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The Mechanics of Songwriting - A Guitarist's Guide

The Mechanics of Songwriting - A Guitarist's Guide

If you’re a guitarist looking to write in the tradition of songwriting legends, start by reading this groundbreaking book. It reveals the inner workings of some of the most successful songs. Using straightforward language aimed at musicians of all abilities, the nuts and bolts are laid bare – from chords, progressions and riffs to key, melody and song structure.


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ISBN: 978 0 9562052 1 6

Publisher: Siduri Books

Author: Leo Coulter

Format: 216mm x 138mm

Binding: Hardback with dust jacket

Extent: 208 pages

Illustrations: B&w line

Publication: 1 October 2010

While other songwriting books offer quick-fix solutions for writing ‘instant hits’, or descend into formulaic rock journalism, The Mechanics of Songwriting answers the fundamental technical questions that haunt songwriters and composers: How do chords relate to key? What makes a memorable riff? How can I reconcile authenticity and originality? What do the pros do when they’re stuck?

Systematic, detailed analysis of seminal songs such as Hotel California, Shining Light, and God Only Knows, clear explanations of music theory and in-depth interviews with established songwriters are presented together in a single volume for the first time. These features combine to show how successful songs really work, enabling you to take your own songwriting to the next level.

Includes in-depth interviews with:

  • Tim Wheeler (Ash)
  • Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields)
  • Eric Bazilian (The Hooters, industry songwriter)


1. Chords

2. The riff

3. Chord progressions: Inversions, dominant chords and harmonic rhythm

4. Chord progressions II: Hands on

5. Common techniques

6. Composing lines

7. The applied dominant revisited

8. Modulation

9. An examination of Shining Light

10. Convention v. innovation

Leo Coulter is a producer and guitarist who runs a recording studio in Somerset and is also known as a writer on music and recording technology. He has co-authored How to record your own music and get it on the internet and The Guitar Player's Songwriting Bible, both for Apple Press. The Mechanics of Songwriting is his first book with Siduri Books, and his most ambitious yet.

REVIEW, 25th November 2010:

Ash frontman Tim Wheeler features in The Mechanics of Songwriting: A Guitarist’s Guide, a new book written by Leo Coulter, published by Siduri books. The focus of the book is the difficulties of songwriting and what it takes to write a great song. Through several interviews, including an in-depth interview with Tim Wheeler, it details the reality songwriters face when trying to reconcile authenticity and originality. It features how to find out what key your in and why it matters, how to write memorable riffs and melodies and a detailed analysis of Ash’s 2001 hit single ‘Shining Light’. Here are a few of my thoughts on the book.

As a life long Ash fan and singer songwriter, I was keen to dive in. The book itself is best read with your guitar at hand to try out the techniques discussed as the book unfolds. It is aimed at those who are new to songwriting and just beginning to understand the frustrations that go with it, as such if your not a guitarist or songwriter you’ll find little of interest here. As a completely self taught guitarist myself the book highlights how little I actually know of keys and scales. However, although it touches on complex concepts, it takes you through it in a clear and concise manner, to ease you in gently. Although a few sections may need to be read again, this is encouraged by the author, the point being that you work through it at your own pace and move on when your comfortable. Advanced guitarists may find the early chapters fairly straight forward and jump straight through them, while others like myself may be new to these concepts and take slightly longer.

For the Ash fan out there, the book features an analysis of ‘Shining Light’, which is described as the ‘perfect pop song.’ The author takes a detailed look at the song structure, breaking down the verse, chorus and bridge, explaining the key of the song and the chords used, as well as the final key change after the guitar solo.

There is also a lengthy interview with Tim Wheeler in which he discusses some of his own songwriting methods, showing all of us ‘amateurs’ that even our heroes have to start somewhere. Tim explains how he usually writes the lyrics last, after the song is all arranged. Also, notably Tim explains the writers block he suffered while writing ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’, and the weight of expectation he felt after the huge success of the bands first album. Tim describes the track ‘Gallows Hill’, which was a bonus track from the recent A-Z series, and how he wrote the chorus when he was 15, but couldn’t finish the song off, it was over fifteen years when he successfully paired it up to a verse he had written previously. Definitely well worth a read.

The book contains several other interviews like this with a range of other musicians which split the sections and give you a little break. As well as the interview with Tim Wheeler, I was certainly inspired by the interview with Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. I have always tended to find myself forcing songs to be a certain length, adding extra verses and bridges to get the song to the magic four minute mark, or the reverse if the song is to long. It was inspiring to hear Stephin say “why does a song have to be four minutes long?”, he lets the song find it’s own natural length and doesn’t try to force it. His focus on the melody rather than chords is akin to my own method of songwriting.

The last chapter of the book is the most enjoyable to read. Its encouragement to break away from the ‘norms’ of songwriting, to experiment and move away from the formulaic pop that dominates the charts makes it an interesting and inspiring chapter that will set your creative juices flowing.

As a whole I was very impressed with the book, while it was scary to find out how little I actually knew about keys and chords that blend together, the book guides you through the concepts slowly. It’s a book I will certainly turn to again and again for help and inspiration.

  • Binding:
  • Author: Leo Coulter



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