Many people pick up the guitar in hopes that they can one day write a song. Others start playing and over time realize that they too can just maybe create their own riffs and tunes. Whether you have always wanted to write a song on your guitar or just had the recent urge, in this article we will walk you through the process.
Obviously having a solid base of guitar knowledge is very important and helpful in the songwriting process. Is it necessary? Of course not, but if you are a beginner you will need to learn some music theory and guitar playing to move the process along.
Music is often seen as an artistic endeavor of creativity and discovery; it is also a scientific process. Humans in specific cultures are pulled towards certain note and chord orders, and if you follow the physics of acoustics you will see why. If you want to write a song that people will love, follow the rules. (Except when you break them!)
In the language of western music, the notes make up the scales and chords equivalent to letters and words. Guitars are chordophones thus the best way to play them is using chords. Scales are great for melody writing, but guitar songwriting is generally done with a sequence of chords.
It is essential to know basic concepts of:
We have discussed these concepts in depth in past articles if you need to catch up. One of the best ways to learn scales and chords is to learn your favorite songs. Music is all about copying what you like, that is just how it works.
Playing other tunes you know will also help speed up your chord transitions, another essential skill necessary to write a song. Even if a song is just a few chords the changes may occur very quickly so your hands and fingers need to be prepared.
The more you play other songs the more you will see patterns, some of these patterns have been around since medieval times. Traditions of song like cantastoria, troubadour, psalms, limericks, and many more are long standing styles. And then add to that the growth of classical and symphonic music which helped build our harmonies.
The musical houses and genres of modern times are built on a vast well of tried and true themes. Our current formulas are chord progressions, which is the best place to start writing your song. There are literally a handful used in almost all songs in different variations. It's actually surprising when you realize how similar all popular music is!
For your first song on the guitar stick to a progression like I-IV-V or I-vi-IV-V (this is the Nashville Number System notation) these are rock and doo wop bluesy type chord orders. A key like G will be best, unless you sing better in another. You can try using a tuner to find what notes suit you or sing along as you play.
- A common punk, pop, and rock riff is G-C-D7-G. Play it and see how it has an upbeat vibe to it.
- Now try Em-D-C-G (a variation of the doo wop) notice how that has a much more laid back and thoughtful feeling.
The chord progression you pick will depend on the feeling you are expressing.
Some songs repeat progressions literally all the way through, while some change it up. Songwriters like Bob Dylan just play repeated progressions, while Brian May is the type to dive deep into texture and sound. Find what suits your style of playing.
For your first song you should give the chorus or bridge a small change. Which brings us to more formulas! Songs and poems also often have specific underlying structures. You will recognize these terms as verse, chorus, and bridge.
Some music follows 12 bar blues, 32 bar form, strophic, hook-verse-chorus; there are many patterns to study.
Usually a first time songwriter is aiming for a simple AABA like Willie Nelson's "Crazy" or a verse-chorus back and forth like "That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly.
Another important aspect of songwriting is rhythm and meter. Concepts like time signatures, syncopations, strum patterns, and groove will all depend on the song you want to write. Playing off the beat is what creates the vibe to dance!
If you want a country song you could play a simple down up strum for every beat as you change from G-C-D and back to G. Now we can take that same G-C-D and play quick triplet strums to get a funky 1/8 or 1/16 note rhythm going. Change the chords to G-C-D9-G and it even sounds funkier.
One great way to write music and learn grooves and rhythms is to download a drum machine app! Drum machines come in software, apps, and hardware. They are easy to program and make a great song foundation. Pick a random meter or time and a random chord progression to play over it.
It also helps to learn different genres and bend them. Look at tutorials on how people take a rock song and cover it as reggae. Just like chord progressions each music genre has its rules and standards. If we were drummers and not guitarists we would be reading about basic rhythms used again and again!
Reading music technically isn't essential, but it helps. It is the language you are trying to communicate in! Why not know how to use it? And that doesn't mean you need to be an expert on sheet music. Just learn the essentials.
At least keep a couple reference sheets handy for bass and treble clef notes, and charts on note length. That way if you are trying to write a salsa song you can look at a piece of sheet music and know the basic rhythm. Swing can even be notated if you know how to read it.
And it isn't necessary to crack down and study it all at once, like other music theory just let it slowly be absorbed. Again look at sheet music of your FAVORITE songs to get an initial idea of what may be going on.
