Songwriting can be a real challenge. Whether you are an experienced songwriter or only just starting out, coming up with ideas and putting them together in a coherent satisfying way can sometimes feel impossible. Though Songwriting is not my profession it is something I have done since I started playing music and prior to that I was regularly writing stories and poems. In today’s blog I will be sharing some of my tips and secrets that I have learnt and used over the years; I hope you can use them to dig yourself out of that creative rut you may sometimes find yourself in.
Record all of your ideas
It is the tip you hear from every songwriter; it is the most common tip for a reason. For me it is the most powerful tool in my arsenal and I reckon that a lot of songwriters would agree. Ideas can come to us at any time and with little warning, as such we need to be constantly ready to take note of them. I personally do this on my phone recording all of my musical ideas onto a recording app and noting of my lyrical ideas in a notepad app. By making this a habit you end up building a wealth of ideas which you can refer to when you sit down for a writing session and they in turn can produce a wealth of further ideas on their own. In turn actively recording ideas will increase your creativity and will find yourself able to come up with more ideas. So if you have not done it already, get started!
Limit your choices
Songwriting is essentially a process involving a series of choices; what chords am I going to use? What is the melody going to be? What topic am I going to write about? What time signature should it be in? What mood am I trying to create? With so many choices involved in writing a song it is easy to see how it can quickly become overwhelming. So limit your choices. Ask one question at a time and answer it. For example, if you are starting absolutely dry with no ideas simply pick the key of the song, forget about all other decisions until you have made that one choice; after that you can go on a pick the first chord or the chord progression you are going to use, continue this process making one decision at a time and your song will quickly start to form.
Make a decision
Sometimes as writers we know the question but we cannot seem to settle on the answer. This can very quickly become the death of creativity and the birth of writer’s block. So, make a decision, it does not have to be the right one, if you are really stuck you can even leave the decision entirely up to chance. Brian Eno, who has produced albums for David Bowie, Genesis, U2 and Coldplay, is known for having a deck of cards that he uses to make creative decisions for him and he has been key to producing some of most critically acclaimed albums on the planet.
Write without fear, you can always go back
Fear is often what holds us back in all aspects of life, including Songwriting. However, unlike many other areas of life, making a wrong decision whilst writing is not going to result in financial instability, injury or death. So why fear making mistakes? Write without fear! Let the mistakes happen! Get things wrong! It is not the end of the world if you do; you can always go back and when you do, you will go back with a better idea of what to do. It is all part of the process so do not let fear stop that process.
Be and editor, not a writer
This ties in nicely with my previous point. Songs are rarely written perfectly on the first try. The vast majority of songs out there are really developed in the editing process and it is therefore important to think like an editor. By doing this an implementing the previous points, you can get through the initial draft of a song fairly quickly. You may have bits that you feel do not work, lyrical lines that you used as a place keep for a better line that you have yet to work out and a structure that is all over place and that is fine. You can develop and fix these problems in the edit so don’t get stuck in the draft, get it done!
Good artists copy, Great artists steal
This famous line supposedly originated from the artist Pablo Picasso. This has since gone through many iterations such as ‘Bad artists Imitate, Great Artists Steal’ and has had many meanings drawn from it. How I have used the line is as a reminder that creativity does not live in a vacuum. All of our creative decisions, conscious or unconscious, are informed by the creative choices of the artists before us, it is therefore not inherently bad to lift ideas from other artists to use. We do not always have to come up with unique ideas from our mind. Feel free to lift chords progressions, melodies and lyrical ideas from other artists to use as the basis for a new song or to add to a song already in development. As long as you do not copy a song note for note you should be fine, though where the line is a cannot say and that is certainly a big topic for another time.
I hope these tips are more than useful, what tips have you used in the past to help you out of creative ruts?
As musicians we all have different players that shape who we are musically and stylistically; some may have inspired us to keep going when we were struggling whilst others may have inspired us to pick up the instrument in the first place. These players deserve as much appreciation as we can give them after all, they gave us their amazing music and influenced us to pick our instruments. So without further ado here are my top 10 guitar players and why!
10. Joe Pass
I believed the guitar to have many things going for it, it has attitude, it is expressive, it can be bright and hopeful or dark and sombre, I even believed it could sound beautiful but I never believed that it could sound as beautiful as instruments like the piano, harp and harpsichord, until I heard Joe Pass play ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. Hearing that piece was a life changing moment for me and made me decide to explore a completely different style of playing that I had had little awareness of beforehand. I also like to listen to him when I am sad so I guess, that at bare minimum, he has to make it to the number 10 spot on this list.
9. Eddie Van Halen
There are many guitar players that have drastically changed how people play the instrument and whilst players like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix are arguable more influential, none of them can claim to have triggered an arms race in the way that Eddie Van Halen did. Eddie made players get out their metronomes with the aim of mastering complicated techniques like alternative picking, legato and of course tapping. Without Eddie we wouldn’t have Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai, Steve Lukather, Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen (amongst others). He also single-handily made Guitar Manufacturers completely rethink Guitars, Amps and Pedals triggering the creation and rise in popularity of Super-strats and High gain Amplifiers. But why do I love this player? Well it is quite simple, I love speed, I love Van Halen and I love players who owe so much to Eddie and with that, there was no way I was leaving him off this list.
8. Robert Johnson
I enjoy playing blues, I even enjoying listening to Blues on occasion, but Blues can and always has been able to bore me very quickly. Despite its beautiful expressiveness I can find it quite repetitive and as such I cannot really enjoy much more than 3 or 4 blues songs in any one given time. There are only two guitarists who have defied this distaste for the blues, the first to do this was the amazing Robert Johnson. He made the Blues sound anything but repetitive and made it feel so fun and exciting. I also see him as much of a kindred spirit due to one of the many legends surrounding the man. The story goes that he was an awful guitar player before disappearing for a year and wowing everyone on his return with his new found ability. Though I am not sure if I have ever wowed anyone with my playing, I can certainly say that I to went through a dramatic transformation and as such he makes it to number 8 on my list.
