How to Use Familiar Songs as Songwriting Templates
One good way to defamiliarize a familiar song is to switch the key, putting it into a different register and zone on the guitar—which in turn can inspire ideas for changing the rhythmic feel. Ex. 1 uses the chords from the first line of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” I–IV–I–IV, in the original key of D, with a modified melody on top. You can play this fingerstyle or (as I do) with a pick, using a light touch.
Let’s shift this progression to the key of G, where the chords are G (I) and C (IV). In contrast to the bright sound of D, playing in G led me to a bass-heavy pattern, holding a G on the sixth string under both the G and C chords (Ex, 2) and overlaying a melody on the fifth and fourth strings. Strum Example 2 with all downstrokes and a more aggressive feel than Example 1, and it sounds like the beginnings of a rock tune.