Spring seems an appropriate time to clear out the music shelves, so I started sorting the CD’s I received for review over the past 8 months into two piles: Reviewed and Not. I was a little surprised to see that about 400 were Not, and nearly 100 were Reviewed. I should mention that I call myself a reviewer instead of a critic because I will not pan somebody’s work in print. It’s hard enough to get a career going without bad press, and not everybody shares my opinions, so I just don’t review those I don’t really like. I will, on occasion, send a critique to a player whose work has real promise even if I don’t review it. So in that spirit I would like to offer up some tips that have come to me from decades of reviewing as well as talking to other reviewers and critics about their methods.
- WRITE MELODIES.
I can’t tell you how many guitarists think that blazing speed or awesome technique will impress listeners. They don’t. Most people listen to music, and the heart of music is good melody. Why have songs like Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair lasted for centuries? Why do Hey Jude and Stairway to Heaven remain so popular?
- EXPAND YOUR CHORD VOCABULARY.
Three-chord songs have been done to death, and unless you have a really exceptional melody (see tip #1) you should give the melody as much emotional depth as possible by supporting it with rich harmony. A little harmonic surprise now and then will keep the listener interested. Make us wonder “What will happen next?”
- BALANCE REPETITION AND CONTRAST.
The two basics of music are repeating things enough so that they sound familiar, and contrast to keep the repeated stuff from becoming boring. Constantly repeating a small phrase, even on different scale steps, is enough to drive most listeners crazy. Too much new material without any repetition just sounds disorganized and pointless. This applies to melodies as well as chord progressions.
- PLAY MUSICALLY.
Too many good albums are ruined by robotic playing. Learn to accept a take that may have a flaw or two but really gets the feeling across. Don’t aim for that perfect take that has the soul played out of it from doing hundreds of earlier takes. Often you are the only one that can hear the “imperfection” anyway, but most listeners will hear the lack of spontaneity. If you just can’t get it right, take a break or do a different song and come back to it fresh.
- DEVELOP YOUR OWN SOUND.
Don’t fall into the trap of buying your idol’s gear setup and trying to get their sound. They’ve already done that and the audience knows it. An original sound stands out from the mass of wannabes and will always get serious consideration. This doesn’t take a rack of expensive gear. Use your ears and the equipment you’ve got and see what sounds you can get that you really like. You may be very pleasantly surprised. If you want a new pedal, try one that not everybody uses.
- LISTEN TO AS MUCH MUSIC AS YOU CAN.
See what others have done that you like. Listen to stuff you don’t like and try to figure out what makes it popular. Listen to classic songs that keep getting re-played and covered, and try to figure out what is so special about them, keeping in mind all of the previous tips. It is very important to know what has already been done, to keep you from “re-inventing the wheel” or inadvertent plagiarism.
- IMPROVE A SONG.
I’ve saved the best tip for last because you need to keep all of the previous ones in mind for this one. Pick a song that you think is good, but could be better. Then come up with your own version that you think is better. Keep the good parts and improve the weak parts. Let your imagination go with this one! After a couple of these you will be able to listen more critically to your own songs, and improve them in the same ways. Learn to hear like a listener, instead of the songwriter!
Written by “Dr. Dave” Walker
Dr. Dave Walker is a writer for blog.davewalkermusic.com and for Just Jazz Guitar. A former computer science professor, he has since come to his senses and now teaches music.