Songwriting Ability vs. Playing Ability (October 2001)
Songwriting ability vs. Playing Ability
A long standing "debate" has been with regards to a
musicians talent compared to their ability to craft great songs. Both
are of course important ingredients, but in the long run having the
ability to write good songs overshadows playing ability. When the two go
hand in hand it just makes it even better!
The idea of how good of a technical player someone is will be often
used by fans to prove how good of a band that player is in. What happens
when you have, for example, a great soloist who has below average songs?
In my opinion, an example of this comes from a player who crosses the
metal / rock / progressive boundary. That guitarist is Joe Satriani.
Sure he has some good "songs" like "Satch Boogie" or
"Crushing Day" but for the most part the only parts of his
songs that are interesting are the leads. Take a listen to the song
"Big Bad Moon"...horrible re-trodden 70's rock riffing but
with godlike lead guitars. Same goes for "Summer Song" - great
leads but so simple and mindless backing music that it's hard to listen
to!! Not all soloists suffer from this problem, many do when they let
the song take a back seat to the solo. Yngwie Malmsteen is one who is
not guilty of this problem. Songs like "I Am A Viking",
"Riot In The Dungeons", "Liar" are just a few
examples of SONGS with jaw dropping lead playing.
Also related to this is when a musician is so talented or just so
experimental that their idea of a good song presents more then a
challenging listen to the point where it's over most listeners heads.
Steve Vai has been guilty of this with a number of his songs. He is one
of the worlds best guitarists but I am not a big fan of his music
because it is so out there. Of course, some people listen to this stuff
more then others to the point where the "out there" stuff
Looking to the other side of the spectrum, we have bands with players
who might not be the greatest in terms of being amazing at lead guitar
or having a vocalist with a 5 octave range etc. What can make a band
like this great are two things - chemistry and song writing ability.
Chemistry is something that is not quantifiable. It's something that
just exists and magically occurs with the right mix of players. The
ability to write a good song is also not quantifiable like how fast some
one can play or how many notes they can squeeze out. This ability is
also open to personal taste while talent / playing ability is by in
large something that even a non-fan of an artist can hear if they are
not tone deaf or an idiot. For the category of players who are not
virtuoso's, a band that I like that comes to mind is Motley Crue. Sure
they are competent when it comes to playing ability, but when it comes
to writing songs they are masters. They know what hard rock is about,
they know what their fans want and the have almost consistently
delivered. The same goes for HammerFall who are again good players but
it's their songs which make them the great band that they are! It's when
a band can deliver the goods technically and from a song writing stance
that I become a true fan of that band. For my tastes this combination is
fully delivered by bands like: Rhapsody, Death, Stratovarius, Yngwie
Music is not a game of how many scales you know, chords you play,
notes you hit, drum beats per minute to can slam, etc. These are but
tools available to a song writer. Sure, more tools means there is a
better chance of constructing a masterpiece. But if the tool box is full
yet the artist's creative side is non-existent what is the point? I once
attended a drum clinic of renown drummer Jonathan Mover. He started his
finale solo with a full monster kit. As his work out continued, a stage
hand would remove pieces of his drum kit until he was left with a basic
kick drum, snare and hi-hats. What he was playing was STILL awesome and
complex. That drove home that it's not ALWAYS what a musician has at his
disposal in terms of equipment that determines how good it is.
Songwriting ability VS playing ability
I honestly believe that song writing is a more important element when
it comes to great bands than playing ability. With song writing it's
either a good song, or it's not. There's no real grey area (yes, I'm
conveniently ignoring personal taste for this discussion). No one is
going to mistake the guys in Grave Digger for being Berkeley graduates,
but dammit if they don't write some great tunes (of war)! The same
principle applies to a ton of fantastic bands, for example Overkill and
Venom. Great song writing is the backbone of a great band. On the other
hand, playing ability can only take you so far. How many so-called
progressive metal bands out there are filled with brilliant musicians,
but have the song writing abilities of a tone deaf donkey? It doesn't
matter how much of a virtuoso you are if you can't compose worth a damn.
Of course, the truly great bands strike a balance between the two and
have a mixture of both playing ability and song writing talent. The list
of bands that have both contain some of the greatest names in metal
lore: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, all the way through less
traditional bands like Immolation, Zero Hour, and Symphony X. The facts
speak for themselves: all of these bands had (have) great songs, but
also had the musicians capable of taking those songs to another level.
