The Songwriter's Toolbox

The first order of business for a beginning songwriter is to assemble the tools needed for the job. Which tools you need is your decision. The important thing is to assemble them in one place and keep them there when not in use. Otherwise, you may find that your significant other has written a grocery list on your new song or your dog has made a chew toy of your “lucky lyric” pen.

Different toolboxes and sets of tools suit different needs: You might not need reference books for a half-hour lunch break at work but you might want a couple of favorites for a long trip. Use a desk drawer or a toolbox at home, a satchel at work, and a backpack to take to the park.

A desk drawer makes a good songwriter's toolbox. Backpacks, briefcases, tackle boxes, and book bags have the advantage of being portable. Some writers even pack the bare essentials into their guitar cases. Things you might want in your toolbox are simple — something with which to write (like a pen), something on which to write (like paper), some reference books, and a small, portable recording device.

Pens, Pencils, Chalkboards, and Word Processors

Some songwriters can write on anything or with anything. As rumor has it, a popular Rolling Stones song was written with an eyeliner pencil on the back of a hotel room ironing board. Other songwriters are particular, even superstitious, about what they use. The most popular combination is probably a #2 pencil and a yellow legal pad. Some songwriters prefer ballpoint pens and unlined paper. Others prefer a mechanical pencil, a gum eraser, and “eleven-line” paper (which allows for the melody to be written above the chords in standard notation and the bottom line for lyrics). Some even use large chalkboards. Many songwriters find that a computer gives them the option of creating multiple versions of a song, cutting and pasting words or lines to different places, and having “ready to print” lyric sheets when finished. Try all of these options and find the one that works best for you.

You'll need to acquire serious verbal skills to compete with pro writers. How? By doing what they do! Many pro songwriters do crossword puzzles and play games that focus on vocabulary and language skills. Reading is a double whammy: It helps develop language skills and is also a great source for song ideas.

Whatever you use, make at least two copies as soon as the song is finished. Put one in your toolbox and put one in a safe place other than your home. Why? If your computer crashes, your house burns down, or your significant other goes insane and starts merrily feeding your songs into the shredder, you'll be very glad that you have extra copies stashed away.

You'll also want a recording device to capture the melody and groove of your song. Portable recorders with built-in microphones are available in a number of recording formats and are perfect for your toolbox. Make sure the recorder you buy has either removable media (something you can take out of the machine and copy, like a cassette) or a “line out” so you can transfer the recording to another medium.

Reference Books Every Songwriter Should Own

Somewhere, you'll want to keep a stash of books to be used as part of the songwriting process, and you may want paperback versions if you travel frequently. Here's a list to get you started:

  • A new dictionary that includes slang terms

  • A rhyming dictionary

  • A thesaurus and/or synonym finder

  • At least one book of popular quotations

  • A set of encyclopedias

  • Recent newspapers or periodicals (for song ideas)

  • Also consider reference books that list homonyms, homophones, antonyms, phrases, sayings, quotes, puns, and so forth — anything that helps you think about words. Many of these reference materials can be found in software or online versions.

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