Measure for Measure: Bottoms Up

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Something fascinating occurs at the 1:02:16 mark in Episode 1 of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s brilliant Beatles documentary. 

John is late for a morning session, and we see Paul, George, and Ringo idling amid their instruments, bantering while they wait. To kill time, Paul grabs his bass and begins pounding out a rock ‘n’ roll groove. Soon his random vocals morph into the familiar strains of “Get Back,” and a song is born (check out “Paul McCartney composing “Get Back” on YouTube). 

“Get Back” emerges from the ether so effortlessly, one might think the only lesson to be drawn is “He’s Paul and you’re not.” In fact, it’s the opposite. Paul is demonstrating a time-honored composition method employed by many songwriters: Building a song from the bottom up. In this column, we’ll break it down like a five-layer cake. By the end, you should be able to bake a few cakes of your own, in any style. 

Back at Twickenham, George and Ringo chime in. At 1:06:20, John arrives and straps on his Epiphone Casino. The point is that Paul enjoyed the support of a band and a rather good one at that. 

If you don’t have a band, no worries. You can become one yourself with the aid of a looper pedal, a simple recording device that repeats segments of your playing endlessly while you record new layers on top. If you don’t have a looper, you might try the Lekato Loop Station (under $100 on Amazon). Be sure to get the model with a USB jack. (Disclaimer: No financial interest; I own one.) 

Now let’s bake a cake. Each layer should be firm enough to add another layer above it. You can ice the cake by exporting layers to your laptop via USB for mixing and editing. 

Comments here are necessarily brief, but take a deeper dive by following suggestions for further study. 

Layer 1 – Groove 

The groove is a repeating rhythmic pattern that suggests genre and mood. Where Paul relied on an abundance of experience for “Get Back,” you can use any song as a model (see Creative Challenge). Damp your guitar strings with your left hand and improvise by slapping the fretboard with your right until a new groove emerges. 

Loop it. 

Don’t underestimate this step! Jeff Lynne reputedly based “Don’t Bring Me Down” on a single drum loop and added all the instruments himself, just like you’re doing. 

Layer 2 – Harmony 

Next, change up the chords to avoid unconscious copying. Harmony is a huge topic, but Paul coaxed “Get Back” out of a power chord and a solid groove. You can do the same or imitate a progression from a favorite song. 

While playing Layer 1, record Layer 2. 

Tips: To lend a sense of direction to your own compositions, learn to hear chords as “nearer or farther” from the tonic (“C” in the key of C, for example). 

If you want a fun, interactive way to learn pop harmony, try hooktheory.com (subscription service; no financial interest). 

Layer 3 – Melody 

Improvise vocals over Layers 1 and 2. 

“Get Back” rises a minor 3rd to a bluesy b7 on thought he was a, then descends precipitously on it couldn’t last, forming a rainbow arc that served Paul well in “Eleanor Rigby.”  

Tips: Eschew note-by-note composition; practice making rainbows for fun and profit. Plant accented emotional tones within arcs, like Paul. Repeated notes are okay as long as you break free dramatically. If you’re at a loss, narrow the range of your melody and use short, rhythmic figures to create hooky lines, as in “Bad Guy” (Billie Eilish). 

Layer 4 – Form 

American Songwriter contributor Friedemann Findeisen defines classic song structure as Intro, [Verse, (Pre-) Chorus] x 2, Bridge, Chorus. “Get Back” bends this form to make way for solo work by Billy Preston and John Lennon.  

Tips: Bend the rules, but do so for a reason. Try marking section boundaries with chord jabs, such as heard after you once belonged

Layer 5 – Lyrics 

Use nonsense lyrics as placeholders and let the mood of the melody guide you, like Paul or Alicia Keys, among others. Some folks compare songs to storytelling. You might also think of them as scenes. This emphasizes immediacy and telling details, such as Lucinda Williams’ “Car Tires On A Gravel Road.” “Verses show us who, where and what; choruses tell us why.” (American Songwriter contributor Andrea Stolpe). Also, see Pat Pattison. Commit to The 30-Day Lyric Writing Challenge, by Ed Bell. 

Icing 

Has to do with the arrangement. For example, Paul plays a gallop rhythm on his bass, but the gallop winds up with Ringo in the final score. 

Creative Challenge 

Apply the “bottom-up method” to contemporary songs by artists in this issue. See suggestions below. 

Myles Kennedy, “In Stride”; Dashboard Confessional, “Here’s To Moving On”; Aly & AJ, “Dead On The Beach”; Kiefer Sutherland, “Nothing Left To Say”; Bastille, “Shut Off The Light”; Big Thief, “Certainty”; Del McCoury, “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”; Gang of Youths, “In The Wake Of Your Leave”; Drake White, “Makin’ Me Look Good Again”; Greensky, “Grow Together”; Johnny Marr, “Night And Day”; Sammy Rae, “The Box”. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

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