Nothing Fuzzy

Jun 17, 2021

About six months into my weekly Monday night songwriters' meeting, our chief instigator and fearless leader instituted a sort of slow-motion icebreaker: for about three months, we started the meeting with a different person talking about their first record. How it came about, what recording it was like, the impact it had (or didn't) on one's career and creative process, and so on. Once we'd all taken a swing at that, we did another challenge, the nature of which escapes me at the moment, and then launched into a third project: taking turns describing how we each get the weekly song done. It was my turn this past week, and I had to explain that I'd actually been doing most of my writing the afternoon of the meeting itself. Not my preferred means of working, really, because the weeks I've started a day or two after the last meeting, I've of course had a good four or five days to develop my song. In the best situations, that's allowed me to spend the last day or two really polishing things: going in to fine-tune that one phrase in the third verse that's bugging me; coming up with a less-lazy chord progression for the bridge, even recasting the entire feel of the song to get out of my own default settings regarding keys and grooves. Unsurprisingly, some of those songs have definitely felt the most like keepers afterwards.

But the truth is, there's always a lot else going on, so for the past few weeks I've been writing my songs in a couple of hours on Monday afternoon. Not entirely from scratch – the weekend before last, I got the bones of a few verses on a drive back from the edge of west Texas and managed to record the fragments into my phone (kids, don't drive and write), and for this Monday, I got one good couplet in the morning, which I scribbled onto a Post-it and stuffed in with my work things before leaving the house. But it's been pretty touch-and-go, and only the fact that I'm way too vain and restless to hear and critique a dozen songs in two hours without playing one myself has spurred me to get something over the finish line in time for the meeting. I will say this: writing songs at the last minute teaches you economy of language: my most recent lyric was only twelve lines long, and if not for the creative use of space in spinning the lines out over a kind of modified blues form, my whole song would have clocked in at a cozy minute-and-thirty-seconds, or about the length of an early Elvis Costello song.

When it was time to talk about my writing process, one thing I really focused on was how writing regularly to a deadline frees me from spending too much time getting things perfect. I definitely have an idea in my head about what makes a song better or worse, and in principle, I swing for the fences every time – there's no point in trying to write an o.k. song; my aim is to write the coolest song I can in the seven days I have. But whatever happens by Monday night, I know the next morning – should I choose to actually begin again so soon – I get to reach for the proverbial clean sheet of paper and try again. More than one of my fellow songwriters that night spoke of their visceral dread of the blank page, but I'm a fan. Anything could happen, and more than that, a fresh start means I can quit worrying the most recent thing to death and try something new instead.

Writing a song every week, I've really come to appreciate how clear the goal is. There are an infinite number of ways to write a song, but, to paraphrase that questionable landmark decision about pornography, everyone knows a song when they see one. If the mission is to have a song in hand by seven PM on Monday night, well, I know exactly what that looks like. It's not necessarily easy to reverse-engineer the results, but there's nothing fuzzy about the terms of the deadline. And this, I think, may be why so many of us think of practicing the guitar in terms of learning songs. What does "getting good at guitar" really look like? What's the result you can point to? Hard to say. But if you can play more songs now than you could six months ago, it provides that sense of "Hey, I'm actually getting somewhere."

Since I'm particularly interested in improvisation, a lot of my work for the past year or two has been about how to make getting better at improvising as tangible as learning new songs. Which has meant taking some of the processes and ideas I've been working out semi-intuitively for myself over the past couple of decades, and turning that into specific, repeatable material anyone else could work on, too. As I've focused more and more on this idea in my monthly workshops and in the membership, a kind of method has emerged for what I've come to think of as "modular improvisation." It's the idea that you can bridge the gap between memorized arrangements and outright improvisation by developing a collection of swappable building blocks – licks, essentially – and then getting good at dropping them one by one into specific moments in the chord progression. It really helps if, in learning each lick, you don't just learn the fingering, but also pay attention to how it fits rhythmically into the progression, how it resolves musically into the next chord, and why it works the same way as a different lick with similar timing and harmonic purpose.

This kind of thinking has also made its way into my Youtube lessons, and this week's video is no exception. To learn how to play blues licks over a swing groove in A minor, click the link below:

Swinging The Blues In A Minor