Experiment with Sound

by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

So you’ve written a great vocal melody and some killer lyrics—but the chords you’re playing sound boring. How can you shake things up a bit? Check out these tips from experienced songwriters.

21 Tips Examples 1-2
Click to enlarge.

Tune down.You can lower the tuning of all the strings a half step or a whole step to put the guitar into a less familiar range while still being able to play normal fingerings. When I was a beginning guitarist trying to learn “Yesterday,” I wish I’d known that Paul McCartney was playing in standard tuning down a whole step. Instead of wrestling, as I was, with F and Bb barre chords, he used easy key-of-G shapes that sounded in the key of F. Since then I’ve been repeatedly surprised to learn how many songs were written in lowered tunings, from John Fogerty classics (“Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son”) to more recent tracks by Keller Williams and Ben Harper.

Tweak the Chords.“It’s amazing how much cooler it gets when you change one note in a chord,” Sean Watkins once said in a conversation with his then-band mates in Nickel Creek. His guitar parts often use modal chords (with no third) and suspensions that add a nice openness to the sound. Check out the dif­ferences between Examples 1a and 1b, and between Examples 2a and 2b, to hear how a one-finger change in a chord makes a big impact.

Excerpted from Songwriting Basics: 21 Songwriting Tips from the Masters

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