We mentioned learning the rules with the eventual need to bend and break them. It's ok to use a basic chord progression like everyone else. But use it and try to put your own stamp on it. This can be done in a variety of ways.
If you study chord progressions long enough you will soon get into substitutions, modulations, and other changes. This is a way of finding new sounds and expressing feelings.
In the key of C our I-IV-V is C-F-G. The Beatles were big fans of throwing a D major in there: C-D-F-C.
Normally a Dm would be suited for the key of C, but here the D major creates a more uplifting song. Clearly knowing your music theory will help in this process of change, but there are also many great songwriters who happened upon good ideas by accident.
Make small changes in your chord progressions to start with; major to minor, extended chords, and close Circle of Fifths substitutions. As you get better make more daring jumps and try more chromatic notes. Blue notes are especially great to pick, like when we flatten the 3rd and 7th scale degrees.
Also make use of scales to add intros, outros, and riff making to your song. Going back to our G-C-D-G song; add a descending bass line at the beginning before you play the G major chord.
Simply play notes down the low bass E string until you have a nice intro. The song "People Are Strange" by The Doors is a perfect example of that type of intro.
Once you start feeling comfortable with your scales and chords you can focus on more complex harmonies in your music. For example instead of ending your G-C-D on a G, try playing G-C-D-G6. That sixth chord gives it a tin pan alley corniness and that was a common trick The Beatles used to end their early hits.
Writing lyrics is actually not easy, because it is hard to prove your craft. Take the famous John Lennon song "Imagine". If you remove the music and singing, it kind of reads like 7th grade poetry. It comes off silly and childish. But once you add the music and John, it becomes a beautiful yet simple song.
Most song lyrics are simple and basic, you want everyone to understand and sing along! But occasionally a band like Queen comes along with the magnificent wordplay of "Bohemian Rhapsody".
Whether complicated or simple it can be hard to convince someone you write great lyrics!
We have been focusing a lot on the chord progression skeleton, but the melody is where our lyrics will come into play. If you plan on singing you will have to pay attention to the distance of notes.
A skip or step is one semitone, while a leap is moving more than one note. Generally we sing better in skips and then only small leaps.
The first two notes stay on the root and then leap to a fifth, remember that is a very strong and memorable interval. It is no wonder those tunes are ingrained in our memories.
Beyond the music pay attention to how many syllables are in each verse, chorus, etc. A common mistake is packing too much in. Singing "Imagine" above is easier than "We Didn't Start the Fire!" Unless you are specifically going for lyrical madness just take it easy. Especially if you are mixing modern hip hop/trap styles with your playing.
Often songwriters have lyrics pop into their heads and then they build on that with chord progressions. But working the other way is fine also, one thing that helps is scatting. There is nothing wrong with using nonsense words until something better comes along. Many ideas are born of the gibberish jam.
Another point to watch is what letters you are using, too many p's sound bad and an excess of h's will be airy. Also beware of words that mix too much and sound like something else. Unless you are going for a mondegreen your best bet is picking words that are easy to sing.
A great lyricist used to own a rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, and a guide to literary terms. All the stuff in school you learned like metaphors, alliteration, allusion, these are important. With modern tech these terms are very easy to keep on hand and revisit when necessary.
Just like copying other songs is a good idea, it helps to mimic famous poets when learning your craft. Maybe if the teachers in high school had presented these concepts with modern music we all would have remembered them better.
As far as creativity on lyrics, that's not always easy. Songwriters are known for turbulent living; no denying big emotional swings make for great ideas and tunes. But there are safe methods to induce an idea. One popular method is random Wiki pages, you would be surprised what lightbulbs may shine after this.
Now you have your lists of scales, chords, and progressions. Try as many as possible out, get crazy with some really obscure scales. Experiment with different keys and maybe even tunings of your guitar! Use DADGAD like Led Zeppelin! Or drop D like many modern songs.
Make sure to thoroughly write down what you like, with chords above each lyric and any other notes necessary. Plenty of software these days will take a simple recording and turn it into sheet music. Don't expect to remember everything about the song, you will forget!
And be weary of not finishing, usually when people put down a song idea it's rare it ever gets done. Yes there is always tweaking and improvements, but many song ideas are solidified in the initial hours. A creative idea works best when fresh and thought out. If you stop or procrastinate it may be lost!
If you have made it this far with writing your song, why not keep going? You can also write the other parts to your piece! Just like chord progressions, bass lines, drum patterns, rhythm sections, and more are all shareable. It is the melody that can't be borrowed.