7. David Gilmour
As a young player I was absolutely obsessed with speed. I wanted to shred as fast as Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Synyster Gates and Steve Vai. Gilmour showed me that speed was not everything and that in fact slow, well thought out, beautiful, expressive melodies could be more powerful than lightning fast fingers. He also showed me that just because playing these pieces was technically easier it did not mean that coming up with such ideas and expressing them with the right touch and feel was easier. Because of this Gilmour makes it to 7 on my list.
6. Jimmy Page
There are a number of words I like to use to describe myself…
One of the most recognisable and distinctive guitar players on the planet, Slash (born Saul Hudson) is nothing special when it comes to his playing. His playing relies on many simple blues licks, pentatonic scales, simple chords and the occasional use of harmonic minor, he has not even had a dramatic impact on how people approached or played the guitar. So why is so he high on my list? For me Slash demonstrated that a Guitar player can have a unique voice. He is the first player to have a sound that stood out to me and as such he made me want to do that myself. Without this realisation I doubt I would be playing today and as such Slash makes in to number 5 on my list.
4. Pat Metheny
I honestly did not get Jazz in the slightest for many years. It seemed way too dissonant, way too disorganised, way too all over the place. Pat Metheny’s album Bright Size Life single completely changed my entire perspective on Jazz; not only did it make me love Jazz music in its many forms, it made me want to play it. A player who can influence how you play is one thing, but a player who influences what you listen to, now that is special and that is why Pat makes it onto the top half of the list.
3. Randy Rhoads
Randy Rhoads is, in my honest opinion, one of the most underrated guitar players of all time. Eddie Van Halen may have started the shred guitar revolution but I honestly feel that Randy was one of the players who really set the bar for where it could go. Tragically his life was cut short in a plane crash in 1982 and as such he never got to show the world his true potential. He makes it to number 3 of my list but I really believe that if he had not passed on, he would be number 1 today.
2. Chuck Berry
Now I cannot say I am hugely influenced by this player, I have learnt a few of his songs and enjoy putting his records on every now and again, but I am neither crazy about his music or his playing style. So how did someone I have so little interest in end up at number 2 on my list. Simple, this was the man that made me want to pick up guitar. More specifically it was Marty McFly playing Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future that made me want to play guitar and for that reason Chuck Berry makes it to number 2 on my list.
I could wax lyrical forever on the amazing guitar players that influenced me so I am going to mention a few that did not make this list but definitely deserve a shout out…
-Stevie Ray Vaughan
1. Jimi Hendrix
Now, of course, it seems that no guitarists’ list is complete without this man somewhere on it. It is so common to the point of cliché but you can see why. This man changed how guitar was played forever, no individual has had as much impact of how guitarists approach the instrument as him and that alone will get him on any list. But this list is not about technical influence or historical impact, this list is about my favourite players, so why does Jimi deserve to be at the top of it? Simple! Much of my playing style and approach is rooted in Jimi’s approach to the guitar, he has allowed me to begin to merge lead and rhythmic lines together in a way I had not before and it is the favourite part of my playing and for this reason alone, Jimi tops the list!
So that is that! Who are your favourite guitar players and why? Let me know in the comments.
A year ago I finished my BA honours in Contemporary Music Performance (I got a First!) and was released onto the world. Unfortunately, this is the music industry where one simply does not walk into a job out of University, you have to find your own way and in doing that I have made many mistakes. Here is what I learnt from my first year on the road to becoming a fulltime, working musician. Feel free to read and learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to.
1.Do not overload yourself
The music industry presents so many options for the aspiring working musician. From education, to studio work, performing, writing and producing, amongst many other options, you can end up feeling a bit like a kid in a candy store. In my case I chose to pursue way too much way too early. Whilst attempting to set up a tutoring business in my home town I was learning the standard function set list, trying to create content for my socials and website, running the business, rehearsing with my band, writing music for stock music libraries, as well as producing and trying to get work mixing and mastering. In short I had spread myself way too thin. I now am solely focusing on the business, my function band, tutoring, my own creative project and my online content. Since I have done this I have found it much easier to stay on top of the work and as a result, it is all a lot more enjoyable.
Top tip: Work out what you need to do most and what you want to do most and prioritise those. You can always come back to the other stuff later when you are settled into the initial areas of work you have chosen.
2) Network like crazy
It is something I wish I did a lot more of in university and I am having to make up for it now. If you are in University now NETWORK!!! Trust me it is the best time to do it. Work will often come through your friends and colleagues in the music industry and it is probably one of the biggest contributing factors as to why I did not have any work waiting for me out of University. I have since tried to make up for this by interacting with any musician I meet and forming integral connections and friendships with them and since doing so opportunities have begun to appear more frequently.
Top tip: Whenever you meet musicians do not be afraid to tell them what you are doing and what you aspire to do and be interested, ask what has been going on with them. You never know, you may end up having a mutual interest or goal that you can assist each other on.
3) Social Media, Website administration and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) are skills definitely worth learning
In the modern world you cannot get away without using these. Now for me, this was not mistake I have necessarily made this year but since picking up the pace on my socials, website and SEO I realised how my lack of use of these tools was holding me back in University. Social Media is a great way to interact with the other working musicians you meet, see what they are up to and to show them what you are currently doing. Do not forget to sign up to groups where Bands often look for professional musicians to fill gigs last minute. Your website is your portfolio to show the world and it is therefore imperative that you get as much out of it as possible. Personally, I use it to tell the reader what I do, and to post these blogs and cover videos. Search Engine Optimisation or, as it is more commonly referred to, SEO is not something I had even considered when I began, however in the modern world it is a tool that is well worth learning to use. This is particularly important if you are advertising services to the general public; whether you’re a tutor, producer, studio or function band you cannot go wrong with learning the ins and outs of SEO.
Top tip: Ask friends, other musicians and creative professionals for their experiences and tips on these areas. I learnt a lot on Social Media, Website Administration and SEO just from listening to others and you can to.
4) You’re a business, run yourself like one
As a musician, the last thing I ever wanted to think about were Excel spreadsheets, accounting, planning, scheduling, advertising and the many aspects of being involved in business. In fact, it was even hard to think of myself as running a small business, after all I have been a musician for years and the idea of merging that with entrepreneurial spirit felt odd to say the least. But here is the thing, as a professional musician you are a business, so it important that you behave like one. It may be boring but it could be the difference between you sinking or floating as a working musician.
