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The Campy Forum

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Songwriting Process
  • Jim and fellow musicians on this wonderful forum: Please describe your songwriting process

    Do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you have a formal method and actually work on composing?
    How do you keep track of ideas? Do you write them down or do you record them on some device (computer, phone, home studio)?
    How about parts for other instruments (bass, drums,etc)? Do you create specific parts for other instrumentalists or do you allow them the freedom to come up with their own parts?

    Back in the day I would just have specific times when I noodled around on my guitar and would have an old school cassette recorder going. Upon playback I would just expand on anything that caught my ear. I'm still doing that but technology has improved a bit since then :) and I'm curious to learn what others are doing.



  • This is a great question. I'd love to see Jim respond. I've often wondered what his process is. I've imagined it is somewhat methodical but could be dead wrong

    As for me, most of my compositions are the direct result of playing around with something simple and slowly expanding on it. I've been using a looper a lot recently but before that it was a four track recorder. I often have to hold myself back on filling up a track. I collaborate with another guy (who plays keyboards) and I find if I do too much I don't leave room for him to contribute and that is where the real fun is. Taking a basic music idea and seeing what others make of it. It really takes my compositions in unexpected directions. Needless to say we consider ourselves to be co-composers every if the idea starts with only one of us.

    Cheers
    Warren
  • Tom - Great question! It's interesting because I really had to think about this post since I'm rarely asked about songwriting - and it's probably the thing I work at, more then anything else.

    First off, I love to write and I feel like it's my reward after practicing scales and mechanical technical advances. If I have time, I try to write everyday- it's a process and an exercise that needs to be practiced, just like scales and arpeggios.

    I have a cassette recorder, my i-phone voice Voice Memo and finally Garage Band to record. If it's "keeper" I record a "take" on my i-phone, email it to myself and put in a i-tunes folder designated for originals. The cassette recorder is used in the first stages because recording and playback are so instantaneous and simple. I usually use my Boomerang for a rhythm track and play the melody. Everything is set up so I don't get bogged down in production etc. I never record drums, bass etc.

    I always sing what I hear in my head - it's where the "truth" is waiting. To me, singing over even the most basic progressions, like G7 to C, allows me to come up with something more meaningful then trying to come up with something "original" on the fingerboard.

    For example... A song like "Pie Party" (basically C, G7) had some really simple melodies that were based on what I sang. When I worked them out on the fingerboard there were a few uncomfortable fingerings that I wouldn't have played unless I sang what I heard first. Additionally, I'm less destructively judgmental when I sing- an ascending Major scale feels right when I sing, and I'm less prone to think "geez, that's mediocre" etc etc. and walk away discouraged. But the melodies I sing are the "truth". I hope this isn't too abstract, but when I write I always want to find the "truth" of what's inside me and what the song desires to be.

    One other thing- always FINISH. Even if you feel dissatisfied, finish the song. You can review it later and tweak it, and you might even be surprised that it was a successful tune. A great dedicated songwriter Steve Yerkey told me 25 years ago upon me telling him I had a half a tune I wanted to share with him... He said with kindness and authority "Everyone has a half a song" and I really took that to heart. I always try to complete the song, whether it's satisfying my critique, or not. FINISHING is part of the process and that needs to be practiced too.

    Anyway- you can never go wrong - recording singing, then figuring out what you sang on the guitar.

    And thanks for your post Warren! I'd love to hear from everyone else -Jim

  • This is such a fascinating topic and I'm so glad it was brought up - nice one, Tom!

    I loved to read Jim's songwriting process and it was really a great motivation to try and write my own stuff.

    I was particularly interested in reading about the "singing" part, Jim. I know it may sound cliché, but I "always"
    think of your guitar playing as if you were a singer - maybe a classical singer singing a Buckaroos instrumental,
    or sometimes a jazz crooner wandering through punk rock melodies - I hope it makes sense - LOL.

    Anyway, I´m looking forward to hearing more on this subject.

    All the best - Rogerio
  • This is a great topic, and Jim, that was a great post. Very clear I think. Not too abstract at all. You're right on the money about potentially discarding a good melody because it seems to simple on guitar and also the need to finish songs.