Again, though, I'm sure that there are a lot of people who will swear
that playing ability outweighs song writing talent in importance, but
the fact is that many of the superior bands in metal have the perfect
mixture of songs and virtuosity.
Songwriting or Playing Talent?
By Michael De Los Muertos
This is an easy topic for me to answer for a change. If given a
choice between a metal band with technical playing/musicianship talent,
and another band with so-so musicianship but excellent songwriting
skills, I'll choose the songwriters any day of the week.
One need only peruse my past reviews, particularly of death metal
bands, to prove that this has been my view for quite some time. It's
undeniably true that the very best metal bands combine both skills into
a coherent and unified whole. But what often separates truly noteworthy
bands from the seething masses of "up-and-coming" acts in the
demo stage is a songwriting skill, or lack thereof. Playing your
instruments brilliantly is an admirable skill, no doubt about it. But
it's for naught unless you can focus that skill into something that
makes an emotional and intellectual impact on the listener. That focus
is the whole point of songwriting.
Let's face it. How many "math metal" bands are there out
there? You see it time and time again - a garage full of sweaty guys who
are all guitar (or drum) virtuosos, who play every note flawlessly and
whose riffs and song structures are as perfectly constructed as any
masterpiece of modern engineering - but you listen to their album and it
does nothing for you. Then you listen to another album by another band
of guys (or girls) who aren't such great musicians, but who really grab
you on an emotional level. What's the difference? Songwriting, pure and
simple. It's a talent. Mozart had it probably better than any other
human being in the history of mankind. He could sense notes - which note
had to come after which note, which structure had to be arranged just so
- and because he followed the "destiny" inherent in the notes
he wrote, he achieved inspiring and instantly energizing pieces of
music, time after time. Some brilliant musicians in some metal bands
have this same talent. Not to the extent Mozart did, but they have it.
I'd postulate that, in the power metal world, Tobias Sammet and Hansi
Kursch have it. Black metal: Isahn has it. Death metal: Trey Azagthoth,
without a doubt. While it's probably true that Edguy, Blind Guardian,
Emperor or Morbid Angel would not be who they are today without
excellent musicianship, there's at least a chance they could have
squeaked by, if they still had the same amount of power in the
songwriting end of things.
Let's take an example: HammerFall. No one has ever claimed that the
musicians in HammerFall are particularly outstanding. As a guitarist,
Oskar isn't that noteworthy. Magnus Rosen can play his bass competently,
but he's no Joey DiMaio; and reviewers (including this one) make endless
light of the patently obvious deficiency in the vocals of Joacim Cains.
Yet HammerFall is a great band and they have something special, and it's
wholly attributable to the fact that they're excellent songwriters.
"Heeding The Call," "Legacy of Kings" and
"Glory To The Brave" are beautiful, powerful, uplifting songs,
but their brilliance was infused at the writing stage, because it sure
as hell isn't the way the songs are played that makes them special.
HammerFall is probably the best demonstration of why songwriting works,
and why musicianship can't carry things alone.
Perhaps I'm biased, given my profession, but I believe writing is the
key to almost any creative enterprise. Any good movie, any smash-hit
play, and any great metal song are all triumphant because they have
creative power behind them at the writing stage, before the manner of
execution even enters the picture. They say that in warfare, every
battle is won or lost before it's even fought. Such is true with metal
music. A song is either written well or it isn't. If it is, chances are
much greater that it will be a success. If it isn't, all the guitar
acrobatics in the world can't save it. Metal comes from the mind, and
the act of writing is setting thoughts to paper. Metal songs must
therefore be written before they're played. I wouldn't have it any other
Songwriting ability VS playing ability
By El Cid
It has, through the years, become very evident to me that in order to
like a band it has to posses 2 big qualities, an ability to play and the
creativity to write music that sounds good.
I would say it is pretty useless to write the most intricate piece of
music you've ever seen if it won't sound right and also if the music is
fun to listen to but too simplistic it'll end up boring me in a while.
So the big answer is to combine both of them.