Top tip: Do not be afraid to invest in people and services to help you in the running of this. For example, I have an accountant to assist me with my tax returns, pay for advertising of my tutoring business and soon will be looking for a company to help run my SEO … and it really makes all the difference.
5) There will be times you want to give up, do not!
I knew that becoming a working musician was going to be hard, but no matter how hard you think it will, be it will always be harder. I have come close to giving up multiple times this year. There will be moments where you doubt yourself, moments when things do not quite go to plan, moments where you really ask yourself how badly you want this. This is normal, it is part of the process of succeeding and it is tough but if you can get through it, it is really worth it.
Top tip: In moments where I question myself I will often tell myself that what I am feeling in this moment will make the moment I achieve my goals that much sweeter.
A couple of weeks ago one of my favourite YouTubers released a video titled, Musical Things I Wish I Worked Out Sooner and it got me thinking, which Musical Things do I wish I worked out sooner. So this week I decided I would share some of my own musical mistakes and things that I wish I had worked out sooner, I also advise that you go and watch the original video that inspired this blog post by Steve San-Ontaria on his YouTube Channel samuraiguitarist. So without further ado, I give you the Musical things I Wish I Worked out Sooner.
You don’t need to know a lot to be a Jazz Improviser
I used to think that be a jazz improviser, you needed to be the king of playing arpeggios over chord changes, to always be using altered scales and diminished licks, to be constantly looking to add substitutions over the changes and I could not have been more wrong. Sure a lot of great Jazz improvisers use these techniques to help spice up their solos but honestly all you need to start improvising over any forms music including in jazz are a couple of scales: The Major and Minor Pentatonic. These are at often at the centre of a lot of Jazz Improvisations. The real kings and queens of jazz improvisation may spice up their solos with a lot of the techniques I talked about but many will often use basic pentatonic scales to inform a wide breadth of their playing. I wish I started trying to get the hang of improvising using these scales sooner whilst I tried to master the other techniques on the side, in fact I would have mastered the more advanced techniques sooner if had just simply started with the basics.
Speed is not everything
I used to believe that to be a great player, you needed to be a speed demon and though speed can certainly add an extra dimension to your playing, it is only one of many possible dimensions and you certainly do not need to play fast to be a great musician. Think of all the greats that play slow and are still regarded as greats, think of your David Gilmore’s, Eric Clapton’s, Miles Davis’s and Ludovico Einaudi’s; these are all players who emphasise note choice and rhythmic phrasing over note speed which, whether you play slow or fast, is the most important aspect of your playing.
Gear will not make you a better player
It is something we hear all the time and yet it took me a long time to take this to heart and maybe this is not that surprising when we have a variety of companies trying to capture our attention claiming that they alone can make us sound the way we want to. Now I am not one to say that gear is totally unimportant; Gear can really help you get the tone you aspire to create, in can be the final piece of the jigsaw in your sound, but it is far from the most important aspect of your music. The most important aspect of your music is your playing itself and no piece of gear will fix that, only practice can. I wish I understood this sooner, fawned less over gear and started putting the hours in the shed that I needed to.
Regular practice is more important that mammoth practice sessions
I used to rarely practice and when I did I would put in these long mammoth sessions where I would play for hours. Though I am not going to say that these sessions were totally fruitless as they certainly did lead to me improving they did not result in me making the progress that I wanted to make. Due to the way our brains work we benefit much more from regular practice than we do from irregular long practice sessions. I wish I had developed a regular practice routine sooner because if I had I would be a much better player than I am now. However regular practice is only one side of the equation what I also wish I had worked out sooner was the art of…
Too often as a young player I would find that my practice routines were sporadic, unplanned and would vary massively from session to session. Once again this approach to my practice sessions meant that my progress was slow and in some areas I lacked any progress at all. Though effective practice is a whole area of playing that requires quite a bit more than a few sentences to explain (comment below if you would like a blog post on effective practice) essentially you need to make sure that you work out specific areas of your playing that you would like to work on and break them down into small manageable chunks and make sure you focus on these chunks every single practice session until you master it. If I had worked this out sooner I would have saved myself a lot of time and developed at a much faster rate.
You need to play slow to play fast, no slower, no slower, NO SLOWER!
As soon as I knew I wanted to play fast I went through the typical mistake of playing way too fast before discovering that a) using a metronome is essential and b) that playing very slowly is essential. So I started using these tools, what it took me way too long to realise was just how slow you needed to play. The point of slowing down your playing is to enable your conscious brain to isolate the individual movements that you need to make with a given technique and master them effectively. This means slowing yourself down to a pace where you can achieve this, often as slow as 40-60bpm, sometimes even slower. It may seem extreme but by doing so you will master speed quicker and better than you would using any other approach.
Chords are important
With my early playing days being very focused on Hard Rock and Metal I came to think that power chords were all I really needed and that all these chords with the weird array of numbers attached to them were not important and boy was I wrong. What I failed to realise was that even though these chords seemed to rarely turn up in rock and metal, they in fact were turning up all the time, whether in full or reduced forms, in clean chord based sections or in their arpeggiated form; these chords were there, they were just hidden. Understanding these chords and their sound is just as important to rock and metal as it is to Jazz and R&B. Now if I wanted to be nothing more than a punk rocker then maybe I would have been right, but I wanted to be a proficient guitar player and to be that you need to understand chords.
So those are some of the musical things that I had wished that I had worked out much sooner, what about you guys out there? What are the musical things you wish you had worked out sooner and if you are not a musician what things in general do you wish you had worked out sooner? I am sure it will make for some funny comments. So let me know below.
It is a story that makes headlines regularly, music venues are disappearing. According to the first UK Live Music Censes in 2017, a third of small music venues outside of London are fighting to survive (1) while a 2015 report found that 35% of music venues had gone out of business since 2007 (2). Though it is hard to confirm the the accuracy of these stats due to the fact that it is hard to define what a music venue is, as many venues are also bars, pubs, clubs, theatres and community centres, if these stats are anywhere near accurate it is worrying for the music industry as a whole. The music industry relies on music venues at all levels to produce talent; small venues particularly act as a playground for young up and coming bands to develop. So what is causing the decline of music venues and what can we do about it?
