Almost anybody can write some lines of text and play a few chords on the guitar to deliver a message. But creating a good song is another matter entirely. This article gives ideas about how to texture the music that we use to deliver our words.
A few months ago, David Wilcox gave me an up-close look at his guitar style. I had contacted him specifically about his use of partial capos, and as he answered my questions, he played me a few new songs that he was obviously enamored with. I’d been a fan since age 17, but I’d never seen him live. I must have looked like a real dork with my jaw hanging open and my face about three feet from the soundhole of his RainSong guitar.
Dave schooled me good that day, and I scribbled several pages of notes. Most importantly, he showed me that quality songwriting goes hand in hand with solid performance. His playing was seamless, deeply textured, and stunning is its simple complexity. Without a word, he made it painfully obvious that if I wanted to catch anyone’s attention with my songs, my performance would have to be top-notch.
One way to think about creating interesting music is to listen to a favorite song and write down all the component parts that make it engaging, then emulate the elements we want to keep. Here are some thoughts about structuring our music to make it a shiny delivery vehicle for our words:
Melody: How can we add relief to our melodies – sung and played? What makes them interesting or catchy? How do they serve our text? What mood to they set and why? Are they quirky or memorable? Are they smooth, soft, or sexy? Why or why not? Do they serve the performer’s voice and personality?
Rhythm: Rhythm more than melody is the structure that holds music together. Are our rhythms predictable and simplistic? Do they generate interest, or do justice to our text? Are they thoughtfully crafted, or taken for granted? How do we use silence and sustain to deliver our message?
Texture: Textural depth of field is especially essential to solo performers. What makes our playing more special than a few strummed chords or simple arpeggios? What’s unique about our right or left hand work? Guitarists can generate texture in the shapes of chords we use – particularly with unique voicings, alternate tunings or partial capo work. David Wilcox’s right hand is a lesson in textural relief – full of pops, pulls, thunks and mutes in addition to his fingerstyle and flatpicking.
That night after the concert, I trudged back to my hotel room and spent two hours trying to wrap my head and my fingers around what I had just learned. I weakly scribbled some of my findings on a thank you note that I left in the door handle of Dave’s Ford Expedition, and drove off to my next gig.
We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I may never be as good as Vicki Genfan or Keb Mo, or even as good as Wilcox protégé Justin Roth. But it sure is a fun ride trying to get wherever it is we’re going.