Punk Rock was my gateway to songwriting.
It’s easy to write a Punk song on the guitar. Easier than most Heavy Metal and most Blues. It’s certainly easier than Jazz.
But as I began improving on the instrument I started dismissing Punk as too simple. I thought that there’s so much you can do with Punk Rock as a musician.
I now hold a completely different viewpoint.
As I began to explore and appreciate other musical genres, I returned to Punk for entertainment (listening) and as a genre in which I occasionally write songs.
This helped me realize two things:
1. That, despite its simplicity, Punk has the ability to change my emotions and the emotions of millions of other people. The ultimate goal of music is to express, connect with, and change emotions, and any music that achieves that goal cannot be dismissed due to its simplicity.
2. Punk was my creative playground in my early stages as a songwriter due to its simplicity. Because it didn’t require complex guitar techniques, I could concentrate on creating melody and being creative. In retrospect, I realize that while Punk did not help me to improve much on the guitar, it was critical in helping me develop my songwriting skills.
What I’ll give you here is a basic template you can use to write a Punk song. As simple as this may appear, the possibilities you have with these musical elements are nearly limitless.
Note: For the purposes of this lesson I’m assuming you already know the fundamental guitar techniques necessary for playing Punk Rock. If you don’t already, start learning how to play Punk on guitar.
Step 1: Select the chords
There is no one correct way to start writing a song. All of them can work, and the more you experiment with starting songs from different places, the more likely you are to come up with something unique.
My favorite way to begin writing a Punk song is to select the chords.
The power chord, which will be used in the examples in this lesson, is the most commonly used chord in Punk Rock.
In theory, the power chord is not a chord because a chord requires at least three notes and the power chord only has two. However, as distortion became more common, the interval of a third within a major or minor triad began to sound jarring. When this was the case, many musicians in Rock, Blues, Punk, and other genres simply removed the interval of a third from the chord, and the power chord, though technically a double stop, began to take on the role of a chord.
In the following example, I built my riffs around the chords A5, G5, and E5.
Choose two, three, or four power chords that sound good when played together to serve as the foundation for the song’s first riff. This does not preclude you from later incorporating other chords into your song, and in many cases, you should. They’re just a starting point for you to create your first riff.
The order of the chords can also be changed, so don’t worry about it just yet.
Step 2: Turn the chords into a Punk riff
While the above power chords played in succession can also be used a riff, you may want more going on in the music.
There are three main things we can do to these chords to make them sound like a Punk riffs without adding other new chords or changing their order:
- Rhythmic Subdivisions.
In the preceding example, each chord is struck once for the duration of a bar.
The music will sound more driving and energetic if we strike the same chord more times in a way that makes rhythmic sense.
The following example uses the same chords, but they are struck more frequently within each bar.
This above can be used as a riff, but we have other options to make it more interesting that we can use.
- Palm muting
Palm muting is a commonly used technique by Punk guitarists. Not only does it get that chug-chug-chug sound from power chords but it can also be used to create rhythmic patterns.
The next example is a repetition of the previous riff, with some of the chords palm muted. Notice how this creates an extra layer of rhythm to the riff.
Rests, or periods of silence within a piece of music, can be used to build anticipation and energy. Rests are used for this purpose in all genres of music, but they are especially noticeable in Ska Punk.
The following example employs different rhythmic subdivisions, palm muting, and rests to add variety and energy to the riff.
Use the above suggestions to create a riff using the power chords you have chosen.
When you have something you like, loop it (or play the riff over and over) and record it.
Step 3: Come up with a vocal melody/lyric
The next step is to create a string of words and a tune on top of the riff.
Coming up with melody and lyrics are skills you will develop with practice, but here’s some advice:
Many beginner Punk bands, or those that only appeal to a narrow audience, have very non-melodic melody lines. The entire melody is made up of only one, two, or three notes. They are also usually rhythmically limited.
Listening to some of Punk’s most iconic songs, however, reveals a strong sense of melody.
