lack of songwriting skills. Simply because developing the skill to put together songs as advanced as the stuff DT does takes quite some time. What many people seem to forget is that the guys in the band didn’t start out and write "Metropolis Part 1" right away. They sure wrote their share of three chord, one-time-signature songs before they went on to more advanced stuff.

And that is a development that you should try to go through yourself. Let me once again use my old "language"-analogy... if you have never written anything (like an essay or a short story etc.), you will find it very difficult (to say the least) to write a Shakespearean story as your first attempt.

Start Out Simple

It's almost the same when it comes to basic improvisation. I teach a lot, and when I try to encourage my students to improvise for the first time, they usually have no idea what they're supposed to do.

They don't know how to improvise yet. They have of course heard people improvise, but they lack the experience at this point, and when they try to do it for the first time, they obviously don't know what they're supposed to do exactly… they try to use all the notes of the pattern I give them, they try to throw in a few of the fast licks they know so far etc.

It's very hard to get a flow there, and what I usually say is: "Ok, limit yourself to just a few notes, and try to play a simple melody. Something you actually like, something you'd enjoy as a listener. Try to stick to those few notes and create something with them. Don't try to use all the notes you have, don't try to guess what I expect, and don't try to impress me. Start out with something simple, and then elaborate on it later"

That usually works. The key is to start out with something simple and work on it. To me, the most important thing is to have a core. Both for improvisation and song-writing. A nice melody, a cool chord progression etc .. If you have that, you can elaborate on it, embellish it etc. But that is what you need first.

Don't try to go to full speed immediately, don't try to start your songwriting career by writing a multi-movement progrock-concept album.

It sometimes is tough to limit yourself to something simple. But the simpler it is, the easier it is to judge whether or not you like it. What I mean by that is: imagine you have a very simple chord progression… do you enjoy playing it? Do you like the sound of it? If not, can you tweak it so you enjoy it a bit more?

Try to "always like" what you have. Don't go "Well, it's boring now, but once I slap that Petrucci-unisono lick on there, it'll rock the world". In order to embellish it and add more cool parts, you need to like the early version

How do I know? >>