If you do use a drum machine you will already be set for drum ideas, you can maybe even record that part as a backing track. Bass lines are usually made up of the notes of the overlying chords, and brass/horns background also follows the key and scale. Putting all of this together is called arranging and that is true songwriting skill.
Many famous songwriters are control freaks in the studio, it isn't uncommon for them to record all parts themselves. In the end if you have other band mates it is usually wiser to take their input. Not only does it keep the peace, it can lead to better ideas from another mind.
The DAW is a Digital Audio Workstation, multiple formats exist depending on your brand of computer. Many these days are geared towards electronic dance music so keep that in mind if you are getting one.
This is also an area with so much info we can't quite cover it here, audio engineering is a different beast than songwriting. While there are people who do both they usually have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to music.
You don't have to reach audio engineer level but you should be capable of recording basic ideas on a phone, tablet, or computer.
It is incredible what can be done in your bedroom on a simple modern device. If you take the time to learn you can very well record a complete song to finish.
Multi-tracking is especially your friend. This helps you lay down different tracks and even break hard ideas up! Many famous musicians use recording cheats to play through a song that may be hard alone on the guitar. Even The Beatles would play parts slow and then speed them up on the track!
By now you shouldn't be a songwriting expert, but it should be clear that each aspect is way simpler than it ever seemed. It almost ruins some of the mystique when we find it is all the same slightly altered chords and audio trickery. But it also shows you that writing a song on the guitar is an easy goal!
Eventually you will settle on some chord progressions, maybe they will be common or perhaps your own sequences. Don't fret too much about it sounding like other tunes, in reality all songs have been done over and over. The key is just not to write something again that's super popular.
If you have taken the time to record your song on your guitar there are a few outlets to shop it. Keep in mind places like Spotify and Pandora require specific audio standards that can be met with DAW recordings that are properly mixed and mastered. There also stock audio places that use music for streaming and movies.
The competition for this is fierce. Even worse is the competition on social media. Sharing your song on Facebook or elsewhere is going to be drowned out by a million other guitarists playing their tune. And if someone does know the secret to fame and a hit, they won't be sharing it.
In reality you may just be writing the song for yourself and immediate friends and family. Which is actually ok, being able to write a song on your guitar is a pretty awesome feat. Who cares if millions love it? And if you do get famous, please make sure to mention you learned it all here!
- Try playing G-C back and forth. Don't just use the open chord positions, try different inversions of G and C to get slightly different sounds. Moving up the fretboard to get higher and down to get lower. Now try G7 and C7. Plenty of songs are these two chords!
- Now keep switching back and forth on G-C, next throw in a D7 before quickly ending on G. That is a great verse or chorus right there. Give it a rockabilly strum and start singing about fast cars and dancing. If that's too upbeat, use the bridge to bring in an Em-Am, that really brings a new vibe!
- Playing just G-C-G-D really mixes up the feeling without doing big changes. The I-IV-V in any order is going to usually sound ok as long as you resolve on the right chord. Just don't leave your song hanging!
- Now let's get minor and serious! Play the Am-Dm-E7-Am for a serious verse and then switch it up to Dm-Am repeating until we hit a quick E7 resolving on Am. Arpeggiate these chords as you play them (one note at a time) and you get a potential medieval metal ballad.
- Try arpeggiating this chord progression faster to get a driving folk time tune: Am-F-G-E. Or it can be played in a flamenco like style. Remember the rhythm and strum you give it affect its final sound quality.
- If your style is more classic rock try playing C-Bb-F or C-Bb-Eb-F, of course using different inversions up the neck for harder chords. For a latter rock ballad type tune try C-Em-F-G. Or put them together for a great verse: C-Bb-F-C C-Em-F-G-C (play the F G C fast at end).
- For a jazzier tune try Cmaj7-Am-Dm-G7, this will give us a standard pop type groove. Don't forget to extend your chords and try different substitutions. Take the minors out and try C-A-D-G for a new idea.
- If you are going for riffs try playing partial chords and singular notes in your progressions. Bend, hammer, pull, and slide through each chord and melodic change and you will discover your own cool riffs!
This was an overview of how to write songs with the help of your guitar. Start experimenting with the most common chord progressions, introduce variations, substitute chords, and have fun.
Be sure to request your free access to the download area and get some cheat sheets that will help use keys, chords and scales in your songwriting adventures.
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