Mining Tradition: A Songwriting Tip from Pete Seeger (via Woody Guthrie)
Since Acoustic Guitar’s debut in 1990, I’ve had the privilege of talking with scores of songwriters—luminaries like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Elvis Costello as well as younger generation talent like Jakob Dylan, Erin McKeown, and Jason Mraz—about the role their guitars play in the writing process. And though each artist’s process is as individual and idiosyncratic as their songs, there have been recurring themes in these conversations about how to use (and, sometimes, not use) the guitar to discover and develop new song ideas.
Here's a tip from 21 Songwriting Tips from the Masters
12. LET YOURSELF BE SIMPLE.
It’s tempting to show off your chops and use the trickiest moves and voicings you know on the guitar. But what feeds the guitarist’s ego isn’t necessarily what listeners are seeking in a song; a simple melody, a good beat, and emotional clarity tend to connect much more directly and powerfully than clever or fancy accompaniment. This is what Pete Seeger, citing Woody Guthrie, called “the genius of simplicity,” and it’s a quality of traditional music that’s been passed along for generations.
Jakob Dylan talked about occasionally coming across “melodies that seem like they’ve been around forever but you can’t place them.” When this happens, don’t second-guess yourself and feel you need to be more complicated—get out of the way and let simplicity speak.