What Makes a Song Good?

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George clearly contemplating the writing process, with guitar in tow

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that’s been coming to my mind recently as I’ve listened to Beatles songs and other songs alike, and that is, how do we as music listeners actually decide why a song is good or bad? The most important thing to remember here is that there really is no objective measurement of “goodness” or “badness” of a song. You can pretty much conclusively determine if someone is a skilled or unskilled piano player, but it’s a bit more murky to extend that level of objective analysis to judging the quality of an entire song. Of course, there are certainly songs I think are better than others, so here are a few points of comparison between songs and some examples to support that, both from the Beatles and from other artists I admire.

One point that’s recently been floating around in my mind is the idea of “good” songs balancing vocal and instrumental melodies. That is, the melody of the instruments is as important to the beauty and structure of the song as the melody of the vocals. This is assuming we’re discussing traditionally structured “pop” songs here, not 11-minute long instrumental jams. I hate to sound like a grump, but I find that so many modern pop songs have little instrumental substance and it’s all about highlighting the singer and their impressive growl or sky-high vocal riffs. There’s something about a song that has, say, an interesting opening guitar riff, melodic vocals, and other scattered instrumental breaks that just feels more complete to me. Songs like this also communicate that the quality of the song is what is most important, not the singer’s vocal talent. There’s a distinct, noticeable difference to me between a song that exists to celebrate beautiful, thoughtful music and a song that exists for a singer to show off how high they can belt.

Both categorizations have their place in the music industry, but the Beatles were musicians first and foremost and wrote songs that nearly always fall into the former category. Take “Eleanor Rigby,” for example. The staccato strings are really the iconic part of this song, not the Beatles singing. They sound great, obviously, but this song is a fraction of its final self without George Martin’s incredible string arrangement. Luckily Beatles fans are blessed with an officially-released instrumental version of this on the Anthology 2 album, and this may be the finest example of a Beatles song in which I actually prefer the solo orchestration to the complete song. There’s just so many interesting things to notice when you listen to only the string part, so many percussive strokes and instrumental counterparts, and it conveys the message of the song’s lyrics almost as well as the singing itself. But the complete song itself is what I highlight as a perfect example of a song that values its instrumentation just as much as its vocals.

In case that all weren’t enough to celebrate, it’s just over 2 minutes long and it feels perfectly complete. The song doesn’t thematically or instrumentally need to be any longer. There are no wasted notes here; they all contribute to the moving final product. The song’s inherent structure is so well-thought-out that it carries the beauty of the song all by itself. The more I listen to “Eleanor Rigby,” honestly, the more I marvel at it. It’s quickly moving up my list of favorite Beatles songs.

Another Beatles song that demonstrates their mastery of vocal and instrumental balance is “Here Comes The Sun.” This song features such a delicate, airy acoustic guitar part that I do wish there were an official version of just the instrumental parts without any of the Beatles’ vocals. It also features a lovely string arrangement, but rather than that being the star of this song, the interplay between the strings and the guitar combine to support the beautiful vocal part. “Here Comes The Sun” is absolutely a George Harrison masterpiece that is quickly becoming my new favorite Beatles song, mostly because the guitar is soothing and relaxing. I once heard a rare version of this song that features an additional overdubbed guitar solo, but I felt that it overpowered the rest of the song and did not mesh with the existing acoustic part. “Here Comes The Sun” is simply perfect and musically balanced the way it is.

In general, I feel that with songs I really admire, I could take out the vocals entirely and listen to only the instrumental backing and I’d love the song just as much. One example of a non-Beatles song that perfectly fits this description is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. The separated, choppy, yet beautifully melodic guitar part always hooks me from the second that the song comes on the radio. I really do feel that this song would function almost as well as a wholly instrumental song. I say “almost” because I do also feel that part of the reason the guitar here is so enchanting is because of how it counters the vocals by providing continual instrumental breaks throughout the song. These “breaks” wouldn’t exactly be breaks if they were not broken up by an intervening vocal part, now would they. This song, unlike the previous two, does not feature any sort of orchestration. Its notable instrumental part is almost strictly guitar, but the guitar here has a life of its own and  beautifully carries the melodic weight of the song so that no additional instrumentation is necessary for the song to feel complete.

Slightly unrelated, but this song also directly connects to the Beatles by featuring a lyrical reference to “guitar George” who “knows all the chords” and “doesn’t want to make them cry or sing.” There’s a chance this isn’t intentionally referring to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but it seems more likely than not. After all that, I’m actually not 100% positive that this is a Beatles reference, but given that George Harrison is by far the most famous rock guitarist named George that I can think of, I’ll stick with this theory until proven wrong. Perhaps the guitar part throughout this song is meant as an ode to George’s carefully crafted Beatles guitar parts, which would certainly  explain why I love the song.

Much of the Beatles’ legend rests on their reinvention of the very idea of successful pop songs, and as this blog continually states, I do believe that they are still the masters of crafting songs with incredible attention to vocal and instrumental balance. However, they also epitomize the magical formula that I find takes a song from average to excellent, and that is a balance between highlighting vocals and highlighting instrumentals. It doesn’t necessarily have to be split 50/50, but I do feel that songs with a celebrated instrumental part, like the songs all mentioned above, possess more overall beauty than songs without.

I could go on and on about Beatles songs that feature a beautiful balance between vocals and instrumentals, and how this is also present in wonderful songs by other artists, but I’ll save that for another post. Until then, continue braving the long, cold, lonely winter and finding sunshine in your favorite songs.

