Expert Advice: Producing a Great Song

I have worked with many great artists in the studio over the last 45 years, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Rick Springfield, Tommy Tutone, Missing Persons and at least 50 more. I have also worked on 49 Gold and Platinum records to date.

Now that you know my qualifications, I’d like to talk about what it takes to produce a hit record.

The Basics: Let’s cover the obvious points first, so we can move on to the details. First of all, you need a great song, one worth recording. Second, you need a professional studio. Home recordings are not going to cut it. Let’s face it, top studios with skilled engineers are the ones who produce the best records in the world.

Production: Now, let’s talk about production, which will either make or break a song. One thing I have learned when in the studio is to make sure everyone overplays. Play more parts than you need. You never know if someone may get creative and conceive the next “Sweet Home Alabama” lick. It’s better to have more than less. You can always delete unwanted material, but you can’t click “create” and insert something that does not exist.

The 10-Second Rule: I’ve had many mentors over the years. One of them is the keyboardist and record producer, Barry Beckett. His discography includes Bob Dylan, Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Duane Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Dire Straits.

Something Barry taught me is the “10-second rule.” He told me that people have the attention span of a gnat. So, if you want to keep them interested, you have to introduce something new in your piece every 10 seconds. Whether it’s adding vocal harmonies or bringing out the bass or lead guitar with a snappy lick, the point is not to let your song become a mundane mix.

Anticipation: Another aspect of songwriting Barry Beckett taught me is the importance of anticipatory parts. While you want to keep your song interesting by adding new material, having familiar repetitions of memorable sections is also essential.

An example is the lead lick in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Everyone knows it. Even though it only comes in about every 45 seconds, you are subconsciously listening and waiting to hear it again.

A Life of Its Own: At the end of the day, with talent and quality engineers, if you don’t have a good song, none of the rest is going to matter. Here is what another one of my mentors, Neil Wilburn, taught me. Neil worked with artists like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and many others.

Neil showed me how to recognize a great song. I remember once he told me about his son, who played in a heavy metal band. They would practice in Neil’s garage, and one of the songs they played stuck in his head. So, one day, he asked the group if he could cut a country demo of their song. They laughed but told him to go ahead if he wanted.

There was something about the song that made Neil remember it, and he believed that any good idea could be translated from one format to another. If his son’s band could use it in a heavy metal style, he could adapt it for a country song, too.

The song either has life, or it doesn’t. You know a great song when you hear one. It sticks in your head. You find yourself singing it over and over again, unconsciously.

So, if you want to produce a great song, remember these three things.

Is there life in my song? What makes it unique and worth listening to it? Find the specific part that makes your song memorable, so you don’t end up losing it along the way. Is it the singable melody, the guitar riff, or the blend of instruments and harmonies?

Am I using the 10-second rule? Is there any part that gets too repetitive or uninteresting?

Do I have anticipatory parts listeners will be wanting and expecting to hear over and over again?

Know Why Something Works: A classic example of how the implementation of a good idea affects a song’s success is “The Gambler.” Don Schlitz wrote this song in 1976, but it didn’t take off even after being sung by several artists, including Johnny Cash. It wasn’t until Kenny Rogers sang it in 1978 that “The Gambler” became a mainstream success.

Take some time and listen to both Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers’ versions of the song. What sets them apart? You’ll notice they both use the 10-second rule.

However, while Johnny Cash’s version may apply the 10-second rule, the changes don’t add much to the song itself. It starts with a repetitive and unimaginative guitar strumming pattern. Eventually, a steady beat is added, and then a soft piano comes in playing chords. Overall, the song never really builds to anywhere.

When using the 10-second rule, you’ve got to know how your addition will benefit the song.

Now listen to Kenny Rogers’ version. The song begins with a more distinctive guitar intro. The added sound effects of drips pull us into the scenario of a gambler asking for a whiskey bottle. The inclusion of a lifting key change builds the song’s momentum. Rogers’ version also switches up the lyric order so that the memorable chorus comes earlier in the song, making better use of this anticipatory section.

So, when applying the tips, I’ve given you, don’t do it just because you are “supposed to do it.” Know why you are doing it. Ask yourself: how will this make my good idea for a song even better?


STEPHEN WRENCH is a songwriter-composer-lyricist-producer-guitarist who has worked with numerous top-notch artists, including Tom Petty, Missing Persons, Survivor and many more. See for further information.