How To Write A Rock Song

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Step One: The Hook

What's the first rock song you ever learned on guitar? most folks pick up their very first Strat Pack Squier and jam on that timeless classic we all know On The Water by Deep Purple.

Of course! That's the one. Either that or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. Either way, these are great examples of rock songs, and perfect tools for us to learn how to write a rock song. It's very easy. The main ingredient you need is a good hook.

I can't tell you how to write a good hook, but I will advise you that unless you are Opeth or Dream Theater following one simple rule will generally help you reach your listener: KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid.

That's a good thing to know, and in fact the two aforementioned bands both face criticism for not reaching the listener, at least not the average one. Sure if you are obsessed with Swedish Melodic Death Metal it's okay to write a riff that lasts 15 and a half measures, but if you want average people, like your buddies at school and your girlfriend, to like your brand spanking new song then K.I.S.S. - write a short, simple hook that will grab the attention of your audience.

Now simplicity is not necessarily the mark of an untalented guitarist. In fact, the use of simple motifs is common to almost all of the better-known composers throughout history. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dimebag Darrell...

They all realized that complexity is wonderful, speed and virtuosity are great, but great music is founded upon simple, effective motifs. Minuet in G Major, Ode to Joy or Mouth for War - all incredibly simple melodies that work incredibly well. And that, friends, is what a hook is. It's a melody that works incredibly well. Now the hook need not be simple, but you will have more luck with the incredibly effective part if it is. Keep an open mind, though. Sometimes listeners are willing to listen to an ever-changing cacophony of death for twenty minutes.

But most of them already own Opeth's Morningrise.

There is another reason for writing a simple motif: it keeps your options open. See, other genres can lend us insight on how to write a rock song, and here I will borrow an idea from jazz to explain my thinking.

Simple chords, like A5, allow us to explore almost every mode and scale imaginable when improvising. As long as we choose a scale with a perfect fifth, we're okay. This is why power chords work so well in heavy metal - the lead man can pick from a cornocopia of scales when shredding through his teeth-kicking, eye-gouging solo.

Using a chord like Gm7b9 is great, but it limits you.

So in rock, the motif should generally be based around something harmonically simple. As always there are exceptions to the rule, but keeping it simple, stupid, will make it easier to write vocals, bass lines, keyboards, etc.

Step Two: Building On The Foundation

Unlike classical music where melodies work against each other to create a spacious soundscape, rock is based upon strength. Hence its name?

I don't know. Actually it's probably called rock because the rhythm makes you want to rock back and forth, but I'm probably pulling that out of my behind, too. But it is focused on the strength of the sound.

Where in classical the bass and violins would play alternate melodies that would counterpoint or build ever-changing chords, rock generally uses a lot of unison to strengthen the impact of the motif. That's why there are two guitars a lot of times - twice the sonic impact of one guitar.

The bass may or may not duplicate the guitar motif, but one thing it almost certainly will do is hit heavy on the one beat. BOOM - bam - bam - bam. This is not always the case, but rock is rock because, well, it rocks!! To rock, the rhythm must be very strong, and the bass is there to provide the force.

So you have your hook, your devastatingly simple motif, and you have these other guys staring at you like, "okay, what do we do?"

Well, if you're singing, most of the time the answer is "exactly what I'm doing." The drums, like the bass, drive the rhythm with great force - again so the music rocks. The vocals tell a story, and again this is usually a simple story.

That's pretty much the idea. But not always. Again there are exceptions to the rule, but rock music is so "love girl..." based because girls evoke a lot of emotion. Love, attraction, sex, all of that amounts to a lot of impact. If rock were about victorian furniture or the life cycle of grass it would not rock. So it's about sex, love, breakups, cheating, drugs, anything that is interesting to sing about, really.

Step Three: Your Song Structure

So you've got a motif, and you've got words. That's really all you need for a good rock song, or is it? You can write a great song that way, and many in fact have nothing more than those two simple ingredients.

But a lot of songs have a chorus. Well, what's a chorus? That's the "smoke on the wa-ter" part. The part everyone screams along with and pumps their fist from the audience. The chorus is even simpler than the hook. Why? Well all the no-talent slobs in the crowd have to bang their heads to it, that's why!

But that doesn't mean it should suck. Oh no, no, no!

A good chorus is almost always built around a chord progression. The most effective again are the simplest. If we number the chords in a key using roman numerals we pick a handful and arrange them in groups of four (three works, too), and go.