The first key problem is quite simple on the surface: Money. Music venues face large overhead costs and increasing business rates. They often require a large amount of expensive equipment such as microphones, Speakers, Mixing Desks, Amplifiers and Drum Kits and addition to this they require a sound engineer to run it. All of this is needed just to ensure that a venue can put on shows. Many venues also pay for someone to help organise and run the shows for them which is another overhead. On top of this, various business rates are increasing with the north London venue the Lexington saying that their business rates had increased by 118% (10). When you take factors like these into account it becomes easy to see why 40% small venues in the UK Live Music Census said that increasing business rates were having an impact on their business in the last 12 months (1).
Then you have to remember that venues are often run as pubs or bars which is an industry facing its own set of problems. 4 in 5 people have had a pub close down within 5 miles of them and an average 18 pubs across the country are closing their doors each week (4). We are currently living in an age where people are buying less alcohol in pubs and clubs and are buying more to drink at home. Younger people are also drinking less than previous generations (5). These factors are likely resulting in many places loosing sorely needed income. Venue licences can also often result in venues having to close their doors just when their business is peaking. Andre Joyzi the ex manager of the Soho Rocks spoke of how the license prevented the bar from becoming a ‘profitable business’ in an article for louder sound (2).
Decreasing revenues and increasing costs are not the only thing causing problems for venues, the big headliner that we have all heard about is noise complaints. 27% of venues said that noise complaints had, had a negative effect on their business in the last 12 months. For a long while there was not much that venues could do to deal with complaints as legally residents had the upper-hand placing the onus on venues to fix the problem rather than the developer, homeowner or landlord. This in itself resulted in growing money issues for venues who then had to pay legal fees, sound proofing, fines and then had to comply with restrictions on when they could have live music resulting in decreased revenues due to lack of events for customers to go to. In the end many venues simply could not keep up with these costs and had to close their doors. Fortunately, this problem seems to have been fixed with the ‘Agent of Change’ Principle in the amendments to the National Planning & Policy Framework. However, considering this change only came in 2018 it is still to be seen how much a positive effect this will have on music venues.
The final problem is redevelopment. We live in a time where we are short of housing with the Charity Shelter claiming that 1.2 million homes need to be built and the Government funding the development 250,000 homes by 2022 (6). This unfortunately often results in music venues being pushed out the areas they once inhabited. 12 bar, a London music venue, is the perfect example of a venue that was pushed out of its area due to redevelopment (2). The bar was once one of the key small music venues in Soho at the heart of London’s music scene on Denmark Street. However, the development of the Crossrail in the area resulted in the venue having to close in 2015 (2).
So what can we do about these problems and ensure music venues survive on into the future. One of the key things a venue can do is to change their business structure and model. By changing from a private business to a community interest company, venues can become open to various forms of funding previously not available to them such grants from the arts council (2) (7). On top of this venues should look towards other ways to generate income. Most venues are way too reliant on a few income streams, these often being revenue made over the bar, ticket sales and payments made by promoters. This leaves venues vulnerable to changes in demand, particularly in a time where people are drinking less whilst out (5) (6). Many venues need to start looking to diversify their income by offering other products and services such as band rehearsals on off nights, coffee during the day, food, a small record shop, a film shooting location, live audio and video recording, there are loads of options on the tables for venues to diversify and to start thinking outside of the box. In Louder than Sounds Article, promoter of Leicester’s Firebug points out that ‘All of Leicester’s successful venues are ones that have diversified’ (2).
In my research what is scarily talked about is the role social media is both having on music venues and music nights in general as well as the role it can play in the future. In seoNo’s article ‘Is Social Media ‘Destroying’ Local Live Music?’ (8) John Simm, a drummer for Coroner for the Police pointed out that Promotion is one of the key aspects of a successful night. In a world where we are living more of our lives online, social media is a key aspect to this. Venues can use this as an opportunity to further their connections with their regular attendees and attract the attention of more people. Showing videos of live performances, interviews with Bands, behind the scenes and much more could be great tools in building that connection and getting more customers in the door (8).
The government can also enact changes in public policy that will be beneficial to the growth of music venues; this will allow communities to gain from the economic and cultural benefits that live music offers. The results from the 2017 Live Music Census suggests that 1 in 5 music venues are not open to under 18s (1). This is a problem for two reasons: Firstly, it fails to capture the interest of young music lover’s potential resulting in a lack of new ears in the next generation and secondly, it results in a whole section of society not paying to see live music which is revenue these venues desperately need. This challenge can be addressed through both businesses restructuring their business to allow younger music lovers to watch music in their venues and through changes in licensing laws so venues are allowed to let younger fans into their venues. This change could include allowing a special license for music venues allowing them to let those between 14 and 18 in their venues. Pubs are able to let families with young children into their pubs, so why not extend the same opportunities to music venues.
Fortunately, I can finish this blog on a high note. In 2018 the UK Parliament passed an amendment to the National Planning & Policy Framework including the Agent of Change Principle (9). This essentially ensures that new developers have to take into account the noise from other premises in the area and ensure that steps are taken to mitigate the impacts of the noise. This is a great step in the right direction and is great news for the live industry in the UK. Is it the cure to all the problems venues face? No, and there are still problems with Agent of Change, namely the fact that the current laws only apply to England as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are yet to ratify the amendment and the fact that we are yet to see how effective agent of change will be; none the less this is one sore that the venues will hopefully have worry little about into the future (9).
In short, live music venues are under threat and facing many challenges. The challenges it faces could be devastating for music in this country in the long term however, these are not unsolvable problems; there are solutions. If certain changes to our funding our laws can become key topics within our parliament and if venues can get creative and look to reinvented themselves, in the new musical landscape that we live in then live venues might not only survive but thrive.
1. Uk’s First Live Music Census Finds Small Venues Struggling
2. What’s Happening to all our music venues
3. Live Music Census
4.Pubs closing at rate of 18 a week as people stay at home
5. Pubs in danger: Six charts on how the British drink
6. England needs Millions of homes to solve housing crisis
7. Government Guide to Community Interest Companies
8. Is social media destroying live music
9. Uk Planning System finally recognises the Agent of change Principle So What Now?https://www.citymetric.com/business/uk-planning-system-finally-recognises-agent-change-principle-so-now-what-4301
10. Music industry hits out after grassroots venues are denied small business rates cut
So you have written a song or a number of songs. Maybe you are in a band that has spent months in the practice room crafting the perfect EP or album or you are a singer songwriter who has written a song in your bedroom that you would love to record as a single. Either way you need to start thinking about the production of your song.
