"some music was meant to stay underground..."

OpEd

Heavy Metal Songwriting Tips

In my opinion, metal fans are the most outgoing, proactive and instrument-oriented of all music fans. I've met more than a few fellow metallers who, despite having little to no knowledge about playing an instrument, have managed to produce a rough demo and play a live show on enthusiasm alone, which is neat! Yet when it comes to song writing or music advice for metal fans on the net there is a real lack of information; a true shame. There is a good amount of general songwriting tips out there for anyone who can use Google, but little of it is relevant to a metal head; "Write a simple hook in the chorus! Focus lyrics on universal topics like love!" - Forget it. Unlike some of the members here, I can't consider myself a metal star, but I'm old and gnarled enough to dish out some advice to the young, long-haired masses with a gleam in their eye.

Number one. Almost the opposite of what other how-tos will say, never be fussed about what others think about your music. Most ordinary people don't understand metal, let alone the undoubtedly individual style that you write. If you have the vision, and you feel sincere about the quality of it, then that should be all you ever need. If you're thinking of making money or a decent living from metal, then you might want to reconsider or join the latest popular craze instead. People write metal because they love it, they live it, and playing is all the reward that's needed. But if you're reading this then I doubt you need that advice!

In terms of song lyrics, we're a lucky bunch. Metal is a no-limits genre where you can't go wrong if you try: Blood and guts, sex and Satan, philosophy and love, leather and spikes, society and it's ills. Perhaps the only recommendation here is sincerity. Metal fans have made a sworn enemy in emo for a reason, as insincere self-pity is a one stop train to mockery town. But if you're lucky to have the morose fortitude ability to write a doom and gloom, put the pen to paper and go for it. Other tips I'll touch on below also apply for lyrics, but there are specific points to be made. In general, keeping lyrics simple, pumped with interesting adjectives and persona focused will get a listeners attention, for example, which of these two sentences is more memorable?

"He walked up the road, as blood fell from above"

"Satan strolls up God's golden path, crimson blood pours from darkened clouds"

Go out of your way to make your lyrics descriptive, visual, personal and unlike me don't copy ideas from "Raining Blood."

Never be put off by your lack of instrumental talent or lessons, or theory knowledge. These things come in hand, and will certainly help if your aiming to be Yngwie Malmsteen, but don't get hung up on them. Did Chuck Schuldiner need to know musical theory when writing Death's technical metal opus "Individual Thought Patterns"? Hell no. But metal was in his blood. When learning your chosen instrument, make sure you enjoy what you are playing or doing. If your not into Bach, then after your music teacher makes you wade through "Bouree In E Minor" you'll want to defenestrate any instrument in sight. But if Cannibal Corpse is what you dig, then make sure you work that into whatever your practice regime is. Play what you love and the rest will come easy.

When writing riffs, be more selective than your girlfriend in a clothing store. When James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were writing "Master Of Puppets" they were unforgiving with the quality of riffs and threw a lot of what they wrote. And in the end it served them well. When they wrote "St. Anger", they got emotionally attached to average music and they paid for it. But who can blame them? Often the hardest part of songwriting is throwing away something that took blood sweat and tears to produce. Many a potentially good musical vision is ruined by too many "so-so" riffs that the writer couldn't bare to let go. Be cruel to riffs, let them know who the boss is and kick 'em to the curb if they're not up to scratch.

Similarly, don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. You may have just written the intro to "Holy Wars 2.0," but if you try and squeeze it unnaturally into a song that it's not fit for, your work will go unnoticed. The best advice here is to go with the feeling when you have it. Try to get as much of your vision down when it pops into your head, and keep writing until it's exhausted.

This leads me on to my next point: record all of your ideas. This is for two reasons. First, if you're Tony Iommi and you've just had "Iron Man" pop into your head, that's something that you don't want slipping away. Sure, you may end up with 90% of random garbage, but 10% of violent thrashing gold can add up if you keep up the habit. Almost oddly violating my previous paragraph, don't throw away any riffs either. You never know when you've just written the perfect sized peg for a hole that comes up in a song written in the future... (hmmm time for a new analogy).

Ok, so here are some real musical tips now. Essentially, whether dealing with melodic instruments such as the guitar, bass, keyboard, vocals etc, harmony can be a potent tool in your tool-belt. Harmony brings two things into your music that can be essential for metal: complexity (instruments doing different things at the same time), and emotion (whether that be dark and melancholic, or epic and loud). Don't think harmony will go with your brutal vision? Check out a song like "The Stench Of Redemption" by Deicide. Avoid letting the bass guitar be a simple drone of the main melody underneath the guitars; use it as a another nuke in your arsenal. Try to throw as many patterns into the mix and see results - maybe the guitar ascends while the bass descends. Maybe the two alternate on a theme. The sky's the limit. In short, the best "how to" comes from your heroes. Want to write black metal? Learn Emperor and Burzum songs. Scales, melody, chords etc. are all best aquired first hand. Once you know what you're working with, take those ideas and twist them through your mind into your own creation. Looking outside the metal boundaries can also teach you new techniques. For example, classical music contains many of the compositional techniques used by metal to create epic compositions, so take heed from the best.

