One of the benefits of being a guitar teacher exclusively is that I have more opportunities to write music. I love creating music almost as much as I love teaching guitar and I’m very happy that I now have time for both.
It’s been several years since I’ve had a chance to write and record anything so I was excited to see this song come together so quickly. I’m happy with the final product and I think it shows a great improvement over my previous efforts, all of which you can find on the Hear Me page of this website.
Here is a transcription of “Feelin’ It:” Feelin’ It
The rest of this article deals with the creative process for those of you who are curious about the writing and recording methods that I used. For the rest of you, thanks for listening!
How it started.
Like the start of many songs, this one began with a simple idea: the main rhythmic riff that you hear in the intro. The idea sprang up about a year ago and there’s really not much to it. It’s a two chord vamp with some funky rhythms. I liked it because it grooved well and consequently I kept noodling with it. It really wasn’t a song by itself, just an idea.
About a month ago, I decided to try to cultivate a song from this idea. Normally, I’d prefer to start with a melody and work in the harmony later, but this song would have a strong rhythmic sound, so I didn’t mind so much.
The “B” Section – the making of an unusual chord progression.
Although I knew that the original idea would eventually become my “A” section of the song, the first order of business was to add another section to the song that stood apart from the “A” section both harmonically and rhythmically. As cool as I thought the original riff was, no one wants to listen to it repeated for three minutes.
So I started messing around with chord progressions that would suit my needs for a “B” section. I liked the idea of having an ascending sense of intensity, but where should I start my ascension? Well, I looked at the I7-IV9 progression in the “A” section and I immediately decided on a V chord.
Being a musical neat-freak, I also wanted the last chord in the “B” section to resolve back to the I7 chord in the A-section. A natural choice would be to use the V7 chord, but that wouldn’t work since I wanted to go for an ascending feel starting with V7, not ending with V7.
So, what is almost as good as a V7 for resolving to the tonic? Well, VIIdim of course! I only had one problem. Diminished chords are not funk-friendly in that they don’t have convenient fingerings that allow for a choked and tight right-hand technique. So I added a seventh to the diminished and created the minor7(b5) chord.
Now that I’ve decided that I should start on the V7 and end on the VIImin7(b5), I just had to figure how to get from one to the other. I chose one of the intermediate chords right away simply because it fit diatonically: VImin7.
At this point, I had a V7 – VImin7 – VIImin7(b5) progression. On paper, it seemed like I achieved all of my harmonic goals, but in practice I couldn’t make it work. Three chords didn’t fit the feel of the song, which had a strong four-measure rotation. I needed a fourth chord. Back to the drawing board.
After a lot of dead ends, I decided that breaking up the three chords that I already had was not an option. I had to keep the VIImin7(b5) as the final chord in the “B” section so my only option was to add a chord before the V7. This was the turning point in the song.
I had an epiphany. What if I created a hybrid chord out of the final chord in the “A” section (D9) and the first chord in the “B” section (E7)? The result was an E-augmented chord, where the sharpened fifth was a hold over from the seventh of the D9 chord. The E-augmented chord sounds beautiful in this context.
Now my “B” section has the four chords it needs: Vaug – V7 – VImin7 – VIImin7(b5). To me, this is the beauty of music: it teaches you about yourself. I never would have come up with this chord progression on paper using just my knowledge about chord theory. Nor would I have created this harmony with just a guitar in my hands, using my ear as a guide. I had to use both skills and they each helped create a structure that I didn’t know I had in me.
To finalize the “B” section, I just had to figure out a funky rhythm. I noodled a bit found something that I liked. I used the old hammer-ons trick to add the thirds to each chord.
Without a “B” section that was as strong as the “A” section, this song would have never made it to the next step.
The bass line – the instrument that sealed the deal.
Although I felt good about the guitar’s rhythm parts, I wasn’t sure yet that I’d get a finished song from them. I still needed a melody, drums and a bass line. Since this song was up-tempo and groove-oriented, I decided to tackle the bass line next. I wanted to hear how the low-end thump would interact with my guitar parts.
I immediately tried a major pentatonic walking bass line because that’s what I’m most comfortable with. As soon as I started playing the bass line with the guitar parts, I knew the song was a keeper. The bass line that you hear on the final song is essentially unchanged from my original idea.
The melody – just trying not to ruin it.
As I said earlier, I prefer to start with a melody, but this song is more rhythm oriented so I focused on the rhythm and harmonies first. After I had sketched out my plans for the rhythm guitar and bass parts, I turned my attention to the melody.
