from Acoustic Guitar
by Adam Levy
I have considerably more experience playing the guitar than I do writing lyrics, and there are a few resources that I’ve found helpful in getting my lyric writing up to speed with my picking. (Not that my picking is all that speedy, but that’s another story.) One thing that helped me appreciate lyric structures when I first started writing was transcribing the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. Sure, you can find the works of the great songsmiths online with a quick Google search, but something deeper happens when you listen intently and write down the words, longhand, on paper. I still do this, and I have notebooks full of lyrics from the practice.
I’ve also learned a lot from a few books on writing. Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics was recommended to me by Gillian Welch a few years ago and I understood why as soon as I dove in. In his book, Pattison gets down to the nittiest of the nitty-gritty—how words hang together in lyrics, and how words can be effectively coupled with music. Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions is a fun read, especially if you like show tunes and songs from the jazz era. With timeless wit and wisdom, Gershwin explains his writing—and rewriting—process for many of his best-known songs, including “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” Jimmy Webb’s TuneSmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting is an interesting read, with insights from the man who wrote “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And there’s Songwriters on Songwriting, in which Paul Zollo interviews just about every writer you can think of (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Pete Seeger, even Frank Zappa), as well as the String Letter Publishing books Songwriting and the Guitar and Rock Troubadours, Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers’s collection of interviews from Acoustic Guitar.
The last and most important piece of writerly advice I can offer is this: keep writing. That’s the surest way to better skills and better songs. Set a goal for yourself—a song a week, say—and stick to it. Getting other people involved can aid in motivation and boost your level of commitment, and it can also help keep it fun. You may want to find a buddy, or a few buddies, to get together with every week and share your new songs. You could book yourself a weekly gig in a local bar or coffeehouse and make your “New Song of the Week” a featured part of your set. Another way would be to start a YouTube channel and upload videos of your new songs each week. Whatever it takes to keep you writing and seeing your new songs through to completion, do it! Before you know it, you’ll have a guitar case full of songs. Not all of your new songs will feel like your all-time best work, but that’s a natural part of the process. Learning to write songs is sort of like learning to cook. There’ll be some burnt bits of meat along the way, and some sauces may turn out too rich or too salty. That’s OK. Enjoy what you can, take notes on what worked and what didn’t, and try again tomorrow....
-- Adam Levy is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter in New York City.
(Acoustic Guitar, Oct 2010, Songs From the Ground Up, pg 44)
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