How To Write a Song Like Tom Petty
Tom Petty once said “[m]usic is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.” Petty was a true conduit of that magic, but he also was a student of his craft drawing a lot from his experience learning from artists like the Byrds, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, and later from Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison of the Beatles, especially as a member of the Traveling Wilburys. Early in his music career, Petty spent a lot of time learning songs from records to use for cover performances. Specifically, he sang a lot of Byrds and Dylan covers which complemented his folk rock vocals. Later, he joined the Traveling Wilbury’s with the likes of Bob Dylan himself, George Harrison of the Beatles and Roy Orbison, where Petty was influenced harmonically by George Harrison, melodically from Roy Orbison, and overall from the “spontaneous brilliance” of Bob Dylan. Of note, Petty did a fair amount of co-writing with Mike Campbell (of the Heartbreakers) and Jeff Lynne (of ELO and the Traveling Wilburys).
In this article (and the video that goes along with it), we reach into Petty’s bag to look at three Tom Petty songwriting techniques that impart that sort of “everyman’s” anthemic magic, that led him on the path to releasing dozens of hit songs over multiple decades, thirteen studio albums with the Heartbreakers, and 3 solo albums including Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. Hopefully, these ideas will inspire you to writing some cool songs that take on that Petty-ish vibe, or at least stimulate your creativity to draw from Petty as an influence. The three techniques we’re going to look at are: (1) chord riffs (musical technique), (2) repeating anthemic chorus hooks (lyrical technique), and (3) register and line speed changes between song sections (form technique).
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Technique #1: “Chord Riffs”
Our first technique is a musical device. Many of Petty’s guitar parts, although comprised mostly of simple first position chords (i.e. chords that are within the first three frets of the guitar, a.k.a. cowboy chords), sound more like actual riffs than just chord progressions. These “chord riffs” are extremely characteristic of his music and worth analyzing. Here we break them down into three components (1) uneven rhythmic subdivisions, (2) choice hammer-ons, and (3) inter-chordal melodies.
First, Petty often used uneven rhythms moving from one chord to the next (uneven rhythmic subdivisions). For example, in I Won’t Back Down, the first chord progression is very simple: Em – D – G – G, with 2 quarter note beats per chord. This is a pretty typical chord progression in the key of G, with the minor vi chord moving to a V chord and back to the I chord. Most people, however, would strum the chords very evenly. Perhaps 4 eighth note strums per chord: like this Em(4) – D(4) – G(4) – G(4). However, Petty plays it more like this Em(4) – D(3) – G(5) – G(4), with an odd grouping of rhythms allocated between the D chord and the first G chord. This results in a feel that sounds like grouping of 4, 3, and 9 (5+4). Though very simple in design, it creates a nuance that catches the ear and makes it very easy to tell even just from the opening chord progression what song is being played. Very slick indeed. Please see the video for a demo. Similar techniques happen in Learning to Fly (F(3)-C(5)-Am(3)-G(5)), and Free Fallin’ (D(3)-G(5)-G(1)-D(2)-A(5)).
Second, Petty’s use of choice hammer-ons really gives character to some of his best chord riffs. For instance, in Last Dance with Mary Jane, in addition to an uneven rhythmic subdivision between the chords, he also hammers onto the initial Am chord and the D chord (third chord in the pattern: Am-G-D-Am). This is a simple trick you can add into your chord playing to give your sound more character. Similar hammer-on techniques can be heard in Learning to Fly as well on the initial F chord as it passes to the C chord, and also on Wildflowers (capo 5) moving from an F shape to a C shape and then also as he moves to a G shape and back.
Finally, Petty’s chordal riffs tend to have a melodic aspect built within them (inter-chordal melodies). That is to say, you can almost sing/hum the chord progression’s implicit melody, where he emphasizes certain notes from the chords he plays. As he moves from one chord to the next, a melody emerges from within the harmony. The best example is Free Fallin’, where you can hear that high melody built into the chords. Without the capo on the guitar, those notes are f#-g-g-f#-e. That pattern is heard over and over and is easy to remember and identify because it’s so singable. The way Petty achieves this device is by adding a g to his initial D chord (which makes it a D sus chord). By including this simple trick, a little built-in melody pops out from the chord progression in the intro: D-Dsus-Dsus-D-A. Many of his songs have a similar component, like Wreck Me, Learning to Fly, Running Down a Dream, Last Dance with Mary Jane. Please see the video for demos of these.
In sum, the next time you sit down to write a chord progression, maybe see if you can use some of these tips to transform simple first position chord progressions into more memorable chord riffs. Maybe make the rhythmic change from one chord to the next something less than predictable. Or, maybe add in some hammer-ons over simple chords. Finally, see if you can position the chords so little melodies stick out from the chords. You can apply many of these ideas on piano or ukulele as well.
Lesson Notes Video #1 (Chord Riffs)
Technique #2: “Repeating Anthemic Chorus Hooks”
This next tip is a lyric-writing technique. One of the most memorable quotes I came across while researching Petty’s process was centered on his discussion of how he wrote the tune Wreck Me. In the interview, Petty explained that for the longest time the lyric was actually “You Rock Me”. To Petty, this lyric was somewhat trite and wasn’t quite cutting it for his standards, until he realized that if he could just change the word “rock” to “wreck” a whole new fresh perspective emerged from the lyric, translating into a great song. In this regard, Petty noted that “I’ve learned this from experience, that one word can mean so much. It can change the entire thing.” (Zollo, 518). Petty wasn’t afraid to be patient and wait it out until the right word choice would come to him.
In this same regard, many of Petty’s songs really draw back to a powerful repeating phrase or word in the chorus. This emphasis on the hook, and one that repeats over and over, is that the songs become instantly memorable to listeners and it becomes so easy to want to sing along. For instance Breakdown has the following chorus. I’ve bolded all the times he repeats the word “breakdown.”
