We’ve all been there. Staring at a blank piece of paper. Or at a guitar sitting on the stand. We know we should be trying to write something but everything we come up with is either stupid, terrible, or sounds like a million other things out there. This article will cover some ways I deal with ‘blank page syndrome’ and will showcase a few tips that I have come across as a composer.
I think the one thing to remember is that writing really doesn’t come easy for most people. Most great guitarists struggle with writing music (or lyrics), and the only way past that is to keep on writing. Truth is, for every song you love from your favorite artist, there are hundreds of song ideas and even completed projects from that artist that has never seen the light of day. We live in an age where reissues of famous recordings contain demos and tracks in various stages of completeness, and when we listen to them, it is interesting to hear where an idea came from. But these demos were never intended to be heard at the time the album was originally released. In most cases, the demos were pretty bad, and it demonstrates that the birthing process for a song is a difficult one. But more than that, the songs we love were filtered through other band members, producers, and record company executives before it reaches your ears. Don’t compare your writing to that, because it isn’t a fair comparison. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come easy.
Second… The Attitude
Artists themselves can be pretty insecure, especially when it comes to their own writing. It never measures up to our heroes (see the paragraph above), and in the end what matters most in any creative endeavor is the right attitude:
I have something to say, and you are gonna listen to me!
No matter what you write about – even if it is just a killer riff – say it like you mean it. That passion comes through despite the skill on the instrument. Look at the origins of punk music: Pete Townshend had something to say, and even if he wasn’t the guitarist Jeff Beck was, he made sure it was loud enough that you couldn’t help but listen. He had stories to tell, and attitude to spare. In the end, the belief in what he wrote was contagious not only to his other band members in The Who, but to a music press and eventually to the public. But, hey, it was a long road for him, too.
Be Consistent. Be Consistent.
Pick up that guitar every day. Don’t set a goal of writing a new song. Maybe just two or three new chords that go together in a way you like. Record them on whatever you can, and write down what you played- you will wish you did one day. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, either. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and like any craft, you have to do the work. Listen to music to understand how the songs or riffs are put together, and not just for fun. Then, instead of copying it, mix that knowledge in with your own influences and life experiences and find your own path. Remember, no one remembers the second guy that sounds like Slash. We may learn from our inspirations but your own path will be more valuable in the long run.
Creativity by Addition
Perhaps that chord progression of straight major and minor chords might sound better with some 7ths or 9ths. Maybe double those crushing power chords with an acoustic guitar played through a phaser? Instead of having the bass double the guitar riff as it does in so much metal, how about giving it a melody line to play? There are millions of combinations, and thinking about arrangements while writing helps you visualize what your song will sound like when you demo it or bring it to the rest of the band. A new pedal, a new pickup, a new guitar or a new tuning can set your creativity off in a direction you have never thought of.
Creativity by Subtraction
Try writing without any pedals. Use the clean channel of the amp if you are used to distortion. Think of what you always do and then do the opposite. If you are used to electric, then write on acoustic guitar. Try avoiding power chords, or chords that use open strings. Try writing in an unfriendly guitar key, like F minor. Use only the middle four strings. Try a wacky tuning that eliminates well-worn fingering patterns.
I tend to write chord progressions on guitar by looking for interesting voicings – usually ones I have never used before. I loop them with a looping pedal, and will let them play for hours, usually while cleaning or doing some other household chore. Eventually, I will start singing melodies and the ones I sing over and over are the ones I keep. I will also write melodies on piano, since I am a terrible piano player. However, I find the lack of muscle memory and scale patterns refreshing, and I write something I never would have come up with on guitar. Remember, an artist can use whatever we have at our disposal to create – that is what we do. Thinking that you can’t be creative unless everything is familiar and predictable assures that you will make familiar and predictable music.
Consult the Cards
One of my favorite producers and artists is Brian Eno. In 1975, he came up with this idea to help artists though creative dilemmas. It was in the form of a deck of cards called the Oblique Stratagies, and it would present solutions to creative problems, although the solutions forced you to think in a way that you probably didn’t intend to. Some of the sayings on the cards include:
What would your closest friend do?
Use an old idea.
What else is this like?
Fill every beat with something.
Use an unacceptable color.
Do something boring.
Disconnect from desire.
Take away elements in order of apparent non-importance.
As you can see, they are pretty, well, oblique. I have used them with great success either writing or recording. You can pick a random card here.
Creativity belongs to us all, and we all go through periods of being inspired and staring at the blank page. The biggest thing to remember is that in order to stay creative, we have to practice it, just like everything else.
What inspires you to be creative? And how do you work through The Blank Page syndrome?