In the article How to find inspiration to write a song anytime you want I have shown you how reaching out to your own emotions is the only source of inspiration you will need every time you want to express yourself in a song.
In this lesson, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of writing your first song, using guitar chord progressions.
There are different places from where to start writing a song.
The most common three being the words, the melody and the harmony (that is, the chords backing the melody).
I’ve used all three as starting points for writing songs at different times, as well as combinations of them, such as coming up with a string of words and singing them at the same time.
Note: (You can skip the part in italics if you’re good at singing)
I don’t know how to sing and you do NOT need to know how to sing to write songs. You need to be able come up with a good tune, but not be able to sing it well yourself.
Learning how to sing is desirable if you write songs, in fact I’ve considered taking singing lessons many times myself. This gives you the freedom from depending on someone else to sing your songs, whether it’s your friend, someone in your band, or someone you hire.
However, if you’re a guitar player you don’t need to be able to sing to start writing songs, or even hook up with a singer just yet.
Play chord progressions on guitar as will be described below, write the words, and sing according to whatever abilities you have. If the melodies are good but the singing sounds like crap, it’s not a problem at all. You won’t be the one singing them anyway.
And no one (in his right mind) is going to laugh at your crappy singing (as long at the melody is, at least, recognizable of course) because good singing was not your task. Your job was coming up with a good tune.
As a guitar player, what is usually expected from you, is providing the harmony – chord progressions.
Which, if you know your major and minor chords on guitar is really easy to do, if you’re playing Rock or Pop music.
Basic theory behind chord progressions
For this lesson, I’m going to assume you know what a scale and a chord are as well as have a very basic idea of what playing in a key means.
Now, if we’re singing a melody, or playing a solo in the key of C major, that means we’ll be using the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B because that is the sequence of notes that makes up the scale of C major.
However, the harmony backing those notes, also has to come from the chords that get formed when we harmonize the C major scale.
How each chord is formed goes beyond the purposes of this lesson. What you need to know for now is that each note in the scale has a chord that backs it or, in musical terms, harmonizes it.
Thus, if we’re playing in the key of C major the note G is harmonized by the G major chord, while the note A is harmonized by the A minor chord.
Why is the A harmonized with an A minor while G with a G major?
It all depends on the role that note plays in the key, and since the G is the 5th note on the key of C major, it’s harmonized by its major chord, while A being the 6th note in the key, is harmonized my it’s minor chord.
This may sound confusing at first, but it’s actually easy to learn and remember since the pattern behind every harmonized major scale is the same for all major keys.
Which is this:
Major – minor – minor – Major – Major – minor – diminished.
Thus, if we’re playing in the key of C, the chords backing the notes in the melody will be:
C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim
If we’re playing in the key of G major, they will be:
G – Am – Bm – C – D – Em – F#dim
Or if we’re in the key of D major:
D – Em – F#m – G – A – Bm – C#dim
So on and so forth.
In popular music to each of these chords is assigned a Roman Numeral to explain its role in the key.
The major chords take the upper numerals while the minor and the diminished chord take the lower numerals.
Thus, the formula for the major scale would be:
I ii iii IV V vi vii-dim
A chord progression is a sequence of two or more of these chords played after each other.
And while the number of combinations may seem huge, in reality the same few chord progressions keep finding themselves in the majority of Rock and Pop music.
Thus, we’ll be studying two of the most common guitar chord progressions and discover ways to use them in our songwriting.
Two Guitar Chord Progressions You Can Use to Write Songs (and how to use them)
- I – IV – V – I or I – IV – V – IV
This is a very common chord progression which you’ll find in songs like “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles and “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.
In the first example we’ll be playing a simple and very common Punk style riff that uses this progression.
Important to note that in ex. 1 I will be using power chords instead of major chords. This is indicated by the number 5 after the chord letter, ex G5 is the power chord of G)
The power chord is neither a major or a minor chord, and may replace any of them anytime. (Read this article to find out why from a theoretical point of view.)
We’re in the key of G, thus the I – IV – V – I in the example above is made of the chord of G, C and D.
Since a riff is meant to repeat itself, the D (V) in the last bar, leads us back to the G (I)
You may notice that the palm muting gives this riff it’s edge. Palm muting technique works perfectly with power chords and is a technique you should definitely start developing if you want create these kinds of guitar riffs.
