Whether Metallica are to your liking or not is redundant; if you want some songwriting tips then someone with over 125 million record sales to their name is well worth listening to. James Hetfield has crafted some of the most iconic heavy-metal anthems in history during his illustrious career stretching back to 1978. With a mixture of typical metal bravura and an introspective and complex edge, he has helped to define an entire genre.
According to his Masterclass lecture, there are five key tenets to songwriting that have allowed him to achieve everything that he has so far in music. The first being the starting on the page before picking up the guitar. A riff may well be already in the offing but layering lyrics on top of the melody line is the force that always “propels” the song forward and eventually allows the whole thing to take shape.
His next tip also ties in closely with the first. Just as Paul Thomas Anderson has decried of screenwriting, it is best not to start with a blank page. In short, Hetfield opines that it is harder to conjure lyrics from scratch so you’re best off continually making notes. If something pops into your head that you don’t want to rue forgetting it when a riff presents itself, so you’re best off having notebooks and apps aplenty at the ready for whenever your creative muse chooses to bolt.
His third tip is less particle and focuses on the spiritual side of always staying open-minded. “There’s a point where the song tells me what it’s supposed to be instead of me telling it what it’s supposed to be,” Hatfield thoughtfully declares. Adding: “If I’m open to it, it will start morphing, and all of a sudden I’ve gone down a completely different way.” Perhaps this is the reason that Metallica have just about the most diverse back catalogue of any metal band.
Bringing the gap between the spiritual and practical side of songwriting comes a tip that adds a twist to the classic ‘write what you know’ declaration. Instead, Hetfield says that you should “draw from your own life” but not necessarily be defined by it artistically. You can travel wherever your muse takes you, but it will always be that little bit better when it is touched with the sincerity of your own life experiences. As he concludes: “If I’m writing from my heart, it really can’t be wrong.”
Lastly, Hetfield tempers the sincerity of his work with a touch of universality by avoiding being too frank. “If you get more specific, then it kind of closes [people’s] minds,” he says. If you can offer up sincerity and truth without closing the door behind, you then the song should prove evocative for any listener.
So, if you can wrap all those ideas up in a tune of your own then you might just craft a gem, and whether ten people or ten million hear it, who really cares? Well, naturally, your bank account might, but regardless of that, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, you will have “made your soul grow… You will have created something.”