When we talk about songwriting ability it doesn't necessarily mean
the lyrics have to be along the lines of Ronsard or Shakespeare but the
song structure must make the music "work". Perfect examples of
this are Dark Tranquillity and Blind Guardian, they both write very
complex music and it works perfectly because it's very well arranged,
everything falls into place during their songs to a point where you
don't care anymore how many notes they're playing as long as they keep
playing. The lyrical content is also very important for it's not the
same to hear a tale of almost philosophical nature than to hear a tale
about what you had for breakfast the morning you wrote that song.
In all I'd say there has to be a communion in order for any band to be
appealing to me, so I'd say there shouldn't be song writing VS song
playing but song writing AND song playing.
Writing vs. playing ability (or talent)
Motley Crue are one of my favorite bands, always have been, always
will be, a big influence. Okay, Vince Neil may not be the best vocalist
in the world, but collectively as a unit, Motley Crue have the songs,
the melodies, the attitude, everything you could want in a band.
Definitely one of the top entertainers in music. Kiss is another
example. Great songs, great image and stageshow. But Gene isn't a
technical bass player, neither Ace Frehley; still, they are one of the
biggest influences of our generation. Then there's the other side of the
coin. Steve Vai, one of the most innovative guitarists in the world
today, could'nt even save the weak songs on David Lee Roth's
"Skyscraper". Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, a great bass
player in his own right, yet his solo cd's weren't nowhere as strong as
any Sabbath material he's ever written. Unfortunately, song writing vs.
playing ability (or talent) don't always go hand in hand.
Song writing vs. playing ability
What better way to start my editorial debut than with some thoughts
on the classic debate, song writing vs. technical ability. The ability
to process and enjoy music is a function of the brain. (duh.) The more
an individual listens to complex, well written metal, the greater
appreciation one may have for the talent required to create this art.
The ability to appreciate advanced, compositions is also affected by
time and experience as a listener. When I first heard Slayer way back in
'83, (Maiden and Ozzy were king) I wondered "What the hell is this
noise?!" Today, Slayer is in my easy listening category to be
enjoyed while I munch my breakfast cereal, reading the morning paper.
Over the years of hearing faster and more complex bands evolve in the
metal world, Slayer, to many experienced, older listeners may seem
somewhat tame. Not bad, just not on the (b)leeding edge of metal
The brain has an uncanny ability to process and digest musical
information but there is a limit to the ability to comprehend speed and
distortion of music into individual notes and patterns. Hence the very
limited appeal of complex jazz-fusion and ambient noise-core styles of
metal. Consequently, melody and harmony in the sense of traditional song
writing become very important to overall enjoyment.
These elements of song writing are critical to the enjoyment of a
song. AC/DC, Twisted Sister and countless others have built a career on
simplistic songs and song-writing. The hooks, harmony, rhythm and melody
all create a recognizable pattern that can be easily absorbed, and sung
along to in the shower. This is not necessarily a bad thing but again
like pure technical ability, 3 chords and 4/4 time can be very limiting
to the song writing experience. Hence the short-lived careers of 99% of
"pop" bands. Overly simplistic music for simplistic people.
It has long been my position that metal is the music that best pushes
the extreme boundaries of technical ability AND song-writing. Witness
the global success of Yngwie J. Malmsteen for the last 20 years. Many
studies have been done that suggest that the musical form most closely
linked to metal is classical music. Pure virtuosity and unbridled talent
mixed with advanced compositional skills can wrap a timeless song around
your cortex permanently. We see many elements of classical music in
Each individual has an ability to enjoy both ends of a musical
spectrum. I enjoy some freaky Relapse bands (that are recently being
dubbed "mathcore") and I can sit and enjoy an old Krokus CD!
Not better or worse... just different. The two do not need to be
mutually exclusive but often they are. I am not a musician so I tend to
be impressed with flashy displays of virtuosity...jealousy mostly!
Together technical ability AND songwriting is where I find the
majority of the bands I enjoy reside, from the classics, Maiden and King
Diamond, to a whole pile of guitar heroes, to the array of
neo-classical, epic-symphonic speed-metal bands (love those hyphens!)
flooding out of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.
Back in '92 I read an interview with Michael Angelo (formerly of
Nitro) where he suggested that he personally would rather have the
ability to play incredibly fast and complex and not have to do that in a
song, rather than not have the ability to play fast. I agree! It is all
about having the weapons in your song writing arsenal to give you the
widest range of ability to write the best song possible. Metallic,
bombastic virtuosity and classic melodies, pushing the limits make for
the truest metal of all.