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100 posts

This is my 100th post. Which seems a bit incredible. My other 4 blogs produced maybe 20 posts altogether…

Up until now, this blog has been about helping guitar players work with concepts that might make their songwriting/composition process and product more interesting. That won’t change.

But after 100 posts you start to want to stretch a bit. It will always about making stuff, but I’ll start introducing topics that I notice I’ve been shying away from: more advanced compositional ideas, some tech stuff, jazz harmony, artist reviews from time to time. Other stuff…

Stay tuned.


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No Art Day

Bill Drummond, conceptual artist and former rock star from the UK, has created something he calls No Music Day. Check out the website: The possibility of no music is a good thing to keep in mind if you’re the type of person that makes things. Even if you’re not.

The idea sprung from the fact that we have to listen to a lot of music that we don’t choose to: Muzak, the band next door rehearsing, music bleeding onto the sidewalk from storefronts, the CBC playing random tunes on talk radio, etc.

But what’s interesting to me is the impact that no music in general might have.


Get rid of it all

For maximum impact a day isn’t long enough, and eliminating music doesn’t goes far enough. It should be a week (a month!) long and all things art or connected with art should be eliminated. What would happen?

No music anywhere, art galleries closed and tarped (don’t want to be looking in the windows), architectural beauty covered, live theatre closed, no movies, video stores closed, fashion shows cancelled, radio and tv stations turned off (some of that stuff is art), no bands in clubs, etc. And no computers. There’s way too much art to be made/accessed there.

And then…



Keep track of world events during that week. I’d stay inside myself. There may well be a spike in violent crime and alcohol intake.

But I get the feeling that, after a few days, people would start making their own art. Or crafts. Or something.

If you’re not allowed to be an audience then you’ll have to be a creator.




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Art and thoughtfulness

I like to think about art as something that creates transformation through an act of courage. The stuff we call art demonstrates an act of caring, of going through a process of thoughtful engagement with the materials instead of trying to make something that sounds like something else.

This means using lyrics and instruments, chords and melody, etc. in a way that communicates your feelings most clearly. That’s always better than just habitually plugging in chords over words.

This approach can take some courage. It often means making something that people aren’t used to. It means risking rejection.



And it means struggle. How do you decide on the best instrument to express a feeling of loss? Or the right combination of chord and melody to express yearning? Should you arpeggiate the chord instead of strumming? Maybe you only have to play part of the chord. How does loudness and softness figure into this.

There’s a lot to be thoughtful about. And it isn’t overthinking. It’s listening internally and considering your musical options. There are a lot of those.


Sweet Billy Pilgrim

We can hear thoughtfulness in the work of Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Their attention to craft and detail is apparent in each song.

Check out “Truth Only Smiles” from Twice Born Men. What kind of band is this? Should we establish a genre? Should we care?



First verse

The tune shambles into view dragging a bassoon and organ behind a broken-legged guitar (sorry if that’s overly poetic; it really sounds that way to me). The organ leaves right away, but the guitar and bassoon carry on. Along the way, a lazy snare drum roll, a triangle (or is it a glockenspiel?), and a twangy mid-range keyboard sound insert themselves into the texture.

The music effectively and painfully supports lyrics that describe dying love. It’s really bleak.


Second verse

Was that a fart or the bassoon? A bit of twinkling, a cabassa on every beat, other things on the edge of consciousness (chattering snare?), and a banjo at the end of the verse with tentative cowbell.



Extend that and add organ just before the chorus erupts with what I’m only able to describe as transcendent joy and hope. Where have I heard that melody before?

The move from a musically depressing verse to the certainty of love in the chorus is an interesting variation on the old quiet verse/loud chorus idea (think Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit).


Third verse

The third verse returns to the limping guitar. A single bass note in the piano fools us into thinking that the bassoon is back. But it’s gone, replaced by other colour that supports lyrics that give different images. Why keep the music the same in each verse if the lyrics are saying something different?



Which leads to…


The bridge

Listen to how they enter the bridge. It sounds at first like they’re just extending the chorus, but it keeps on going. The music recedes to nothing and slowly and naturally builds to the last chorus. The feeling of yearning is palpable.

Listen for instruments I haven’t mentioned (or that I’ve missed) hiding in the texture. There’s a lot going on, but it doesn’t seem busy. Everything they use has a reason for being there.

All this detail tastefully, thoughtfully, and caringly rendered in the service of a beautiful expression of yearning for something lost. This is art.

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Being creative means that you’re going to fail. I’m sure you’ve failed many times. I have. Just like everybody else.

Creative types train themselves to accept failure and look at it as a way to get better. They see it as an opportunity. Otherwise they would quit. It would be emotionally damaging to tell yourself you suck every time you fail, because you will fail a lot. And then you will succeed.

That’s the process. Try. Fail. Succeed. Or as Samuel Beckett said:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Failing better means that you did that thing you’re trying to do, and you did it better than before. It’s still not perfect, but what is?


More failing

You never stop failing. The curse of creative types is that they see flaws in their work where others see perfection. Their strength is that they keep going. You have to really like doing this. And you have to redefine failure.

Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times before he invented the filament for the electric light bulb. His assistant asked why he kept doing it if all he ever did was fail. Edison said that he hadn’t failed. He had learned hundreds of things that didn’t work.

