Photo by Michael Kollwitz
Q: I’m in a situation where I’m in a cover band that is wanting to expand into doing original music, but they’re kind of looking to me to be the one to lead the writing as I have the most experience as far as music knowledge goes. Even though I’m well versed in my theory and consider myself an above average player, I have a difficult time with composing. Much of it seems to stem from the fact that, while you can play chords on the bass, it isn’t really a chordal instrument in the way a guitar or piano is. Also, though a bass can certainly play melodically, bass isn’t a melodic instrument the way a saxophone is. As a bass player I’ve been spending most of my life trying to stay out of the way of the melody and/or support it rather than provide it.
So I have a problem when I try to compose in that I can’t seem to get a vision for the “whole” sound of the song. It’s like I can write little snippets of 8 or so bars, but can’t get the feel to expand it into an entire song. And sometimes I have a hard time of picturing the whole piece since I’m mostly just working from a bass part I create and sometimes a drum rhythm.
I was just looking to get your thoughts on how you’ve approached composing in the past… particularly when you were the one who mainly had to provide the material rather than a situation where you’re coming up with stuff as a whole band.
A: This is a great question!
My last two albums were a challenge to myself. I had never written a single piece of music in my life before then. I was always a side man, and while I had a good ear for advice here and there, I had zero experience writing music from top to bottom. I thought that the best way to challenge myself and very likely learn something in the process was to book a recording session for my first original album and hire the guys I wanted to play with. That put the fire under my butt!
Now the hard part… I had never studied arranging, composition or anything much beyond playing bass, and teaching myself harmony, for that matter. I had/have no method for developing songs and each came together in a different way.
My songs with more harmonic movement were primarily written by exploring chord voicings and movements. Quite often, the melody came from the top voices in the chords that I was using (or at least, started there).
Groove tunes started with an idea for a groove, obviously. Much of the time, this led to me listening to a section over and over again trying to hear a functional melody in my head, which I would try to sing to myself and then transcribe on my instrument. Other times, I would simply try to noodle melodically until I came up with some kind of basic melodic line, although I still think many of these melodies still sound a little too much like soloistic ideas.
The key for me was allowing myself to come up with whatever came to mind and, temporarily, accept it without judgement. I quickly realized that if I was too critical of my ideas, absolutely everything would wind up a crumpled piece of paper in the trash. Just let yourself be corny, lame, sound too much like “X” player, etc… at first, anyway.
My next step would always be to make a bass demo of the tune (as I can’t play any other melodic instruments). I would try and EQ melodies differently than the bass lines so they would be separate in the mix and sound as much like another instrument as possible. It didn’t have to sound great, it just had to be close enough to hear what I could hear in there with other instruments in mind.
I would then load these onto my phone and walk my dog, listening to a piece over and over again, making mental notes of what worked, what didn’t, and what I wish was there. Then, I would go home and tweak things, make a new demo and repeat the process until I didn’t completely hate it.
The next step was the most important: I would invite musician friends over to play the stuff with me and record it. I would freely ask for advice or criticism. I would mention things like, “I still don’t think these changes are all there, what do you hear?”
Or “how do you hear these changes moving? Are these voicings decent”?
Anything… just lay it all out, try different feels and tempos. Something that sounds silly at one tempo may sound great at another, or lead you to a different type of groove or feel all together.
For me at least, the biggest part of the process was accepting my own limitations and moving beyond my insecurities. I gave myself permission to write a “stupid” song and see if I could later refine it into something better.
You also don’t have to complete every piece! Catalog a folder full of grooves and chordal ideas and mix and match things. Sometimes I would take two different song sketches and take the best of each and turn them both into a singular piece of music that was more functional than the two incomplete ideas.
You simply have to start and trust in the process. Take sketches and ideas and flesh them out with the band. They have to allow you to flesh some ideas out as a whole, especially if they are going to put all of the weight onto your shoulders. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know a bunch of theory, etc. They all know what good music sounds like (hopefully) and can help you to piece things together in a musical way.
Don’t put the full weight of writing “killer tunes” before you present them to the group. Let it be a band effort with you leading the charge. More importantly, have fun and don’t judge yourself in the process. Let it happen and trust in the talent of the collective to make it whole. Have fun!
Readers, I know many of you must have some experience with this. If you do, I’d love to hear your take. Please share in the comments.