The music that lies inside the words and drives them on
Here’s three songs I’ve been listening to a lot over the last few weeks, simply because they’re on my gym playlist. I’m going to try to make three points about writing on the back of them, and would be interested to hear if any of them resonate.
It may be a little nerdy for most humans.
This post might be easier read in browser, to easily access the videos…
A lot of people seem desperate to dismiss the Stones as “the world’s most famous R&B garage band”, or some such bullshit — often comparing them unfavorably to The Beatles, as if promoting some kind of weird cage fight. Personally, while I know The Beatles were fabulous, and was raised on them (Sgt. Pepper’s is the first album I ever remember hearing), I kinda feel I’ve heard most of their songs enough times now: whereas I never get tired of Brown Sugar or Honky Tonk Women or Wild Horses.
Be that as it may, here’s a great performance of Brown Sugar: part of the 2006 Beacon Theater gig filmed by Martin Scorsese as “Shine a Light”. Enjoy.
Now: go back to the beginning, and listen with your eyes closed (or use this non-video version). Keith’s hard on the right and Ronnie on the left. What’s wonderful — and what raises the Stones a million miles above “garage band” status — is these aren’t two guys simply banging out the chord sequence: in fact, they pretty much never play the same notes, or even in the same rhythm.
Listen also to how much space there is within the guitar parts — moments when neither are playing, but the song drives on regardless. Keith’s off doing one thing and Ronnie quite another (check out the way Ronnie’s chopping out half-chords on the off-beat in the first verse), but because they both mean the same thing (and have been playing together since before the pyramids were built) it winds up as a glorious whole.
This approach is deliberate: Richards calls it “weaving”.
If you listen to earlier versions with Mick Taylor you’ll find it’s mainly Keith playing rhythm and Taylor noodling solos around on top. And that’s fine, Taylor was a capable guitarist, but I much prefer the apparently-chaotic Keith and Ronnie brew where you can hardly tell which is which, or where one stops and the other starts, and it’s all just that distinctive, effortless-sounding stew of Stones.
Weaving is essential to writing, too. The building blocks of prose don’t stand alone but need to inform and support each other. You can’t just have chunks of plot, and then a section purely about character or with people saying things: well, you can, and many books do, but shouldn’t. It’s far more effective if you’re showing how plot is being driven by those characters, and exists because of them; and how characters are being affected by that plot in ways that mean they’ll ignite further changes to the story. Similarly, don’t have your characters say things just to tell the reader information: have them speak because of who they are, and what’s happening to them.
Story and character and dialogue are not separate: they’re the same song. And you can leave space in there, too. Don’t be always telling the reader what to think. Show them stuff and let them figure it out for themselves. It’ll sink deeper that way.
Thunderstruck - AC/DC
There are any number of examples of the Young brothers’ complimentary playing: it was standard operating practice to break up the notes of any given chord between them and syncopate so what could have been basic blues-rock wound up having a tonal richness and sly propulsion that sounds easy but really, really isn’t. It’s not tricky to half-play most AC/DC songs: a whole other thing to get them right — especially as Cliff Williams was often quietly doing something non-standard down there on bass.
Angus Young is of course one of rock’s most famous showmen: dressed as a schoolboy, haring around the stage throwing out pyrotechnical but focused licks. The band would have been nothing without Malcolm, however, despite his being famously hard to lure out of his position at the back (Angus once said: “On some songs he walks ten steps forward to the mike, then goes ten steps back. That’s basically it”). What drove the engines of AC/DC was Malcolm’s riffs and the fact that the combination of him, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd was one of the tightest rhythm sections of all time.
Prose needs that range of texture too, that drive, and specifically what Malcolm brings. Listen to this, or at least get a minute and a half into it:
Angus’ lick here is one of the best-known in hard rock, and most amateur guitarists have had a crack at playing it at some point in their lives. But far more interesting to me is what Malcolm’s up to, over on the left of the mix — which cuts in at the moment where Brian starts singing (about 0:51).
Malcolm’s track from that Donnington performance is isolated here, but it’s maybe more quickly instructive to simply listen to the looped riff from the studio version:
Couple of things to say about this. First is: fuck me, it’s challenging to play. It’s only a B5 chord, sure (the still image showing a D above is wrong), but given that Malcolm habitually used heavy gauge strings (12-58), even merely holding it down for that long isn’t straightforward. Then listen to the rhythm he’s split the notes into, and the metronome-like precision in his performance. If you can get that going perfectly in time for twenty seconds you’re a better guitarist than me. If you can keep doing it it for two minutes straight, especially when playing live, and when the rest of the band is playing four-square on the beat, then you’re probably Malcolm Young.
My point: everybody focuses on the flashy Angus riff but the song would be nothing without the pedal-like drone implacably laid down by Malcolm. You’re consciously listening to all the rest, but what you’re bobbing your head to is Malcolm’s part. Don’t believe me? Go back and listen to the Donnington performance from the beginning again, and see what happens with your physical reaction to the song at around 0:51.
And that’s why this too is about writing. Because sure, you need a voice singing on top, telling you things, speaking to you, saying what’s going on. You want a few bits of flash from the lead guitarist — telling bits of description, sudden incisive observations about character — and naturally you need the overall chord sequence of the plot. But none of this will feel compelling, won’t grip you, without that driving rhythm section underneath, something you may not even consciously be aware of: a sense of ominousness, or inevitability, or the uncanny, cliff-hangers at the end of the chapters — texture that both defines the material and keeps it driving forward.
It’s mood, it’s confidence within genre, it’s tone, it’s propulsion. Without those a reader will put a book aside halfway through, however pretty the sentences are.
Find your Open G
Finally, consider the fact that a lot of Keith Richards’s best — and most Stones-like — riffs are written in Open G. Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Woman, Start Me Up (above, live in front of an audience of a mere 1.5 million people), Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Wild Horses to name just a few. Open G involves taking the guitar (the strings of which are normally set to E-A-D-G-B-E) and re-tuning them to D-G-D-G-B-D.
This means all the chord shapes are different, and also that the strings resonate differently against each other — meaning new combinations of part-chords and riffs become possible, and the overall tone alters. There’s plenty of Stones songs in regular tuning but the most defining of their hits would not come about if Keith hadn’t liked fucking around in Open G.
The Stones sound like the Stones because of this.
Before the advent of the Internet and YouTube, where a thousand people will be happy to show you how to play any given riff, we had to figure them out by ear. And I, like most, initially tried to play these songs in regular tuning, because we didn’t know any better. This had two results. Firstly, they just didn’t sound right, even if the notes were technically the right ones. Secondly, part of this wrongness was the riffs sounded labored and forced, requiring weird fingerings — it’s much harder to play them in regular tuning, because they weren’t written like that. That’s not the language they’re in.
Bear in mind Keith famously spent whole decades profoundly shit-faced. You think he’d be able to keep rocking up on stage and banging out these riffs if they involved gnarly fingerings? No. He could do it because they fell naturally under his hands. They were in his language. His tuning. You will write much more happily and productively if you work the same way, finding the genre and style and characters that speak to you — not only by figuring out what you want to say, but also seeking out the easiest way for you to say it. Writing’s tough enough at the best of times: don’t make it even harder by playing it in a tuning that doesn’t feel natural to you, just because someone said you should or because that’s what everybody else does.
Your voice and perspective unavoidably influence what you will write. You need to look for your own Open G. Doesn’t mean you’ll be the only person in the world playing that way, but you can still sound unique: Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet is also in Open G, and that does not sound like a Stones song.
It does mean that you’ll begin to relax, start finding your groove, and have a chance of producing writing that sounds like it’s flowing out of you.