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My Top 10 Favorite Guitar Solos

My sweet George, playing the instrument featured in this post!

My sweet George, playing the instrument featured in this post!

Here it is, another countdown list! Today I’ve decided that since so many of the songs I love feature a guitar prominently in them, this list would probably be a good one to make. One thing that I think has sort of gone out of fashion in the music industry today is the art of beautiful and emotional guitar playing. Even in some mainstream pop songs today, a guitar is present, but it’s usually just there and is not intended to make a statement or improve the song, which is a shame. I think the guitar is a beautiful instrument that deserves to be featured in more of today’s popular songs!!!
Most of these guitar solos are pretty close together in my mind, so there really isn’t a big difference between the placements of the songs, but I have put them in order from 10 to 1, with 1 being my favorite guitar solo. (hint- it’s a Beatles song!!!) I hope you enjoy this list!

10. Cheer Down- George Harrison

The entire last minute to this song is basically an extended guitar solo, but I love it so much!!! This is definitely one of George’s least-known yet absolutely-amazing songs! If you’ve ever seen the movie Lethal Weapon 2, this song, co-written by George with Tom Petty, plays during the credits! I’m in love with the guitar here, because George’s slide guitar is amazing and brilliant, as it is in all of his songs!

9. I Live For You- George Harrison

This song is achingly beautiful, and the guitar solo, which starts at about 1:58 in the song, is just gorgeous. I often tear up listening to this song because it’s so beautiful and perfect, just like George! I can’t for the life of me figure out how George managed to get such an incredible, distinctive sound out of his guitars, but I suppose it’s a testament to his musical genius.

8. Something- The Beatles

For this song, the guitar solo starts at about 1:43 in the video. This is yet another fine example of George’s guitar-playing prowess. I bet you’re noticing a theme so far… 🙂
As I’ve stated before, this is one of my very favorite Beatles songs, and the guitar solo is just one of the reasons why. It’s to the point and works with the song, and most of all, it’s beautifully played. I’ve probably listened to this song hundreds of times by now, but I never get sick of it!

7. Taxman- The Beatles

This is probably one of the most famous Beatles guitar solos, but it was Paul, not George, who played it! I think this proves that while he’s no George, Paul was and still is a fantastic guitarist, in addition to being a fantastic everything else. Even when I play this on Beatles Rock Band, I still can never get it 100% right, so I imagine that it’s pretty hard to play on an actual guitar!

6. Badge- Cream

Don’t worry, not EVERY solo on this list is from a Beatles song! Although most of them are… Anyway, this song was co-written by Eric Clapton and our old friend, George Harrison! The story behind the rather obscure title is that George was writing the bridge for the song when Eric walked in the room, probably drunk, and saw the paper upside down. He wondered why George wrote “Badge” at the top of the paper, and thus the song’s name was born! This is just an incredible song, and I LOVE the guitar part starting at about 1:08 in the video, played by George. The solo itself, played by Eric, is awesome as well. I think I’m a little obsessed with this song, actually.

5. Till There Was You- The Beatles

The solo here starts at 1:23 in the video. I can’t get enough of George’s jazzy guitar playing throughout this song, and the perfect solo is just the icing on the cake! This song was originally from The Music Man, although apparently the Beatles didn’t know that until after they recorded it, and I think it’s one of the best examples of George’s fantastic guitar playing from the earlier Beatle years. He was extraordinarily talented from a young age, and he only got better as he got older!

4. It Don’t Come Easy- Ringo Starr

In addition to this being song containing one of my favorite guitar solos (which starts at 1:40 in the video), this song also contains a fabulous riff, played by none other than George Harrison! I think I’ve said before that it was actually George who wrote this fantastic song, and I’m so glad he did. There’s a fabulous version of this song floating around that has George singing instead of Ringo, but I think both versions are equally great. Anyway, this solo is typical George awesomeness, and it rocks!

3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps- The Beatles

You didn’t really think that I’d leave my favorite Beatles song out of this list, did you? 🙂
The solo here starts at about 1:56 in the video, and it is memorable for a couple of reasons. Besides being just all around amazing, this was the first and only time that Eric Clapton played guitar on a Beatles song, so that weeping guitar you hear is all him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Eric Clapton is the Guitar God for a reason. He can play the guitar like no other!

2. Maybe I’m Amazed- Paul McCartney and Wings

While this song was originally featured on Paul’s first solo album, McCartney, it became even more famous when he played it with Wings on their 1976 “Wings Over America” tour, and I think this version here is the best one. The solo, played by Wings guitarist Jimmy McCullough, starts at about 1:23 in the video, and I just love it! No real reason, but it’s really moving and beautifully played here. Whenever I hear this song, I always find myself anticipating the guitar solo, and as soon as it begins, the song comes alive in a whole new way.

And now… Number 1!!!

1. Let It Be- The Beatles

Out of the hundreds of Beatle guitar solos out there, this is the one that always sticks in my head. It’s powerful, edgy, and moving, and George just rocks the heck out of it! For some reason, the original album version of Let It Be (there are at least 3 official versions in existence) is the only one with this fantastic solo, and that is why it is my favorite version of all! Nothing can top this guitar solo for me!!!

I see after writing this post that I probably need to go discover some guitar solos from other groups. While I work on that, have a wonderful week! Hint hint, there will probably be some Paul McCartney and Elton John posts coming your way next weekend!