Ten Hitmakers on Songwriting

Some words of advice from ten legendary guitar-slinging songwriters.
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Stand by for a controversial statement: An otherworldly, transcendent, and kick-ass guitar solo is usually wasted air time unless it’s part of an equally brilliant song. Let’s take Jimi Hendrix. His guitar playing certainly influenced and inspired legions of guitarists. However, his songs were well-crafted pop compositions that ended up on the radio for millions of fans to absorb. Would Hendrix have been so phenomenally, culturally huge if his songs had ended up in the cut-out bins of second-hand record shops? Now, there’s a bar/pub debate for the ages. No matter where you stand on the subject, it doesn’t negate the fact that all musicians should strive to create pieces that inflame the emotions of listeners. Here’s how some guitar-slinging songwriters did just that. [These interviews first ran in the October ’93, July ’98, September ’98, and March ’03 issues of GP.]


“You come across some words, and you just lie back, and you dig the words, and see how that makes you feel You might take it to practice, or rehearsal, or something like that, and get together with it there in music—see how the music feels.” —originally quoted in Rock: A World Bold As Love, 1970


“The hardest part of what I do is finding good songs. It’s beyond daunting. Right off the bat, if the lyrics are lame, I can’t do it. If somebody writes lyrics that lame, they’re usually not hip enough to write good music, either. In my own writing, I just sit around and jam on some stuff. I try not to do a lot of listening to other songwriters I admire, because that can be intimidating. Songwriting is a mysterious gift. You want to stay out of its way, and not analyze it too much.”

Cheap Trick

“When I started out, I would cop television theme songs, which would later provide the idea for some nice riffs. I wouldn’t steal directly—I’d write around a lick that I thought was kind of neat. For example, the theme from Peter Gunn inspired my intro for Cheap Trick’s ‘On Top of the World.’ There’s no real voodoo. You just look for something that catches your ear. But a good lick should be easy to play. If it’s unnatural to play, it should be Mahavishnu Orchestra or something! Sometimes, it’s the simplicity that makes a lick timeless.”

Soundgarden, Audioslave

“Sometimes, personal lyrics can be endearing and cool, and make you feel close to the writer. But, a lot of times, you get this feeling of ‘What do I care? So you had struggles with your relationship. Everybody does. F**k off.’ I’d rather go more towards the Syd Barrett school, and write about shoelaces and banana skins, and make it all seem congruent in this weird fantasy world that makes you want to go there when you get off work.”


“You have to ask yourself whether you think you can get people to really concentrate on your songs for an hour or so. Personally, I don’t think people want to do that, and I’m fine with writing songs that provide a background to a person’s everyday life. I think that’s the best I can ask of someone. That’s why I write songs like ‘Clean Up Woman.’ Someone leaves a sink full of dishes for me to do, and I write a song about it. Painters paint what they see, and I’m just trying to write about what I see.”

Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers

“In the early stages, I like to leave as much as possible to a kind of unconscious state. I’ll find a place where there are no distractions, get into a dreamy stage, and mess around with chords and chord sequences. Eventually, little melodies come out, and then it’s a matter of recognizing what’s good. You have to be careful not to think too much about things. If you’re too disciplined early on in the writing process, there’s a good chance your songs will sound a bit flat or uninspired. Also, some songs only become fully flowered onstage. You realize there are aspects to them that you never caught a glimpse of as you were recording them—little nuances you could put into the vocals, or extra notes here and there that can help the songs sing out. It often seems you should only record songs after you’ve sung them onstage at least a dozen times. Then, you’ll know them, and you can really get inside of them.”


“A lot of songs evolve by trial and error. We always have a recorder that records everything just in case something goes awry. Any number of sounds on those recordings are mistakes that turn out to be better than what we were doing in the first place. You must be open to let accidents happen.”

The Band

“The nature of the sound and feel of a guitar can play a role in the songwriting process. For example, I might be playing a lick on one guitar, and then grab another guitar that has a completely different feel to it. Just switching guitars will make me do something altogether different. Also, I have my studio set up where all of my pedals and stuff are plugged in and ready to go. So, just to find a starting point, I’ve found it’s often fruitful to scramble the knobs on everything, and hope that I stumble across something that makes sense—or, even better, that makes no sense, but that sounds really good.”


“I recommend minimalism wherever possible. If something is simple, and the observation is true, why burden it with a melody that takes it into some other realm? You must find an emotional moment in a song, as well. A film can only go on for about seven minutes before it must have an emotional moment on the screen. Otherwise, the audience gets bored. With songs, it’s the same—except that you have three minutes, not 90 minutes, to make everything happen. I listen to songs like an A&R person. I’ll say, ‘What’s next? Where is it going? Interest me for another ten seconds!’ I’m extremely self-critical when I write, so I try to get myself in an environment where I can write everything down and just enjoy it. The secret is to enjoy the process, and then get yourself detached from the song so that you can play it back, and refine it.”

Rolling Stones

“First, I find a riff and a chord sequence. If that’s any good, then I start to play it with some other guys and pump it up. If that’s great, then I check the attitude and the atmosphere of the track. ‘What the hell is this putting out?’ There’s no point in writing songs on a sheet of paper, going verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and regarding it as a song. No, it ain’t. A song is music, and I’d rather start with the music, and then get into the attitude of the track and put something on top of it. I can’t divorce the lyrics from the music. Songwriting is a marrying of both. Ultimately, something ends up as a song, or it ends up as a disaster, and I’ll get bored with it. That doesn’t bother me. To me, the important thing is recognizing something when it comes by.”