Joe Bonamassa and Composing
Songwriting is not something we always talk about with regards to Joe Bonamassa or even with the blues in general. And covers have always been a major force in genre. Joe plays amazing covers. From “Cradle Rock” to “Jockey Full to Bourbon” to “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” and everything in between, I feel like every cover Joe touches turns to gold. But it’s so exciting to me that on Different Shades of Blue he dedicated himself to writing virtually every song. Not that I want to discourage Joe from continuing to produce outstanding covers. But I think he’s a great songwriter and I love hearing the output of his efforts there. So I was particularly interested in what Joe had to say about the craft of songwriting in several interviews he recently gave with Guitar World and Guitar Player magazines.
Joe definitely gives the impression that for him, songwriting takes a little more work than ripping an unbelievable blues solo, which he seemed to be able to do almost effortlessly around the same time I was spending hours upon hours learning how to write in cursive letters. But playing and writing are two completely different talents, and not everyone is lucky enough to have both, as Joe does. Songwriting isn’t only about having a natural talent, just as playing guitar isn’t; it’s also about perfecting a craft, honing your skill through education and practice. And every songwriter has her own way of working on her craft and ultimately of writing a song.
As a person slightly obsessed with music, I take deep interest in reading what songwriters have to say about their process. Of course, for me this is just for enjoyment and for personal growth. But I think it’s absolutely essential for musicians and songwriters especially to read what other songwriters have to say about their craft. So here are a few quotes from those two magazine interviews with Joe that I found really stood out:
Writing Music vs. Lyrics First:
What Joe said: “I try to write the lyric first. That’s my litmus test. You can write bad lyrics over good music all day long, but when you can write good lyrics over good music, the song almost writes itself. Do the hard work first. Try to find a good subject matter and a chorus that lifts.”
Thoughts: There’s no real right or wrong answer here; perhaps just strategies that work for particular people. Joe has so much raw musical talent that it’s not surprising that he views the words as the comparatively harder work than creating the music. A songwriter must find a system that works for them. However, I do think Joe makes an extremely good point when it comes to writing a really good song. Generally, the first thing that grabs us when we hear a song is the melody, the central musical line. If you set the lyrics “hickory dickory dock” to a catchy melody, it might be ridiculous, but it’s still a catchy melody and we are likely to notice it and maybe even get it stuck in our head. I mean, how many nonsense words get used in music all the time, and we sing them the same way we would sing a Dylanesque lyrical masterpiece. It’s easier to get away with bad lyrics and great music than it is to get away with bad music and great lyrics, because when you have bad music, a person may not listen long enough or enough times to even properly hear the lyrics. In fact, I can think of many songs I really like with lyrics I can’t even particularly remember, but I could definitely hum you the melody. It goes without saying that writing great music and great lyrics are both difficult tasks; if it weren’t we’d all be writing the next top 10 hit and be making tons of money from it. People might like your song without good lyrics, but great words will really put it over the top.
The Song vs. The Solo
What Joe Said: “Most blues guitar players don’t concentrate on singing and melodies. And forget about the bridge – the bridge doesn’t exist. They go straight for the solo. This was all about writing great songs and then playing solos that I believe in and that really speak for the songs.”
Thoughts: As someone who is into jazz, blues, and jam oriented rock, I love improvisational solos; can’t get enough of them. But with that said, when it comes to songwriting, if you really want to put out great work, the song can’t just be a vehicle for the solo. You might still be making great music, but if part of your goal is to write great songs, which clearly is a priority for Joe, you have to put real effort into all the things that go into songwriting: melody, harmonies, chords, structure, and lyrics. Yes, a killer solo rocks, but nothing beats a killer solo in a great song.
On Taking Time To Write
What Joe Said: “For the first time in 11 or 12 years, we took a break from the studio, because I really wanted to recharge the battery and figure out what being a songwriter means to me. What do I have to say?” Who do I want to be when I grow up, so to speak, and what do I want to sound like?”
Thoughts: It’s hard to write when you’re always on the go. Joe relentlessly tours, and when he isn’t touring, he’s recording. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of leftover time for songwriting. With many types of writing, one often has to carve out a special period of time in which to focus on it. A sabbatical, essentially. You have to leave yourself space in order to find your voice, in order to think about what it really is that you want to say, both musically and lyrically.
Every artist seems to have a unique way of going about this craft, but it seems that all great songwriters have in common some amount of natural ability combined with tireless dedicating to producing great work and honing their craft. If you’re a musician, it pays to dedicate ample amounts of time to the songwriting process. Covers are great, and they can begin to reel in a fanbase, but ultimately they’re going to want to hear what original work you have to offer as well. And as a music appreciator like me, there’s little in music I appreciate more, besides awesome guitar solos, than a strong song catalog. Different Shades of Blue makes a stunning contribution to the depth of Joe’s catalog, and I can’t wait to hear what else he has in store for us down the road.
– Brian R.