3 types of songwriters

Being a singer-songwriter means learning three crafts: songwriting, singing, and playing an instrument. I’ve noticed a difference in songwriters’ strengths and weaknesses depending on their background:

1. the musician
2. the writer
3. the singer

I’m generalizing, of course, but here are my observations about the strengths and weakness of the three types:

1. The musician got his or her start playing other people’s songs in bands. The typical example is a male guitar player. When he begins trying to write songs, his strengths are his knowledge of music, and of course his instrument. He can easily come up with ideas for chord progressions, rhythms, etc. His weakness is with singing, unless he’s always been singer and guitar player. And he’s almost certainly going to find lyric writing difficult, since he probably never did any creative writing; he probably never read, much less, wrote poetry. (I’m in this category).

2. The writer wrote a lot of poetry, and has kept a journal for a long time. I’m going to stereotype this person as a female. She decided she wanted to put her writings to music, so she acquired a guitar somehow, but didn’t take lessons. She noodled around and came up with her own chords, which can be interesting. But due to her lack of music knowledge, the songs tend to sound the same. Being creative, she may also come up with good melodies, but she’s not a trained singer, so she doesn’t sing very loud. More likely, she copies her favorite singer rather than develop her own style. Her strength is her lyrics. She knows how to write about the senses, with imagery, and metaphor.

3. The singer’s strength, naturally, is her singing. I’m going to make my example for this category a woman also. Her weaknesses, obviously, are her musicianship and writing. She’s learned to play guitar at a basic level, so she plays simple first position chords. And her lyrics are simple and direct. But, damn, can she sing.

Our three songwriters should feel no shame about their weaknesses; we’re all beginners at some time. They should only be ashamed if they’re not willing to recognize, and work on, their weaknesses.

1. The musician needs to read poetry, and then try to write poetry. He needs to start a journal and write every day. He needs to learn how to write in a creative way; to “show me don’t tell me”. And he probably needs to take singing lessons, and practice.

2. The writer needs to take guitar (or piano) lessons. She should learn to play a bunch of cover songs by some of her favorite artists. She’ll learn composing skills from learning the cover songs. And she probably could use singing lessons also.

3. The singer should take guitar (or piano) lessons, and read and start writing poetry, and start a journal.

So what do y’all think? These stereotypes are based on real people I’ve known. Maybe I’m over-generalizing based on just a few people?


5 thoughts on “3 types of songwriters

  1. I once had the chance to see Bob Dylan in concert. I was totally floored. He was one of the most amazing guitar players I’ve ever seen in my life…no shit…and I’ve seen a lot of guitar players. I feel I am able to tell the difference between a good and a great guitar player. He is a “great” guitar player. It destroyed my preconceptions of him because I didn’t realize this until I saw him live. I assumed he was really just “the writer” type you descibe. He is definitely a musician and writer both of the highest caliber. His singing…well, his singing…strangely even that is made to work well for his songs. Another freak of nature like this is Tom Waits…great musician, great writer, and a unique singing talent.

    I think the masters are masters of more than one of these catagories. I guess that is why they are the masters. I do think these guys are born with a lot of what they have, sorry to say. I think it is a craft you can develop, but there are certain levels that require something “special”…whether it be a special ear…or a unique way of seeing the world. Some things can’t be taught or achieved with hard work…but it doesn’t mean the quest is pointless. I’ve heard Leanard Cohen fills note books up with lyrics for single songs…before he gets to his gems. Here is a guy that from what I’ve learned needs to work very hard for what he produces…so I guess that makes me feel hopeful.

    Anyways…myself…I have compulsion to write. It’s always there (writer’s block is bullshit), but I’m afraid my levels are pretty low on all 3 of your catagories. Oh well…there’s always the next life to hit the next levels.

  2. I agree with the anonymous commentator that the masters are good at more than one category. Richard Thompson is a great guitar player and great songwriter. Same goes for Mark Knopfler and Dave Alvin.

    In this blog I was talking about songwriters when they’re first starting out.

  3. I have to say I agree with your breakdown almost completely, Rob. I’m #3 in your list of generalizations and the guy I collaborate with is #1. I comment because one way to get better — besides your suggestions — is to seek out another beginning songwriter who has different weaknesses and then influence each other. My friend has opened up a lot of chordal and arrangement horizons for me because he’s an exceptional guitarist and I’ve had a salutary effect on his lyric writing (to be honest I’m a very solid writer but a singer first, so I’m a little bit #2 and #3) and melodies. Thanks to him I’ve moved well into writing in different keys, seeking nuanced chord voicings/inversions, and adding movement and passing notes to arrangements. I’m still just a passable guitarist by my standards, but that’s what musicians are for, right?

  4. Very perceptive breakdown. I’ve been pondering the law of compensation on the issue of strengths vs. weaknesses
    as a songwriter.

    For everything you gain, there is something you lose. I think the willingness to amplify, abuse, twist and burn your unique worldview is the the one thing no great songwriter can live without.
    Everything else is negotiable.

    I know of all three types myself.

  5. “…the willingness to amplify, abuse, twist and burn your unique worldview is the the one thing no great songwriter can live without.”

    Damn, dude. You hit the nail on the head there. And more eloquently than I’ve ever heard it put before.

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