Building Your Audience: Air Guitar is a Thing. Air Accordion isn’t.

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Air guitarIf you take a look at the list of 2015 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (HoF), you’ll notice one characteristic that seems to describe them all, regardless of the kind of music they’ve written, performed, or otherwise produced: winners tend to be those that write music that speaks directly to common folk.

For each winner, you’ll notice that connecting-with-common-folk quality in two major categories: 1) the kind of lyrics they’ve written and sung, and 2) the simplicity of the instrumentation of most of their important songs.

Writing lyrics that connect to the listener is a no-brainer, and the best songs in the pop music genres have always been the ones that allow the listener to imagine themselves singing the song. That’s always been a vital part of making successful music.

Instrumentation is another key ingredient to connecting with the listener. A great analogy can be found in the world of sports, and in particular, the success of soccer worldwide. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with a recent estimation of 3.5 billion fans globally. The likely reason for that success: the simplicity (yet excitement) of the game, and the simplicity of the required equipment list: 1 soccer ball.

Most of the HoF inductees use mainly a basic instrumentation – a guitars-bass-keyboards-drums kind of approach. Those are instruments — especially guitar and keyboard — that many fans have in their possession, and that’s a large part of making a connection. It’s why you likely play one of those instruments.

That’s not to say that other instruments have been shunned; far from it. The Beatles used brass band, strings (both solo and ensemble), sitar, flutes, recorders, clarinet, harmonica, accordion, and more. But at their core, they were a guitars-bass-drum band.

That’s important, because most inductees to the HoF are there because of their influence on other usually younger musicians. Not many can play a guitar to the level of Eric Clapton, but many dream that they can. And because of the number of up-and-coming guitarists who have pointed to Clapton as one of their key influences as they were developing and learning their craft, he’s there in the HoF.

Air guitar is a thing. Air accordion isn’t. You’ll connect with more listeners by being excellent on your guitar than on your accordion.

I’m a fan of using creative instrumentation as a way of setting yourself apart from other performers. But I also believe that the ones who really connect with the listener are the ones who create engaging music with an instrument that common folk will have at their disposal.

If you’re looking to increase your fan base, it’s not just listeners you’ll want to think about. It’s other musicians as well. As your fan base grows, consider the fact that many of those fans will be up-and-coming singer-songwriters who look to your music as an influence. Here’s the best way to be sure you’re being as influential as possible:

  1. Improve your playing abilities. Being a mediocre performer isn’t going to work when it comes to influencing others. If you don’t have chops, you need lessons.
  2. Become a better lyricist. The excellence of lyrics will do more to connect with common people than any other aspect of your songwriting technique. Excellence of lyrics does not mean becoming highbrow. It means writing natural, easy-to-understand words that immediately speak to your audience.
  3. Use a common instrumentation, but use it wisely. If it’s influence you’re looking for, the music that connects with people is still guitar, bass and drums. And in addition these days, a lot of it is happening with synthesized sounds. If you’re still using a guitar-bass-drum approach, think of ways to develop your repertoire of sound possibilities. A guitar can be played in many ways, and you’ll want to explore them all. Be creative.
  4. Add unique instruments to a common instrumentation. In other words, get excellent at playing your music with a solid core of guitar-keyboards-bass-drums. To that, occasionally add instruments that will take your songs to a new level. So try adding flute, violin, cello… anything that sets your music apart from other musician’s music.
  5. Explore more sub-genres. Don’t get stuck in one style of music. Be creative, and be curious. And then have the courage to present some of your music in a more surprising way.

To that last point I would say: compare The Eagles’ “The Last Resort” and “Lying Eyes.” The two songs are completely different, not just in instrumentation, but in genre, performance style, vocal style, and more. You could even say that they target completely different audiences. But that’s what being creative does. It allows you to tap into many different possible fan bases, and that’s what you need to do to build your audience.


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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