Tools available on the net are another advantage us fortunate cyber-metallers have. It hardly needs to be mentioned, but don't be afraid to dive into the software realm to help find tools to make software easier. Powertab is an example of some free guitar tablature software that you can use to plan out your masterpiece, even used by the meticulous and frenetic Muhammed Suicmez of Necrophagist. Writing lyrics? It's also fair game to take advantage of tools like Rymer.com, or even that dusty old thesaurus your mum has lying around.

So you've taken these words into consideration and written a few songs. But on the third day of aural creation you've written five horrible, generic riffs in a row, and the glowing sense of stardom that came with your creative burst is floating away into the stars. Throw in the towel? Not just yet partner. When the magic is gone, make sure to take a break from writing music and soak your spongy mind in other art forms. Think of your creativity like a big meat grinder (how metal of an analogy is that?). You take in raw artistic meat one end and spew out proteinous musical giblets from the other. In other words, take in as much enjoyable art as you can. Musical inspiration can come from anywhere: nature, films, comic books, poetry, people, theatre, and if I was honest, all manner of mind altering substances (not a recommendation kids!). In the end, the job of an artist is to translate the outside world through him or herself into art.

Got anything you'd like to add? Feel free to comment below and as "Evil" Chuck Schuldiner used to say, "Let the metal flow!"

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29 Comments on "Heavy Metal Songwriting Tips"

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Supastan's avatar

Member

1. Supastan writes:

im pretty sure the saying is "square peg in a round hole" but yea good advice but nothing anyone couldnt figure out on their own if they were dedicated to writing music...

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 1:59 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
tallica_fan's avatar

Member

2. tallica_fan writes:

good article even just for a good read on the philosophies of heavy metal itself and not just writing it but being part of a minority that prefers metal to generic pop.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 3:08 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Cynic's avatar

Senior Reviewer

3. Cynic writes:

Haha yes true supastan, although I think people have versions of the saying which I've picked up... google tells me so. As I hinted the article was aimed primarily at beginners.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 3:31 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
4. fredbob writes:

He might have meant square peg but a square pig is a whole lot funnier image in my mind.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 3:34 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Hollow's avatar

Member

5. Hollow writes:

Sex + Death = Good lyrics

Write songs with titles like Bloody Cherry, Nail Hole, Plastic Protection, Spread 'Em & Scream, Rack Attack.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 4:01 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Jenny's avatar

Member

6. Jenny writes:

Hollow: Heehee that advice is good depending on the genre.

Awesome stuff Cynic. It was pleasant to see that a lot of the advice was backed with "it's how you feel about it." I dig it :)

A good read. And of course, gotta agree that inspiration can be found anywhere. It's great to widen your perspective and to not be afraid to mix things up.

"... the more versatile and innovative a scene is, the more the audience will get out of it. It would be a very poor testimony if a scene were to contain only one style of music played exactly the same way, with the very same type of lyrics and image and so on. I think it's more "posing" to be copying a certain style of clothing, wear make-up and use the exact same production as tons of other acts simply because it is the flavour of the day." -Quorthon

A lot of different inspirations is good, but a word of caution: I suggest Musicians be careful and not throw in too much stuff into one song or too much of the same inspiration into one album, otherwise an entire album can fall short (correct me if I'm wrong, there could be exceptions). Remember, it's not IF you mix things up, it's HOW you mix things up. In other words, don't wear an inspiration out!

You know when people used to buy albums just for one or three good tunes and that's it? Well make sure that album doesn't come from you!


NP: "One Last Battle" -Mictlantecuhtli

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 4:20 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Jenny's avatar

Member

7. Jenny writes:

Fix: "...or too much of the same inspiration into one album, other wise an entire album can fall short" For that line I guess what I REALLY meant/what else works is "too much of the same inspiration in several albums" There.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 4:34 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
LordAssenfroth's avatar

Member

8. LordAssenfroth writes:

a long read, but a good one. i think you nailed it. and i actually thought the square pig in a round hole was quite funny.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 4:58 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Terminator's avatar

Reviewer

9. Terminator writes:

Good read Cynic. I was really able to connect with the pig analogy :P

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 6:11 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
10. Metalheadedmofo writes:

50% of being in a metal band is having a drummer that one day might possess the skill of Vitek, Frost or Hellhammer. The rest is being a guitarist who can keep up with him and write with him well.

PS: that was all bullsh**. being in a band is being pleasant to the eyes and ears of fa**ot-sensibilities. Thank you.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 7:26 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
bbristowe's avatar

Member

11. bbristowe writes:

^ HAHAHAH. That post was f***in awesome.

Guitar >; All. Major, Aoelian, Phyrigian, Diminished and Harmonic Minor are your new best friends.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 8:08 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
12. in hell you will know me writes:

Song writing... that's easy start with a popular domestic truck, mention a girl who took it, then lyrics about drowning your sorrow in Budweiser of jack daniels... oh wait that's country. Try mentioning you gun and how much weed you smoke or how many b****es and ho's you got... ohhh that's rap.
Maybe you should write about being in tha club with bottles full of bub... naw that's pop....