The next example is also in the key of G but this time I’m using full major chords. Unlike Ex1, which should be played with the distortion on, Ex2 is meant to be played with a clean sound.
The first time I learnt that most popular songs use the same chord progressions, and many a time, the same chords, I started wondering:
Why don’t all songs sound the same then?
Yet, though in the two examples above I’m using the exact same chord progression (I – IV – V – I) and in the same key of G, they sound entirely different.
The fact that I’m using power chords instead of major chords is one thing that makes a huge difference, and so does the distortion in Ex 1.
However, apart from these two more obvious ones, there are two other variables that make these two guitar riffs completely different.
a. The rhythm
Rhythm is the single most important variable if you want a different song from the same chord progression.
Though the rhythm in Bar one is the same in both examples above, while in Ex 1 I keep repeating more or less the same rhythm, in ex 2 it changes entirely, especially with the introduction of rests.
b. The quantity of notes struck in each chord.
If you look at the tab in Ex 1, you will notice I’m striking 3 strings every time I hit a chord throughout the whole riff.
In Ex 2, the number of notes I hit each time I strike a chord keeps changing all the time. In the first crotchet I only hit the lower three strings while in the coming four quavers I hit the higher four strings. Then I strum all six strings at the end of the first bar.
So on and so forth.
The number of strings you hit is another variable that makes your guitar chord progressions sound different and you can play around with hitting a different number of strings at will when writing songs.
You don’t need to hit all the strings all the time.
- I – V – vi – IV and vi –IV – I – V
These chord progressions use the same chords and are basically the same except that they start from a different chord.
Songs that use this chord progression include “Africa” by Toto, “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, “21 Guns” by Green Day and “Alone” by Heart.
The next example is a I – V – vi – IV chord progression in the key of C.
Here I’m using open chords to play the C (I), G (V), Am (vi) and a barre chord for the F (IV)
It’s a simple rhythm made interesting through the use of the quaver rests, and you can easily find a tune to sing over it.
Another thing you can do when you’re writing songs with guitar chord progressions, is to play some or all of the notes individually.
Who said you need to strum chords all the time?
The next example is another I – V – vi – IV (I) progression in C major, but this time, while some chords are strummed, others have their notes played individually arpeggio style.
In this chord progression above you may also note how I used the opening motif in different forms and variation throughout the riff. Read this lesson about guitar phrasing to learn more about the topic of motif and variation.
Common guitar chord progressions
The main aim of this lesson was to show you how to use chord progressions for songwriting, rather than explore a lot of different chord progressions.
If you want to experiment further, here are a few chord progressions that are quite common in Rock and Pop music.
- ii – V – I
- I – vi – IV – V
- vi –IV – I – V
- ii – I – V
- ii – IV – V
If you’re a songwriter who shies away from learning music theory, the above chord progressions give you some short cuts.
Yet, it cannot be emphasized enough how important music theory is for songwriters.
If, you know the theory behind how each chord is built, and the reasons why chords move to one another the way they do, the options on your palette of choices will increase dramatically when writing songs.
What this does not mean though, is that songwriting should be done by numbers. It’s still about inspiration, creativity and flow.
What a background in music theory gives you is a foundation that will remove obstacles to your creativity. Not a set of rules you have to abide to all the time.
In fact the rules are broken all the time.
When I started learning some intermediate music theory and tried to analyze my favorite (Rock) songs, at first I got confused.
Why is there a Bb if the song is in the key of C?
I tried to find an answer in the books, but the real answer wouldn’t be there.
In most instances, that the songwriter just felt like putting a Bb there, it sounded right, and he didn’t go checking with the theory books to see if he broke any law.
If it sounds good, it is good!
Learn the theory, use it as you guide, but never consider it as your master.
Another guitar playing ability songwriters should start developing is improvisation.
Start training yourself to make things on the spot, no matter how simple they are at first.
Once again, a background in music theory would be very helpful here.
This lesson on guitar improvisation will give you the basic tools to get started in making things up on the spot.
If you’ve understood how chord progressions can be used for songwriting, the fun actually starts now.
Pick up your guitar, grab pen and paper, and start writing. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
And if you write songs using guitar chords progressions while also learning music theory as well as improvise on your instrument, your songwriting skills will start improving in a very short period of time.
Write, learn, write more, learn more.
Repeat the above until greatness!
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