And then he made the thing work.

I like this quote from Townes Van Zandt: “I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.”

Samuel Beckett, Thomas Edison, and Townes Van Zandt – author, inventor, and songwriter. They all knew the secret: keep trying.


Perception shift

All of this takes a fundamental shift in the way you perceive the things that you make. Being creative allows you to watch yourself reacting to failure, and that helps you discover who you are. Not all of who you are. But pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

It’s hard to look. But the good news is that you get better. A better artist, a better, more interesting person. You go on more adventures, meet more people, have a more interesting life, because you’re not worried so much about screwing up.

Being creative isn’t just making stuff. It’s making yourself, and that happens by failing. Which, as it turns out, is succeeding.




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Creativity, attitude, trouble-shooting

At this point, you’ve been making stuff for a while. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes you just want to quit.


Consider the following and the process might be easier.


Cancer and creativity

Everyone’s creative. It’s obvious in some people, not so much in others, but everyone’s got it. Kind of like cancer. We all have cancer cells in our bodies, but they only grow under certain conditions.


Of course, the conditions for cancer are different than the conditions for creativity. Cancer grows if you take stuff in that’s bad for you. Creativity grows if you take in stuff that’s good for you.


If you have the right attitude, creativity helps you discover more of yourself.


Bad attitude

Try making something and see how you feel. What if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Do you throw it against the wall, stomp around the room, agonize over what a pathetic failure you are?


Do you try something else, but never that type of project again?


Maybe you just quit. Maybe you say, “I’m just not talented.” Ugh.


Good attitude

Or maybe you look at what you’ve done, and you ask yourself, “How could I make this better?” This helps you look at what you’ve done objectively. If you can do that, you’ll see things in it that you hadn’t seen before.


You start to see that the things you make aren’t you. They’re just things, and things can be changed, thrown away, whatever. You learn to keep going when you fail.


Don’t get me wrong. This is hard. You have to look at stuff you care about when it’s not working for you. That’s not easy to do. And it’s not always easy to know what to do about it.


Sometimes you just need to throw it away and make something else. But the more you make stuff, the less that happens. It becomes easier to see what’s wrong and easier to fix it.


Fixing it

If you have something that’s not working, there’s usually an identifiable spot where it starts to suck. Play through what you’ve got. Listen really carefully, and stop as soon as you hear that spot.

Now clearly identify the problem. What might be wrong?

  1. Maybe the chord before it needs to be played for another bar.
  2. Maybe the chord in question needs to be placed on a different beat. Try playing it on every beat. Which is best?
  3. Maybe the strumming pattern needs to change. Try a slightly different rhythm.
  4. Maybe the whole thing should be in a completely different style.
  5. Maybe the whole thing needs to be faster/slower.
  6. If it’s a riff or a solo you’re writing, try using long notes if you have a lot of short notes. Or vice-versa.
  7. If it’s a riff or a solo, can you sing the rhythm or the notes? Always start by trying to sing the thing you’re trying to write. You’ll get to the right answer more quickly.


The answer isn’t always as straight forward as these suggestions. But give them a try, and they might lead to other ideas.

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There’s a lot of isolation involved in being an artist. But there’s a lot of collaboration, too. Collaboration is pretty obvious when we work with others. It’s not quite so obvious when we appropriate material from others without their knowledge. Yes, I mean stealing.


Stealing is collaboration. You use somebody else’s stuff to make something new. They take what you’ve made from their stuff and do the same.  Stealing becomes a way to generate ideas collaboratively without ever meeting your collaborator.


Information gathering

Using other people’s stuff is somethingwe all do, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we do it, we’re just gathering information. It doesn’t matter that we take it. It matters how we use it.


To use it well, it’s helpful to think of genius as the mastery of information and the ability to communicate it, rather than as a solitary figure struggling for originality.  When we take this attitude, the information we gather becomes something we can use to make something new.


(A relevant aside: “Books are made from other books.” – Cormac McArthy.

 To paraphrase, music is made from other music.)



Mastery of information means knowing where and how to find it. Communicating information refers to how we put it together to express ourselves. The method of “putting-together” that we use says as much as the information itself.

This is most easily seen our use of language. Two people with the same vocabulary will use it differently. In the same way, two people with the same drum track will use it differently. We make these decisions based on personal style.



Check out this site for examples of musical collage.


The work found there is a collage of other people’s work, and it creates something new.  This is one aspect of collaboration. Ideas from one person (or from several persons) filter through another person to become a different thing altogether.



Another good example of stealing is Tori Amos’s album of covers, Strange Little Girls. Listen to the originals, then listen to Amos’s versions.



And then there’s Jonathon Lethem’s article on plagiarism. A great read.


Make something

Now go download Audacity (or use whatever recording platform you might have). Make some empty tracks, and put a different song on each track.


Listen closely to each song. Try to hear how one is similar to another. It might be instrumentation, tempo, style. Maybe the guitar sound is the same between songs. Maybe you want to alternate a male singer with a female singer.


Cut out parts of songs that you want to fit together. Don’t be a censor. If you think it might work, do it. You can always throw it away later.


Even if nothing works, the exercise of listening and editing will make you more aware of common musical relationships between songs. And the process is fun.










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