Dammit Metal actually takes some skill to write. If you can pen a good riff and great metal lyrics with hard a$$ bass and beat that makes 18000 kids beat the hell out of each other, that's a good start. Good Luck To All who try.
If any of you guys are in bands and write good metal... I only listen to metal that makes me want to go outside and punch a baby in the face.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 8:30 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Pursuit_Of_Vikings's avatar

Member

13. Pursuit_Of_Vikings writes:

^Man dis nigga is trippin. He's probably the kind of guy who posts that "95% of teenagers have moved on to rap, repost this if you're in the 5% who stays true and still like metal" chain sh** on all the mainstream metal Youtube videos.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 9:22 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Necrovomit's avatar

Member

14. Necrovomit writes:

i liked it, me being a beginner i found it very usefull. i think its awesome that metal is such a wide open genre, nothing is really taboo.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 11:35 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
bbristowe's avatar

Member

15. bbristowe writes:

Best advice for guitarists. Never stick to one genre/style of playing. Listen to a wide variety of guitarists.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 11:39 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
SHREDDER13's avatar

Member

16. SHREDDER13 writes:

Good read indeed. I, like most people here, can relate to the "inspiration" section. Hell, I once wrote a few riffs right after watching a pocket full of 80's action movies! Many people have done that though so it's nothing cool.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 11:49 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
SHREDDER13's avatar

Member

17. SHREDDER13 writes:

bbristowe - Got that right! Nobody deserves to be in a dark cell with an army of hungry ruts.

# Aug 5, 2009 @ 11:52 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
18. RTB writes:

^12 that last line was a classic...LMAO
Cynic go article man

# Aug 6, 2009 @ 2:32 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
19. Lordassendfroth writes:

yea i got inspiration from a spongebob episode once titled "funny pants" where squidward is tormented by spongebobs laugh. just for fun ill share it. it came out like this:

Tormentor!

Eternal Pain
Reining From your throat
Like fire from below
Consuming my flesh

Contagion!

This Viral Plague
Haunts me in my sleep
Never resting
It prys into my skin

Ever Deep!

I must Sterilize
this tumor you've spawned
it roots deep in my chest
Merging itself into my bones

Self-Surgery!

Cleansing you from my body
will surely leave me lifeless
as we have grown into one
but i can not live like this

i sever my ribcage
Self-Surgery!
Remove my Spine
its no longer part of me

Gasping for breath
through my blood curdled lungs
in the agony of death
i relish in your screams

now that your gone
i may finally sleep
only for you
to haunt my dreams

you had become
such a part of me
That i can not live
i can only breath

I struggle through the stench
of bowels, intestines, and lungs
to embrace the parasite
that must become

Reaper, collector of souls
why do my cries fall short?
why do you leave me alive?
Unholy demon, i wish to die

# Aug 6, 2009 @ 11:34 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
zMETALlica's avatar

Senior News Correspondent

20. zMETALlica writes:

good article man. been too long since i've done any song writing. i think i'll pick up the guitar and just record sh**. good advice man. not just for beginners :)

# Aug 6, 2009 @ 4:13 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
metalheaddrummer101's avatar

Member

21. metalheaddrummer101 writes:

nice! I hope more people read it

# Aug 6, 2009 @ 5:26 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Blindgreed1's avatar

Member

22. Blindgreed1 writes:

Well done Cynic. I've been waiting for this piece. How's Colorado treating you?

# Aug 6, 2009 @ 6:54 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
BoltThrower's avatar

Supporter

23. BoltThrower writes:

Nathan: "Wait, then how were -- how were you playing that song?"
Toki: "Honestly, I was just hitting any note."
Skwisgaar: "Yeah, me too. That's an old music school trick."
Nathan: "Sounded pretty good."
Skwisgaar: "Yeah, I know sounds pretty good."

# Aug 7, 2009 @ 11:01 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Jenny's avatar

Member

24. Jenny writes:

Lol BoltThrower

# Aug 8, 2009 @ 2:15 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Txmetalhead's avatar

Member

25. Txmetalhead writes:

Great job, Cynic - I enjoyed reading the article. I can't play any instruments, but I sincerely love most heavy metal. Have a great weekend!

# Aug 8, 2009 @ 3:29 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
26. Stoner with a Boner writes:

Tune low, hit the strings hard, dial in a killer tone, get some righteous pinch harmonics. Inspiration can com from naked ladies, violent video games, Edgar Allen Poe stories or jumping out of an aeroplane.

Rawk out w/yer cawk out!!!!

# Aug 9, 2009 @ 1:07 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
That_One_Guy's avatar

Member

27. That_One_Guy writes:

Great article, Cynic. Not just for beginners.

# Aug 11, 2009 @ 2:18 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Necrovomit's avatar

Member

28. Necrovomit writes:

lol spongebob is metal

# Aug 13, 2009 @ 12:43 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
decapitator94's avatar

Member

29. decapitator94 writes:

thanx 4 the advice... its really helpful :)

# Aug 16, 2009 @ 7:29 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address

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