Writer’s block

Q. I’m a guitar player. All my songs seem to be in the same few keys: G, C and E. And there isn’t much variety in my chord progressions either. How do I get unstuck?

A. I sometimes run into the same problem. Our fingers get accustomed to certain movements, like familiar chord changes and that limit our songwriting.

Here’s an exercise I use when my songs start sounding the same, especially when my guitar chords seem to all sound the same. I put the guitar away and write. I just walk around and work out some lyrics and a melody in my head. Sometimes my footsteps provide the beat.

When you break it down, the essence of a song is melody. The melody is what people remember. So if you have a good melody and lyrics that support it, you already have a good song. You can make it better by using creative chords, but the meat is the melody (unless you’re vegetarian and then the tofu is the melody).

I was amazed the first time I tried this. I came up with a melody and words. I was driving so there was no way I could use my guitar. When I later tried to put chords to it, I was surprised that the melody called for a chord sequence I would have never thought of, and one my fingers weren’t familiar with.

The guitar (even if you’re a real virtuoso and a creative hotshot) can limit you. Any instrument has its limits and you can stay within the instrument’s limitations or you can transcend them by writing without any instrument. So give your guitar a rest. I highly recommend it.

Another tool is to switch instruments. If you play piano, try writing on it instead of the guitar for awhile. In the end you may perform your new song on guitar, but the song will benefit from having been written on a different instrument. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weak pianist, because it’s only being used as a tool to break out of your old habits.

Guitar-playing songwriters love this one: try a different tuning, even something as simple as dropped D or DADGAD. Alternate tunings will put your fingers in unfamiliar territory. This is an easy way to get a whole new sound out of your guitar and to inspire different type of chords, melodies and lyrics. It’s so easy, it feels like cheating.

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