So what do I mean by production? It is a term that it is often used synonymously to refer to recording, studio engineering, mixing and mastering. In this post when I refer to production I am referring to the specific decisions made by either you or a producer in the process of arranging and recording your song. I will not be using it to refer to the mixing and mastering of your track. So what can you do to get the best out of the production of your track. This week I am offering a few tips and ideas to help you make your track sound amazing.
Be aware of the genre you are working in
I know as artists we really hate to be put into boxes and we like to think that our music stands out from the crowd and by giving our music a specific genre we are ignoring all the quirks and individual touches we have put into our music and honestly I agree with that sentiment. However, placing your music within a genre can help a lot with the decision making process during production. Doing so does not mean that your music lacks what makes it sound unique, but ensures that you make the right production decisions to get the best out of your music. If you really want to, you can even pick a genre that is completely different to your music but has a sound you would love to emulate. This can help to add to the uniqueness of your music’s sound. A great example of this is the album Screamadelica by Primal Scream which is essentially a classic rock album with an approach in its production similar to that of 90s Dance Music.
Use Reference Tracks
Now that you are aware of what genre you would like to help inform your production, you can pick some references tracks. Sometimes one is enough, other times you may take inspiration from a few. Listen out for elements that you would like to emulate in your track: Maybe you want your instruments to sound a certain way, maybe you like the balance of a certain song, you might want to emulate some synthesiser sounds or maybe you love the reverb or delay found on a certain track. By looking out for the elements you would like to emulate you can pick out a number of reference tracks and use them to help inform your production decisions.
Do some Research
Research can be essential for helping you to make the right choices in your production. Find out what was used to record your reference tracks: what were pre-amps, microphones, microphone techniques, mixing desk, recording room size, drums, guitars, amps, and other instruments used. By knowing these you can make decisions on what you are going to use on your recording. Even if you cannot get the exact set up used in a track, knowing which elements were used can help you to work out how your going to emulate those sounds effectively. For example, you may not be able to get an original Roland TR-808, but you can certainly find a loop library containing all the 808 drum sounds without too much hassle. Be aware that you do not have to use the elements you have discovered in your research, you are more than welcome to use something else entirely, but it does not hurt to know what has gone into the production of your chosen reference tracks so you may pick and choose accordingly.
Be aware the the frequency space each instrument occupies
One of the biggest problems beginner producers and artists make when recording a track is not being aware what space each instrument occupies within the frequency spectrum. Too often we end up with instrumentation clashing with one another in a similar frequency range resulting in us being unable to hear the music clearly. Now this does not mean that different instruments cannot occupy the same space, sometimes you want some instrumentation to work together; For example, multiple horns may play around the same area in the frequency spectrum for a big sounding brass or you may have guitars, synths and piano playing similar chords, notes and rhythm in a verse. But if you want a single instrument to stand out on its own like a vocal or an instrumental solo then you will want to make sure that no other instrument is covering up that sound.
Plan in advance
Using the information mentioned previously you can now begin to put together a plan. This plan will include things like how you are going to schedule the recording, whether you are going to record track by track or live and what microphones and microphone techniques you are going use. The plan is not set in stone, sometimes during the recording process you may realise another decision is in fact the better one but having a plan can ensure what direction your want to take in recording and streamline your recording process.
Attempt to justify all your decisions
Do not make decisions blindly. By making sure that you can justify all your decisions you can be more certain that your track will come out the way you envisioned. If you make decisions arbitrarily this will not be the case for example, if you want a live improvised feel for some kind of jazz ensemble you would not want to record each individual musician track by track, you would want to record them live all within sight of one another so those musicians can react and vibe off one another.
Introduce new ideas throughout your track
It is something that we often do not even realise but as listeners we often require new elements to be introduced to the music throughout a track. Doing so helps to keep our ear interested. When you get a chance, listen to some of your favourite music and see if you can hear this happening. Now it does not always happen with all music so if you cannot hear it in the music you like go and listen to a few top 40 hits, even if you hate top 40 like me I will guarantee you will learn a lot. By adding extra melodies, harmony, percussion, instrumentation, samples and audio effects throughout your track you can help to keep life in your music from start to finish. This is not something you have to do as there are many great pieces of music that do not do this, but it is a really easy trick to really bolster the production of your songs.
Pitch Correction and Audio-warping are great tools and not be feared
Pitch-Correction (Sometimes called auto-tune) and Audio-Warping (Used to change the timing of audio) often get a bad wrap but they can be really useful tools in tidying up your recordings. I talked a little bit about this in a previous post in which I talk about auto-tune, auto-tune can be a great way to save the best take and make music production a hell of a lot easier. That being said I would advise people use it with caution and use your chosen genre and reference tracks to inform your decisions when it comes to the use of these tools. If you are creating a high-level production pop track, then using a lot of auto-tune and audio warping can be essential for getting that really perfect and polished sound, styles like Funk, Rock and Metal would require it to be used sparingly so as to keep the raw feel that informs these styles whilst correcting minor mistakes on the best takes. In styles like Folk or Punk you may want to avoid using these tools completely and allow the mistakes to shine through. Of course these are just guidelines but having these thoughts in mind can really help to inform you decision to use or not use these production tools.
Guitar is an instrument that is at the centre of my life, I adore playing and have found it has opened up a number of opportunities both inside and outside of my career. But despite this, there are still a number of things I wish I knew before I started playing. In todays blog I will try and shed light on some of those things and tell you some of things I wish I knew before I started playing guitar.