    I've never written an instrumental but quite a few originals with lyrics. Mostly country based with influences from Hank Williams, George Jones, Ray Price, all the Bakersfield stuff and yes, Jimmy Bryant and Jim Campilongo. I always start with an idea. Perhaps a single sentence that captures what the song is about. I then start elaborating on the idea or theme and start stringing things together. Sometimes a vocal melody is there from the start and sometimes not. Usually this is done away from the guitar. I drive a lot and my songs tend to start there. Yes, I occasionally run red lights and stop signs. Once I have the first vocal phrase I like, I try singing it with various melodies until I have something good and original. This opening phrase usually influences the melody of the phrases that follow. Sometimes this process leads to what becomes the chorus and sometimes it's the first verse. I generally don't worry to much about a "hook" because many times the original idea or phrase ends up being the hook or it becomes clear what it will be as I progress. If nothing stands out then I will purposefully put effort into the hook. Once I have one verse and chorus along with the vocal melody I sing it into my iphone. Later I'll sit down with the guitar and harmonize the vocal and record that (just iphone again). Rarely am I dead set at this point on a tempo and rhythm because once I introduce it to the band in its basic form these things will probably change somewhat.

    One thing I notice with the type of music I generally write is that the vocal melody ends up being more or less diatonic to the key I'm singing it in. Maybe a few occasional outside notes. The danger here is that the melody can usually be harmonized with simply the I, IV, and V chords. So I usually do some song-smithing at this point to make the harmony a bit more interesting and less predictable. Things like adding the secondary dominant, or the II dominant or the bVII chord or a minor chord. Or anything really that works. But sometimes the I, IV, V is just perfect, you know the old three chords and the truth. A few songs I've written start with strumming a chord progression that I find appealing or perhaps a guitar riff and then finding vocals and a melody that fit. But that is the exception.

    I also compose an intro and guitar solo (usually with many stolen Campilongo licks). The intro I almost always play note for note live, but the solo I'm more flexible with and will improvise a bit on it live. Sometimes I compose a bridge and that takes a bit of work, but I find that some songs call for it (not often though). It's usually in a different key and becomes somewhat of a song within the song. Sometimes I go right into the bridge after the solo and then follow the bridge with the chorus. The song is usually screaming for the chorus at that point.

    I don't generally follow specific song structures. Sometime the solo follows the chorus and leads into a verse, and sometimes it follows a verse and leads into the chorus and sometimes neither. I'm particularly fond of the Buckaroo songs that burst out of the gate with an intro and then right into the chorus and then lay back into the first verse. I've written a few tunes purposefully with that style.

    I don't write parts for bass, drums or second guitar.

    Anyway that's my shtick.
  • Great topic. Jim is one of, if not, my favorite living guitar player today. He's also my favorite composer though! It surprises me that so many people are surprised when I mention this!

    I am in my home studio as I type this, on the same Mac where I'm mixing my first ever instrumental trio album in another window. My instrumental compositions are heavily inspired by Jim as I feel he is GREAT at capturing what moods and feelings sound like on a level where words fail to do them justice. The art of putting them into song where there is a fully realized story from start to finish is a challenge that I feel Jim has mastered and inspired me to forge ahead despite my self consciousness and fears.

    Anyway, my approach to composing, is that I have no approach. I try and "be open" to whatever that thing is that compels me to write. There is no formal process I use, but I try and be available to any and all that come my way.

    Luckily technology saves so much of my work from being forgotten. From my iPhone, to my Zoom handheld, to my full Pro Tools rig.

    One thing I do know, is that I try not to think too much about the process once it's begun. Often times, I think to myself "what is the meaning or inspiration behind this piece?" and I realize that the answer to that reveals itself well after the song is complete.

    It tends to be something I reflect back on and take stock of where I was in my life at the time and what was important to me and happening on the daily. It might be just the day before, but the reflection really answers a lot of my questions.

    Hopefully this is somewhat on topic if a bit abstract....

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