How Legends Approach Songwriting

There must be something different about those musical geniuses. They must look at music a different way, approach every song a different way. If everyone approached it the same way, people like Freddie Mercury, Elliott Smith, and Jim Morrison never would have stood out. In this article, we’re going to look at how a few different songwriters approach music and see if we can learn anything.

Do more drugs? Is… Is that what we’re about to learn? HA!

Elliott Smith

This guy has been one of my inspirations for years. Literally a musical genius, he was an incredible piano player and composer from a very early age. He used such progressive chord progressions and colorful language, and managed to make it all sound great. Really, really depressing, but great. He rarely spoke about his songwriting process, but when he did, it really put things in to perspective. He said that he didn’t have a methodical approach to writing songs. He just loved playing music. He was crazy about chord progressions, and always found himself fooling around with his piano or guitar when he was bored. I think that’s important. There are people today who literally write songs for a living 9-5. They pump out all the songs that pop stars perform. I think that shouldn’t be a surprise. Pop music can sound canned, tasteless, and soulless… Because it is, a lot of the time. Some guy literally treated that song like a menial task at work, where as Elliott treated his songs like a guy that just likes music. He’s a passionate writer and really enjoyed what he did. Can you say the same about the guy whose just trying to pay his bills? Granted, writing songs all day would be a cool job, but a job none the less. I think the difference is clear.

“Yeeeahh, I’m gonna need more Miley Cyrus B-sides.”

Essentially, Elliott wrote for fun. He was always thinking and always playing music in his spare time. It was a privilege and not a chore. I think that’s important to remember for anyone who wants to become a serious musician – love what you do, or don’t do it at all.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

I picked these guys because I think they have incredible chemistry as a band. Every member of the band contributes to every song. They jam, they exchange ideas, they try everything. They all feel passionately about what they do and it shows. Like Elliott Smith, they’re all jamming in their free time. Music is what their worlds revolve around and they take it really seriously. Anthony Kiedis is always writing words and coming up with melodies, even if he doesn’t use them. In fact, “Under the bridge” was almost just a poem he kept in his notebook, never to see the light of day. John Frusciante is always writing music in his spare time, releasing multiple solo albums and getting featured as a studio musician with a number of different acts. Flea has been the energetic crazy as hell co-frontman that has held it down for bass players for over 20 years. Chad smith is the Will Ferrell of drums!

(He’s as talented as Will is funny.)

They all love music and they all worked (John is no longer in the band) together really well. I think every band should take notes here, because good chemistry is really what makes these guys tick. Anthony and Flea were friends since Jr. High, and naturally worked well together as best friends. Over time, they sifted through a number of band mates looking for that perfect chemistry. Eventually, they wound up with Chad and John and lots of success. If you can’t work well together as friends, you probably won’t work well together as musicians. These guys have proved that time and time again.


These guys are weird. But, that’s why we love them. These are the guys that made it cool to be an outcast, the guys that helped bring grunge in to the mainstream, the guys that created “Nevermind” and claimed to be mere human beings. They had a weird songwriting dynamic, but dear lord did it work. As a 3-piece band, Kurt would come up with the basic idea for a song on guitar. Then he’d bring it to his band mates, who would clean it up and add their own influences creating the sound that was Nirvana. Kurt wrote the lyrics and was the front man, but make no mistake he couldn’t have done it without Dave and Krist keeping him in check. These guys were great friends that didn’t just want to make music, they wanted to change the way people look at the world. In this interview, they talk about just how strongly they were affected by close minded people growing up.

There’s clearly some negativity here.

Basically, these guys lived and breathed counter culture. It was a crucial part of their music. They wanted to break stereo types and be different, they wanted to open eyes and change people. They never went Hollywood and sold out, they never changed their goals, they just kept making great music and trying to justify the little guy, the unpopular kid that had too much imagination for his own good. And it worked, people today are still deeply moved by their music and what it stood for. Every song Nirvana wrote had to be original, it had to make a statement, and it had to sound good. They were always jamming and always looking for new ways to invent them selves and it worked.

So what do they all have in common?

Every band or musician I talked about played music just for fun, even in their spare time. They were always thinking about music. They were always trying to improve. Music is what their worlds revolved around and it showed. Can you say the same about yourself? If we’re taking a page from these greats, its only appropriate that we compare and contrast ourselves to them. Doing drugs and going insane probably won’t help you, but getting your brain to make music a priority might. If you could put music on the same pedestal that these guys did, you would have no problem dedicating your life to it completely. All of the musicians I talked about never really had a back up plan. Music was plausible from the get go, and they chased that goal like nothing else mattered. If you’re serious about music, it will show. If you’re not, stick to washing dishes and finishing your communications degree.


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