I Fought The Law by The Clash, Ruby Soho by Rancid, Last Caress by The Misfits, and I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones are just a few famous Punk songs with really catchy melodies.
While this advice may be influenced by my own preferences (I’m a sucker for catchy melodies regardless of musical genre), I do recommend that you try to develop a sense of melody in order to write good Punk songs.
This is accomplished by practicing writing lyrical lines and melodies over the recorded riffs. Continue to tweak your melody until you find tunes that really work.
You should also pay close attention to your favorite songs, identifying which melodies you like best and what makes them good. Then apply what you’ve learned to your own melodies.
Step 4: Write a matching riff
Next you’ll compose a riff that complements the first.
To add variety to your music, it’s a good idea to introduce new chords in this riff, but you should also borrow elements from the first riff and use them in the second, either exactly as they are or with variation.
Here’s an example of the first riff, as well as a second riff that fits. Some chords are the same, and some parts of the riff are identical, but new chords and rhythmic elements transform it into a different riff.
Step 5: Come up with new melody/lyrics
This is essentially a repeat of Step 3, but there is one more thing you should consider at this point.
The verse will have one melody, and the chorus will have another. It doesn’t matter which riff takes the chorus and which takes the verse; what matters is that one of the melodies (the one that will be the chorus) is catchier, more powerful, and, most importantly, more memorable than the other. It will also contain fewer words and more repetition than the melody in the verse.
If we look at Ruby Soho (the song that got me into Punk) for example, there is little melody in the verses “Echoes of Reggae…..” which contrasts with the pure melodic delight of the chorus “Destination Unknown, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Soho”
This is not a coincidence. The intriguing, but relatively monotonous melody in the verses creates anticipation for a melodic outburst in the chorus.
Step 6: Give your song a structure
You should have enough song content by now to begin structuring it.
You could keep it simple – verse, chorus, verse, chorus. In that case, all you have to do is tweak what you’ve done so far until it takes on the form of a song.
If you want to go further, here are some things to consider:
1. A bridge
A bridge can be used to add variety to your song as well as to connect different sections of it.
To make a good bridge (also a riff), try to come up with something that contrasts with the rest of the music, especially by using different chords.
The song structure in the following example is verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.
Take note of how the bridge contrasts with the rest of the music and how the song returns to the original concept before it concludes.
- A guitar solo
Solos are optional in Punk songs, but bands like The Clash, Rancid, and The Sex Pistols, among others, had a habit of throwing short solos here and there.
To do so, pick one of the song’s riffs and begin improvising over it.
The example guitar solo below is played over the first riff of the Punk song we’re using as a template.
- Guitar licks
Guitar licks are simply very short solos but while solos are meant to draw the attention on the soloist, guitar licks are mere melodic embellishments thrown around when appropriate.
Many Punk songs start with a short intro riff before the main parts of the song begins (once again, Ruby Soho is an example of this).
Step 7: Call the drummer
You’re basically done with songwriting once you’ve tweaked the above-mentioned components to fit the song.
The other instruments will be added next.
Needless to say, you are not required to write all of the parts. The bassist will compose a bass line, and the drummer will find an appropriate beat.
Unless you sing yourself, the only musician you’ll have to think of when creating the melody is the singer.
Occasionally, the singer will phrase the melody differently than you intended. If this is the case, first determine whether his version is actually better (this occurs frequently because a singer is trained in vocal phrasing in ways that a songwriter is not), and if not, correct the singer until the melody takes the required shape.
Conclusion: Write a lot of Punk songs
Once you get the gist of it you will find that writing a Punk song is pretty easy.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t good and bad Punk songs.
And the secret to getting good at it is by writing as many songs as you can.
Many of them will end up in the trash can (I have deleted many more songs than I recorded or performed).
Keep in mind that from every song you write, you learn a lesson that will make you a better songwriter.
The songs you keep tell you what has worked, and the songs you discard tell you what hasn’t.
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