• Key of C:
C = I
D = ii
E = iii
F = IV
G = V
A = vi
B = vii

The capital ones are Major, the lowercase ones are minor except for vii, which is always diminished (you will probably not use it in rock.)

Here are some common rock progressions to try:
vi-I-V-IV (Under the Bridge chorus, in case you're wondering)

..and so on. As you can see, I, IV and V are the most common, also the minor vi. Others pop up, too, but it's not that common.

So find a combination of those chords (which happen to be the strongest most rocking chords) and sing something memorable over it. Try the song title, that usually works.

To finish step three, we need to explain the overall structure. It usually works like this:

Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus

That can alternate all day.

Occasionally there is a third motif, which is often more musically explorative. Note Symptom Of The Universe by Black Sabbath, or the Metallica cover of Breadfan. This can be called the "breakdown" or "interlude", but it's usually where the band gets its chance to have some fun. The bass can get a little more creative, the drummer can add some fills, and the lead guitarist can do some leads.

I stress leads for a reason as these differ from the solo, which we will cover next. Leads are just noodly bits on the guitar that sort of explore the stronger notes in the key. They aren't particularly noticeable or amazing, just fun, short and...well, noodly. So to play leads, noodle around a bit. That's what most rock bands do.

So you normally do two verses and two choruses: V-C-V-C and then something else. That "something else" is up to you. It can be an interlude/breakdown (third, more musical motif) or it can be a solo. That's our next step.

Step Four: The Solo!!

The solo normally takes the place of a verse, so the band plays the verse music underneath the solo. If you take a simple structure like V-C-V-C-V, the solo happens over that last verse. Pretty simple, eh?

Rock is fun to solo over because, as I said, the motifs are pretty simple giving the lead player a ton of creative freedom. Jazz players need to worry about harmony when they encounter chords with 4, 5, 6 or more notes in them. In that sense, the chord and the scale are almost indistinguishable. But in rock, the two or three note chords you're working with allow you unimaginable freedom in your solos, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

Where a jazz player can rely upon the harmonic structure of the song to determine which scale to play, or which notes are the juicy ones or the sour ones or the blue ones, a rock player has to use his creative freedom effectively, which means he's got to reign himself in a bit.

Freepower wrote a great article on phrasing, which you should read. In that article he compares phrasing to speaking, which is exactly right. When writing this article I break my ideas into steps, paragraphs, sentences and further into discreet ideas with commas, periods and other punctuation. As a soloist, you must do this also, or you will sound terrible.

Reigning yourself in doesn't mean you can't play fast or amazing stuff. It just means you need to consider what you're doing and why. Why am I sweep picking this 4 octave arpeggio? If your answer is "I have no idea" then don't do it.

But if your answer is "because the sick arpreggio fits perfectly into the dynamic flow of the song, creating the perfect climax before the last chorus!" then sweep away, young shredder. That brings us to our next topic, dynamics.

Not A Step: Dynamics

Rock songs can be very straightforward dynamically. The level of musical or emotional intensity stays pretty constant and the song ends nicely. This is a good technique for writing catchy, memorable songs like Yesterday by the Beatles.

There is no buildup to a blazing solo, no unholy climax of screaming harmonics bent until the neighborhood dogs are barking uncontrollably. It's just a nice, comforting song with beautiful words. It comes, it goes, it's nice.

That's one extreme.

Then you have the other extreme. Nice acoustic intro, beautiful little classical bits fading into distortion, then the drums kick in, the bass and finally the vocals. It all builds and builds until finally the solo happens and you are blasted with 250 notes per second of blinding, blazing shred.

You can go either way, or anywhere in between. Rock doesn't need dynamics, but it is one way you can make it more interesting, different and original. Now Yesterday is quite original and it's a great tune, but not every rock song in the history of the universe can be a Yesterday. So play with dynamics a bit. See if it works.

Finally, end the thing. You can end on a chorus or a verse, heck you can let it crash into a brick wall in the middle of a measure. It's up to you with rock.

Generally, though, there is some kind of decrescendo. It can be fast or slow, long or short. Some songs just fade out on the last chord of the chorus. Bling! Others hang on that chord for ever and ever, the drums hit every skin possible, and all the cymbals, the bass rumbles away and it all ends in a cymbal catch. Or something like that.

But rock songs always end. How they end can be just as important as the motif itself.So pick an end that fits. And don't forget to make it ROCK!!!! (otherwise it's just plain old roll)

by Colin Shawhan

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