Jason Becker on Creativity: Thinking Outside the (Music) Box

In a classic GP column, Jason Becker discusses a few out-of-the-box things you can do to kickstart your songwriting.
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I like to wind two or three music boxes at the same time, and see if I can hear any interesting or haunting harmonies, or maybe some cool note sequences. I must be strange, because I think it sounds beautiful when different songs are playing at the same time with that sweet little instrument.

When I was writing my song, “End of the Beginning,” it had started with a simple and gentle piano introducing the main theme. It then built into a big orchestral thing, playing with the theme in grand major keys and dramatic minor keys. After all of that bombardment of sound, I needed it to finish with something gentle, to bring the end back to the beginning.

A brief aside: I have noticed that many metal players and bands only have one speed and one volume. In my opinion, this takes all of the drama out of the heaviness. To me, if music is all hard and fast, it becomes monotonous. It doesn’t seem extreme unless there is some kind of contrast. That’s the advice I’ve given to new metal players who have asked me.

Anyway, back to “End of the Beginning.” I wanted it to finish with just a quiet music box playing the theme. Back in 1993, there were no music box samples, so when I asked my producer, Dan Alvarez, about it, he started creating a music box sample himself by tearing apart a real music box and recording himself plucking one note at a time. He then played the theme on that sample. It was everything I had hoped for. It’s good to surround yourself with brilliant people!

Some people take chords for granted. Let’s say you write a nice melody in B minor. You don’t always have to play a Bm chord behind the B note. Most jazz players know this, but here is some simple and effective stuff for a nice, emotional change of pace in a normal song. If the note is B, for instance, there are so many different chords with B in them. There is Bm and Bmaj. (Don’t ever be afraid to go from minor to major. Sometimes it is a nice switch.) Then there is Em, Emaj, Gmaj, G#m, Fdim, C#7, etc. The list goes on, and this doesn’t even include cool jazz chords.

You can also do the opposite, like I did on my song “Electric Prayer for Peace.” I started with one note, sustaining through the whole song, and wrote a melody with lots of chords over it. Everything went nicely over that one note.

I recently found a cool old guitar phrase that I recorded back in the day. It was slow and tasty, but had some balls on it. I put it into Logic, and wrote different chords over each note. It had been a neat lick, but now it is a wonderful theme. It has hints of the very early Disney movie music that gives me chills, but with a soaring electric guitar. I am also doing it with a horn section. It will definitely be on my next album.

Try finding a poem that you like, one that moves you in some way, and write a melody to it. This will get you thinking differently about phrasing. Sometimes we need help getting ourselves out of boring habits. Check out some Morten Lauridsen music; he does this a lot. I can’t believe I haven’t tried this yet, because my dad, Gary, is a beautiful poet.

Try copying a melody that you like, but play it with the phrasing of a different melody. This will be tough and create some weird accents and note separation, but it will get you thinking differently, and you might come up with something great that will inspire a whole song..