It is hard
Though guitar is one of the most accessible instruments out there it does not mean that it is easy. I have lost count of the number of times I have had pupils say to me ‘I want to learn c within a weeks’ when in reality c can takes a lot longer than a to learn. Guitar is hard, our hands are not used to holding the guitar the right way and our fingers neither have the dexterity or strength to hold chords right out of the bat. Playing guitar…
…Requires a lot of time and dedication
To get to a point where you can play the basics proficiently can take months and for it to happen that quickly you really need to be picking up and playing the guitar for a significant amount of time most days. I often advise pupils to make sure that they are playing 6 out of the 7 days in the week for at least 20 minutes if not 30 minutes to ensure that they make sufficient progress. Those who are impatient and do not make such a dedication in time and effort to the instrument often end up losing interest due to lack of progress whilst those who make a habit out of practice and are patient in their progress often end up progressing a lot quicker than anticipated. If you are going to learn to play time and dedication are an absolute must.
It is not always fun
Though we play because it is fun and because we enjoy playing, learning to play is not always fun. In fact, it can sometimes be downright boring. To get to a point where we can use a certain skill to play for fun often requires hours or mind numbing exercises. But to be able to play well and to be able to do the fun stuff requires us to spend that time being bored to get there.
It will hurt to begin with but in time your fingers will adjust
We are not used to putting our arms, hands and fingers into the positions required to play the guitar. You will find practicing will hurt sometimes, particular after long periods as you are yet to develop the strength and stamina to play but do not worry as in time your hands and fingers will adjust and having a guitar in your hands will begin to feel comfortable. Now I do need to make a clear distinction between good pain and bad pain. It is ok if after a while practicing your hands and fingers ache a little like kind of pain you would feel after exercising, however if you feel any sharp pain stop playing immediately! I repeat stop playing immediately! You may well be causing damage and could potentially be causing injury. To avoid this happening I advise that you find a guitar tutor. A good tutor will ensure that you avoid the mistakes that will likely cause you injury and can guide you through the process of slowly increasing the strength, stamina and dexterity of your hands and fingers. If you are interested feel free to look into my own guitar lessons or feel free to read up on my blog post offering advice on how to find the right tutor for you.
You will need to trim your finger nails all the time!
As a guitarist you will find it is very easy for your finger nails to become an impedance. If they get too long they can get in the way of you playing melodies, holding notes and strumming chords. You will therefore find that to prevent this from happening you will have to cut your finger nails, a lot! I cut mine at least once a week. Sorry ladies, I am afraid you are not going to be able to grow your finger nails if you want to play, maybe settle for the temporary option of fake nails for nights out and special occasions because the rest of the time you are going to need to keep your nails short and trim. Now if you are someone who likes to finger pick using your nails, like a many classical guitarists, then you have a whole load of other care to worry about including filing, creams and supplementation. In short, nail care is surprisingly important to guitar players. Who would have thought?
It can be expensive
Playing guitar can become quite an expensive hobby. Good quality guitars, amplifiers and effects are not cheap with their prices easily able to exceed thousands of dollars, euros or pounds. On top of that is paying for the accessories such as strings, cables, straps, capos and plectrums. Some of these such as strings and plectrums need to be replaced regularly due to wear or loss (you will be surprised how many and how easily plectrums are lost). Now of course you do not necessarily need all this gear to play guitar, for many one instrument is enough and investing in other gear is excessive. However, if you want to become a serious player and perform gigs and record then you are going to need to invest in some gear equipment. If I were you apologise to your bank balance in advance.
There are many different specialisms
I used to have this idea that a great guitar player was someone who could play anything that was put in front of them and though some highly skilled players are able to adapt to multiple situations, to be able to excel in the intricacies of certain specialisms can take years to master. There is no single type of guitar player. Those who are a great at styles like Rock often face difficulty trying to adapt to styles like Jazz and vice versa. On top of genres, other musical skills require a lot of study and dedication in and of themselves. A really talented songwriter may not be technically proficient in playing guitar but their ability to play with words, rhythm, melody and chords can take years to develop. In short, do not expect to become a player who is great at everything. You will find one or a number of niche’s that fit what you want to do and become good at it whilst other areas of your playing will not receive as much focus.
There will always be someone better than you
When I started playing, I started with a mission to be the best guitar player the earth had ever seen. The only problem with this idea is that there is no such thing as the best guitar player ever. After all, playing guitar is about producing something that is very much subjective: Music; and even though there is some consensus on who are truly great guitar players no single one of them could ever claim to be the greatest guitar player ever. If you looked to players like BB King, who many say was the greatest blues guitar player ever, many would say he is not anywhere close to the standard of Jimmy Hendrix when it comes to playing 60s classic rock. So play with the acknowledgement that there will always be some area of your playing that someone else will be better at no matter how long you play for, and instead aim to better yourself as a player rather than someone else.
In the past I have talked about ‘Why having a teacher is better than self-teaching' but this of course is really no good if we do not find the right tutor. Often when looking for a tutor to teach us how to sing or play a musical instrument we go for the quickest, closest and cheapest option but, by doing so we might really be short changing ourselves in terms our our learning, development and enjoyment of the instrument. So in this weeks blog I will be looking at helping you to find the right tutor.
1)The right tutor v the best tutor
Now there are certainly good tutors and bad tutors out there and the experience and ability of a tutor is certainly important however, what is arguably more important is finding the right tutor for you. But what do I mean by the right tutor? We all, having been through school, may remember an occasion where we loved a teacher that our peers did not or where our peers loved a teacher that we were not huge fans of ourselves. This happens not because either our peers or ourselves are wrong in our opinion of the teacher’s ability but because as individuals we all respond and connect differently to different kinds of people, teaching styles and teaching materials. It is therefore worth considering a number of things to be able to find the right tutor. These are: What do you need? Cost, Specialisms, Experience and Locality.
2)Work out what you need
The first key consideration to finding the right tutor is working out your needs. By working out your needs it is much easier to find a tutor that fits you best. So what are you needs? Well there are three key things that I would definitely consider when it comes to your needs and they are as follows…
First is your ability. If you are a beginner, then finding a tutor who specialises in beginner instrumentalists. If you are an intermediate or advanced player, then you will need someone who is higher than your current ability and is used to teaching higher ability players.
The next area to consider are your aspirations. The importance of this can vary depending on your ability, a beginner might not need to worry as much about having a tutor who specialises in the area they aspire to develop in but for intermediate and advanced players having a specialist is vital. For example, if you want to become a free flowing jazz trumpet player, then it is no use having a trumpet tutor who specialises in classical music. So work out what your goals and aspirations are as a musician and look out for tutors who can help you attain those goals and aspirations.
