“I’ve always felt I have a good understanding of melody,” says Steven Tyler, when asked about songwriting. “Great melody over great riffs is, to me, the secret of it all.”

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry

As Aerosmith pushes toward its fifth decade of making great music, the method to the band’s songwriting madness remains much the same as ever. Using his ever-present Les Paul, Joe Perry comes up with a stupendously infectious riff, Tyler counters with a strong vocal melody and lyrics rife with double entendres, and a classic song is born. The style varies on occasion—most clearly on the band’s power ballads—but, as Perry notes, listeners will never mistake an Aerosmith song for a song by anyone else.

“It’s all basically the same thing,” he says. “We still just sit in a room and come up with music. Steven and I both like that R&B backbeat. Sometimes it sounds poppier than at other times, and sometimes it sounds bluesy, but it’s always kind of wrapped around that feeling.”

Below, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler share with Gibson their exclusive insights and the back stories to several Aerosmith classics.

“Draw the Line” (Draw the Line, 1977)

Perry: “That was a case of trying to use an open tuning in a way that wasn’t typical, that wasn’t simply going to the sus4. That’s kind of how I approach open tunings. A lot of times your fingers just naturally want to go in that direction, and that just calls attention to that open tuning, kind of the way Keith Richards plays it. As a guitar player, Richards grabbed that early on and made it his signature. There’s something very distinctive and fun about playing with an open tuning, because you get all those open notes, and it just sounds great coming out of a guitar amp. But you don’t want it to sound like the other guy who’s using that same tuning. So I’ve always approached that with the attitude of, ‘Well, I’m going to make this sound distinctive.’ The Black Crowes used that tuning to great effect, but I could always tell what it was. I just shifted the tuning around a bit, and made it talk a little more, for my own tastes.”

“Back in the Saddle” (Rocks, 1976)

Perry: “I had heard [original Fleetwood Mac guitarist] Peter Green playing a 6-string bass, although he never really played it as part of a song. He would sort of jam with it. But that’s how I knew they existed. I figured it would be a cool instrument to play live. It sounded great, and I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it. I wrote that song so that I would have excuse to play it on-stage.”

“Same Old Song and Dance” (Get Your Wings, 1974)

Perry: “The original version [a different song with the same title, written by Sammy Cahn and made famous by Frank Sinatra] had more of a swing thing going. We just straightened it out and made it more of a twelve-bar progression. I haven’t heard the original in a lot of years, but I seem to remember that it was a little looser. If you go back really far, you don’t find a whole lot of straight 12-bar blues. There’s always a variation on it, and a change, and I think that’s kind of what we did to that song. We brought in the same instrumentation, and played it the way we heard it going down. Listening back to it, I think, ‘Wow, we were playing swing back in 1974. How about that?’ It was just another experiment. I’m not sure we really knew what we were doing.”

“Walk This Way” (Toys in the Attic, 1975)

Perry: “I stumbled onto that riff at a sound check. I can remember sitting there thinking how much I like James Brown, and the Meters, and I wanted to write a song that had that sort of R&B feel. That was the motivation, and that’s what started the riff. As far as the lyrics go, I didn’t know it was going to go that way, and I don’t think Steven did either. He just knew that the piece of music was in line with the type of music we liked, and that’s why it kind of stuck around. It just kept shouting, ‘Sing over me!’ But I didn’t know how it was going to go. He just kind of let it fly.”

Tyler: “I was just going with a [makes a retching sound]. I love that. That was just verbal diarrhea. That was me dancing with my muse, getting right up off the dance floor, not caring about how good or bad the band was, and just throwing my hands in the air and screaming, ‘Hallelujah!’”

“Janie’s Got a Gun” (Pump, 1989)

Tyler: “I had gotten a synthesizer with 300 presets. Of course I had written ‘Dream On’ on the piano, but to sit down at a keyboard, and have saxophones come out of it, or have a drum set on the keyboard, or violas, or cellos, or a choir, or just noises—it was like, ‘Oh my God, look out now!’ I set it up in the basement of my house, next to my treadmill. I would do a half-hour of running, and that would get me up to speed, and create an adrenaline that’s like what I get when I’m on-stage. I would run for a half-hour, then jump off, because I would get these ideas as I was running. If you ever hear the demo for ‘Janie’s Got a Gun,’ it’s all there, except for some beautiful embellishments that were added later in the studio. It was all done in my basement.”

Perry: “I wish Steven would write more stuff like that, not necessarily about that subject, but about things with that kind of weight. And he does, sometimes. We were really excited about that song. It was almost complete when he brought it in.”

“Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” (Permanent Vacation, 1987)

Joe Perry

Tyler: “I had 95 percent of the lyrics complete, but I didn’t have the first line. Desmond Child suggested ‘Cruise into a bar on the shore,’ because we lived right there at the shore, in Boston. And I said to him ‘Her presence graced the grime at the door,’ or something like that. Then he came up with, ‘She’s a long lost love at first sight,’ and I said, ‘No, at bite.’ We spent the day spitting words out at each other, and I did realize that there was camaraderie there. It just all of a sudden clicked. It was fun.”

“Jaded” (Just Push Play, 2001)

Tyler: “It felt so phenomenal, when I hit on that melody. I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I didn’t even tell the band for two months. There were so many places to hang your hat. It was just a question of which hat goes where, and where the title of the song should go. I loved the way the song wrapped around itself. Within a couple of weeks it went from ‘Jaded’ to ‘J-J-J-Jaded,’ with the rhythm and everything. It helps a lot that I was a drummer, first. That’s helpful, when it comes to knowing how to dance between the notes.”

“Girls of Summer” (O, Yeah!, 2002)

Tyler: “We were in Hawaii. We moved all the furniture out of the living room, and within three days we had about five great thumbnail sketches, one of which went [begins singing]‘When winter hearts turn summer pink / In half the time it takes to blink / But it all depends on what you think /About the girls of summer.’ A little tip of the hat to Gershwin there, huh? I just love melody, wherever it takes you. My father was a classical pianist. It’s just in my Italian blood. We pushed up the rhythm guitar on that song. It was almost better as an acoustic thing, left alone, rather than done with the whole band. Of course, because you have a band, you’re sometimes forced to add accompaniment. You can’t have one guy not play.”

Perry: “Going back to the early days, we would bring guitar riffs, or shells of songs that might have the verse and the chorus and the bridge, but it’s really not a song until there’s a vocal. Or rather it is, in that when you hear it you think it sounds like a song, or sounds like an Aerosmith song, but you really need all the pieces to make it into something that everyone hears that way. We wanted to have that, along with a bit of an open-tuning, drop-D action. We worked on a bunch of things, and that was the one that kind of stood out. Steven spent a lot of time running around on the beach, writing the lyrics to that song.”