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August, 2011

"Changing Song Tempo"

by Ed Skibbe Ed Slibbe: Bands, Singers, Songwriters / Composers, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Cowboy Poets

Did you ever (this is a rhetorical question, by the way) feel so dumb you just had to slap yourself in the forehead and say "Duh!" right out loud? Yeah. Me too. For example, I had the great fortune recently of hanging out with John Common, sitting on the porch, talking about songwriting and playing songs for one another. I played John a song I'd written that I've always loved, but that never seemed to get the response I thought it should and asked him what was wrong with it. His advice was so simple and obvious that I just had to smack myself. Duh!

The song is a post-breakup, she-done-me-wrong song. It originally started with a ballad-y little fingerpicked guitar figure that everyone who heard it liked. The lyric is a little bit pathetic-sounding, as the singer recounts how he/she was dumped and isn't happy about it. There are some very good lyrical lines, the melody has its moments, and it has (in my opinion) an A+ hook. John heard it once and said, "Rock it. Play it faster and more driving." See, the combination of the singer singing about having been dumped and doing it slowly and softly made the singer sound kind of wimpy and pathetic and victimized and whiny. But when I played it more uptempo, with a more driving rhythm, it sounded more like the singer was a little pissed off and a lot less pathetic.

When you play a song, take a consistent audience response to heart, whether good or bad or lukewarm. My audiences had told me consistently that this song wasn't working. John told me what to do about it. Later, I did the same thing with another song that despite an excellent lyric and a beautiful melody, just wasn't getting a great response. I'm experimenting with a mid-to-uptempo variation on it and so far, I think it sounds great. (We'll see what my publisher, who already spent a few hundred bucks demoing the ballad version, thinks. J )

Many songwriters I have heard locally--and even many pro writers in LA or Nashville--tend to write most of their songs in the same rhythmic pocket. If you have a repertoire that is mostly a particular tempo or feel and one of these songs is getting a disappointing response, try changing it to a different tempo or rhythm. Who knows, that country ballad that no one seems to like much might really be a huge reggae hit!

Editor's Note: I heard that "Born to be Wild" was originally written as a ballad. I can't even imagine that song as a ballad! I wrote a very long ballad that was totally blah. On the way home from a Doc Watson / Chesapeake concert, I tuned into a Reggae station. I started playing with the lyrics from my ballad and a Reggae rhythm. I cut 12 verses down to 13 lines (3 verses and a chorus with one line that repeats). It tells the whole story and has a catchy rhythm that makes people clap along. Take Ed's advice: see what an uptempo feel or rhythmic change can do for your songs.

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