It's all about the songs, it's all about the songs. It's a line you hear a lot when we talk about successes and failures in music.
Ultimately, you will succeed or fail based on your ability to write great songs. All of my talk about business hustle, practicing your guitar, life on the road and everything else really doesn't matter if you don't have the songs to back it up.
Hendrix, Clapton, Page and all the great guitar players were obviously masters of their instrument, but the fact is there are a thousand guitar players who can play that good. The main reason we know and idolize these masters of guitar are their songs.
Jimi Hendrix could've just been another unsung excellent guitar player in someone else's band if he hadn't written his first smash single and blown up overnight. We love and can sing Jimmy Page's guitar parts by heart, but we wouldn't even know all those riffs and solos if Page and Plant hadn't written the greatest songs of all time. In the end, it's the song.
I write songs. Day in and day out, they wake me up in the morning, I dream them, they give me inspiration and make the hairs stand on the back of my neck. They can make me happy, they can piss me off and frustrate the hell out of me. Writing songs gives me a reason to live. I always think about my songs as my children. You have a burst of creativity — ahhhh, that felt good, and then bang — another song is born.
You love each and every one with all your heart. Some grow up to make you proud, some are just a big disappointment. Some can buy you a house or a car, some can make you broke. Some live a long life and some never make it out of infancy. You never really know how it's going to turn out once you start strumming and pick up the pen. Just like the act of making love, it's the act of writing that I'm happy and unabashed to say I'm completely addicted to.
So, ultimately, what is it that makes a great song great? I've written before about connecting, and I will say it again. The songs must connect. Every songwriter is trying to do the same thing. Express yourself in a magical-sounding way, get your point across lyrically and musically, create beauty and energy, tension and release. Make people sing it out loud, laugh, cry, dance their ass off or listen spell-bound and press repeat. Sounds easy, right?!
The good ones usually are the easy ones. After weeks, months and sometimes even years of pounding out songs that are maybe just for the moment or the act of writing itself, the great ones sneak up on you. They just kind of pour out. The more work you put into the act of songwriting even when you are uninspired or frustrated, the more often the truly great songs will wake you up at night and say, "Here I am!" A star is born.
It's not like it's gonna happen to everyone all the time, though. There's usually one great song of the summer every year. There's a million writers trying to make that song and there's only one No. 1. There's a reason there are so many one-hit wonders and very few acts like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Zep, Jack White, Jack Johnson, Mozart and Coltrane.
There's also a reason even people like Mick Jagger, Kayne West, Paul McCartney and Dr. Dre can't always get a No. 1 hit: It's fucking hard!
Every hit starts with an idea and some chords. Some are written very consciously; some happen very unconsciously, but again it doesn't really matter. Like Ray Charles said, "It don't matter how it sounds, it matters how it makes you feel." Your song has to move the crowd. That's it. You have to feel it, the band's got to feel and the audience has to feel it. Now you're cooking.
Yes, it matters what the groove and tempo, key, subject, lyrics and performance are, but ultimately the great songs just have that THING. That "thing," everyone is trying to get it on every song their whole career, but even for the greats it comes and goes.
I'm drawing to a close here, and I'm going to tell you there's no magic formula and there's no single answer. I think in the end what there is is a process. You've got to just keep writing, putting the work in, injecting yourself into inspiring situations, be aware of the world around you and the world within you. Work. Practice. Vibe out. Make love, get dumped, fall in love and do it again. Feel deeply and intensely the ways of the world. Have a pen and a paper, a recording device ready and within reach 24/7. You never know when it's gonna smack you in the head. It might just change your life. Be ready to receive the gifts of inspiration.
Damn, I just realized I didn't even say the name Bob Dylan in my piece. Bob Dylan. There it is. Keep on writing and don't stop.
G. Love, aka Garrett Dutton, has been the front man and founder of the alternative hip-hop blues group G. Love & Special Sauce since their inception in 1993. Widely known for his upbeat hits "Cold Beverage," "Baby's Got Sauce" and "Hot Cookin'," G. Love returned to his blues and country roots on his latest release, Fixin' To Die (Amazon, iTunes), produced by Scott and Seth Avett. A road dog if one ever existed, G. Love performs roughly 125 shows a year all over the world including Australia, Japan, Brazil, UK, Canada and the U.S. G. Love teamed up with Gretsch to create his own signature model, the Gretsch G. Love Signature Electromatic Corvette, which features a pair of TV Jones® Power'Tron™ pickups, deluxe mini-precision tuners and a cool Phili-green color scheme with competition stripe that would make ANYONE from Philadelphia proud! Check it out here.