Songwriting 101: What Works, What Doesn’t (+ Bonus Exclusive Song Stream)

August 12, 2011 by Ronnie Winter

Songwriting 101: What Works, What Doesn’t (+ Bonus Exclusive Song Stream)

Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ new album, Am I The Enemy, is out August 30. (Pre-order it here.) Listen to an exclusive stream of “Wake Me Up” below while you read Ronnie’s latest AP column.


AP and I have teamed up for a column about being an independent artist in today's music scene. This column is directly geared towards musicians and artists, both unsigned and signed to indie labels as well. The simple truth is that it's an amazing time to be an independent artist, and there are a lot of companies and organizations—both physical and online—that are there to help you get on your way. Over the next couple of weeks/months, I will be breaking down what these guys can and can't do for you. Some of these initial steps will be obvious to veterans at first—but keep in mind, not all musicians are on the same level of awareness. So, as we progress, we'll get deeper into what steps you can take, based on your situation.

In addition, I'll also be answering your music-industry questions. Leave your questions in the comments section—and check out my next column to see if yours was picked!

(Editor’s Note: The following response is to “Joe F.,” who left a comment on one of Ronnie’s past columns.)

Dear Joe F:
I think management is absolutely important. I have never been good at balancing budgets, routing tours or payroll and federal tax issues, so for me, it's a necessary asset. I have always only really cared about writing, recording and performing, so I need someone to handle the business side of things so I don't go crazy. Not every band has management, and if someone in your band is a CPA or has a degree in business, I would say you're okay without one. For me, it's definitely worth having someone else.

So now I want to talk about what I think is the most important part of building or creating a band: songwriting.

Step one is understanding what that even means. Writing a guitar riff is not songwriting; it's riff writing. Almost every guitar player I have ever met (literally hundreds now) say, "Oh yeah, I have written, like, sixty songs,” but actually, they have never written a single song. A song is a chord progression with lyrics and melodies (unless you are in a jam band with no singer—and to you, I say, “I stand corrected”). A riff with no melody is not a song. A melody with no lyric is just a melody. You need all three. I suggest writing by yourself with an acoustic guitar or a piano. That's how almost all of [our] songs were written.

The lyrics have always been the most time-consuming thing for me, so I would suggest taking the most time with those. Progressions, drums, bass, octave and lead riffs come pretty easy to most bands, but great lyrics don’t. The first two bands I was in, I played drums, so I never worried about lyrics until much later. I guess the best advice I can say is simply speak from the heart. Write about what you like and how you feel, which serve dual purposes. It's productive and also a creative/emotional outlet. I have spent days and months on lyrics but also have written songs in a matter of minutes. It's all about riding the wave for me. Sometimes you just get on a roll; every idea is great, makes sense and fits the vibe. Other times, everything you come up with just sounds too obvious or typical and lacks that spark that all great songs have.

In the end, all bands are judged by their songs. Not the studio quality of the recording, YouTube views or album reviews, but by the actual music they make. That's what it's all about, right?

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