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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