How being broke & having poor musicianship made me a better songwriter

I started off on my musical path when I was broke. There was nothing glamorous about it. I truly had nothing but a burning desire to make music that didn’t suck. I had no musical training to speak of (let’s be honest, I still don’t), so I wasn’t a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination. So there I was, no money & no talent.

To be fair, I did grow up around my Dad’s studio in the back of the house for the first few years of my life,  so there may have been some little things I picked up unconsciously, but I really had little interest in making music until I was 15. I first wanted to be a drummer (thank god that didn’t happen. I’d have gone nowhere), then I wanted to play synths like Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, but instead my Dad gave me a guitar & a cheap amp of his. Being that I had no money to buy something else, that’s what I played.

My dad gave me a chord book, but after a few weeks of frustration I chucked it.

Having n0 musical training to fall back on, I had to find the easiest way to play songs. My solution was to disregard solos & just follow the bassline.
In fact, when I started playing guitar, I just played 1 string at a time, picking up on simple basslines & melodies by ear. I didn’t know any chords.

Eventually I learned that I could make a 2 string chord by adding the 5th on the 2nd string. I played my first string of live performances like this. Luckily, someone pulled me aside & showed my how to add the octave on the 3rd string for a fuller chord (without talking down to me or being condescending). From there I learned some bar chords and experimented my way  to discovering new ways to make sound. Since I wasn’t a proper musician, I had to keep to what was simple & figure out the core of what makes a song tick. This is still the core of my music making today.

When playing with bands that had more talent, my bands still seemed to win the audience almost everytime(to my surprise). This taught me early on that talent & good music didn’t always have to go hand in hand. Sure, you have to learn to play your own songs well, but your songs aren’t required to be hard to play to be good. This was liberating & gave me the freedom to just play what sounded good to me regardless of the skill required to play it. I only became interested if upping my skill set when I lacked the skill to play something that was in my head. This allowed me to put all my focus on writing music instead of figuring out what everybody else was doing.

I suppose if you wanted to be in a progressive rock band, you would probably have to be far more skilled than me, but the music I loved wasn’t that complex, so I was able to fake it pretty well. Although my musicianship grew marginally, my songwriting skills were improving by leaps & bounds since that’s where all my energy was being focused.

As my interest in synths grew, I didn’t have a whole lot of choice, because I was broke, so I had to buy what I could afford & try to get the most out of it. I’d save for several months & eat a lot of Top Ramen in the meantime.

I ended up with 3 pieces of equipment that I used for the next 8 years:

A used Roland Juno 106 (used as both a synth & midi controller)
A Roland U220 synth module (128 sounds with very limited editing. 6 parts multi-timbral)
A Kawai Q-80 Sequencer (32 tracks of sequencing over 16 midi channels)

I’m sad to admit that I used the Juno more as a controller (without velocity control, mind you), then I did for it’s own fantastic sounds. This was mainly because it was easier to plug in my cheap headphones to the U220 & get writing. At the time I couldn’t afford a mixer to plug both synths into, but I realize now that the easy set up kept me from any distractions.

I spent a good amount of time learning these pieces of equipment & learning how to program drums & use the sequencer, however, as usual, I only learned as much as I needed to move forward. I didn’t bother trying to learn anything I couldn’t put right to use. I considered that a waste of energy. I was aware that I was only using 30% of my equipment’s potential, but when you are finishing songs, who needs the distraction?

Since I only had 128 sound choices & a few drum kits, there was very little I could do with the sounds, aside from layering & stacking them, I didn’t get slowed down in sound design mode. Sure, I could mess with the attack time or add Reverb, delay or chorus, but other than that, you had to work with what you had. This once again forced me to focus on what was essential for a decent song, and I realized that crazy sounds were icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. In the same way, a guitar solo is nice, but without a well structured song to carry it, it’s kind of pointless.

Now I admit that these days I experiment with sound design a lot more & that sometimes a non musical sound can be the hook in a techno song, but I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned when I had far fewer choices.

The main lesson I have learned from all this (even though I still struggle at times to follow it) is that simplicity is key to a listenable song. The listener wants to take an active role in how they interpret the music. The simpler it is, the more their own mind can fill in the gaps, making it a more pleasurable experience for the listener. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pursue new skill sets to put in your toolbox, but make sure it is adding to your music & not to your ego.

Now that I have a greater skill set & a bit more money than I used to & modern technology on my side, I have to remind myself what I am here to accomplish. Like everybody, I sometimes miss the plot, but I am incredibly grateful for the days when I was broke & clueless. It taught me the most important lessons for my own music making, that I still use to this day.

I hope you can find a way to experience this for yourself. It’s more necessary than ever with distractions like social media, game consoles & 500 channels of crap to watch on TV. I’m sure you will find this experience humbling & powerful and I’ll bet it will stick with you for life.

Next read Make Music Now: No Talent Required

Happy music making,




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