Age and Gender
Most tutors are used to teaching a wide range of age and gender groups however, that is not to say this is not worth considering especially for those who are parents of teenagers and children. You may want to consider if the tutor has a full DBS (Criminal Record Check), Safeguarding training and experience teaching children at the age of your child. For women as well it can help bring peace of mind to be taught by another woman so it is something that is worth considering.
Admittedly in an ideal world this would not be a factor and for some lucky folks out there it is not however, for many of us budgets can be a huge constraining factor that has to be considered. Now it maybe tempting to go out and find the cheapest tutor that your money can buy, after all the costs of a tutor can add up very quickly and it can be very tempting to aim to keep those costs down. However, it is worth considering that finding a good tutor will always be worth more than any single piece of gear you will ever buy. After all, an instrument is no good if it does not have a player to play it and as a player it is important that you get the most out of yourself and to do that you need a good tutor and good tutors often require a considerable investment.
The first thing I will say is try to stretch out your budget and pay as much as you possibly can, the next thing to consider is other plausible ways to help stretch and increase your budget further. Maybe you would benefit more from shorter lessons that are about half an hour in length, or maybe instead of having one lesson a week think of having a lesson once every 2 weeks. I myself do this by having only one highly intense guitar lesson a month and one vocal lesson every two weeks so that I can afford more expensive lessons from more specialist tutors. By using these tips, you can limit the effect of this somewhat annoying constraining factor in paying for decent tuition.
Different tutors will specialise in different areas and it is definitely key to make sure their specialism meet up with your personal aspirations. So in your research and discussions with tutors find out if the tutor can meet your personal goals and needs and do not limit the specialism to solely genre’s and musical styles; also consider what you want to do with the instrument, would you like to play live, do you want to learn how to read music, how to improvise, write songs, record and produce music, maybe you want to even go as far as learning multiple instruments, all these are specialisms that are worth considering and looking out for in prospective tutors.
The experience of a tutor is not to be undervalued. There are two areas of experience to consider: firstly, their experience with the instrument itself: Have they played what you want to play? if you want to write have they written music? have they played shows? How long have they played for and what is their professional experience? These areas will allow you to see if the tutor matches your current ability and your aspirations. The next area of experience to consider is their teaching experience. Teaching experience is arguably more important than instrumental experience. Many say that ‘those who cannot do, teach’; What makes this saying completely inaccurate is that teaching in and of itself is a specialist skill. It is all well and good that a tutor has played all the styles under the sun, has written hundreds of tunes and has toured the world, these aspects cannot be underestimated, but teaching is a completely different skill that requires a lot of time, dedication and trial and error to develop. A tutor’s ability to adapt to, create materials for and to troubleshoot the problems for each pupil is largely down to the teaching experience of the tutor itself.
Locality of the tutor is also important. Firstly, consider whether you want to learn with a tutor in person or whether you are willing to learn over the internet via video chats such as skype. There are benefits to learning in person that just cannot be replicated over a skype such as having the ability for a tutor physical move around in 3D space to show you different things or to analyse your playing. However, learning in person can have its problems to, namely travel. Sometime it is a case of weighing up the other factors over their locality. If you can find someone who you can meet in person that meets your other needs, then that is great but sometimes the better option is skyping with a specialist simply because they are the only ones available to offer the knowledge you need.
Now that you worked out what your needs, the next step is finding that holy grail: the right tutor. It is well worth taking the time to dig deep and research properly. Sometimes the right tutor may not be on the first page of google and sometimes exploring other sites can turn up better options. So when researching search everywhere. Look up your local tutors on Google and do not just look at the first page, dig a little deep and see what options turn up on page 2, 3, 4 and maybe even 5. Find websites geared towards tutors; in the UK sites like First Tutors, Music Teachers, Gumtree, Music Singing Lessons, tutorful, superprof and Yell can turn out a number of options that you may not have come across with an initial google search. Also go and visit your local music shop and see what they have to offer; many music shops have their own in house tutors that are worth looking into. Ask your friends and family both in person and on social media to see if word of mouth can turn out any suggestions. And finally do not be afraid to email, message, text or call prospective tutors to see what information they can offer you. By spending a little extra time gaining as much information as possible and whittling down your options to one or a few possible tutors you stand a much better chance of finding the right tutor.
6)Don’t be afraid to try a few tutors
Finally, do you not feel that because you have had one lesson you will have to stick with them. If the tutor does not meet your standards or seem to click with you are after a few lessons, then try another. Maybe, if you have a few different tutors that have stood out to you from your research then give them all a go and see which one stands out to you. After all, research can certainly help you find possible tutors, but nothing is like an actual lesson to find out if the tutor is right for you. Now it is worth considering that one lesson on its own might not be enough to evaluate a tutor, after all it takes a little time for a tutor to get to know you to and adjust their teaching style accordingly so be willing to accept that it might take a few a lessons for you to find out that tutor really is not for you, but I would say the key thing is to trust your gut.
Hopefully by considering all the thoughts, ideas and steps in this guide you can find the tutor that is the perfect fit for you and even if you cannot quite find the right fit you can manage to find a tutor that is much better equipped to fit your needs and goals than if you just picked the first tutor you found on google. By taking a little bit of extra time and following the steps laid out I am sure you will find the perfect tutor to help you either begin or guide you in the next steps of your musical journey.
For many normal people, art is seen as a leisure activity. Whether it is taking photographs on the weekend or playing a musical instrument in the evenings, artistic pursuits are seen as something people do for fun and this is broadly true. A huge problem with this viewpoint comes when it is applied those who work in artistic fields. People boldly assume that the job they do must be fun all the time and with this assumption comes the idea that the work of professional artists must easy and yet nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, full-time artists usually love their work and of course many of them do their work because they find it fun and because they receive huge amounts of joy from their work. But to assume that this means that they find their work fun for every second of every minute of every day would be wildly inaccurate and to then assume that this work is easy ranges even further into the realms of fantasy.