I wanted the melody to accomplish two goals. First, I wanted the melody to be memorable (duh!). Secondly, I wanted the melody to accentuate the rhythm section’s strong momentum rather than hinder it.
In the “A” section, I tried to keep the notes punchy and the melody simple. I tried to incorporate the chord tones in the melody to keep it sounding centered on the harmony. I’m pleased with the results, but the simplistic two-chord vamp in the “A” section left a seemingly endless amount of room for melody construction. I could have used any of six or so ideas, some of which reappear in the solo.
The “B” section’s chord progression has a more complex harmonic structure. Creating the melody line it felt more a little more confined since I had to carefully move in and out of four chords fairly quickly. I followed an E-mixolydian to C#-aeolian to G#-minor7(b) arpeggio structure for the “B” section’s melody part.
The drums – tap, tap, taparoo!
I performed the drums myself using the eight velocity pads on my Axiom 49 midi keyboard. I quantized my performance later to tighten everything up, but what you hear on the finished song is me playing the drums with my fingers in real time.
Anyways, the rhythm in this song had a strong second beat. I wanted the drums to reinforce that. Every four measures, I performed a drum roll on the first beat, ending with a kick and crash symbol on the second beat. I got the idea from the Dave Matthews Band’s “Stay (Wasting Time).. Thanks Carter Buford!
The solo – time for fun, and frustration
I played the solo about a hundred and fifty billion times, give or take a few. Although I was mostly happy with most of the attempts, it took me about a week to get a solo that had everything I wanted: increasing intensity with clean playing and no glaring mistakes or repeated elements.
Playing solos for this song was a lot a fun since the song grooves so well. But after a while, I felt a little stale. I’d put the guitar down and come back to it a little later. I’d make mental notes of each attempt to help improve the next one. I didn’t want to write anything down out of fear of sounding too robotic. It is improvisation, after all.
I played the solo enough and eventually everything came together. Am I 100% happy with it? No, but I also know that I’ll never be happy with it. It is improvised. I can’t sculpt each note to be exactly what I want it to be so I try to take the solo as a whole and judge it that way.
The mixing – turning knobs and pushing sliders
I have to admit that mixing is one of my favorite parts of the process. Seeing the volume meters bounce up and down, turning the knobs and pushing the sliders is a lot of fun. I feel it is similar to production art, which is what I did before becoming a guitar instructor. I had to take a photo and improve it little by little so that the final product was vastly superior to the original image. Now, I’m working with sound waves instead of pixels. In either case, it is all about balance and illusion.
Mixing is done after all of the parts are performed and recorded. The goal of the mixing stage is to have all of the instruments balanced to one another so that they can each be heard distinctly from each other.
I started with the drums and bass guitar. I wanted them to sound balanced and strong together. Immediately I could hear that the bass guitar was obscuring the kick drum – a common problem. In a professional setting, the engineer might put a side-chain compressor on the bass guitar to squash it a bit every time the kick drum was kicked. I don’t have that functionality so I had to do the next best thing.
I found two frequencies where the kick drum sounded really tight. I isolated those two frequencies (61hz and 129hz) and pushed them up a bit with an EQ. I then did the opposite to my bass guitar track. I isolated the 61hz and 129hz frequencies and pushed them down a bit. This created a nice pocket in which my kick drum could sit. My kick drum immediately started to stand out.
Next on my mixing agenda was my rhythm guitar. I decided that the rhythm guitar should sit on the right side of the mix to leave room for the lead guitar on the left side. Although I liked the sound of the rhythm guitar part, I found it lacking girth.
As you can imagine, I had to try multiple times to get each of the performances to sound good. Those attempts are called “takes.” Many times, I’d get a good take and play a few more to see if I could get an even better one. So, in the case of the rhythm guitars, I had several very good takes that I could use.
I used two of the best takes to create a stereo image of the rhythm guitar parts. That added the girth that I needed.
Once I had balanced all of the instruments against one another, then it was time to ride the sliders. I once read – I forget where – that the final mix should have dynamic volume levels or else the song will feel stale from beginning to end. In this song, I gradually pushed the volume slider up over the length of the song so that it builds in volume. It is subtle, but it makes a difference. I used a similar technique for the solo section of the lead guitar.
Finally, I put a bit of compression of the final track so that it sounded loud and full. But not too much. I’m still an audiophile at heart.
For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.