Where to Start?
I’ll admit to thinking that the guitar is the best instrument to write on. But I know better.
Joni Mitchell wrote “A Case of You” on the dulcimer, for crying out loud. How do you think “You’re the Tops” would have worked out if Cole Porter had written it on the guitar? Please.
Beethoven, when he went deaf, wrote entire symphonies just in his mind. Parts for 50 or more instruments playing all at once. Think about that for a bit….
Have you ever seen an Appalachian hand clapper perform using nothing but skin and bones (and knees and thighs and…) singing “Walk the Dog”?
It doesn’t take an instrument. It just takes an idea, or a feeling, or wisp of a melody, or a lick that clicks. That’s most where songs start.
Some instruments are easier to write on when the words arrive first. The guitar is like that. Chords are like blocks of furniture you can move around here and there when you’re putting a room together.
Pianos are great for finding a melody. It’s amazing what one finger can do.
I don’t know if a song was ever written on a tuba, but I’m guessing there’s one out there. If you wrote it, hats off to you, mate. That must have been one tune fairly busting to get out.
And if one of the best songs ever written (the aforementioned “A Case of You”) can be mined from the three strings of a dulcimer in a modal tuning, anything, my friend, is possible.
The point here is that it doesn’t matter what you start on, it just matters that you start.
Because I write primarily on the guitar, here are a couple examples of how a song got started for me.
The Lick that Clicks
Not Bored with this Chord (Yet)
Sometimes you find a set of chords in a key that just works for you. Simply playing them suggests possibilities.
Paul McCartney found the melody for “Yesterday” long before he came up with “all my troubles seemed so far away”, etc.. He called the song “Scrambled Eggs” for the longest time.
McCartney says the entire melody came to him in a dream while staying at the family home of his posh girlfriend on London’s Wimpole Street. At the crack of dawn, the legend goes, he lept from bed to a piano, trying to remember what he’d dreamed. One can just imagine McCartney in his jammies perched at the Steinway Concert Grand in the Conservatory, waking up Jane Asher’s parents at 5:30 in the morning with ‘Da-dee-dee…. da da dee dee dee dee da dee dee…’ wafting up the grand stair case from below. One suspects The Pater was not amused.
I’m Not Blind
And sometimes, it starts with a lyric fragment that is flat out begging you to find a place to sing it.
In a softball game many moons ago, a woefully inebriated second baseman let a Bucknerian dribbler I’d hit scoot right between his legs. As I huffed and puffed in to second, he wiped his brow and said, “Whit, a few more years ago I would have had that.”
Talk about your penny from heaven. Even as toasted as I was my own self, I knew THAT had to be a song one way or another. The result, a 12 bar lament from an epically (temporally) confused soul, is clickable below. And thank you, Dr. Bob, who is a far better doc than second baseman. Though he hasn’t received a writing credit yet, I suppose he will have to now if the song ever sees the light of day beyond here.