Baby, breakdown, go ahead and give it to me
Breakdown, honey take me through the night
Breakdown now I standin’ here can’t you see
Breakdown, it’s all right
It’s all right
Other notable examples are Free Fallin’ (“and I’m free, free fallin‘”), Refugee (You don’t have to live like a refugee; Don’t have to live like a refugee), Runnin’ Down a Dream (Yeah runnin’ down a dream; That never would’ve come to me; Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads; Runnin’ down a dream). In each of these songs, the hook is right in the spotlight, positioned in the chorus of the song, which repeats over and over. This highly emphasized and dressed up form of presenting the hook, makes songs instantly very catchy. In addition, vocally Petty really finds great melodies that complement his word choices. As you read the above bolded words/phrases, sing the melody that goes along with each one. The marriage between the melody and the words is spot on in each one of them. For instance, “runnin’ down a dream” has a melody that goes lower and lower with each word, symbolically matching the downward motion of “running down a dream”. In Breakdown, the melody has an angst contained within in that really captures the pent up frustration of the word “breakdown”. In this way, the phrase has this great cathartic release to it that is very satisfying in the song.
To put this technique into practice, next time you’re working on a song, see if you can uncover a really memorable single word or single phrase that you can sing over and over. Be patient with this, let the hook come to you rather than forcing the issue. Find a melody that frames your words perfectly and captures the emotion or theme of what you’re communicating. Play some chords and find a vocal melody that really fits the words perfectly. Then, you can even just start with that word/phrase before writing any verses or other sections. Once you have that hook in place, everything you write will have a sort of magnetism that pulls everything back to your hook, where people can’t wait to sing that one word/phrase over and over. It will help you write really catchy material.
Lesson Notes Video #2 (Chorus Hooks)
Technique #3: “Register and Line Speed Changes“
This third technique applies to the overall form of the song, and is a great way to add charm to your writing in addition to having a memorable hook. Many of Petty’s songs have a rising and falling energy, where the verses start out mellow, often telling a story painting a picture, and/or setting a mood. Eventually, the energy of the song seems to pick up leading into a big chorus hook, where there aren’t as many words, but more of an emphasis on repeating a certain phrase (as discussed above). This variance in line speed (i.e. the lyrical lines seem to have fewer and fewer words and more and more repetition and drawing out of the syllables from the hook), is very effective in creating the magic of a Petty song. Specifically, while Petty writes huge anthemic pop-worthy rock hits that people love, he also still gives himself plenty of time to add very charming elements of storytelling, literary nuance, and he’s able to include some of the detailed lyrics that you might see in a folk song. As a result, Petty’s songs are laced with very charming lyrical content that wins over his listeners and showcases his talent as a lyricist. It’s like the best of both worlds, both folk and pop rock. Meanwhile, musically, to match this effect of dwindling lyrical content, Petty’s vocals often have a similar change, albeit in the opposite direction. That is to say, as he sings less and less words, his voice gets higher and higher in pitch (register change) and starts to increase more and more in energy (often adding a little vocal distortion to give him that rock edginess). This powerful combination of both line speed and register change plays a big role in the overall vibe and effect of many of Petty’s songs.
For an example of the above, take a listen to Into the Great Wide Open. The verses paint a very vivid story of a character named Eddie who moves to LA, meets a girl, and starts to make it in the music business. As Tom tells the story, his vocals are lower in range and the lyrics are very detailed and specific about what happens to Eddie.
Eddie waited till he finished high school
He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo
He met a girl out there with a tattoo too
The future was wide open
They moved into a place they both could afford
He found a night club he could work at the door
She had a guitar and she taught him some chords
The sky was the limit
However, as the song progresses into the chorus, the emphasis is no longer on learning about Eddie’s LA music story. Instead, the focus shifts to a huge chorus hook, with particular emphasis on the phrase “into the great wide open”. In this regard, the charm of the verse lyric sort of draws on the youthful optimism of Eddie as a literary character, while the chorus feeds into the everyman theme of optimism staring into the “great wide open”. Such a cool contrast creates a play on a bigger theme presented through the parable of a character in a story. The chorus goes like this (the hook is in bold):
Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue
The song Refugee employs a similar device. As you listen to that track notice how Petty’s voice rises in pitch as the lyrics become more and more sparse as he passes, in this case, from verse to pre-chorus and then to the hook.
We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it
Ain’t no real big secret, all the same, somehow we get around it
Listen, it don’t really matter to me baby
You believe what you want to believe, you see
You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
Other examples of this style of writing are apparent in Last Dance with Mary Jane, Free Fallin’, and American Girl. Each of these songs has a combination of extremely detailed verses, chalk full of literary nuance and storytelling; meanwhile, at the same time, each of these songs has a massive chorus hook that everyone can sing along to. The next time you sit down to write, specifically if you already have worked out a nice hook, maybe try this technique of a lower-registered vocal in the verses that gives way to a big vocal hook. As you work out your verses, feel free to use nice literary devices (metaphors, sense-bound imagery, etc) to give flavor to your song.
Lesson Notes Video #3 (Register/Line Speed Changes)
Hopefully these writing tips will assist you with your songwriting. You can use one or more of them at the same time and see what works best for you. Don’t worry if you don’t assimilate all of this material into your process, it’s just meant to stimulate your creativeness. Ultimately, you will need to determine what works best for your own writing. Also, remember not to overthink things and have fun with this stuff. In the words of the master himself, Petty once said “[i]t’s kind of a dangerous business looking really deeply into the germ that creates songs. I don’t like to stare at that light very long.” Let those great ideas arrive intuitively to you as you explore each these writing techniques on your own. Best of luck to you in your writing!
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