The first key difference to distinguish is between the joy that someone gets from their work and from the fun people have doing their work. I can tell you from my own experience that I have spent hours working hard whilst bored out of my mind trying to achieve a task. But just because I am not having fun does not mean I am not receiving joy from the work I am doing. Some might ask: ‘how can this be the case?’. Well imagine a musician spending hours going over the same few notes, trying to nail the timing, pitch, rhythm and articulation of a particular musical phrase, or a photographer spending hours with the same photograph trying to get the right balance of colour to make the photo pop the way they picture it in their head. Such tasks can become boring and monotonous very quickly and can honestly drive you crazy: the complete opposite of fun, but when the musician finally nails that musical phrase or the photographer gets the photo to look just the right way, the joy one receives is one of the most complete feelings of satisfaction that one will ever feel.
What many do not realise about art is that it is a struggle and a compulsion; even artists who create art for leisure know this. Art it is not always fun, in fact for the most part it is a challenge and a compulsive itch that needs to be scratched. As described before artists may spend hours trying the get the details of their work just right and many may wonder why people would do this to themselves, what drives them to spend hours of their life splitting hairs over extremely small details to the point where the task at hand becomes blindingly boring. Well many artists including myself will talk about how we do not do these things is search of excitement, we do not do it simply for the potential joy that comes when we achieve the set task, we do it because not doing it bothers us, because something deep inside us drives us mad with the thought of not achieving what we set out to do, we do it to feed a compulsion.
Of course another aspect that differs professional artists from those of artists who peruse their work solely for leisure is that professional artists have little choice about how and when they can do their work. If we wish to ensure that we can pay our bills, cover our costs, gain a reputation of someone who meets deadlines set by clients and survive then we need to work even when we do not feel like it. Compare this to those who do art solely for leisure. If they are not feeling like sitting down and painting, or do not want to go out and take photographs or are no mood to practice today then they there is nothing to force them to do so; they have no other commitments except to themselves. With such a stark contrast you can begin to see why the work of a professional artist is not always fun and how sometimes it can be a grind like any other job.
Now do not get me wrong, I am not complaining about the struggles and strife’s that we have face as artists. At the end of the day I would not have it any other way, I love my work, I realise how lucky I am to be able to do it and I would not change a thing about it. I only raise these struggles and hardships to point out to others that being a professional artist is not all fun and games, that our work faces hardships and struggles like any other job and that working in the arts is not as easy as it might seem.
Last week I laid out a guide for those who wish to teach themselves guitar, laying out the steps required to master all the necessary fundamentals of the instrument. As someone who was for many years a self-taught guitar player, I understand the value of having a path to follow to help guide you through your playing as I myself struggled for many years without one. I also understand the importance of having a teacher to help guide you through the learning process. Of course music tuition is expensive and for many is out of reach; however, if you can afford it, it is worth every penny and in this weeks blog I will layout the reasons why.
Now, before I begin it is worth understanding the value of having the right tutor. What is the right tutor you may ask? This topic alone could be the subject of entire blog post, however, I will cover two key aspects that should be considered. One, is the tutor any good? Like any profession there are tutors who are excellent at their job, some who are mediocre and others who are terrible. To ensure you find a good tutor it is worth asking around amongst friends about their tutors, reading up on reviews and maybe even trying a few different tutors to see who fits your needs best. Two, does the tutor specialise in what you want to learn? If you want to learn classical, it is no use having a tutor who only plays rock, if you wish to learn rock, it is no use having a tutor who only plays Jazz; Find a tutor who shares the expertise in your desired field. Though price may be part of your consideration, a good tutor is worth the investment. Do not skimp out on a tutor if you feel they are the best fit for you.
Now that you understand the importance of the right tutor we can ask: Why should we have a tutor in the first place? The first is the simple fact that a tutor will be able to act as your guide. Learning a musical instrument is a journey that can follow a lot of different roads and paths, some of those paths can prove fruitful in your development, whilst others will result in you going round in circles with little to no progress. A good tutor has already walked these; they may have got lost in some of those circles themselves while others may have had their own guide to show them the way. The important thing is that you have someone who can guide you step by step through the trials and tribulations of playing, someone who can ensure that every detail of your playing is worked through and developed effectively, with little to no time spent getting lost.
The next thing a tutor can do is to help identify and correct your mistakes. Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of, they are part of the journey of learning, however, it is important to have them pointed out and corrected before they become habits. When teaching yourself, while you will be able to notice some mistakes, you are unlikely to spot them all. A tutor can spot every mistake, likely because they or other students they have taught have made them, and they will be able to give advice and encouragement to help address and correct your mistakes.
Not only can tutors identify your mistakes but they will help you correct those mistakes by giving you a wide range of exercises and techniques tailor made to you. Imagine two people who are ill, one person attempts to identify their illness online and tries to treat it themselves whilst the other goes to a doctor who prescribes a suitable treatment. The person who researches the illness themselves may well find a suitable treatment, but they are more likely to make a mistake than a doctor who possess the necessary expertise to prescribe the correct treatment. Now take into account that there are numerous types of illnesses and ailments, each requires a different course of treatment which can again vary depending on if the person suffering the illness is a man or a woman, old or young, healthy or unhealthy. Like different patients require different treatments for different illnesses no two players are alike and whilst one player will require one set of exercises and practice routines to address their problems another player will require completely different set. A good tutor, like a doctor, possesses the necessary knowledge and expertise to prescribe the correct exercises and practice routines depending on the player.
The next biggest advantage of having a tutor is the companionship they can offer. Though many accept and know that learning a musical instrument is hard and requires a lot of time and dedication, no one can know the experience like a person who has gone through it themselves. There will be times when learning can be a real struggle, when you will hate your instrument, where you feel like you fighting the instrument, sometimes there will be times where you have spent so long trying to learn something you will wonder if you will ever manage to play it. A tutor knows exactly what that experience is like, they themselves will have gone through those feelings on many occasions and they will know how to get through that experience and out the other side. Sometimes just knowing that can be enough to help you through the struggle, sometimes they can offer advice to guide you through the struggle and sometimes they will just remind you that if you keep at it, you will achieve what you set out for.
In short, whilst teaching yourself a musical instrument is perfectly possible, investing in a good tutor can help guide you through the process, shape your learning to your specific needs and can ensure that you will develop much quicker than if you go it alone. Whilst for some, like myself in my early days of playing, will have no choice but to go it alone, it is always better to have a tutor to guide you. If you can invest in them, they can do more for your sound than any single piece of gear could.
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