Songwriting Tip: The Replacement Method

Most of the time, the most difficult part of songwriting is just doing it. We build up these mythologies around songs that we love, and as a result, we believe that songs will just “come to us” when the time is right. While songs will sometimes just come to you, 95% of the time, you’re going to need to do the heavy lifting yourself. One thing that I often remind myself is that not every song needs to be groundbreaking.

I have worked on several of my own full-length albums, and if I waited for each song to come to me, I never would have gotten the songwriting portion done. My process is to write, write, write, write, write, and then trim the fat. If you want to put out an album with 10 tracks, write 50 songs, and then throw away 40 of them. It sounds crazy, but keeping the wheels turning is essential.

I’m going to tell you about a few different tricks that songwriters use to create their material. At least one of them might work for you. Try them all, and see which one fits!

First, let’s try The Replacement Method.

Word for Word

A few musicians I know use this method of songwriting often. The technique is pretty simple. Pick a song that you like. For this exercise, I’m going to use Led Zeppelin’s timeless and immortal guitar shop standard, Stairway To Heaven.

Now sing the first stanza out loud, and change every single word of it. What?! Blasphemy! This is just step one, so don’t freak out yet. The lyrics to the original song start:

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to Heaven

So let’s start changing!:

I’m that guy with the hair
I’ve got claws like a bear
But I don’t hibernate in the winter

That took me about 10 seconds, and it’s admittedly a little odd. But it’s something new!

New Chords

Now if you just walk around playing Stairway to Heaven with new lyrics about being a bear, people will hate you. I know that for a fact. Step Two is to replace each chord, so that the song no longer resembles the original.

Stairway to Heaven has some complicated interplay between several parts, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll say the basic chords to this part are:

////////// Am ///// G/B ///////// C ////// D
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
///////// Fmaj7 ////////////// G // Am
and she’s buying a stairway to heaven

With no regard for anything except change, we’re going to go through and replace each chord with something different. Let’s say:

Am -> D
G/B -> G
C -> A
D -> Bm
Fmaj7 -> G
G-> A7
Am -> D

So now we’ve got:

///////// D ////////// G ////////// A /////// Bm
I’m that guy with the hair, I’ve got claws like a bear
////// G ///////////////// A7 // D
But I don’t hibernate in the winter

Songwriting Bobby Planters, in his prime

Cutting All Ties

Now that you’ve got a completely new part, it’s time to make sure you don’t hear any of Stairway to Heaven when you’re playing it. You don’t need a copyright lawsuit until you can afford better lawyers.

In my version of the song, the line “in the winter” still sounds a little too close to the way Bobby Planters (I call him Bobby Planters) sings “-way to heaven”. Let’s fix that.

I’m that guy with the hair
I’ve got claws like a bear
But I don’t hibernate because it’s boring

I’ve now changed the amount of syllables, which gives me room to play with the melody a little more.

Build Your Own

Now that you’ve started a song, and finished the first stanza in only a couple of minutes, write the second one. Abandon the Stairway To Heaven template altogether now, and let the song guide itself. If you get stuck on a chorus or bridge, pull one from a different song, rewrite it completely, and just make sure it sounds good with what you’ve already written.

Or change what you’ve already written! The important thing is that you’re creating something new. And maybe it won’t be great. Big deal. Finish it, set it aside, and move on to the next one. Do it a hundred times. Statistically, some of them are going to be pretty good. Focus on those ones. Make them as good as you can, and then start recording them or playing some shows. Get business cards that say “Songwriter” on them. It’s official.


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